Thirtieth 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 in new places. Prosperity, however, came at a price. In new surroundings, paganism abounded. The riches and pleasures of the pagan culture were powerful attractions for the children of these Jewish transplants. Devout Jews and conscientious Jewish parents realized that they had to convince their youth and also their less-than-fervent Jewish neighbors of the worth of the ancient Hebrew religion.
This literature was part of this process to persuade audiences that the Hebrew religion in itself was the summit of human logic, a bold 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, even if 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. The message is clear. Sirach offers a picture of the God of Hebrew revelation as far above the tawdry shortcomings and schemes of humans and the less than admirable traits of the pagan gods.
God is perfect. Humans are not. It is the greatest wisdom.
The Second Epistle to Timothy, Paul’s disciple, 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, but 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. Good works must rise from genuine faith and love.
Second, the reading echoes what already has been said in the first reading. God is perfectly just and desperately needed. Human reasoning and ability can be very inadequate.
The Book of Sirach suggests a time and conditions very long ago but in reality they are quite similar to circumstances met in life today or in any day. Humans always exaggerate their ability. They cannot admit their limitations despite all the proof for it. It is the result of pride. It is a byproduct of original sin.
Simply, God alone is almighty and truly wise. Realizing 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 a reward other than in God, as the Pharisee pursued other ends in the story told by Luke, chases after phantoms. The humble man in the Gospel truly is wise, so he is 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, miraculously, we may rely upon God’s guidance and strength.
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