“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps 90).
The juxtaposition of today’s two readings, the famous “vanity of vanities” lament from Ecclesiastes and Luke’s account of Herod’s interest in meeting Jesus, invites us to reflect on one of the great challenges of modern life: Boredom.
In past ages, when life was relatively short and taken up with survival, boredom was hardly an issue for most human beings. But people of leisure — the wealthy classes of Greek and Roman society in Jesus’ time and many people in developed nations today—have been confronted with idle time to fill up with diversions and entertainment. When this proves less than satisfying, people explore their curiosities and need for stimulation in increasingly creative ways to stave off indolence and boredom.
Ecclesiastes was among the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. The author voices the ennui of an intelligent seeker of the meaning of life who realizes that once you have identified the endless cycles of natural and human existence and accepted that death erases all ambition and importance, there is little left to celebrate in life. Wisdom lies in a disciplined commitment to ordinary life and enjoying the simple pleasures that come our way. All else is vanity.
Herod is described in the New Testament as a monstrous example of vanity, boredom and dissipated living. He is an adulterer whose lust for his stepdaughter pushed him to behead John the Baptist in prison. He is paranoid about Jesus as possibly the ghost of John come back to haunt him, but eager to witness one of Jesus’s reported miracles. In the 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Herod taunts Jesus, sent to him by Pilate, with the challenge, “Prove to me that you're no fool; walk across my swimming pool.”
Real purpose in life is the organizing principle around which time and energy come into focus. Even a short life filled with purpose is preferable to longevity without meaning. Jesus promises abundant life and fulfillment to all those who step into the yoke of discipleship with him. Vocation is by definition our response to a call, either from within or through the people and circumstances in need of our gifts. Each day has its own graces, prompting us to get up, show up, do our best. Small things done well lead to larger tasks, longtime responsibilities, being needed and loved. This is wisdom, pure and simple.