Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, February 16, 2020
Sirach tries to show the superiority of Jewish wisdom to both Jews and the pagans living among them. Here he takes on the questions of human freedom and the origins of sin.
For Christians in a metropolis of Greeks, Romans and Jews, Saint Paul describes the authority behind the Christians' distinctive wisdom and way of life.
Many laws of the Jews were meant to control shame, to prevent vengeance, to keep extended families from feuding and splitting. Jesus considers those standards and announces other standards for his followers.
The Historical and Literary Background: A succinct introduction to Sirach by Thomas H. Weber in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Prentice-Hall, 1968) tells us "Sirach's book is essentially an apology for Judaism. Writing to defend the religious and cultural heritage of Judaism against the challenge of Hellenism, he sought to demonstrate to his fellow Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora, and also to well-meaning pagans, that true wisdom resides in Israel. He accomplishes his purpose by producing a synthesis of revealed religion and empirical wisdom." (p. 541.) Hellenism means the Greek culture that was extended around the eastern Mediterranean because of the conquests of Alexander the Great (Hellas is Greek for Greece). Subject peoples and ethnic minorities are always concerned about the possible dying out of their cultures.
Our Sunday's verses: What Sirach says today seems obvious to us modern readers. We're free and we're responsible. Not even God takes away our powers to choose good or evil. We decide and we take the consequences of our choices. But was that all clear to Sirach's original audience? Was he saying something they needed to hear but that we take for granted? Perhaps. Sirach was a learned Jew writing for Greeks and other sophisticated Jews. Not too many generations earlier, Jews had believed their fates were inextricable from that of the people as a whole, and that God's favor of the people depended on the virtue of their king. Sirach was familiar with Greek and Egyptian thought, too, where one could find ready supplies of fatalism and determinism. And even after Sirach there will be religious thinkers who treat humans as pawns in a titanic struggle between Good and Evil, or who tell us we're predestined because anything else diminishes the sovereignty of God.
Sirach 15 then looks like a "sweet spot" of human freedom and divine goodness. God doesn't make us sin, nor even approve our sin, but reluctantly permits it in view of our freedom. God makes it clear what is good and what is bad. God is almighty and omniscient, but still concerned about every human action.
Proclaiming It: Sirach seems to ask his reader to be awed both by the majesty of God and by the freedom that we enjoy. Sirach is also standing up for his people's wisdom against smug exponents of rival wisdom. So your proclamation should sound confident and a little argumentative.
The Historical Situation: Paul tries to give the Christians in Corinth the best reasons for believing in the superiority of their wisdom and way of life. The strongest claim he can make is that it all comes from God, for no one is wiser or stronger than God. But why does he have to say so to these people at this time?
Proclaiming It: Doesn't Paul seem convinced in this passage? He is absolutely sure he has the greatest insights and most accurate understanding. His authority is the authority of God. Sound convinced yourself, and let your voice express the contrasts between divine wisdom and every other kind.
Image from the web story about Soul City Church, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., on the site of Sunday! Magazine. I chose it because today's first and second readings were directed at communities of believers living in cosmopolitan cities where they were minorities.
This page updated December 16, 2019