If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.
19 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 39-41
The second half of chapter 38 was about farmers and tradesmen – people who work hard for a living (and with no suggestion there is anything wrong with that in itself) but have no time to become wise or educated. They do not become councillors, judges or writers, or what we might now call celebrities, but “they give solidity to the created worlds, while their prayer is concerned with what pertains to their trade”. These are contrasted in the next chapter with ‘scholars’ – well travelled men who study secular writings and religious texts, and meditate on God. Such people, says this writer, will become well known and praised in their own day and remembered after their death. But they are few.
Through human history (and until quite recently with our modern obsession with record-keeping and fame) only a small minority of people became well known outside their own town, and fewer still were remembered beyond the next generation of those who had known them. To die, be buried in an unmarked grave and mourned by few people – that was the fate of most humans, unless they were important enough to appear in official records that were retained for a long time. The ordinary person – farmer, merchant, miner, baker or housewife – lived their life in a small circle with no expectation of lasting fame. And countless millions have never made it to adulthood – rates of death in childhood were historically far higher than they are now, along with miscarriages and still-births. To live long enough to make a living for yourself was an achievement in itself.
That is the background of the verses in chapter 41: 1-4, where death is described as unwelcome for the rich and healthy, but welcome to the poor, very elderly or distressed. But the word to both of them is “do not dread death’s sentence; remember those who came before and those who will come after”, with a rider that “whether your life lasts ten, a hundred or a thousand years its length will not be held against you in Sheol”. In other words, while a short life many be thought a tragedy on earth, it will make no difference in the life to come.
Maybe such wisdom needs to be heard by the parents who mourn for years for a dead child, sometimes keeping their bedroom exactly how it was on their last day; or erect a large and florid monument to their “Little angel”; or who spend their last penny and every ounce of energy trying to get “justice” when what happened to their relative was an accident with no one person obviously to blame. Their grief is understandable, the unexpected loss of a close relative at a young age seems unnatural, but it is a credit to our economy, infrastructure and health systems that such a loss is now rare.
But it takes a spiritual kind of wisdom to understand that there is a life beyond this one, in which the time we spent on earth is irrelevant. Happy memories are more helpful than bitterness and anger, and an understanding that the deceased has “gone on ahead of us” may be more helpful than a sense of them having been “left behind”. One of Jesus’ most comforting sayings is “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).