NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: SIRACH 3:2-6, 12-14
FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
USCCB link to all three readings
God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother's authority he confirms over her sons.
Whoever honors his father atones for sins,
and preserves himself from them.
When he prays, he is heard;
he stores up riches who reveres his mother.
Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.
My son, take care of your father when he is old;
grieve him not as long as he lives.
Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him;
revile him not all the days of his life;
kindness to a father will not be forgotten,
firmly planted against the debt of your sins
—a house raised in justice to you.
The Jewish Book of Sirach is one of the last of the Old Testament works, written around 175 B.C. Sirach is classified as a “Wisdom” text, and as the name suggests, its focus is wise moral living, a marriage of philosophy and law. Other Wisdom texts include Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Wisdom. Given the influx of Greek philosophy at this late date of composition, there are signs of Socratic questioning in many of the Wisdom books, and our text here was not accepted into the Hebrew Canon universally. Moreover, the Christian Church used the Book of Sirach enthusiastically in its early moral teaching, to such a degree that the book carried a taint in its own Jewish tradition. (Until very recently, we Catholics called this book Ecclesiasticus.) Protestant Reformers, for that reason, did not include Sirach in its reformed Biblical Canon, which is why you might not find Sirach in your Hampton Inn bedside bible.
In his discussion of the Wisdom literature, Father Boadt provides five distinct characteristics: (1) “a search for how to master life and understand how humans should behave before God;” (2) “a questioning attitude about the problems of life” such as suffering, inequality, death, and the prosperity of the wicked; (3) “a great interest in the universal human experiences that affect all people and not just believers in God;” (4) “a joy in the contemplation of creation and God as Creator;” and (5) a minimum of interest in the great acts of divine salvation history proclaimed by the Torah and the prophets.” (Boadt, p. 413-414)
Unlike the Book of Proverbs, Sirach is better organized and thematic, and in Sunday’s reading we have an elongated reflection on the relationship of father and son. It is such a rich text that one hardly knows where to start. Clearly there is continuity with the early history of Israel and the Law, notably the Fourth Commandment. But one can see how the passage of time and the secularization of thought had brought a new cast to covenantal law. The terse legal tone of commandment had changed to a humanitarian reflection on family life applicable to all cultures, one reason that Jewish purists were suspicious of the book.
There are other remarkable clues in this Sunday’s text to give us pause. There is a strong indication of belief in atonement for sin. “Whoever honors his father atones for sin” is an indication that Jews at this late date were giving much more thought to the particulars of salvation. The idea of life after death was not embraced in Jewish thought until just a few centuries before Christ, and was not universal among Jews in Jesus’ day. The Sadducees, for example, did not believe in a resurrection after death.
2 Maccabees 12:39–48, describing events in the mid-160’s B.C., cites Judas Maccabeus sending an offering to Jerusalem on behalf of the salvation of his fallen comrades in arms. Sirach reinforces the idea: “Kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins—a house raised in justice to you.”
One of the gifts of Israel’s heritage to the world is its sense of the importance of the family. Our text here explains in the opening that God ordains the order of the family, and it includes the authority of the mother (over male sons, no less.) The author notes that the honoring of parents leads to the blessings of one’s own marriage bed and the pleasure of a long life in watching the family grow.
The second paragraph transcends religious creeds entirely and maintains continuity with our own century in a way that is almost painful to behold. The author, Ben Sirach, understood the sufferings of old age. Intriguing is his mention of a failing mind, perhaps a reference to symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Ben Sirach had no clinical understanding of what impacted the mind, but he saw the symptoms and recognized that the diseases of seniority could change personality in many unpleasant ways; hence his advice to “revile him not all the days of his life.” His closing remarks imply rich spiritual blessings for the son who bears with his father as the shades of death begin to draw.
The choice of this reading for the Feast of the Holy Family has little to do with morality per se. As a boy I can remember the Holy Family sermons in my parish: “Every family must work to imitate the Holy Family.” One year my mother remarked after Mass, “Easy enough to say when you’re talking about God and two saints.” If we read the Christmas Gospels closely, they are not jolly accounts of a charming rural family. The American scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown, S.S., describes the two Gospel birth narratives (Luke and Matthew) as ‘mini-passion accounts” filled with foreboding. Sunday’s Gospel, from Luke, describes an intense encounter between the new mother, Mary, and the prophet Simeon in the Temple: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted—and you yourself a sword will pierce—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
The Holy Family is depicted in the Gospels as a strained and suffering familial community from beginning to end. It has much in common with Sirach’s faithful son who witnesses his father’s demise and still musters a love and respect for the shell of a parent who might not even recognize him. For this son in Sirach, as for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the question “did you not know I must be about my father’s business?” is a fittingly shared refrain.