The Apocrypha in Lent – 14 March

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

14 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 19-22

A lot of the proverbs in today’s passages concern speech – when to speak and when not, what sort of words to use, the use of different language in different situations.  To quote just a few of them (there are many more) –

“By hating gossip a man avoids evil. Never repeat what you are told, and you will come to no harm” (19:6-7)

“There is a rebuke that is untimely, and there is a man who keeps quiet, and he is the shrewd one” (20:1)

“A wise man will keep quiet till the right moment, but a garrulous fool will always misjudge it” (20:7)

“When a godless man curses his enemy, he is cursing himself; the scandal-monger sullies himself and earns the hatred of the neighbourhood” (21:27-28)

“Insult, arrogance, betrayal of secrets, and the stab in the back: in these cases any friend will run away” (22:22).

From these and many other sayings we can realise that what we say, and equally important the thoughts that we keep to ourselves, are what define our character, both among other people and in the eyes of God.  To think carefully before you speak, to say only words that build up other people and our relationships with them, and nothing negative except where it is really in their best interests: that is and always has been received wisdom.  But it is one of the hardest things to put into practice.  The New Testament realises this too:

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:2-6).

But the strongest condemnation in this passage from Ecclesiasticus is reserved for liars: “Lying is an ugly blot on a man, and ever on the lips of the ignorant. A thief is preferable to an inveterate liar, but both are heading for ruin” (20:24-25).  Why? Because while we may disagree with someone’s opinion, think them mistaken in their facts, be insulted by their words, or consider them uncultured in their use of language, as long as we think they are telling true facts and expressing honest opinions we can still do business with them.  But as soon as someone is known as a liar, especially an “inveterate liar”, then we do not know what to make of what they say.

People have mixed motives for lying. Often it is for personal gain, or thinking to impress others. That is often seen in politics. Sometimes it is for a quick way out of a difficult situation, but that is often a case of digging oneself further into a hole – small lies have to be backed up by bigger ones. I think of someone I used to know,  who lost his job the third time he told his employer he could not work that day because his grandmother had died (think about it).

But sometimes motives are difficult to fathom – I think of someone else I knew, whose “true stories” often stretched credibility. But when she assured me that a certain mutual acquaintance was having an affair – an upright professional man recently married to his beautiful and devoted girlfriend – I stopped even trying to believe.  What was her motive in that?  Was she trying to break up my friendship with this other couple?  She only succeeded in persuading me to drop my friendship with her.

So try always to be truthful, honest, positive, and to refrain from gossip and unfounded criticism.  Avoid lies like the plague.  You will fail – I fail -we all do, sometimes.  But the closer we get to that ideal, the better our lives, and our friendships, will be.



The Apocrypha in Lent – 21 February

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

21 February. Judith chapters 11-13

The scene has been set, the characters introduced: now comes the climax.  Judith, as I noted in yesterday’s post, brought together various skills including those of orator and spy.  She uses both those skill sets as she weaves a just-about plausible tale to her antagonist Holofernes.  She acknowledges that, as their own prophet Achior had said, God would not let the Jews be defeated – unless they had sinned against him.   She then claims that in the dire straits of the siege they would seek permission from authorities in Jerusalem to eat non-kosher food and the firstfruits that had been dedicated to God; and that furthermore as a prophet she would know when sin had been committed, at which time she would guide his forces to their God-given victory.

Holofernes could have thought carefully and realised the trap – the story has holes in it for a start, such as how would the besieged people of Bethulia be able to get a message to Jerusalem?  And anyone coming from the enemy claiming to be a turncoat willing to help one’s own side should be regarded with great suspicion.  But he was besotted with Judith’s beauty and fell into a trap of his own making, perhaps believing that a beautiful woman could not be a danger to him.  As Shakespeare put it in one of his poems, “Is she kind as she is fair? For beauty lives with kindness”.

When Holofernes calls her to a banquet, she knows the time has come to put her plan into action.  Wisely having already said she could only eat her own food (presumably for religious reasons, but perhaps also to avoid the risk of being poisoned), she also (I presume) drinks in moderation while letting Holofernes get drunk.  As Shakespeare also wrote, wine “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”, and the lustful but drunken Holofernes  falls into a sleep.  Left alone with him, and perhaps inspired by the Old Testament character Jael who drove a tent-peg through the head of an enemy commander, Judith uses his own sword to bring about his destruction, then bringing home his head as a trophy and proof of her action.

Is Judith a true heroine or a flawed one, since she lied in order to gain a place in Holofernes’ affection?  Opinions may differ, and of course the story is probably not historical, but there may be times when “white lies” are the lesser of two evils, the greater evil in this case being the inevitable death of her people when their food and water ran out.