FROM A READING FOR JULY 31, 18TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'Vanity of vanities....All is vanity. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain....This also is vanity....' -- Ecclesiastes 1:2,2:22-23

Many of us don't realize how Sunday's well-known Ecclesiastes (1:2,2:21-23) passage contradicts the writings of other sacred authors. Those who composed our Hebrew Scriptures usually challenge Qoheleth's belief that "All things are vanity!"

Knowing nothing of an afterlife as we know it until shortly before Jesus' birth, most of them looked upon wealth as Yahweh's right here and now reward for being good. They believed that, if you kept your nose clean, doing what Yahweh commanded, Yahweh would grant you a long life and take good care of you during that life.

Qoheleth, on the other hand, doesn't see any sense in spending a lifetime acquiring wealth. He's observed that someone who hasn't "labored over it" will eventually inherit it: "For what profit comes to someone from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All their days, sorrow and grief is their occupation."

How are we supposed to deal with these biblical contradictions? In some sense, we're invited to spend our money and take our pick. The same theology doesn't run from Genesis to Revelation. Our ancestors in the faith were convinced there are many implications to our following God. The Scriptures provide us with a bunch of them.

Common thread
Yet, at the same time, a common theme runs through all our sacred writings: People of faith are constantly trying to discover what God wants of them.

In Sunday's Gospel (Luke 12:13-21), Luke's Jesus tells us what God doesn't want: a senseless accumulation of wealth. Following Qoheleth, Jesus warns His followers that the wealth they acquire here isn't going to follow them into eternity. If they're smart, they'll work at storing up real "treasure:" the things that matter to God, the things which are transferable from this life to the next.

The Pauline disciple who authored Colossians (3:1-5,9-11) couldn't agree more. "Seek what is above," he writes, "where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think what is above, not of what is on earth."

He's convinced that, if we've died with Christ, we're already operating in the "above." That means we must not only sidestep all the evils this Earth offers, but also put on a "new self." Following the insights of his mentor, the writer is convinced the first step in this transformation is to recognize the risen Christ in everyone around us.

No barriers
That's quite a task! Being human, we first have to overcome all the barriers this Earth has built between one person and another. "There is not Greek and Jew," he reminds us, "circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all."

No wonder there are different theologies in the Christian Scriptures. There's simply no one way to recognize that divine dimension in everyone. How do we prepare ourselves to experience that uniqueness? It isn't just a matter of telling our minds to do so.

It takes time to pull that off. It doesn't happen instantly. Different people are at different stages of that recognition. Georgetown University's Jesuits, for instance, were still owning and selling slaves in 1838, based on the belief that legitimate slaves -- individuals created by God as slaves -- were "ontologically different" from non-slaves. It took another generation and then some for all Christians to realize that theology didn't hold water.

Today, some still struggle with recognizing the risen Jesus in women, or in the LGBTQ community. (Read Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger's recent column on that at www.evangelist.org.) We've obviously got a long way to go, and a lot of contradictions still to explore.