Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A, September 13, 2020
Jesus ben Sirach was a Jerusalem sage living about 200 years before Jesus of Nazareth. His book tries to show the superiority of Jewish wisdom to both Jews and the pagans living among them. He often showed that God's preferences and assumptions differ from ours.
In prior verses of this letter, Saint Paul asks the more mature members of his audience to behave a certain way toward the less mature. Now he gives his reason: not just because that would be right or kind, but because all just belong to Christ.
Jesus gives one statement and one parable about forgiveness. There are surprising elements in each.
The Historical Situation: As Lector's Notes like to say when introducing passages from this book, Sirach is a very late book (around 180 B.C.E.), when compared with the books of Moses or the prophets. By this time in Israel's history, the great theological battles about monotheism are over, the kings have come and gone, and the Exile is a distant memory. The prophets have been silent for a long time, and many Jews are living in cities where pagans are the majorities. In these circumstances, writers asked how one should live a good life, what moral and spiritual choices should one make, what behavior is honorable in a religious person?
This passage says, in various ways, that it's unwise to nurse grudges and wise to forgive. Not just wise in the sense of crafty, but virtuous. It prepares us to hear today's gospel passage, the familiar parable of the unforgiving steward, Matthew 18, 21-35.
Reading that gospel passage is more important than usual for the lector's preparation this week. Read it and dwell for a moment on the outrage you feel when that servant, forgiven so much, is so harsh with one who owes him so little. Imagine yourself in the master's shoes, shouting "You worthless wretch!" (I like that old translation better than "You wicked servant." Who decided to subdue it so?) Now remember that feeling when you pronounce the rhetorical questions:
Because the phrases are short, be careful not merely to rattle them off. Pause briefly between phrases. Read the last sentence as if it had this punctuation:
Think of the commandments:
The Historical Situation: Here's the context of this reading: Paul is appealing to more sophisticated members of the church not to do legitimate things that nonetheless scandalize those who are less wise. You could do those things (for example, eat un-kosher foods), but you should not because you have brothers and sisters who still believe it's wrong. Paul is asking for forbearance and charity from the smarter set.
The Theological Background: Not an unusual request, of course. But the reason Paul gives is unprecedented. Do it not just because it's right or it's the kind thing to do; do it because you belong to Christ.
Proclaiming It: Steep yourself in that notion that you belong to Christ, that you live for the Lord and die for the Lord, before you proclaim this passage to the assembly.
The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet), detail, by Édouard Manet, 1865, now in The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S.A. Click here for more.
My roundabout journey to this choice includes a recent re-reading of the 1932 novel Vipers' Tangle by François Mauriac. Originally titled Le Noeud de vipères, it is also known in English as Knot of Vipers. It's the story of a very angry old man and his alienated family. Now our readings today start with Sirach's sage obersvation, "Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight." Well, Mauriac's protagonist certainly hugs tight his wrath and anger. He uses the brood of vipers metaphor both of the resentments entangling his heart, and of his family members scheming to prevent his disinheriting them.
This image of a fierce-looking fellow was the cover art on an audible.com recording of Vipers' Tangle.
This page updated July 17, 2020