Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man, attr. to J.H.W. Tischbein, c. 1780, Nagel Auktionen
February 18, 2020
Sirach is not considered a major figure in the Old Testament. His book is in neither the official Jewish Canon nor most Protestant Bibles, yet we often read him at Mass. We heard him most recently on Dec. 29, 2019. (The most detailed look at his thought and background may be found with the commentary on March 3, 2019.
Very briefly Sirach was a teacher of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem around 200 BC. The Jews were a small and relatively unimportant group in the wider Seleucid Kingdom. The elites were immersed in Greek culture, usually called Hellenism, and were tempted to dilute or even eliminate their Judaism to conform. Sirach confronted this not by putting Jewish clothes on Greek ideas or by simply dismissing everything the Greeks taught but by learning their ideas, adapting what seemed worthy, but contrasting the wisdom of Judaism with Greek thought and showing the superiority of the latter. He has much to teach us.
Today, we examine free will. This is always a topic for discussion and Sirach would have known the ideas to which his young people would have been exposed. The Greeks in general believed in fate. The Oxford English dictionary defines fate as “the principle, power or agency by which events are unalterably predetermined from eternity.” It has the great advantage of requiring a sense of cosmic unity which allow individual acts to be understood and causes to be asserted. It does not however require a sense of purpose.
Fate would have been expressed in several ways. Its roots are deep in Mythology with many somewhat conflicting origins. Sirach would most likely have heard about the “the fate spinners” Moirai in Greek. They determine events though spinning threads that measures each person’s life and thus their fate. The origin of the root for Moirai is most likely limit and or end. They may have been originally connected with birth and told a person the amount of time he or she would have on earth. For some authors, even the Gods were not able to ultimately escape them.
Another way of conceiving fate was through astrology. Your life was determined by the stars. This was imported from the East but would have been known in Jerusalem at the time. It is still, alas, among us and perhaps some of his students would have had charts made for them.
The final way fate would have been expressed was philosophically. The Stoic school was particularly attracted to Fate. Stoicism was developing at this time and they believed that everything was predetermined but how a person accepted their fate. To accept was to show maternity and intelligence. Stoicism lasted for centuries and almost 200 years after Sirach the stoic philosopher Seneca summed it up clearly: ‘The Fates lead the willing subject, but drag along the unwilling.’
This is not without Wisdom, but Sirach is not fully convinced. First of all, his students are sons of the rich and prosperous. It is always easy for a rich person to accept the status quo. Fate is always easy when you have inherited “good luck.” He states:
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
The Jew is commanded by the LORD to seek justice and to improve the “fates” of others.
As the LORD is the creator all things come from him.
Good and evil, life and death,
poverty and riches, are from the LORD.
Yet the LORD has given them the ability to chose good over bad:
The LORD God gave man this order:
“You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden
except the tree of knowledge of good and bad.
From that tree you shall not eat;
the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”
When giving them the Law the LORD is quite clear that they can obey it:
For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you.
He begins his Meditation on free will with:
Say not: “It was God’s doing that I fell away”;
for what he hates he does not do.
No one is fated to sin. This as we have seen is because of the way God made us:
When God, in the beginning, created man,
he made him subject to his own free choice
If you choose you can keep the commandments.
it is loyalty to do his will.
Notice what is being said here and what is not. He does not say you can choose the right course of action from the philosophy of your choice but ”you can keep the commandments.” He is not providing a philosophy or theology of free choice but a powerful call to his students to live the traditions of their ancestors.
He makes the point even sharper in the next verses:
There are set before you fire and water;
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
This is an ancient theme:
“Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom.
God’s power is beyond our measure, he can do all things:
Immense is the wisdom of the LORD;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing
Yet in that power we can be assured that he will always move us to do good: worship him and treat others honestly:
No man does he command to sin,
to none does he give strength for lies.
We rarely hear the call of our own tradition in the wider society especially on freedom. Freedom has been reduced to choice and thus, crudely, the freest person has he most choices. Yet our tradition states that freedom comes from formation—what one brings to the choice. The cultural and political world is confused, and we need to be reminded of the basic Wisdom of Sirach: seek to be formed in our tradition so that we too can keep the commandments.