Column: Sirach’s teaching on family resonates still

by Father Mike Stubbs

“Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” That proverb tells us to consider two radically different approaches for influencing people’s behavior. One way takes a gentle approach. The other takes more forceful action.

The Bible offers us both approaches when instructing children in their responsibilities toward their parents. For example, consider this penalty for disrespect: “Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death” (Ex 21:17). What could be more forceful than that?

On the other hand, Sunday’s first reading —Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 — presents a gentler approach. It encourages respect for parents by promising rewards for the children who take care of their parents. Specifically, it assures the children that they will receive pardon for their sins, that God will hear their prayers, that they will live a long life. Notice that this third reward of long life represents the converse of the commandment against cursing the parents: “Honor your parents, and you will live a long life. Curse them, and we will kill you.”

Both threatening punishment and promising reward aim toward the same ultimate goal: to strengthen the family. This goal reflects the place of the family in society.

In ancient Israel, the family stood out as especially important. For example, the most significant feast, that of Passover, was celebrated not at the Temple in Jerusalem nor at the local synagogue, but, rather, during a family meal, the Passover Seder. That still holds true for Jewish families today. The father and the mother lead the prayers. The children also have a role to play in the celebration. It is a family event.

In ancient Israel, the father wielded absolute power in the family. For example, the children belonged to the father. If he wished, theoretically, he could sell them into slavery or even condemn them to death if they committed a crime. By the time of Christ, this strictness had passed out of practice. Still, compared to present time, the father of the family held much more authority. His wife and children addressed him as “lord” or “master.” Now, that’s respect.

Modern society has moved toward equality of the sexes, as well as recognizing the rights of children. At the same time, emphasizing the value of family life still remains important. Respect for aging parents should even grow in concern as the average life span lengthens and as they are with us longer. The basic teaching of Sirach still retains its value for us, however it may play out in our society. It is appropriate advice for us on this feast of the Holy Family.

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