22nd Sunday Ordinary Time – Anti-Nicomachean Ethics

Before the Banquet, Francis Chin, 2012

First Reading
September 1, 2019
Sirach 3:17-18, 28-29 

We return today to the book of Sirach. We read from this book a few months ago and called him one of the great virtually unsung heroes of Judaism. Ben Sira lived in Jerusalem in about 200BC. By this time, the Jews had been under direct foreign domination for over 300 years. First by the Assyrians and then by the descendants of the great Greek general Alexander. The beliefs of the Jews were radically different from their occupiers and, although there was little direct persecution, there was pressure to conform to Greek mores. This was particularly true of the elites. The sons of wealthy and well-placed Jewish families who associated with wealthy and important Assyrians then Greek leaders were particularly tempted to take on foreign ways.

Ben Sira, better known as Sirach, was the teacher of these aristocratic scions. He understood the teachings of the day both the traditional “Wisdom” of the East and the philosophy of the West, i.e. the Greeks. He admired some of it and assimilated where he could, but he understood very clearly that ultimately wisdom or philosophy were incompatible with authentic Judaism.

The book itself opens with:

All wisdom comes from the LORD
and with him it remains forever.
To whom has wisdom’s root been revealed?
Who knows her subtleties?
There is but one, wise and truly awe-inspiring,
seated upon his throne:
It is the LORD; he created her,
has seen her and taken note of her.
(Sirach 1:1 –9)

The Greeks may have believed in divinity, but not like the God of the Jews. For the Greeks, there were more than one God and the tales of the gods portrayed very capricious individuals who were not truly interested in the well-being of mere humans. Many of the elites would have rejected this and accepted philosophy. But here again there was little reason to have a personal relationship with the divine. Indeed, independence from the gods could have been a great virtue. Other alternatives developed later but they would not have been addressed by Sirach.

In this Sunday’s reading, we see him in action. His teaching is not systematic, but he eventually examines all the major ethical questions of the day and shows how a Jewish person can live them in conformity to his tradition in the Greek-Hellenistic world. Today, he looks at humility and shows that it is extremely important and indeed critical for a truly Jewish life. He did not create the virtue of humility—it may be found throughout the Old Testament.

Now, Moses himself was by far the meekest man on the face of the earth
(Numbers 12:3)

When pride comes, then comes disgrace;
but wisdom is with the humble.
(Proverbs 11:2) 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God
(Micah 6:8).

This would have been incomprehensible to the well-educated Greek. For the Greeks, pride was a virtue and humility, in most cases, a vice. Pride here is a sense of one’s own worth. It should be based on reason. A good athlete should be aware of her prowess and be proud of it. A fine student should not deny his abilities. This is certainly true, but for the Greeks it was separated from the divine.

The most developed understanding of the virtue of pride may be found in Aristotle. It is unlikely that either the students of Sirach or for that matter their Greek friends would have read the appropriate selection from the writings of Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4, especially Chapter 3). If we do, we would find that indeed pride is the virtue and humility the vice for him, but the words have different meanings than we normally ascribe to them. A reconciliation can be made between them, but the worldviews are nonetheless unstable and ultimately incompatible.

Sirach is aware of this. Humility is a hallmark of his teaching:

 For the fear of the Lord is wisdom and discipline,
fidelity and humility are his delight
(Sir. 1:27)

Humble yourself to the utmost,
for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms
(Sir. 7:17)

As well as today’s passage:

My son, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.
(Sir. 3:17–18)

The next verse, 3:19 is not included in this reading because it is not in all manuscripts but is at any rate an interesting commentary:

For great is the power of God;
by the humble he is glorified.

Our humility is a sign that we recognize the greatness of God and that ultimately our skills and talents are from him and are designed to glorify him:

The Eternal is the judge of all things without exception;
the LORD alone is just.
Whom has he made equal to describing his works,
and who can probe his mighty deeds?
Who can measure his majestic power,
or exhaust the tale of his mercies?
(Sir. 18:1–3)

For Sirach, humility is the recognition of God’s greatness. It is not an accident that of all the proponents of Wisdom, he is the most vocal about worship—indeed, worship in the temple:

With all your soul, fear God,
revere his priests.
With all your strength, love your Creator,
forsake not his ministers.
Honor God and respect the priest;
give him his portion as you have been commanded:
First fruits and contributions,
due sacrifices and holy offerings.

(Sir. 7:29–31)

He understands that communal worship is key to connecting us with God and that this requires humility and awe before the Almighty. It also recognizes that we need to humble ourselves to be a part of that community, even if it means we may not be able to shine as brightly as we might wish—true vice for the Greeks.

Today’s selection has what might seem a curious ending:

Water quenches a flaming fire,
and alms atone for sins
(Sir. 3:29)

This is a statement which would have at best bewildered the Ancient Greeks. Almsgiving, giving to the poor, had not only a very small place in their imagination, but in some cases, it could be considered dishonorable. Alms as atonement is a radical statement even for Jews, but Sirach reflects here the concerns of the great Jewish prophets. Indeed, this is a bridge to the next section of this work.

My son, rob not the poor man of his livelihood;
force not the eyes of the needy to turn away.
A hungry man grieve not,
a needy man anger not;
(Sir. 4:1)

The book of Sirach is often considered an etiquette guide but Chapter 4: 1–10 is one of the strongest statements of social justice in the Old Testament.

When we first read Sirach, I mentioned that I thought he was one of the hidden heroes of Judaism. Today’s reading convinces me that he is a guide for us during the contemporary culture war. Perhaps particularly for us at St Charles.

We as Catholics have a comprehensive and profound social doctrine which simply does not fit into the contemporary mind set. It is like comparing Isaiah with Plato, it can be done, but in the end, what is really accomplished? Sirach reminds us that humility is required to accomplish the great commandment of God to love and serve both Him and our neighbor. For this, we need worship and social commitment.

We must see the renovation of our parish church in this light. It cannot be just restoring an object of great beauty to its rightful state, but a means for us to focus on the worship of God that we may see Him in the poor, needy, and hungry. Liturgy should humble us enough to know that brick and mortar must always be at the service not only of spirit and light but also flesh and blood.