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 Bible in a Year – 24 September

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24  September. 1 Chronicles chapters 28-29

David, we are told at the end of chapter 29, had reigned as king for forty years.  Unlike many monarchs who reign until their death (as our own Queen Elizabeth has indicated she intends to do), David decided to stage a deliberate handover to his son Solomon while he was still in good health.  Partly this was for practical reasons – having many sons, and remembering the previous revolt by his son Absalom, there could have been a civil war between then after his death if he had not nominated a successor.  But also, as we read yesterday, God had told David that Solomon was the one in whose reign the Temple should be built.  This was David’s grand project, so the sooner Solomon was on the throne, the sooner building could begin.  We are told that Solomon was still “young and inexperienced” (29:1):  we are not told what age he was, but it requires more than a degree of maturity to oversee such a large project.

Israelite society at this time seems not to have had money as we know it today: metals such as gold and silver were used as common currency, along with animals and agricultural produce.  So in order to provide for the Temple large amounts of these were given, by David personally, from the treasury (presumably representing the tithes of common people), and from members of the establishment (tribal leaders, military commanders and officials).  Some of the gold and silver would have been used directly for the sacred vessels and decoration of the Temple; but much would have been used in payment for other materials and labour.  David set an example by giving freely of his own riches, to encourage others to do so.

This principle of the ‘freewill offering’ or ‘sacrificial giving’ is often quoted by Church leaders when money is needed for some building project or missionary endeavour.  Part of the prayer that follows is still used in church services today as a response to the weekly offering: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours … all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” (29:11-14).

The following verse in Chronicles reminds us also that we can keep nothing earthly: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.”  In other words, earthly riches mean nothing to God. The divine being cannot use money or gold, although they are given in his name for work that is carried out in his name, but then neither are money and possessions any use to us when we die.  The only things we can do with them in our will are leave them to our children or friends, or give them to what we believe to be some other good cause. So as long as we have enough to live on, any extra may as well be given away sooner or later.

 

The Bible in a Year – 11 May

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11 May. Isaiah chapters 54-58

Once again we are presented with a full five chapters of Isaiah, when even a few verses from almost anywhere in them would be enough material for a reflection.

 

The broad brush approach is that in these chapters God promises to the small number of Israelites who would return to Jerusalem that although they may have felt like widows or childless women (i.e. lacking support and with no hope for the future), in fact in the fulness of time God would provide them with many descendants – not just in the literal sense, but as God’s promises of mercy and redemption would be extended from Israel to the rest of humanity.  The covenant first made with Noah (one family) and that with Abraham (likewise) would be renewed with this small band of people.  Every time God brings judgement, he leaves room for a small number of faithful people to be the seeds of new life, both physically and spiritually. It was only with the death and resurrection of Jesus that the promise could be fulfilled, but like so much of Isaiah there is a message both for the people of his own time and for future generations.

 

In and among these great promises, though, are some passages condemning the leaders of Israel for their idolatry and other sins. Isaiah saw that even with God’s promise of starting with a clean slate and the offer of forgiveness, it would not be long before people started to live in a selfish, greedy and godless way.  Such is fallen human nature. The true remnant were those who returned in humility, willing to live by the law of love and not just the ritual law.

 

Such is the overall message. But I also want to pick out one of the many sub-themes running through these chapters.  “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (55:1). “Is not this the fast that I choose: … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (58:6,7)  “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness” (58:10).

We don’t need to interpret those verses as a parable or metaphor. They are a clear command: generosity, hospitality and sharing are at the heart of God’s kingdom.  It is no coincidence that one of the clearest signs of revival in a church today is when its members get involved in local food banks, “junk food” projects, or soup kitchens; or in the Fairtrade movement which seeks to ensure that people across the world who produce the food an other goods we consume are fairly treated, well paid and enabled to build up their own communities.  For food and hospitality are at the heart of what it is to be human, and what it is to belong to God. Be generous to those in need, and he will be generous to you.