Our 1st Reading this morning comes from the Book of Sirach.
Now, if you learned your Books of the Bible, longer than perhaps 25 years ago, you’re probably wondering, “Where did Sirach come from?” Sirach comes from the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a collection of O. T. writings, that for various reasons, were not included in the Old Testament.
About 200 years before Christ, a council of Rabbis reviewed and studied the various writings that were considered to be religious material, and decided what would and what would not be considered official Jewish Scripture. This was called “Setting the Canon.” The end result was what we today call the O. T. But, there were some writings that the Rabbis considered important, but not important enough to be official scripture. They gathered those writings together into what became known as the Apocrypha, sort of a supplement to the O. T. And our reading this morning from Sirach is found in the Apocrypha.
Now, even about 55 years ago when I was in seminary, we didn’t pay attention to the Apocrypha. I don’t even think there was a course offered on it when I was in seminary. And none of our Sunday readings came from the Apocrypha. But in the last several decades, there’s been a new interest in these writings. And one that has attracted the most interest is what we now call Sirach. It used to be called Ecclesiasticus. But they have renamed Ecclesiasticus the Book of Sirach. It’s actually a helpful change. The O. T. has a writing known as Ecclesiastes. I always got Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus mixed up. I know others had the same problem. So this name change has helped us sort them out.
Well, who was Sirach? We do know that Sirach did not write the book. Sirach’s son wrote it, and his name was Jesus Son of Sirach, or, Jesus Ben Sirach. “Ben” means “son of.” Jesus was a very common name. In Hebrew it was Joshua. But after Jesus’ birth and death, they had to come up with alternatives for Jesus to avoid confusion. In this case, they chose Ben Sirach.
Well, Ben Sirach was a very popular teacher in Jerusalem about 125 years before Jesus. His teachings were in line with what has become known as “Wisdom Literature” that is very much like the Book of Proverbs. Ben Sirach’s writings and teachings were well know and highly respected by the Jews. And as his teachings worked their way up to Greece, the Greek Jews and the early Christians in Greece adopted them as “main line writings.”
Ben Sirach was highly supportive of The Law of Moses, and was of that school that considered wisdom to be the greatest virtue one could have. This actually put him at odds with the Pharisees. They believed in blind, meticulous observance of The Law, with no consideration of “wisdom.” Their motto would have been, “Do what we tell you the law says, and don’t think about it.” Ben Sirach said, follow The Law with wisdom. He didn’t believe in doing anything blindly. Ben Sirach wanted things thought through. And this is probably the major reason his writings were not included in the canon. The Pharisees were pretty much in control when the canon was set, and Ben Sirach’s teachings would have been out of step with the Pharisees. But the Pharisees were beginning their decline, which made Ben Sirach’s teachings even more popular with the people, especially up in Greece.
Today’s reading is a perfect example of Ben Sirach’s thinking. It begins, “If you choose…”
With the Pharisees, there was no choosing. But Ben Sirach put responsibility for everything on the individual. He said, we are constantly presented with options in our life: fire and water, life and death, etc. Everything we do consists of options, and we have to choose. And the end result rests with each of us and how we made our decisions. We can blame no other person, or God, or the Devil, or the bishop, or the forces of nature, or anything else for the outcome of our lives. Each of us is responsible for him/herself. And his most important emphasis is found in the last verse of today’s reading: “He (God the Creator) has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin.” I don’t know about you, but I just really like that. It certainly has fit my life.
A story: Back in the 1970s when I started Norfolk Urban Outreach Ministry, the Church Pension Fund suspended my pension. I tried to get them to reconsider, but at that time their position was that if you were not in a parish, or teaching in a seminary, or working for a diocese, or a military chaplain, you were not “in ministry.” I went to Bishop Rose, who was our bishop at the time, and I complained. He was not a fan of what I was doing, and I remember his response: “You chose to step outside the system, now you live with the consequences.” As much as I hate to admit it, he was right. But that didn’t mean I was going to stand still for it. I figured there were a lot of other clergy out there in similar situations to mine. And I decided to make everyone’s life miserable until this situation was rectified. It took me 3 years, and I lost 3 years of pension credits, but I got the rules changed so that any ministry approved by a bishop would qualify for pension credits throughout the church. I’ve always been very proud of that. I think it had a significant impact on the church.
But my point is: the bishop was right. I had chosen to “step outside”, and there was “cost.” But I also chose to try to do something about it. I also chose to keep working beyond the “then established” 40 year limit, so I really didn’t loose 3 years of pension credit, because you can only get 40 years credit and I’m at 53 years of service.
I think Ben Sirach would like that. We make our decisions, and we take responsibility for those decisions. But then we work to change what we don’t like.
If you are going to buy a Bible, make sure it has the Apocrypha. It’s usually noted on the spine, “with Apocrypha.” And then read Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, whichever that publisher is using.
And now, I’d better exercise some wisdom, and stop. Thank you Ben Sirach.
February 16, 2020