Scripture and the Liturgy

Role Models: 8th Sunday in OT

Several years ago Charles Barkley, when confronted with the misdeeds of his private life, famously quipped, “I’m not paid to be a role model.  I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”  He went on to rake in quite a bundle of cash making an “I’m no role model” commercial with Nike.  Many people felt, despite the appearance of laudable honesty, Barkley’s posturing was a kind of excuse to escape culpability for the bad example he sets for youth. 

It’s too bad that the young don’t have many prominent role models to follow these days, especially since we all need a model to strive after.  Many cultures practice or practiced a form of education in which students chose a scholar and emulated his entire lifestyle.  This was true in China, where philosophers were expected to be well-rounded human beings, and their students tried to replicate their whole persona.  Thus, Confucius (Kong Fuzi) was a philosopher, martial artist, poet, and more.  Jewish rabbinical training was similar, in which students would imitate every detail of their Rabbi’s life, from the doctrines he taught to the way he ate, dressed, and interacted with his wife. 

There is something profoundly wise about finding a person whose entire life is worth emulating, rather than just his thinking—because if the master’s thought cannot be successfully lived out, it isn’t worth embracing.  Further, if the master himself can’t live out his principles, there is probably something defective about him. 

Many Western philosophers—like Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rouseau, Friedrich Nietzsche—were more or less disasters in their private life, and few people esteemed them who knew them personally.  Jesus was not like this, but taught the integration of one’s inner person (one’s heart) with one’s teaching (one’s speech).  George W. Bush was right, even if he may not have fully realized why, to refer to Jesus as “my favorite philosopher.”  A philosopher is a “lover of Wisdom.”  Surely Jesus did love wisdom, but more than that, he was Wisdom incarnate. In this Sunday’s Readings, Jesus shows himself to be the unparalleled practical philosopher, giving us sound wisdom for how to live our lives.  

1. Our First Reading is Sir 27:4-7:

When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;
so do one’s faults when one speaks.
As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace,
so in tribulation is the test of the just.
The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;
so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.
Praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested.

Sirach is the last of the wisdom books in the Catholic order of the canon, and may be regarded as a massive summation of the Israelite wisdom tradition composed c. 200 BC.  In fact, Sirach is truly a meditation on the entire body of Israel’s Scriptures from the perspective of wisdom, that is, the practical knowledge of successful living.  Because Sirach provides such a useful digest of the moral message of the Old Testament Scriptures, the early Church used it heavily in catechesis, earning it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the Church book.”

Sirach is known by many names.  The full title of the book in antiquity, in Greek and probably Hebrew as well, was “The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach” (cf. Sir 50:27).  A plethora of shortened titles in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin can be found in the Fathers and the rabbis of antiquity, including “Wisdom,” “Wisdom of Jesus,” “Book of Wisdom,” “Wisdom of Sirach,” “Proverbs of Jesus of Sirach,” and others.  The brief title ben Sira (“son of Sirach”) eventually prevailed in the Jewish tradition, and this name is often used in scholarly writing today, for the book and for its author.  As mentioned, the Latin tradition eventually bestowed on it the name “Ecclesiasticus,” although St. Jerome’s title in the Vulgate was Liber Iesu Filii Sirach, “The Book of Jesus son of Sirach.”  Since any title including “Wisdom” is easily confused with the Wisdom of Solomon, and “Ecclesiasticus” with Ecclesiastes, the name “Sirach” has now become common in modern Catholic discourse, and this is the title we will use below.

Sirach was highly respected among the rabbis of antiquity, and citations can be found in rabbinical literature where it is quoted as Scripture.  Greek-speaking Jews in diaspora throughout the Roman Empire also received it as inspired.  Despite the fact that it was originally written in Hebrew, however, it was rejected from the rabbinic Jewish canon of Scripture, perhaps because it was considered to have been written too late, after the age of prophetic inspiration.  Nonetheless, within the Church, Sirach was received as canonical and was commonly quoted as Scripture by many of the Fathers, even if it was omitted from some early lists of the canon.

         The Book of Proverbs was the literary model for Jesus ben Sira, and like Proverbs, Sirach mixes long poems in praise of Wisdom (e.g. Prov. 1:20-33; ch. 8; ch. 9; 31:10-31) with loosely-organized collections of proverbs.  Unlike Proverbs, however, Sirach shows greater thematic unity, and an effort to group proverbs by topic.

         The basic macro-structure of Sirach consists of poems in praise of wisdom that join together blocks of proverbial instruction.  There are three major divisions of the book: a first collection of instruction for the young man (chs. 1-23), a second collection of instruction for a mature man (ch. 24-43), and a review of sacred history (chs. 44-50).

         This First Reading comes from a rambling collection of advice largely addressed to the more mature man who has attained some measure of status and respect in society.  This section is themed around assessing a person on the basis of his or her speech, because one’s speech reveals the inner person. The act of speech is understood as a test or tribulation that reveals one’s virtue or vice.  The ancient sage would not deny that one can deceive through speech or make oneself appear better than he really is; but this deception cannot be maintained indefinitely.  Eventually, the character of a person will show itself in their words.

P. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16:

R. (cf. 2a) Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
To proclaim your kindness at dawn
and your faithfulness throughout the night.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
The just one shall flourish like the palm tree,
like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow.
They that are planted in the house of the LORD
shall flourish in the courts of our God.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.
They shall bear fruit even in old age;
vigorous and sturdy shall they be,
Declaring how just is the LORD,
my rock, in whom there is no wrong.
R. Lord, it is good to give thanks to you.

The best use of speech is to praise God.  So the man who “gives thanks to the LORD,” sings “praise to the name of the Most High,” and “proclaims His kindness and faithfulness” throughout the day reveals an inner person who is full of life because he shares in the life of God.  Such a person is a veritable Tree of Life, who maintains vigor and youth perpetually.  He practices a lifestyle of thanksgiving, a kind of “Eucharistic” life.

2. The Second Reading is 1 Cor 15:54-58:

Brothers and sisters:
When this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility
and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
 Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters,
be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

St. Paul reminds us that our hope is for eternal life, not just success in this passing world.  God’s speech has promised us victory over death, and since his nature is true, his speech is true as well, and can be trusted.  Therefore, there is no reason to become despairing or hopeless over the state of our lives or the state of the world.  All labor for the Lord is not in vain—the smallest acts of kindness and love done for the Lord will be remembered and rewarded.  This joyful thought should console us in the face of trials and suffering.

G.  Our Gospel is Lk 6:39-45:

Jesus told his disciples a parable,
“Can a blind person guide a blind person?
Will not both fall into a pit?
No disciple is superior to the teacher;
but when fully trained,
every disciple will be like his teacher.

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
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?
You hypocrite!  Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.

“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit,
nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.
For every tree is known by its own fruit.
For people do not pick figs from thornbushes,
nor do they gather grapes from brambles.
A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,
but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil;
for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

In this Gospel, Jesus shows himself to be a wisdom teacher, instructing his disciples with short, pithy aphorisms employing memorable examples and word-pictures.  The fountainhead of this kind of instruction in Israel was Solomon, David’s first “son” or heir.  Now Jesus, the ultimate son and heir of David, surpasses Solomon in his ability to teach and communicate wisdom. 

There are three topics addressed in our Gospel: the importance of a teacher as a model; the danger of hypocrisy; and the mark of a good person. 

First, Jesus stresses the importance of the role of a teacher as model.  With few exceptions, students do not surpass their teacher in knowledge and virtue.  Therefore, if the teacher is vicious to begin with, there is little hope for the followers.  This ought to be instructive for those of us in Western culture, where we often follow the principles taught by famous teachers (Spinoza, Darwin, Freud, Descartes, Machiavelli, Rouseau, Marx, etc.) who were perverse and ignoble in their personal lives. How can we expect society as a whole to be elevated by the doctrines of men who themselves were so unsuccessful as human beings?

Secondly, Jesus warns about the danger of falling into hypocrisy, with his metaphors of the beam and the splinter in the eye. One could summarize Jesus’ teaching here by saying that examination of conscience is necessary before fraternal correction.  We tend to be blind to our own faults and hyperconscious of others.  We are aware of all the mitigating factors that go into our own mistakes, but not those influencing others.  That’s why patience is in order before judging the actions of others.  We need to take care: Is my irritation with my brother or sister due to my own issues, rather than his or hers?  I have I provoked my brother to act the way he does by my own misbehavior?  Am I not seeing something relevant about this situation due to my own self-interest?  St. Josemaria recommended checking with a mature third party who knows you both before making a fraternal correction.

Finally, Jesus advises on how to recognize a good from a bad person, and the key distinguishing mark is very empirical: their fruits, which probably means: “their words, deeds, and influence on other people.”   At the end of the parable Jesus singles out speech as an example of the “fruit” that a person produces: “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks,” but “fruit” is broader than simply words (as we can see from other passages in the Gospel), and includes a person’s deeds and the effect they have on others and the whole community.

St. James seems to expand and expound on Jesus’ teaching in the third chapter of his famous Epistle:

James 3:6   And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.  7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind,  8 but no human being can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?  12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. 

The point is, corrupt language is a sign of the corruption of the heart.  This is reason for us to pause and reflect.  What characterizes my own language?  I admit that four years of public high school in Hawaii had a detrimental effect on my speech habits, and I’ve spent years struggling to undo what those years did.  But language reflects the heart, and in turn shapes the heart, which is why Jesus warns that at the judgment we will have to give account of every careless word we’ve spoken.  That is a sobering thought, and leads us to reflect: do my words consistently honor God?  This would rule out angry, abusive, sarcastic, cutting, mocking, provocative, salacious, ambiguous, and critical kinds of speech.  St. Paul reminds us:

Eph. 5:3   But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints.  4 Let there be no filthiness, nor foolish words, nor vulgar talk, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving (eucharistia!).  5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 

Because the second commandment forbids only the taking of the name of the Lord in vain, some wrongfully have the idea that only false or vain swearing is a sin, and other kinds of coarse or profane language are not technically sins.  This is incorrect: there are many ways to sin with words that do not involve misuse of the name of God or other holy persons. 

It’s not correct that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Words often hurt much more than sticks or stones.  God created the world through words, and as creatures in the image of God, our words, too, have the power to influence reality.  Let’s pray this Sunday for a purification of our hearts through the Holy Spirit, so that our speech, flowing from a pure heart, will be like a life-giving stream of cool fresh water to those who hear it.

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