The Book of Sirach derives its name from the author, Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach. The author, a sage who lived in Jerusalem, was thoroughly imbued with love for the law, the priesthood, the temple, and divine worship. As a wise and experienced observer of life he addressed himself to his contemporaries with the motive of helping them to maintain religious faith and integrity through study of the holy books, and through tradition.
This book is not included in Protestant or Jewish versions of the Scriptures, because until the late nineteenth century, it was thought that it had been written in Greek. However, the original Hebrew manuscript was found in 1896.
Verses twelve through fourteen speak of those who are weak, oppressed, widowed, and orphaned. Each of these groups has experienced a temporary loss of status or honor which is essentially the definition of the “poor” in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Scriptures rarely use the word “poor” as the economically or financially destitute. Jesus ben Sirach writes that this state of “dishonor” can be changed (the weak can grow strong, the oppressed can overcome, the widow can remarry, the orphan can be adopted), but the text makes clear that it is God who works this out. God is a God of justice, not favoritism; God “obeys” the cry of the poor: the oppressed cry out, the orphan wails, the widow complains, and God yields to their requests because God is just.
The biblical concept of justice is nuanced to include anyone who has not received what they deserve. However, the Scriptures also maintain that we are not to consider ourselves the arbiters of justice. Consequently, it is not up to us to decide who deserves what. God is the only true arbiter of justice and, as Psalm 34 reminds us, hears the cry of the weak, the oppressed, the widowed and the orphaned. This does not mean that God hears them exclusively; it simply means that those who are treated unjustly in this world will find true justice in God.
Sirach’s words about the God of Justice are paired up with a familiar story which is found only in the Gospel of Luke. This story presents us with two men who have gone up to the Temple to pray. Which of these men is heard by the God of Justice? St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a beautiful commentary on this Gospel passage that I think will help us to answer that question. He wrote: Prayer is much like a journey. When we confront the truth about God in prayer, we arrive in the country called “contemplation.” When we confront the truth about others in prayer, we arrive in the country called “compassion.” When we confront the truth about ourselves in prayer, we arrive in the country called “humility.”
Contemplation is essentially a matter of placing ourselves in the presence of God. The Pharisee does not really see the face of a compassionate God. Rather he sees someone other than the God of mercy and forgiveness; he sees only a God of rigid law and expectation. The Pharisee does not have compassion and simply stands in judgment of others, including the man standing next to him as he prays. He expresses no humility. Indeed, he blatantly tells God that he is completely secure in his own conduct. He fasts twice a week and gives ten percent of his wealth to others and accounts himself better than most other people.
The publican or tax collector’s prayer is completely different. He accuses himself of being a sinner and asks God’s forgiveness. He knows that he is dependent upon God. He recognizes God as compassionate and is the essence of humility. St. Bernard tells us that this man has entered the countries of contemplation, compassion and humility.
This week we will celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints and remember the Poor Souls on November 1 and 2. The saints are simply sinners who have died and have experienced God’s mercy. The poor souls are sinners who stand in need of forgiveness. We fit both categories ourselves, for we are sinners in need of forgiveness. May God have mercy on us all.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator