The Flight into Egypt, Peter Paul Rubens, 1614, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
December 29, 2019
It is my pleasure to provide a commentary on the first reading, which for most of the year is from the Old Testament, in the weekly email update and to preach on the Gospel on Sunday. Due to a conversation that I had this week in a coffee shop, I have decided to reverse the procedure and preach on the Old Testament reading and email a reflection on the Gospel.
Over coffees, a young Orthodox Jewish man asked me what I would say to his tween daughter who questioned why she had to go to the synagogue and religious education when her friends did not and their families looked and behaved the same as hers. There seemed no ethical difference. A Catholic mother expressed the same concern. Luckily, I had begun my commentary on this week’s reading from Sirach, so I was well, if inadvertently, prepared.
Ben Sirach lived in Jerusalem around 200 BC. He was a teacher of the sons of elite Jewish families. By this time Judea would have been under Greek domination for 150 years and these young men were exposed to the “international” cultural climate of the day. This is usually called Hellenism, coming from the ancient word for Greece. This seemed the most sophisticated thought and would have been a great temptation for these young men.
Sirach understood that young people, particularly those who associated with pagans, would have assimilated some of these beliefs and assumptions without conscious intent. He was a skilled scholar and mastered the thought of others as well as his own tradition. He recognized the truth of some of these other beliefs but had his own comprehensive view to reveal and to oppose what was contrary to Judaism.
But before all else he accepted his heritage and that included the study of the law (Torah):
How different the man who devotes himself
to the study of the law of the Most High!
He explores the wisdom of the men of old
and occupies himself with the prophecies;
These young people in trying to look and act sophisticated might have considered the study of the law too provincial, yet Sirach will insist that this is where they must begin. This is the first lesson he has for us. We are not isolated creatures but born into a tradition which connects us to God and each other. Morality is not the center of religion. Pope Emeritus Benedict expressed this most succinctly and beautifully for Christians: we are Christians because we have encountered the “Christ event.” This encounter is fulfilled when we participate in the life of His Body. Living a good moral life is important, indeed essential, but we must begin with Jesus and His Church. Also, if we begin with morality, we can delude ourselves into thinking that we save ourselves. This often separates us from a realization that we need a community.
The care of parents which we discuss today is his primary example. Ancient Middle Eastern societies respected elders in general and parents in particular. Notice that when the Decalogue was given in the Book of Exodus, the 4th Commandment was the only one which had a special blessing attached:
Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.
This is so important that it is the major test of being a good person and we can hear Sirach’s students asking him: “If we are treating our parents the same as our neighbors, why can’t we find an easier and more socially acceptable way of life?”
For Sirach, obeying the law is more than a means of showing oneself honorable or even the very utilitarian motive of keeping society functional. It is literally a sacrifice,
To keep the law is a great oblation,
and he who observes the commandments sacrifices a peace offering.
In works of charity one offers fine flour,
and when he gives alms he presents his sacrifice of praise.
For Sirach and for us, sacrifice creates and affirms a covenant, the foundations of our communion with God and his people.
In today’s passage we read:
He who honors his father atones for sins;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother
For kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
it will serve as a sin offering—it will take lasting root.
A Greek or Babylonian would show respect for his or her parents, but it would be done from a sense of honor and rightness as well as, we hope, love. Sirach sees very clearly that kindness and simple goodness done in response to God’s love are a form of worship. It is not what we are doing, but why we are doing it that sets us apart.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Sirach’s world is much like ours. We people of the Global North have lived in the post-Enlightenment for over 200 years. A modern-day Ben Sirach would acknowledge the many good fruits of the Enlightenment, yet would not deny, our own traditions and beliefs. A modern Christian and indeed most Jews and Muslims would hold that they were seeking to do good not to fulfill the stipulations of a law but because they love God. Others may do this to grow in moral stature, but we do it to share God’s life: we seek to get closer and closer not bigger and bigger.
We who live in brownstone Brooklyn perhaps have more non-Christian friends than Christian. I would imagine that we all act much the same. If what we do may not be that different, I hope our experience in doing it is. Because as Sirach reminds us, our good actions are sacrifices of praise and sin offerings; we seal a covenant with God so close that we share his life. C. S. Lewis noted that when we experience the God revealed in Jesus no matter what the circumstances, we experience joy. An orthodox Jewish friend has told me that she experiences the same in obeying the law of her people.
I think again it reflects a belief that the God we experience not only is pleased by our moral actions but also shares his life more intensely when we do. This then is what Ben Sirach seeks to teach all who follow our God: the characteristic emotion for fulfilling our moral obligations is not satisfaction but rather and primarily, joy.
NOTES ON THIS WEEK’S GOSPEL
The Gospel readings for this Church year will be from the Matthew. We will see that, although he relates many of the same incidents of Mark and Luke, he has a special perspective. This is clear in the reading chosen for today: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 and we will also need to add 1:18-25. Note the parallels in these incidents in the Birth Narrative:
Angel’s appearance to Joseph in a dream:
- the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, (Mt. 1:20)
- the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said (Mt. 2:13)
- When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt (Mt. 2:19)
A command and the reason for the command:
- “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her” (Mt. 1:20b)
- Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” (Mt. 2:13b)
- “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” (Mt. 2:20).
Joseph’s determination to carry out the command:
- When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. (Mt. 1:24)
- Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt (Mt. 2:14)
- He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel (Mt. 2:20B)
and a quotation from the Old Testament:
- All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son.
and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us. (Mt. 1:23)
(quote from Isaiah 7:14)
- He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Mt. 2:15).
(quote from Hosea 11:1)
- He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean (Mt 2:23)
(quote derived from Isaiah 11:1)
We shall refer often this year to Matthew 13:52:
Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.
It reflects that Matthew’s community contained members who were born Jews and others born Gentiles and they were often in conflict. Matthew will respect the tradition, note that each action here is based on a passage from the Old Testament, but his message is so new that it requires an angel to deliver it.
We will also see that Matthew will be very helpful to us in St. Charles as we seek to build a community that responds to new situations by being firmly based in our traditions and, of course, the Eucharist. This will be clearer next week with the coming of the Magi.