Daily Proverbial, from Ecclesiastes, 13 July 2012

Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless — a miserable business. Ecclesiastes 4, verses 7 and 8.

Class warfare proponents pay attention: this verse supports your arguments; or does it? In the long run that point really doesn’t matter. Still, even I the ardent capitalist conservative must concede that, on the surface, this verse makes Scrooge, Bill Gates, George Soros and all the accumulated super-rich seem like fools. What point is there to accumulating such vast amounts of wealth? Sure, the super-wealthy leave for their families and donate truly staggering amounts to charity, often leaving their treasure to others. When we’re gone, Bill Gates and I will be exact equals in heaven; pardon me for saying but I don’t expect to see George Soros there, but I hope I’m wrong.

Before diving further into bashing the wealthy, however, let’s also take note that the verse doesn’t endorse poverty either. Material poverty isn’t necessarily virtuous. Yesterday, my wife was on a jury that tried a pitiful case. The defendant refused to plead even though he was guilty of assaulting a police officer with a mountain of evidence proving it. The man apparently was dirt poor, unemployed, and had nothing. He got blindingly drunk, refused to take a cab home, and got nabbed for a DUI by the cops who watched the whole thing transpire. While in the squad car he was violently profane, verbally abusive, and finally assaulted the officer when they arrived at the police station. When shown all the evidence, it didn’t take the jury long to convict the man who will now continue his tour of the Texas criminal justice system.

What’s the point? This guy had nothing and yet he wanted less. His behavior was generally terrible and now he pays a price for that. The man squandered what little he had and was left with nothing to show for it. Was his unemployment and poverty a contributing factor to his attitude? Possibly, though I know many people who are scraping by in these hard times, and they don’t act like this criminal. Still, there’s nothing virtuous in being poor, either poor in spirit or poor in the worldly sense of the word. It might sound weird, but next time you pray, say a prayer for this criminal who now begins a stint in the slammer. Maybe if he had felt he had something to work for or live for things might have turned out different.

So why do so many people work so many hours? If they’re providing for their families and themselves, that’s a good reason. I admire it. If they enjoy their work, that’s understandable; I admire this too. If they serve others, or perform roles critical or helpful to society then this is admirable as well. Me, I’ve never been one to be in the office at six in the morning and out at nine at night. If there is work to do, I enjoy it and I do it no matter how long it takes. When there isn’t much to do, I’m bored and find the toil to be meaningless. In reading today’s verse, I find not only validation but an important reminder that all the toil in the world, all the long hours at the office or in the store or with your nose to the grindstone won’t buy you a place in heaven.

I think of my grandfather. He was an FHA adjuster. He worked there from the day the Philadelphia office opened during the New Deal until the day he retired 40 years later (with a short break for World War II and a short stint in Massachusetts). Grandpa Terry was a good, decent, and honest man, but he worked quite a lot and to this day I don’t really understand why. I do think he enjoyed his work and enjoyed the fact that he had been well-known and well liked in the office. Work offered him a sense of purpose, a place of repose and escape from my rather ‘determined’ grandmother, and I’m told he was good at his job. While he worked my grandparents lived well, and his retirement was comfortable enough even as it wasn’t very long. Perhaps all this is reason enough. When I think of people who, over the years, got homes and businesses started because my grandfather did his work right, even years later I find myself pleased that someone like him was there to make sure it happened.

Pleased but puzzled as well.

I’m puzzled because I find that all those years, all that work is still for nothing. He never rose very far in the civil service, and he was never famous. At his funeral, it wasn’t as if hundreds of people showed up to pay tribute; there weren’t that many. What’s more, I can’t even say it was a spiritually fulfilling job, though to be fair I really don’t know. We never talked very much about it. Whether it was to pursue escape, find meaning or something else, it seems my grandfather wasn’t content with his lot and kept working at it until he couldn’t work any longer. It isn’t up to me to judge whether or not his work was just any more than it would be up to him to judge mine. But it puzzles me because I think back on him and still find myself looking for meaning beyond just the job.

I have a good wife, children, a sister, relatives who care for me, and a home. More than any of this, I’m conscious that God has me where He has me for a reason even as I don’t always understand what that reason is. I’m content to live life doing my best to make the most out of where I am and what He’s given to me. My attitude on this isn’t superior to my grandfather’s, and to be brutally honest it may not even be superior to that of the criminal my wife’s jury convicted yesterday. We all toil and work for our livelihood, and sometimes even at the peril of it. When you take all that away, the only thing left is what we believe in. If all we believed in was work, we’d be left with nothing. If we believed in working for God as He would have us work, then perhaps there’s something a bit more important involved. That goes for everyone, whether you’re in the upper, middle, or lower class. Classes don’t matter in the realm of the Almighty and work in His service is never without meaning.

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