The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

22 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 50-51

The book ends with two very different chapters.  The first describes in detail some of the rituals of the Temple, over two thousand years ago, but so slow is change in religious circles that the High Priest of those days, if transported to a Catholic or traditional Anglican church now, would not feel completely out of place.  A priest in vestments that have changed little since Roman times, standing before (or behind) an altar, raising his hands in prayer, holding a cup of wine as an offering, the smell of incense, the sound of the organ perhaps resembling the trumpets of his day, a choir chanting psalms, and at the end a blessing over the assembled people.  And all this in a building designed to symbolise segregation – the narthex for ordinary activities such as eating and drinking, the nave for the laity to worship, a chancel for the choir, the sanctuary with its altar only for the priest.

There are differences, of course, and the Mass even in a very traditional setting is not intended to resemble an animal sacrifice.  Women priests (in an Anglican setting) might be the biggest surprise to our time traveller. The congregation is more likely to be standing or seated than prostrate in prayer – an attitude now found more in Islam than Christianity, but a powerful symbol of humility before God.  But overall, the principles of communal worship  have not changed that much.

The whole book of Ecclesiasticus has been, supposedly, about Wisdom, and the second half of the last chapter (51:13-30) summaries the search for her.  This female personification of God’s inspiration has taken the writer in many directions – good and bad relationships, sex and marriage, and the value of friendship; asceticism, indulgence and a healthy attitude towards money;  life, death and the afterlife; good and evil; truth, lies, gossiping and careful speech; physical and mental health; worship of God and admiration for his creation; and the guidance of God for his people throughout history.  A whole library of practical life skills, in fact.  It deserves to be more widely read.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 21 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

21 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 44-49

I have grouped this long passage of six chapters together because they form a continuous narrative, recounting the heroes of Israel’s history.  In chapters 38-39 we read of the contrast between the majority of people who work hard but are quickly forgotten when they die, and the small number of those whose fame is remembered well after their time.  It is those few who are celebrated here. Starting with Enoch and Noah, legendary figures from prehistoric times, moving through the Patriarchs, Moses, the ties of the Judges, Kings, and Prophets, right through to Nehemiah who rebuilt the temple, this is over a thousand years of history summarised in a few pages.

Mostly these men (and yes, it is all men – even the Judges are described thus, though they included some women) are remembered for their virtue, wisdom, prophesy or strength.  But there are surprises.  David’s sins are referred to (but without detail). Solomon is praised for his wealth and for a time of peace, but then criticised for “abandoning his body to women” (47:19) and letting the nation be split in two by civil war.  King Rehoboam is given short shrift and branded “the stupidest member of the nation” and “brainless”. Jeroboam too, is blamed for his sins leading to the ultimate exile of the Jews from their homeland.  So why include them at all?

Such lists of illustrious names, of which there are many in the Bible, serve to remind the reader that God calls people to particular tasks in each generation.  The occasional reference to sins and weaknesses is a reminder that none of them was perfect.  The point is that God has an overall plan for the world, and many people have had to play their part to bring it to fruition.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

20 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 42-43

Most of chapter 42 and all of 43 are devoted to praising God for his creation, including specific references to the sun, moon, stars, rainbows, the wide variety of weather patterns, and the sea with its tides and monsters. These are all aspects of nature praised in the Psalms and other parts of the Jewish scriptures.  Perhaps they are picked out from the other aspects of creation because they are least easily understood – before modern astronomy, physics and submarines, who could explain how they work?

It is important to note that there is no hint here of worshipping these phenomena themselves.  Jewish and Christian thought is absolutely clear that there is only one god, the creator, and all these things are from him, having no spiritual life of their own.  The praise is directed to God in thanks for the wonder of the creation.  “To put it concisely, ‘he is all’” (43:27).  We are in fact encouraged to praise God as much as possible, for it can never be enough – “exert all your strength when you exalt him, do not grow tired – you will never come to the end” (43:30).

Such praise of God for the beauty of nature would have come more easily to people in former times than it does to us nowadays.  Shielded by artificial lights from seeing the night sky in its glory, having the mysteries of the climate explained by science, having “no time to stand and stare … beneath the boughs” as William Davies put it, we lose our childlike capacity for wonder.  Perhaps the rainbow is the one exception.  No matter that scientists can explain them in terms of refraction and diffraction,  rainbows lighting up with their glorious colours can still make a dull day fascinating and cheer the soul.  “See the rainbow and praise its maker, so superbly beautiful is its splendour. Across the sky it forms a glorious arc, drawn by the hand of the Most High” (43:11-12).

The Apocrypha in Lent – 19 March

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).

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 18 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

18 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 35-38

Today I am taking the short passage in Ecclesiasticus 38:1-15 headed “medicine and illness”.

These days there are many discussions about the place of various approaches to health.  There is “conventional medicine” by which we mean medicines prescribed by a doctor or sold by a pharmacist.  Many of these now are produced industrially although some still use natural plant extracts – arnica for bruises, for example. Then there are “traditional”, “herbal” or “natural” medicines which shun the fruits of scientific research and rely only on an older body of knowledge of the effects of various plants.

Then there are “alternative” approaches to treatment such as homeopathy, which is widely trusted by many people but equally widely regarded with scepticism by doctors who cannot see how a substance diluted until barely a few molecules of active ingredient may be present can be of any benefit.  With that, then, we are getting closer to “faith healing”, which for Christians means praying in the name of Jesus for someone’s wholeness, including relief from pain or cure for a disease.   No-one except a few charlatans suggests that everyone who asks for prayer will be healed, but enough do claim to have benefited from such healing prayer for others to seek it too.

So what is the approach of the writer of Ecclesiasticus to health matters? “The doctor, too, has been created by the Lord; healing itself comes from the Most High, like a gift from a king” (v.2). “the Lord has brought medicines into existence from the earth; the sensible man will not despise them” (v.4).   So the natural healing properties of plants are seen as gifts of God, certainly not to be rejected.  There was no pharmaceutical industry as we know it in those days, but “the chemist makes up a mixture from them” shows that there was a tradition of making medicines of some kind.

The writer then moves on to mental and spiritual health. “When you are ill, do not be depressed, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Renounce your faults, keep your hands unsoiled, and cleanse your heart from all sin”.  That reference to renouncing sin may be uncomfortable to today’s humanists, but it is now generally agreed that physical health and well-being are closely linked to mental health, good diet, exercise and spiritual well-being (whether that is defined in terms of religious faith or a secular understanding of spirituality as mindfulness and self-awareness).

The benefits of traditional or modern medicines, then, are not to be rejected (whether we see them as “natural” or “God-given”), but experience suggests that their effects will be greater if these other aspects of our overall well-being are attended to as well.  The Bible has a name for it – Shalom. This word is usually translated as “peace” but meaning far more than the absence of stress and conflict and really means a wholeness of mind, body and spirit.  No wonder that “shalom” or “salaam” is a common greeting among Eastern people even today.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 17 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

17 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 31-34

One of the themes that recurs throughout the “wisdom literature” of the Bible is the dangers of wealth, and they are reiterated in chapter 31 – but the emphasis here is not on the sin of the love of money as a form of idolatry, rather the practical problems it brings.  Worry about wealth causes sleeplessness (v. 1-2), and loss of popularity (5).

The writer also recognises that wealthy people tend to over-eat, and that in itself causes health problems “sleeplessness, biliousness and gripe are what the glutton has to endure” (20). Instead, he argues, even if you are rich enough to afford luxury food, “a moderate diet ensures sound sleep and a man gets up early in the best of spirits”.

Likewise, the dangers of drinking too much wine – arguments, violence and falling out with friends – are rehearsed in the last part of chapter 31.  But “wine is life for man if drunk in moderation” (27).  The following chapter is about how to behave as a guest at a rich man’s banquet – not eating more than others, not interrupting the entertainment, joining in the conversation but not pretending to know more than you do about the subject.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 16 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

16 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 27-30

I have picked two short passages from among these chapters, which belong together in the approach to life that they commend: the passages which in the Jerusalem Bible are headed “resentment” (27:30-28:9) and “happiness” (30:21-25).

The first of these classes resentment, along with anger, as a sin, and exhorts the reader to “forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven” (28:2).  That reads so much like the Lord’s Prayer, that I expect Jesus knew this passage and perhaps was quoting it when he replied to the disciples who asked him how they should pray.  The next verse explains how this works – “if a man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?”  For an attitude of unforgiveness, even if we think “justice” deserves that some hurt done to us be avenged, cuts us off not only from our own soul but from God.  If you are still in any doubt, verse 6 brings us up short – “remember the last things, and stop hating”.  In other words, we all die, and if we end this life in an attitude of hatred towards other people, how can we expect God to show love towards us in the life to come?

The second passage warns of the dangers of “sorrow and brooding” (30:21).   Why? “Jealousy and anger shorten your days, and worry brings premature old age”.  This ancient wisdom is only now being rediscovered by those who in our own time warn of the dangers of stress, which does indeed increase the risk not only of a heart attack or stroke, but of other diseases that shorten life expectancy.  The contrast is with “gladness of heart and joy” which “give length of days”.  There is also a reference to the effect of stress that reduces appetite: “a genial heart makes a good trencherman, one who benefits from his food” (30:25).

So taken together we have several good reasons to stop being resentful, angry or sorrowful about the things that other people do to us, and do our best to remain cheerful and to forgive them when we can.  It’s not easy, but then living well never is. It takes an effort.   But putting your efforts into reconciliation, forgiveness and relaxation is better than putting the same amount of effort into trying to get even with someone.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 13 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

13 March, Ecclesiasticus chapters 15-18

Yesterday I wrote about the instruction to “be good to yourself”, not to let modesty lead to being unnecessarily harsh on oneself.   Today I am picking up on the passage 17:1-14, which follows from an account of the creation of the universe, earth and animals.  In these subsequent verses, the focus  narrows down on humanity in particular.

Verses 1-2 are honest about our limitations: we are made from earth, will go back to it when we die, and have a finite life span.    But this is followed by an appreciation of just how special we area – made in God’s image, master of other animals (though there is much debate these days over how that mastery should properly be employed), able to taste and smell, see and hear, to think and to judge.  Our purpose is to praise God and “tell of his magnificent works”, even to see and hear God himself (13).

Much of this repeats elements of the creation stories in Genesis.  But there is something different here. Verse 7, “he filled them with knowledge and understanding, and revealed to them good and evil”, seems to make this discernment between good and evil part of God’s plan, rather than the root of all sin as the Genesis account puts it. Like the exhortation we looked at yesterday to be good to your own self, it is a much more positive worldview than that of “traditional religion”.  Here is a God whose aim is to “clothe [people] with strength like his own” (3), to “show them the magnificence of his works” (8).  Humanity is something splendid, even when we are aware of right and wrong.  Here there is no banishment from Eden for seeking knowledge that should not be ours, only a desire that we should understand as much of God’s creation as we can.  That fits in with the whole idea of “seeking Wisdom” which is the theme of the book.

That’s not to say mankind is shown as perfect.  Later in the same chapter there is encouragement to repent of sin and leave it behind, turning to God’s mercy (25-29).  But fellowship with God is the default state, and he is never far away.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 12 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

12 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 12-14

The section I am choosing to look at from today’s chapters is 14:5-19, which begins “If a man is mean to himself, to whom will he be good? He does not even enjoy what is his own.”  And in verse 11, “My son, treat yourself as well as you can afford, and bring worthy offerings to the Lord”.    The basis of this philosophy, like much in the Wisdom literature, is the reality of death, for “will you not have to leave your fortune to another, and the fruit of your labour to be divided by lot?” (v.15).   This, of course, is the wisdom of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts – what’s the point in being a miser, making life uncomfortable for yourself, just to amass money in the bank?  The person with children and grandchildren has a reason to pass on a large inheritance, but for those of us who don’t (myself included) there is no such incentive.

It might be thought, by people who know a little about Christianity and the Bible, that they both encourage, or even expect, believers to live in poverty, for there is much teaching about the blessings that God gives to the poor and humble.  But any idea that we should deliberately make life uncomfortable for ourselves derives from the ascetic tradition seen in the “desert fathers” and in medieval monasticism (at least in its pure form – by the time of the Reformation the monks were living very well on their profits!).  Ascetics have their place, but they have never represented mainstream Christianity, or for that matter Judaism.  When Jesus said “I have come that people may have life, and have it to the full”  (John 10:10) he was not saying something opposed to traditional Jewish religion, but rather rescuing it from the religious “authorities” whose rules and regulations were restricting the proper practice of religion, which is to live lovingly, joyfully and generously with other people.  And that starts with ourselves. To repeat the opening phrase of this passage, “If a man is mean to himself, to whom will he be good?”

In the days of Nehemiah, when the Jewish people were rebuilding their towns after years of exile, life was difficult.   And when people heard all the religious laws read out to them, they wept, for it must have seemed that to keep these laws would be the end of any enjoyment. But Ezra the wise priest told them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8:10-11).  Joy is found, not in denying ourselves, but in being generous both to ourselves and to others.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 11 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

11 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 8-11

The “wisdom” of these chapters is nothing that humanists could disagree with.  Let’s look at just a couple of examples. Of course, you might say, it is foolish to try and seek justice against a rich or powerful man (8:1-3) because in every society there is corruption.   And given the attitudes and actions of certain “world leaders” at the present day, some of the verses about good government ring very true: “A leader of the people must be shrewd of speech; a phrase-maker is a terror to his town. … An uneducated king will be the ruin of his people; a city owes its prosperity to the intelligence of its leading men.” (9:17, 10:3)

But this book is written very much from the perspective of faith, and there is an underlying assumption that there are moral standards to be upheld.  Religious people are sometimes criticised for making too much of morality; and indeed it is true that Christianity has no “rules” other than those of loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself, from which all other ethical principles can be derived (Mark 12:29-30). Yet there is general agreement between civilised people of all faiths and none that there are essential basic standards in areas such as justice, honesty and fidelity.  For example, given agreement that adultery and promiscuity are generally a “bad thing” and that there should be an “age of consent”, then  we can all agree with the advice here that men’s desire for women makes it risky to go drinking with a married woman, make friends with a sex worker or “stare at a virgin” (9:5-9).

The difference that faith makes, as we read in chapter 11, is that rather than being frustrated and angered at the way some people get away with crime, sin or just being generally nasty – an attitude that tempts us to retaliation – the person who trusts in the God of eternity can take the longer view.  That has two implications. Firstly we can look death in the face and acknowledge our own mortality, something that humans tend to avoid if they have no hope beyond death.  “A man grows rich … and says ‘I have found rest, now I can enjoy my goods’. But he does not know how long this will last; he will have to leave his goods for others and die” – a couplet that may have inspired Jesus’ parable of the wealthy farmer (Luke 12:16-21).

The second is that we can trust in a God whose justice is made complete beyond the grave – “call no man fortunate before his death; it is by his end that a man will be known” (11:28).  So the purpose of all these proverbs is to encourage us to live lives without greed or envy, so that at the last day we, and not the arrogant rich, will find favour with God.  But if you don’t believe in God or the last judgement, then just read them as sensible advice for a stress-free life.