by Father Mike Stubbs
“The early bird catches the worm.”
A proverb typically combines a wise insight with an image which grabs our attention. We hear a perfect example in Sunday’s first reading — Sir 3:17- 18, 20, 28-29 — which closes with the words: “Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins.” That proverb follows the observation, “The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.”
In fact, the Book of Sirach largely consists of a string of proverbs, or wise sayings. In that respect, it resembles its sister book, which actually bears the title, Proverbs. Those belong to the category of biblical books called wisdom literature. Other books which fit into that classification are: Ecclesiastes, Job and Wisdom. They appeared in the period shortly before Christ, at a time in which prophecy had all but disappeared.
In its place arose a movement to discern God’s will through the reasoning of
the human mind, through wisdom. Those who sought after wisdom were called the sages. They often included scribes, learned individuals, teachers.
While this movement was religious, it was also profoundly humanist, in that it focused upon the problems of human existence. It wrestled with the questions of our origin and ultimate destiny, our search for happiness in this life, why the innocent must suffer, why eventually we must die, and what lies beyond the grave.
As the sages sought to think through these issues, they also looked to God for the answers. They recognized that they never would be able to find the answers on their own. Accordingly, they identified true wisdom as knowing God’s will and living in harmony with it. In that respect, they remained deeply religious.
Besides these wonderful books which we preserve as part of the Old Testament, these sages have left us the legacy of their approach toward wisdom: to view it not as solely a human endeavor, but also as a gift from God.
That approach can prevent us from falling into sec- ularism, while we attempt to deal with the difficult issues of our times.
That approach demands intellectual honesty on our part, and humility as well, to recognize the limitations of the human mind, while still stretching it as far as it will go. Perhaps that is the humility that the writer of Sirach had in mind, when he wrote: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”
It is in that humility that our true wisdom lies.