by Father Mike Stubbs
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
“A stitch in time saves nine.”
These sayings seek to convey a very practical wisdom. Following them can make life easier. At the same time, they are not extremely profound. They are practical.
That is the kind of wisdom found in a few of the books of the Bible. The Book of Proverbs stands out as a good example. It offers very practical wisdom packed into short sayings.
On the other hand, very profound wisdom is found in some other books of the Bible, wisdom which explores deep philosophical questions.
For example, the Book of Ecclesiastes delves into the question: “What is the meaning of life?” Similarly, the Book of Job looks into the question: “Why do the innocent suffer?”
Sunday’s first reading, Sir 27:4-7, provides us with some practical wisdom. It sets examples of everyday life next to instances of human behavior, to shed light on them. These follow the form of a couplet, the typical pattern of Hebrew poetry. Thus:
“When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks.”
And: “The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.”
The Book of Sirach is telling us that human speech conveys more than the message intended by the speaker. It also reveals the state of the speaker’s character.
That is the most important thing that we can learn from the person’s words. That is why the reading concludes: “Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested.”
Sirach anticipates the saying in Sunday’s Gospel reading: “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45).
Sirach also anticipates James’ discourse on the power of the human tongue: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (Jas 3:9-10).
James takes a step further than Sirach. If human speech reveals the character of the speaker, then we do well to listen to ourselves in order to assess our own moral character.
While Sirach looks upon speech as a gauge for judging others, James focuses upon self- criticism. This fits in well with the Gospel’s teaching: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye?” (Lk 6:41).
It calls us to look at ourselves first.