The Hebrew Scriptures have a segment of seven texts called “The Books of Wisdom.” The seven traditional volumes are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom and Sirach. The Book of Psalms is certainly the text most familiar to today’s Catholic congregations. Poetry from the Psalms is most often recited by chorus and congregation between the first and second readings at Mass. The psalms, and perhaps most Wisdom literature, tend to be written in couplets, two lines that more or less repeat the same notion: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make hast to help me.” And again, “Have pity on me, LORD, for I am weak; heal me, LORD, for my bones are shuddering.” This coming Sunday a portion of the Book of Sirach will be proclaimed as the first reading at Mass. The brief lines present four couplets concerning the importance of true and honest speech. Consider the terse wisdom taken from chapter 27 of Sirach: “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.”
Similarly the author of Proverbs offered the same advice when he wrote, “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” And Jesus, good Jew that he was, speaks almost the same phrases, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” And once again St. Luke in his Sermon on the Plain quotes very similar notions to be heard at Mass this Sunday: “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. (Luke 6:39-45.)” The importance of effective speech is a favorite topic of Sirach and the Wisdom authors in general. Consider some of the folksy yet insightful admonitions that Sirach proposes in his writings: “A slip on the floor is better than a slip of the tongue, in like manner the downfall of the wicked comes quickly.” And again, “A coarse person utters an untimely story; the ignorant are always ready to repeat it.” Still again, “A proverb spoken by a fool is unwelcome, for he does not tell it at the proper time.” Sirach views idle speech as a hopeless malady: “Those accustomed to using abusive language will never acquire discipline as long as they live.” Sirach evens recognizes his own need of circumspection when it comes to speech: “Who will set a guard over my mouth, an effective seal on my lips, That I may not fail through them, and my tongue may not destroy me?”
Several lines in the New Testament bear great resemblance to the thoughts of Sirach. A phrase in Mary’s “Magnificat” might reflect Sirach’s influence. Mary declared: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” Accordingly Sirach had written: “The Lord destroyed the thrones of rulers, and he raised up the gentle in their place.” The words in the parable of the sower might indicate some familiarity with Sirach. Jesus said, “Some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth.” Sirach had written, “But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.” Again, Sirach had written, “You can tell how well a tree has been cared for by the fruit it bears, and you can tell a person’s feelings by the way he expresses himself.” Two centuries later, Jesus was saying, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? (17) So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” St. James did not quote Sirach exactly when he wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” But he surely was heeding the advice of Sirach who had written, “Listen carefully, and utter a patient reply.” Jesus himself echoes Sirach once again when he prays, “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sirach had taught, “Forgive your neighbor a wrong, and then, when you petition, your sins will be pardoned.”
In older Catholic Bibles the Book of Sirach is often labeled “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the little book of the Church.” Sirach had gone to the trouble of synthesizing all the insights, intuitions and discernments of the Jewish people as expressed in the Mosaic Law, the Temple Liturgy and Jewish history. In Sirach, God’s universal wisdom is revealed through the natural law, revealed law, sacred worship and salvation history. His text was happily employed by early Christian catechists as a guide to responsible behavior. Clearly the Book of Sirach was the Baltimore Catechism of its day: all questions raised and all questions answered.