Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Ecclesiastes 9:10-18) transports me to a city, described by the sergeant with badge 714 as one of the biggest in the United States. Spreads out in all four directions like a broadloom rug. Two million people, almost a million kids. The people have tried to plan for ‘em. They built schools for ‘em to learn in; beaches and parks for ‘em to play in. Most of the kids follow the course as planned. A few of ‘em get lost on the way. When they do, it makes trouble for me. I’m a cop. Sergeant Joe Friday introduced Los Angeles to the NBC viewers every Thursday night in the early 50s and then again in the late 60s, setting the gold standard for all police dramas to come. Friday and his various partners over the years built their episodes, as we learned from the intro announcer, on real life police cases where the LAPD had cast their dragnet across the city to capture crooks, with only the names changed to protect the innocent. One other probable change was in the capacity for witty one-liners among the detectives; I doubt the real police force had a staff of writers as talented as Jack Webb and his colleagues. Most people remember the one signature line of just the facts, ma’am, but Joe Friday was one of the most quotable cops to hit the airwaves. I’m sure Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscow character regularly channeled Friday for his Law and Order witticisms. Friday’s deadpan sarcasm was simple and to the point, like the time wanted criminal Johnny Demmering’s mother was going on and on about how tomorrow was her boy’s birthday, and no matter what was going on he always comes home for his birthday, and Friday told her, Well, if he shows up, I guess you can count on one thing, ma’am. Mrs Demmering asked what that was. He might have to miss next year. The dragnet never failed to catch the floundering lawbreakers and send them away.
Joe Friday and the L.A. police force were not the first to cast a dragnet to capture people. Two millennia earlier, Jesus recruited his own force. While he didn’t give them badges, he did tell them he was equipping them to go out and be fishers of people, to fill their nets with new followers. The disciples’ dragnet was not the first or only one out there, either. Millennia before Jesus, the wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes spoke of a net that none of us can escape from, whether we are following the course as planned or whether we get lost on the way. Like fish caught in a cruel net, the writer says, people are trapped by the evil times that befall them. There is no moral logic to this dragnet, we read. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. We can all attest to that. Cancer does not discriminate, striking only the ne’er do wells. Superbugs with immunity to antibiotics do not stop to ask if the prime of life lost loved one deserved that fate. Random acts of violence do not comb through resumes and CVs of potential victims to find the most foolish and unproductive targets.
Wisdom is good, the writer tells us, better than weapons of war, but then again, one sinner can ruin all the good. Read through Ecclesiastes, and you’ll find a lot to justify a philosophy of utter cynicism. We are all a living exercise in futility; all is vanity, the sage tells us. Don’t expect life to be fair. And yet, even in this most cynical and hopeless of books in holy writ, there is nevertheless a call to live our lives with gusto. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. Now there’s faith for you. With not a glimmer of hope in a balancing of the scales in the next life or some eternal space of fairness, the sage counsels us to put our hand to the plow and give it all we’ve got. Live your life and do your work, even if you can’t expect to escape the cruel net. Those are just the facts, ma’am.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.