30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Sirach provides this weekend’s first Scriptural reading. The book is part of that group of biblical writings classified by scholars collectively as the Wisdom Literature.
The Wisdom Literature developed through an interesting, and very believable process. As conditions worsened in the Holy Land several centuries before Christ, many Jews emigrated. Probably many prospered economically. However, prosperity came at a price.
These Jews had moved into pagan communities. The riches and pleasures of the pagan culture were powerful attractions for Jewish youth, and indeed for all these Jewish transplants.
Devout Jews and conscientious Jewish parents realized that they had to convince their children of the worth of the ancient Hebrew religion, and also their less than fervent Jewish neighbors.
The authors of this literature wrote to persuade audiences that the Hebrew religion in itself was the summit of human logic, an important claim in the Greek culture, in which human reasoning was so exalted.
With this overall objective, each of the Wisdom books was composed in its own time and in the face of its own circumstances. Thus, it is important always to know the context in which a book was written, despite the fact that a similar purpose was the driving force and paganism was the common concern.
It is easy, and not out of place, to imagine the conditions in which this particular work, the Book of Sirach, was composed. However, the message is clear.
By contrast, Sirach offers a picture of the God of Hebrew revelation as far above the tawdry shortcomings and schemes of humans.
God did not bargain. He is supremely just. He is all knowing.
The Second Epistle to Timothy, one of Paul’s disciples, provides the second reading. Paul taught Timothy the deep meaning of the Gospel and guided him in the process of spiritual development. Paul also ordained him a bishop.
In this reading Paul encourages Timothy to be true to the Lord. The great apostle offers himself as an example. He has been imprisoned and mistreated for Christ. His way has been rocky and uphill. However, he has remained loyal.
St. Luke’s Gospel furnishes the final reading. Here again, Jesus presents the smug and insincere as being without God’s favor. A humble and unassuming man is God’s favorite.
The reading makes two points. It teaches that those who have heartfelt love for God will endure. Gaudy, outward appearances mean nothing. Here the lesson is not to demean good works, but rather to insist that good works must rise from faith and love.
Second, the reading echoes what already has been said in the first reading. God is perfectly just.
The Book of Sirach suggests a time and a condition very long ago but in reality quite similar to circumstances met in life today or in any day. Humans always exaggerate their ability. It is the result of pride. It is a byproduct of original sin.
Despite these exaggerations, however, the fact is that God alone is almighty and truly wise. Seeing God’s majesty, and human imperfections, it is obvious that God alone is the model of perfection. Earthly rewards are empty and fleeting. God alone provides the only reward. God is everything.
Anyone who seeks an end other than God, as the Pharisee sought other ends in the story told by Luke, chases after phantoms. The humble man in the Gospel story is truly wise. His wisdom causes him to be humble. He receives the reward. He succeeds. He achieves.
Humility is an essential Christian virtue. It is not a denial of who and what we are. Rather, it expresses the deepest insight of who and what we are. We are limited, but, blessedly, marvelously, we may achieve true life in God through Christ.
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