The Wisdom of Ben Sira is often simply called the Book of Sirach. As we return to Ordinary Time, this entire week will feature readings from this “Wisdom” book. This book is not part of the Jewish Bible and is, therefore, not in the Protestant version of the Old Testament. Although it was originally written in Hebrew which would have qualified it as part of the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew manuscript was lost for so long a time that it was excluded because the only extant manuscript was written in Greek. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, about two thirds of the book was found in those Hebrew manuscripts.
The Book was called “Ecclesiasticus” for many years. This title came about because the Church used it as a sort of catechism for the catechumens who were preparing for Baptism. However, most Bibles today will note it as the Book of Sirach after then name of the author, Jesus (Joshua) ben Sira.
The book contains numerous well-crafted maxims, grouped by affinity, and dealing with a variety of subjects such as the individual, the family, and the community in their relations with one another and with God. It treats of friendship, education, poverty and wealth, laws, religious worship, and many other matters that reflect the religious and social customs of the time.
Today’s reading focuses on the observance of the Law, a familiar theme in Wisdom Literature. We also hear that charity and alms giving are fit sacrifices to offer to the Lord. The rationale given, however, exhibits the “theology of reciprocity” that lies at the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures. God always repays; consequently, being generous is a way to earn God’s favor. This kind of thinking was set aside by Jesus who asked us to be good to those who hate us and to pray for those who harm us.
Quite happily, the Gospel selection for today reinforces this when Peter asks the age old question: “What’s in it for us?” Jesus tells them that God will repay, but that repayment probably will not come in this life. We are to be generous not because of what God WILL do for us. We are to be generous because of what God HAS DONE for us already. Our lives of charity and alms giving is a matter of responding to God’s love rather than trying to earn it.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator