This is the last Sunday before Lent this year. The readings may be seen as a preparation for our 40 days, with St Paul glorying in the Resurrection that is Lent’s end goal. The first selection and the Gospel ask Christians to look at their own lives rather than judging others.
The older title, from the Latin Bible, is translated something like ‘a church book’ but more recent titles are based on the name of the writer, Jesus (or Yeshua) Ben Sira. It is known from the Greek version of scripture, and is not in the canon of Hebrew or Protestants. It is, however, firmly in the ‘wisdom’ tradition of the Jews, such as Proverbs. These are reflections and advice about behaviour based on seeing life in the light of God’s revelation.
For background, I am drawing on Alexander A. Di Leila, OFM, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. It ‘is one of the rare biblical books that was actually composed by the author’ and that gives us his name. Ben Sira was a teacher in Jerusalem, around 132 BCE, and this is a collection of his instructions, collected like class notes. It is the longest of the Wisdom books. Originally composed in Hebrew, the full version was lost, and only some fragments survive. His grandson translated it into the common Greek language used internationally at that time and that is the version we use.
Because these sayings were practical advice about daily life, they do not all have the force of moral laws, but there are passages we can still profit from.
Our short selection gives us an idea of Wisdom writing style, using familiar comparisons, often in pairs. It is similar to what Jesus says in Luke, and from that we can see that Jesus taught in the Wisdom tradition which was familiar to his listeners.
Psalm 91/92:2-3, 13-16
The first verses of this selection are of common pattern in the psalms of praise of thanksgiving, putting a frame around the day from morning to nightfall. (I have a version of this in my own daily prayers from the Bible.) It can also be seen in another way, for mentioning the outer limits is a way of showing completeness: it is good to give thanks all through the time we are awake.
The later verses draw on another common picture, the life of the good person flourishes as does a strong, well planted tree. The image of the fruitful tree will later be picked up by Jesus in the Gospel
1 Corinthians 15:54-58
St Paul concludes his teaching about the resurrection with words that come across like a victory hymn, and indeed Handel so saw it when he composed his oratorio The Messiah. That starts with the verse before the liturgy, ‘The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible’. So these final words look forward to the end of time with the fullness of Jesus’ victory over death. Paul quotes two verses of the Older Testament, the first from Isaiah using the Greek version and then Hosea.
Following this promise of new life which seems to be for all, Paul seems to fear that some will be complacent and not act as they should – live without responding to God’s love by sharing love, as he laid out earlier in chapter 13. He urges the Corinthians (and so us, as well) to never give up working which God always rewards.
This reading is made of various teachings of Jesus not in a logical order. The first words probably refer to teachers or those who seen as ‘guides’ for life. This comparison works both ways: choose a guide who is capable, but also one should not try to be a guide if not qualified. We need to think seriously about whose advice or instructions we take – and any we give. Now is a time when there so many different people in our world are telling us what to do or how to do that it become only confusing. (I was amused to find a feature in my daily paper of someone who tried a different form of exercise every week, not giving any program a chance to work.) Jesus is our perfect teacher, the one we can put our trust in.
The next point is a little different as it refers to anyone who tries to correct another person. Here Jesus, as he often does, uses a wild exaggeration to make his point with a touch of humour. You may see a defect such as a speck in the eye, while you have a whole plank of wood in your own – obviously impossible but shows how much worse it would be. Only when you have corrected yourself, are you able to help another in difficulty.
The third lesson is that what is in our hearts, our real nature, will show in our lives. In a way this circles back to the first words of choosing a guide – one who life and words reflect the goodness of God is someone to listen to and follow. It also suggests that we observe ourselves and pay attention what we have been saying – maybe using words of judgment, contempt, insult instead of encouragement, consideration, love. When we become aware of what we are putting out, we can see what we need to ask God to change in our way of thinking and acting.