The Torah Gospel of Jesus ben Sirach

God will not favor anyone over the poor,
and God will listen to the petition of one who is wronged.
God will never ignore an orphan’s supplication,
nor a widow, if she pours out speech. (Sirach 35:16-17)  

Jesus ben Sirach proclaims the gospel that his namesake Jesus ben Miriam of Nazareth would proclaim some two hundred years later: God is a righteous judge who reveals that righteousness by securing justice for the most vulnerable among us. Specifically God is no respecter of persons or their reputations and God favors no one above the poor. One might even say that God privileges the well-being of the poor.

Today’s hymnody from Sirach is one of the psalmody options from this past Sunday in the Episcopal Church. It connects to the themes of agricultural abundance in Joel (as does the alternate selection from Psalm 65) and it connects to the theme of the righteous judge in the Epistle. And of course God’s righteousness is distinguished from human righteousness in the parable of the two praying persons in the Temple.

I have to admit that I love the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach. Greek-speaking Jews in the North African diaspora, the first Christians and contemporary Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican communions have affirmed Sirach as scripture from the first century to the present day. His grandson who wrote the preface to his Hebrew work also translated it into Greek. Sirach’s grandson introduces his grandfather’s work with some of my favorite verses in all the canons of scripture:
Many great teachings have been given to us through the Torah and the Prophets and the others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom. Now, those who read the scriptures must not only themselves understand them, but must also as lovers of learning be able through the spoken and written word to help the outsiders…
For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this scroll, but even the Torah herself, the Prophecies, and the rest of the scroll differ not a little when read in the original.

I think Sirach must be the patron saint of seminarians and Hebrew professors. My love for Sirach even includes his challenging gendered rhetoric. He says in 22:3 “the birth of a daughter is a loss” and in 42:9 “a daughter is a secret anxiety to her father.” (OK, clearly not so secret.) And then there is the verse (42:11) about not letting daughters have windows in their rooms and the need to watch the path that leads to their rooms. And another (26:10) about not giving daughters any liberty or else they will run off.  His rants against daughters continue, even if one is able to marry off an immodest, unchaste daughter - I would have liked to meet her - a father’s troubles don’t end with marriage. If she doesn’t change her ways she disgraces father and husband, (22:4-5). I think her husband tried to bring her back.

Sirach’s gender trouble seems to be daughter trouble and that seems to be readily explained by the actual (or imagined conduct of his own daughter or daughters.) Of women in general and perhaps of his own wife he says in 7:19, “Do not dismiss a wise and good wife, for her charm is worth more than gold.” And speaking through Sirach, Wisdom says in 25:1, “I take pleasure in three things, and they are beautiful in the sight of God and of mortals: agreement among brothers and sisters, friendship among neighbors, and a wife and a husband who live in harmony.

Sirach was inspired to write holy scripture from within, in spite of and because of his complicated family and domestic life. The living bread baked by his hands is crusty and earthy and it feeds our souls today.
Jesus ben Sirach loves the Torah and the wisdom she imparts and wants us to love her too. Sirach is also therefore an evangelist, like Jesus ben Miriam of Nazareth he wants the whole world to know the good news of the God of Torah who loves the widow, the orphan and the poor, who will in righteousness do justice for them.

As a professional Torah scholar or scribe, Sirach is financially stable and perhaps upwardly mobile. If we read ourselves into his words, most of us are Sirach, occupying ourselves with the pursuit of wisdom and scripture study. To be sure there may be those among us who have experienced poverty, loss of partner or spouse and have lived at the margins of the societies in which we were raised. But our corporate participation in the life of this place is marked by weather-resistant housing, regular meals, multiple changes of clothing and even opportunities for leisure. Even the most-deeply indebted seminarian is far better off than widows and fatherless children in the biblical world.

Sirach is not a prophet living on the margins. Blessed Jesus ben Sirach, is a biblical scholar who is fluent is Hebrew and Aramaic. He is like us, a person of faith and means. And he uses his faith and means in the service of his vocation to proclaim the good news that the justice of God is not restricted to people who are as fortunate and affluent as he is, as we are. The God whom Sirach proclaims is a righteous judge. One who distinguishes between offerings and bribery, lest the wealthy try to buy their way, our way, into heaven. It matters not the size of the gift, but the intention of the giver.

Sirach also wants us to know that God listens to the petitions of those who have been wronged - and frequently the vulnerable poor are wronged by people of Sirach’s ilk and ours. Yet Sirach knows that God’s concern for the poor is not at the expense of the middle class or even of the wealthy. The God whom Sirach proclaims is a just God whose ears are open to the cries of anyone who has been wronged.  The God of Jesus ben Sirach, the God of Jesus Christ, is the God of the Prophets and the God of Torah. This God is the God of widows and orphans and poor people everywhere. And this is our God.

Sirach knew God’s love for the vulnerable as a certainty because of his study of the scriptures. One of the first pieces of legislation that God crafted for the people who were becoming Israel after the gift of the Ten Commandments was Exodus 22:21-23: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.

And in Deuteronomy, the theological cornerstone of the Torah and the Prophets 11:17-19: For the Holy One your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And again in the liturgy that closes Deuteronomy, in 27:19: “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

Of course the prophets are also teachers and preachers of the gospel in the Torah; they didn’t invent God’s concern for the vulnerable or social justice ministry, for example, (Isaiah 1:17), learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. And in the Writings that preceded his own (as in Psalm 68:5), Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in God’s holy habitation.

Sirach articulates God’s justice in economic terms by linking it with giving. We are to give as God gives. And God gives abundantly.

Joel calls his hearers to rejoice in the abundance of creation which reflects the very righteousness of God. The agricultural abundance that he describes provides food and cash crop resources for the enduring stability of God’s people. Sure they have faced hard times, but all will be restored to parity and more.
It’s helpful that we don’t know exactly when Joel prophesied or when his sermons were edited or what political intrigue was going on in his days. We are free to be free of the constraints of trying to interpret Joel contextually and can read him with Sirach.

The agricultural prosperity that Joel prophesies is economic restoration. In today’s economy, the promises of Joel are as precious as they may be difficult to believe. As I read Joel today, I wand to shout: “The end is near! The world is on fire!” How can God turn all of this around?

If our chapel budget was a little larger I would haved invited the contemporary psalmists P!nk and the Indigo Girls to sing their words to a former president to all of us this morning:

What do you feel when you see all the homeless on the street?
Who do you pray for at night before you go to sleep?

How do you sleep while the rest of us cry?
How do you dream when a mother has no chance to say goodbye?
How do you walk with your head held high?
Can you even look me in the eye
And tell me why?

How can you say
No child is left behind?
We’re not dumb and we're not blind.
They’re all sitting in your cells
While you pave the road to hell.

Let me tell you ‘bout hard work
Minimum wage with a baby on the way
Let me tell you ‘bout hard work
Rebuilding your house after the bombs took them away
Let me tell you ‘bout hard work
Building a bed out of a cardboard box
Let me tell you ‘bout hard work
Hard work
Hard work
You don’t know nothing ‘bout hard work

How do you sleep at night?
How do you walk with your head held high?

 

Joel reminds us that God can turn our economy, our poverty, our instability around and in fact has already turned it around - the last time it happened. Neither armies of locusts nor armies of warriors were unfamiliar to the people to whom Joel spoke. And neither recession nor depression nor double-digit unemployment are unfamiliar to us as we listen to these ancient voices today.

Joel reminds us that God will again put everything right, that the abundance of the earth is sufficient to meet our needs. I don’t know if Joel imagined that we would manage - or mismanage - the earth’s resources so that the majority of food producing land and clean waters is controlled by a minority of her peoples and single parents are putting their children to bed hungry in a nation that holds abundant supplies of food in spite of the economic down turn.

To our specific situation - want in the midst of plenty - Sirach joins the gospel preachers of each testament and canon to proclaim that God will do justice for the vulnerable poor. The question remains whether we will be agents of that justice.
It would be easy for us as religious readers to believe that the day on which God will make all things right is the day on which we all get to heaven, that there is no justice on earth but all things will be put right in the hereafter. But in Joel the promises, “You all shall eat abundantly and be satisfied” and “And my people shall never again be put to shame” - repeated “And my people shall never again be put to shame” - come before “Then it will happen afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”

With all due respect to Peter and his clever appeal to scripture to explain why women and men were speaking in international tongues together on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, I do not believe that the day prophesied by Joel has yet come or fully come.

28 Then it will happen afterward,
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
they shall prophesy - your sons and your daughters,
your elders shall dream dreams,
and your youth shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
30 I will place signs in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and pillars of smoke.
31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood,
before the great and awesome day
of the Holy One of Old comes.
32 And all who call on the Name of the One God
shall be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
there shall be those who escape,
just as the Holy One has said,
and among the survivors
shall be those whom the Holy One calls.

 

The sun is regularly turned to darkness; we can calculate solar and lunar eclipses. But the moon has not yet turned to blood. And while God’s spirit animates all flesh, I do not see the evidence that all of the peoples of earth have been bathed in God’s spirit such that the inequities between people based on gender “sons and daughters,” age “youth and elders,” socio-economic status “enslaved women and men” - these disparities have yet to disappear.

Perhaps when all participate in the abundance of earth’s resources, when we who have so much give as abundantly as God continues to give to us, perhaps then we will be be bathed in that prophetic equalizing spirit.

Finally, this text in Joel speaks to me of another vulnerable population, Arab peoples in Israel and Palestine. I am struck by the fact that Joel prophesies to all flesh and not just to the Israelites or their descendants that Jerusalem, that bitterly divided city will be a refuge. And those who live there will be those whom God has called. And no one can rescend the divine invitation.

The God of Jesus ben Sirach and Jesus ben Miriam links care of and for neighbor and stranger with care for and of the widow, orphan and poor. God cares for Palestinian widows and fatherless children as much as God cares for America’s homelss children and wilderness wandering children of Israel. The Torah, Prophets and Writings remind the Israelites and their descendents that they of all people ought not oppress the aliens sojourning in their midst because they were aliens sojourning in Egypt.

God reminds us all that God will not favor anyone over the poor, and God will listen to the petition of one who is wronged. And all who call on the Name of the One God shall be saved.

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.