We don’t typically have entries on this blog on Sundays; most of the readership is busy on Sunday morning and I don’t want to distract you on the Lord’s Day (or distract myself promoting a post on Facebook or whatnot). So today we’re looking at something that’s show up in one of tomorrow’s lessons.
At Morning Prayer on December 15th we read Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 51, the final chapter of that long book. The last chapter and a half, like the prologue, make for great reading because we get to see the author step out from behind the shadows and talk briefly about himself and his work, giving us an unusual amount of insight into the purpose and making of this book – very few biblical writings provide us with such opportunities, the opening verses of Luke and Acts being shorter examples.
Specifically, the very end of chapter 51 has a lovely little wrap-up:
Draw near to me, you who are untaught, and lodge in the house of instruction.
Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why are your souls very thirsty?
I opened my mouth and said: Get these things for yourselves without money.
Put your neck under the yoke and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.
See with your eyes that I have labored little and found for myself much rest.
Get instruction with a large sum of silver, and you will gain by it much gold.
May your soul rejoice in his mercy; and my you not be put to shame when you praise him.
Do your works before the appointed time, and in God’s time he will give you your reward.
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 51:22-30
A host of references to other parts of the Bible can be found here. The first three verses echo Proverbs 1:20-33 and Proverbs 8, in which Wisdom is personified, calling out on the streets to the simple who would come and learn from her. Ben-Sirach does not depict Wisdom as a woman in this closing poem, but puts himself forth as a sage, one who teaches wisdom to others, but he is clearly well-schooled in Hebrew wisdom given his fluent use of the language of the proverbs in issuing his invitation to learn from the great tradition through him.
He then speaks of learning in terms of a “yoke” and “little” labor. A little study in wisdom goes a long way! Our Lord Jesus himself would take up this language from Ben-Sirach when he said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The similarities are remarkable; it’s likely that either this set of images was commonplace in Hebrew teaching language, or Jesus was simply paraphrasing Sirach.
Even the line about paying silver to gain instruction and “much gold” lays the foundation for some of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God – the buried treasure, the pearl of great price – the idea that what we have to gain is far greater than what we could ever spend to gain it.
Of course, there is a difference between the wisdom and teaching of Ben-Sirach in his book called Ecclesiasticus, and the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. The former was a brilliant compiler of the Hebrew wisdom tradition and well-schooled in the grand sweet of the Hebrew Bible, able to write of the great heroes of the faith from Enoch in the mists of the past all the way to Simon the High Priest who saw the consummation of the Maccabean rebellion. If there was no New Testament, this book could almost be treated as the capstone for the entire Hebrew Bible. But we do have a New Testament, and we do have Jesus the awaited Messiah, or Christ. As effective a teacher as Ben-Sirach was, he was not God-in-the-flesh. As Christians, we turn to Jesus to show us the perfect way to understand the Old Testament.
In the meantime, it’s great to see moments like this, in chapter 51, where Ben-Sirach’s stand so clearly and brightly between the Old Testament and the New. (This is why this book, with the other Ecclesiastical Books, belongs between the Testaments in print, unlike its strange placement in the new one from Anglican Liturgy Press.)