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.