Eat, drink, and be merry

Sounds like something you’d put on a t-shirt for foodies and oenophiles (yes, I’ve been waiting for a chance to use that word).  If I remember correctly, when I was a kid the phrase was even part of an ad campaign: “Eat, drink, and be merry at the great new Dairy Queen!”  You see, “merry” rhymes with “dairy,” and…well…it wasn’t Madison Avenue’s finest moment.

As a philosophy of life, the saying has a darker side: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  (The variation that gets around these days is, “Life’s short; eat dessert first.”)  It’s actually a biblical sentiment from the book of Ecclesiastes.   The author, sounding like the world’s first existentialist, laments the meaninglessness of life.  Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people.  So eat, drink, and be merry (Eccl 8:15): get what enjoyment you can out of life now, because life is short and meaningless and then we’re worm bait.

Oh, and have a nice day.

Interestingly, the phrase also shows up in one of the parables of Jesus.  He’s teaching a huge crowd.  Out of the blue, someone tries to recruit Jesus to referee to a family squabble:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”  Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”‘  But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:13-21, NIV)

As Christians, we’re used to hearing sermons about materialism (not so much the philosophical kind, but something more like consumer greed).  I’ve preached a few myself, knowing that my conviction, though genuine, was not untainted by envy of those above me on the income scale.  Often, when it comes to the Scriptures, I must teach things that I’m still learning.

Thus, it would be easy to read the parable as a lesson in the Evils of Greed.  But I think that would miss the point.  Jesus doesn’t say that the rich man was evil, but a fool–which is a biblical way of saying he was living at odds with God’s wisdom.  “Eat, drink, and be merry” is the slogan of one who foolishly believes that a good life is characterized by “an abundance of possessions” from which we derive satisfaction and security.

But Jesus isn’t threatening the materialistically-minded with hell.  He’s inviting them out of a life that is rich in things and into one that is “rich toward God.”  The life of materialism is not only a dead end, it fails to live up to its promise.  The research is pretty conclusive on that score: unless you live in true poverty, having more money won’t make you happier.

Jesus continues, pointing his followers toward a different and less anxious way of life: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes” (Luke 12:22-23, NIV).  Don’t worry, he says repeatedly.  Don’t be afraid.  God knows what you need.  God is happy to give you his kingdom.  So seek that first, and everything else will be taken care of (Luke 12:29-32).

“Eat, drink, and be merry” is a poor choice for a philosophy of life, if it means life without God, a life of indulgence as a defense against despair.  Yet even a life with God can be less than it should be.  We can read Jesus as a terrible scold, and miss the offer of grace.

Most people would say that they wouldn’t mind being rich, or at least richer than they already are.  But do we really want to be rich toward God?