by Father Mike Stubbs
If you look for Sunday’s reading in a Protestant Bible — Sir 35:12-14, 16-18 — you probably won’t find it there. It comes from one of those books missing from the Protestant Bible, through an accident of history.
At the time of Jesus, the list of books belonging to sacred Scripture had not been definitively finalized. There were two popular lists circulating: the Palestinian canon and the Alexandrian canon. The Alexandrian canon had a few books not contained in the Palestinian canon.
The early Christians opted for the Alexandrian canon. That choice was reflected in their use of those disputed books.
The writings of the New Testament even draw from it at times. For example, this passage — “Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (Jas 1:19) — echoes these words from the Book of Sirach: “Be swift to hear, but slow to answer” (Sir 5:11).
At the time of the Protestant Reformation, this history had been forgotten. Consequently, the reformers opted for the more restricted listing of the Palestinian canon.
Sunday’s reading offers a good taste of the entire Book of Sirach. It repeats concepts already presented elsewhere in the Scriptures.
It insists that God is a God of justice, that God will listen to the prayers of the poor and weak: “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”
Specifically, God will pay attention to widows and orphans: “The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.”
The author — Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach — was a religious teacher who lived in Jerusalem in the beginning of the second century B.C. His writings reflect the instruction that he would have presented to his students.
Sirach is seeking to share with his readers the riches of traditional Hebrew wisdom. He focuses upon practical, common sense wisdom, which makes everyday life more rewarding and fulfilling.
For example, he instructs the young to obey and respect their parents. He encourages generosity to the poor. He gives advice on how to treat slaves.
Because of these insights, the Book of Sirach found a secure place in the church’s offerings for spiritual guidance.
Sirach earned the nickname “Ecclesiasticus,” which means “of or pertaining to the church.” That is how it is sometimes listed in Catholic Bibles.