The Wisdom Book of Ben Sira, a portion of which will be heard as the first reading this coming Sunday, deals mostly with moral instruction, that is, ancient Jewish wisdom, offered in the forms of proverbs, maxims, and aphorisms. The author Sirach (the more familiar Greek form of his Hebrew name) was a sage who lived in Jerusalem and was thoroughly imbued with a love for the Hebrew wisdom tradition which collected and promoted time-honored sayings from Hebrew culture. The Catholic bible has seven books of Wisdom sayings.
The book of Sirach contains numerous succinct maxims regarding friendship, education, poverty, wealth, laws, worship, and other matters that reflect the religious and social customs of the time. Written in Hebrew in the early years of the second century B.C., the book was finished about 175 B.C., very close to the Christian era. The text was translated into Greek by the author’s grandson after 117 B.C. He also wrote a foreword which contains valuable information about the book, its author, and himself as translator. More than two thirds of the book in its original Hebrew is now available thanks to archeological discoveries in recent years. These Hebrew texts agree substantially with the Greek manuscripts that have been in use for centuries. Hence, Catholic bibles today present a very accurate version of the original, ancient text. Neither Jews nor Protestants include Sirach in their bibles. The Catholic Church however accepts Sirach as divinely inspired.
The passage from Sirach proclaimed during this coming Sunday’s liturgy reminds faithful readers that they can obtain mercy and forgiveness only by first forgiving their neighbor, a bit of ancient wisdom clearly and often preached both by the Jewish prophets and by Jesus Christ.
Because of the uncertainty of death’s hour, Sirach advises his reader never to postpone forgiveness. It might be too late! He also recalls the great insistence on forgiveness in the Mosaic Law: “Vengeance is mine and recompense…” says the Lord in Deuteronomy. The Lord will ensure justice; the believer must be intent on forgiveness. Sirach repeatedly drives home to his reader the need for swift and thorough forgiveness: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”
Sirach effectively underlines the ancient wisdom that the believer who closes his heart to his neighbor is actually closing his heart to God. Openness through forgiveness toward the neighbor is required if one expects to be open to forgiveness from God. God respects mankind’s choices. If a person’s heart is closed to his neighbor then that person will discover his heart closed to God.
St. Paul gives the same admonition to the Romans instructing them that wrath is God’s responsibility, not theirs: Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for God’s wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. Believers must not take justice into their own hands by seeking vengeance. God will ultimately deal justly with all, including those who inflict injury on believers.
Certainly Jesus Christ is not outdone in his insistence on the need for swift forgiveness: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” The Lord’s Prayer familiarly makes ultimate forgiveness by God depend upon a believer’s own forgiveness: “…and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” This coming Sunday’s Gospel passage doubly stipulates forgiveness: “Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
Recall that anyone harming Cain was to be avenged seven times —ancient excessive vengeance is now replaced by even more excessive forgiveness. Jesus then re-enforces his instruction on forgiveness by the lengthy parable of the unforgiving steward heard at Mass this Sunday. The parable ends with the hard-hearted servant handed over to the torturers and then Jesus concludes with this sober advice: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”