Saturday Night Theologian
28 October 2007

Sirach 35:12-17

Although I'm a Protestant, and therefore duty-bound to reject the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books as less than worthy of inclusion in the canon, I have to admit a guilty secret. I really like the book of Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Ben Sira). If I had the opportunity to increase the Protestant canon by one book, this is the book I would add. (Of course if I just became Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, I wouldn't have to add the book!) One of the attractive aspects of the book is the author's concern for the poor, a concern that I share. Because of the overall message of the book concerning the poor and marginalized, it's hard for me to accept the translation of verse 16 in today's reading from the New Revised Standard Version: "[God] will not show partiality to the poor, but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged." I much prefer the translation of the Revised English Bible: "He has no favourites at the expense of the poor, and he listens to the prayer of the wronged." (It is actually verse 13 in the REB, which follows an alternate verse numbering scheme.) The Jerusalem Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, and New English Bible translate similarly. The NRSV and REB translate the first half of the verse in ways that are essentially the opposite of one another, so which is right? And why are they so different? To answer the second question first, both translations are trying to make sense of a difficult Greek passage. Sirach was originally written in Hebrew, but the Hebrew version, after being translated into Greek by the author's grandson, was lost for centuries. In the early twentieth century, fragments of Hebrew manuscripts of Sirach were discovered in the geniza (storeroom) of an ancient synagogue in Cairo, and additional fragments were discovered later in the century at Masada and among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, about a third of the book is still missing in Hebrew, so most modern translations still rely on the Greek text. The Greek text offers a strange construction in the first half of the verse: "He does not show partiality (literally, receive the face)," followed by a preposition, followed by "the poor" in the genitive case. Without the preposition, the NRSV translation would be correct. With it, it's hard to know what to make of it, because it's not the preposition one would expect. What's expected is either a preposition meaning "on behalf of" or one meaning "against." Instead, the preposition usually means "upon," "concerning," or even "before (i.e., in the presence of)," none of which really clarify the meaning. I think the key, however, lies in the Hebrew that lies behind the preposition. The Greek preposition, epi, is regularly used in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew preposition al, which, like the Greek epi can mean "upon." However, the Hebrew al can also mean "against," a word that makes sense in the context of this verse. Another argument in favor of this translation is that parallelism with the second half of the verse suggests the likelihood of such a meaning. Yet another reason for preferring this understanding is that the whole section in Sirach is dealing with God's concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the humble. The implication of this section is that those in positions of authority should have the same attitude as God does toward these people. How probable is it that those with power needed to be reminded not to show favoritism to the poor? On the contrary, the problem in the ancient world, as in the modern world, is that those in power tend to show favoritism to the rich. Thus, based on an analysis of the Greek text, the immediate context within the verse and chapter, and the social powerlessness of the poor in the ancient world, it seems clear that verse 16, like the rest of the chapter--and indeed the rest of the book--cautions against showing partiality against the poor. One of the principles upon which Progressive Theology is founded is a preferential option for the poor, a phrase borrowed from liberation theologians. I believe that God does show special concern for the poor, in large part because humans fail to do so. It is those who are powerless who most need the touch of God's grace, and God calls us to be the channels of divine grace to those in need.

Psalm 84:1-7 (first published 24 August 2003)

The church building is an important symbol for the Christian. Some of the most important events of life occur in the church. Babies are dedicated, children are confirmed, people are baptized, couples are married, and mourners gather to remember the lives of those who have died. Along the way sermons are preached, sacraments are performed, hymns are sung, prayers are lifted up, and God is worshiped. Yet for too many people, Christianity begins and ends at church. Bibles sit on the shelf unopened in many home. Prayers are left unsaid. Attitudes that would be condemned in a sermon are commonplace on the job. Why is that? The answer isn't as simple as the word hypocrisy. We're all hypocrites, even if we try to live Christian lives outside the church building itself. There's something about the church building that tends to make us think more about God and about how we should live. The problem is that it's too easy to think of the church as the exclusive house of God, and modern building design unfortunately contributes to that feeling in some ways. The psalmist says, "the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God." I wouldn't advocate doing away with air conditioning or heating in modern sanctuaries, but the openness of ancient places of worship, reflected to a large extent still in some medieval cathedrals, is a reminder that God's dwelling is not in buildings made of stone, brick, or wood. Whereas modern people might see birds in the sanctuary as distractions that need to be removed, the psalmist delights in the blending of the natural world with the spiritual world. He seems to be saying that God welcomes the worship of creatures that humans consider lowly. Furthermore, God is concerned about much in the world that doesn't have anything to do with humans. In the movie Oh God!, George Burns portrays God as a kindly old man, slightly rumpled, who has a simple message: God cares about the world, and everything will be fine if humans will just be kind to one another and to their fellow creatures. Like the psalmist, the film suggests that God has an interest in non-human creatures, and maybe we should, too. This is good advice, and it is biblical advice. Jesus asked his disciples to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. When we do so, perhaps we'll remember that we, too, are simple creatures, dependent upon God for our survival. Far from being superior to nature, we are part of it, and nature is subsumed in God. When we realize this, maybe we will be inspired not only by steeples and church bells and stained glass but also by dragonflies and prickly pears and armadillos. Maybe we'll remember to worship God outside the walls of the church, and maybe others will see God in our actions and attitudes as we go about our daily lives. Maybe, too, we'll adopt God's concern for creation. I read this week that the American pika, a mountain-dwelling relative of the rabbit, is in danger of extinction as global warming reduces its natural habitat atop the high peaks of North America. Unlike larger animals such as wolves and bears that can simply move north as the climate changes, the pika cannot descend from the mountaintop and climb a mountain further north. If God is concerned about sparrows and lilies and pikas, perhaps it's not too much to ask that, as God's followers, we be concerned as well.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 (first published 24 October 2004)

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived" (Thoreau, Walden). One of the driving forces in the lives of many people is the desire to make a positive impact on the world. Two-term U.S. presidents, as they near the end of their tenure in office, worry about leaving a "legacy." Philanthropists as they get older donate millions of dollars to institutions so that they will name a wing, an entire building, or an endowed chair after them. Celebrities write their memoirs. Like Thoreau, they want to be able to say at the end of life, "My life made a difference." Our reading today from 2 Timothy shows Paul at the end of his life. As death approaches at the hands of Nero, it is too late to do anything about his legacy, he has no money to leave so that someone will name a building after him, and he has no time to write his memoirs. All he has is the life that he's already lived. This is his self-evaluation: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Note what he doesn't say. He doesn't say that he has accomplished all his goals. It's good to have goals in life, but when goals become obsessions, they detract from the quality of our lives. He doesn't point to any particular great achievement. He leaves it to others to evaluate his legacy, good or bad. He doesn't predict the impact that his life will have on others for years to come. What others think of him seems to matter very little. Are we satisfied with our lives right now? When it comes time for us to die, will we discover that we have not lived? Or will we be able to say that we've fought the good fight? Have we stood by our principles when they were challenged? Have we stood by our friends and family during adverse circumstances? Have we stood by strangers in their need? If so, then we have indeed fought the good fight.

Addendum: About the time I was writing this column, a little five-year-old girl whose family belongs to our former church in Stone Mountain, GA, Shelby Prescott, died after a three-year battle with cancer. She was a beautiful, curious, sweet girl who fought a deadly disease with courage and all the faith she had, with the encouragement and prayers of her family, church, and friends near and far. I'm reminded of the fact that the race that God assigns to some is a marathon, while to others God assigns a fifty-yard dash. What matters is not how long the race is but whether or not we finish the race that God sets before us. Like Paul, Shelby fought the good fight and finished her race. She was an inspiration to hundreds of people, and her legacy is ongoing.

Luke 18:9-14 (first published 24 October 2004)

In the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gypsy woman Esmeralda walks into the Notre Dame cathedral and listens to the prayers of the rich people walking by. They pray for wealth, fame, and fortune. She, in turn, sings a song called "God Bless the Outcasts," in which she says, "I ask for nothing, I can get by, but there are so many less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and downtrod. I thought we all were children of God." The chorus follows, which begins with the prayer, "God bless the outcasts." With her song, Esmeralda, a non-Christian, reveals a depth of spiritual understanding that most of the Christians in the movie do not have. In Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Pharisee plays the role of a self-righteous, uncaring, religious leader. In his "prayer," he reminds God of his moral superiority to those around him, including the tax collector, at whom he looks down his nose. The tax collector, on the other hand, is a sinner who knows his own shortcomings. In fact, he is so overcome with his sins that he doesn't even notice the Pharisee nearby; he is conscious only of his sin and of his need for forgiveness. His prayer, heart-felt and pure, is this: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" It's easy to have a feeling of moral superiority over our theological or political opponents, and it's also easy to fall into the trap of "praying" in such a way that we praise ourselves and lambaste our adversaries. This parable reminds us of the absolute spiritual necessity of humility. It's not that we pretend to be humble because that's how God wants us to act. It's that we really are humble, because we really are sinners in need of God's mercy. As prophetic Christians, we can't afford to get so bogged down by feelings of guilt that we are unable to speak God's word to the world. But as we do so, we can't fall into the trap of believing our own press (assuming there are people who praise our efforts), forgetting our weaknesses and failures. When we speak, we speak with the words and authority of God, but at the same time we remember that we are speaking to ourselves as well.