The Apocrypha in Lent – 17 March

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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 – 11 March

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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.



The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 February

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28 February. 2 Maccabees chapters 1-4

The books of Maccabees, set in the second century BCE, cover known historical events but from a biased pro-Jewish perspective. Whereas the first book follows a chronological sequence, the second one, as explained in the “editor’s preface” in chapter 2, seems more like an anthology of anecdotes.

Chapter 3 opens the book proper, with a tale of the appearance of three angelic figures, one of them on horseback, to smite Heliodorus, an envoy of the Greek king who had been sent to confiscate the contents of the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Confusingly the Simon referred to in this chapter is not the Simon Maccabee whose exploits ended the first book, but an earlier man of the same name.  Here we see quite clearly how corrupt Jewish society had become under Greek influence: although the Temple leaders and ordinary people are pictured praying to God for deliverance, what they are most concerned about is “calling on the Lord to preserve the deposits intact for the depositors in full security” (3:22).

Chapter 4 tells of how the high-priesthood also became increasingly corrupt in the time before the Maccabees came on the scene. Onias is presented in chapter 3 as a saintly high priest, but first his brother Jason, and them Menelaus, effectively buy the office from the absentee king Antiochus. Onias ends up being murdered in an act of treachery – effectively a hired killing set up by Menelaus – and Menelaus then buys his way out of court.  Such a corrupt use of wealth seems to have horrified even the leaders of what was clearly a wealth-obsessed society.

Although succeeding chapters relate how the Maccabees rose up against the Greek overlords, they were no better when it came to honest government.  In my comments on 1 Maccabees, I suggested that the Maccabees were trying to compare themselves to great kings of the past like David, but without the true faith in God that had inspired David, or like Victorian magnates who put on a show of piety while being more concerned about profits than natural justice.

No wonder Jesus, coming along a few generations later when the successors of the Maccabees, the Pharisees, were in power, warned so strongly that “one cannot serve both God and wealth” and of the “yeast of the Pharisees” that would corrupt the whole of society.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 27 February

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27 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 14-16

The record of the short-lived Maccabean dynasty ends with the death of Simon.  The “euology” to him in chapter 14 is almost unrelentingly secular: his magnificence, military conquests, bringing prosperity to the elders of the towns (though not the common folk), logistical expertise, and so on.  True, he achieved a short-lived peace in the sense of absence of military threat from outside, but again that was only because he had bloodily put them all down.   The eulogy ends with praise for Simon’s “striving to obey the Law” (apart, presumably, from the commandments not to kill or seek to amass wealth) and his furnishing the temple with new sacred vessels.  But there is no suggestion that he was a pious or humble man, or generous to the poor, or concerned for justice, or showed any of the other marks of holiness.  The euology is followed with the text of bronze tablets in his honour “on pillars on Mount Zion” (presumably outside the Temple) and “in the Temple precinct in a prominent place”.

The more I read this story, the more I am reminded of the English Victorian nobility and merchant class.  They too boasted of Britain’s overseas military might.  They too liked to be thought of as “obeying the Law” in the sense of seeming respectable in society, without paying much attention to personal morality in private. They too liked to talk of increasing prosperity for investors, while turning a blind eye to the working conditions of the common people.  They too loved putting up memorials to members of their own class in churches with fulsome praise for their perceived (or even imaginary) virtues.  I recently saw such a memorial to a major 19th century landowner, Member of Parliament and Justice of the Peace, which made much of his stand against corruption in public life.  But look up his Wikipedia entry and you find that he lost he seat in Parliament for being corrupt himself.

The Maccabees, then, may be thought of as like Victorians – bringing their country out of an age of isolation and engaging with the world around; bringing prosperity, at least to the upper classes; bringing peace at home by means of military force abroad; and all in the name, ostensibly, of religion, but in the words of Paul to Timothy, “keeping up the outward appearance of religion but rejecting the inner power of it” (2 Timothy 3:5). No wonder that this book is regarded as “outside the canon of Scripture” for although it tells of an important period in Jewish history, it does not present a model to follow.

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 – 16 April (Easter Day)

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16 April (Easter Day). 1 Kings chapters 10-11

One of the lessons of history is that no empire lasts for ever. The history of every part of the world records rebellions, revolutions, invasions and any number of other causes of the breaking up of whatever empire, kingdom or federation has been built over previous generations.  Here we see the beginning of the fall of the federation of the tribes of Israel that David had so ably brought together under God’s guidance.


Another well known saying is that “pride comes before a fall”. Like many English sayings it has a Biblical origin, Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”. But it is universally recognised as true and was probably a saying long before it was collected in the book of Proverbs.


These two lessons, along with God’s repeated warnings in the Bible about the risks of intermarriage, come together in today’s readings.  Solomon becomes exceedingly wealthy as well as very wise. There is nothing wrong in that as such, as clever people do tend to become rich. However it is difficult to become rich without it being at someone else’s expense somewhere in the world, and Jesus and his apostles said a lot about the dangers of wealth as a distraction from serving God faithfully.


While the book of Samuel does not criticise Solomon for his wealth, it does criticise him for another aspect of his reign, which is his many foreign wives.  Polygamy is not the issue, as at this time it was still common for men of power to have a harem.  The problem lies with the fact that they are mostly non-Jews, and gradually lead Solomon astray from worshipping the one true God, into idolatry.  Most religions are critical of intermarriage for this very reason, that it is difficult to love someone and at the same time distance yourself from their belief.   This can work both ways, of course: while St Paul cautions Christians not to marry outside the faith, he also says of those who are converted while married that they should stay together: “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife” (1 Corinthians 7:16)


In Solomon’s case, though, the consequences are much worse than the break-up of a marriage, or his own falling away from faith in God.  Rather, as the head of the nation of Israel, his own apostasy marks the beginning of the end of the nation. God speaks through a prophet to Jeroboam (not to be confused with Solomon’s son Rehoboam  who would succeed him) that he would become leader of ten of the eleven tribes, with only Judah remaining under the control of David’s dynasty.


Let us pray for our own political and faith leaders, that they may not be led astray either by the temptations of wealth and power, or the influence of their families or anyone else who would lead them astray from wise and just rule.


Happy Easter!