“Where in the world did that first reading come from?”
Some of you may be asking yourselves that very question!
What is this mysterious book called “Sirach?”
“Sirach” is not one of the 39 canonical books of the Old Testament—nor one of the 27 books of the New Testament.
So—where did it come from?—and why are we reading it as if it were Scripture?
The full name of the book in question is “Ecclesiasticus—or The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach.”
It is one of those writings that we call the “Apocrypha.”
The Apocryphal books form what might be considered an “appendix” to the Old Testament.
They were written later than the canonical books—and written in Greek rather than Hebrew.
Episcopalians don’t give the Apocrypha the same authority as the other books—but it has always been included in our Lectionary.
The Prayer Book says the Apocrypha may be read for “example of life and instruction in manners”—but not to “establish any doctrine.”
This means that we cannot use today’s reading from Sirach to “establish any doctrine.”
But we can—and should—use it for “example” and “instruction.”
So let us consider what “wisdom” Jesus Ben Sirach has to offer.
Sirach’s topic in chapter 35 is Giving.
He is keen to explain both why we should give—and how we should give.
First the why—and then the how.
“Give to the Most High as he has given to you”—Sirach says.
The basic idea here—and throughout the rest of the Scriptures—is this:
We give—because God has first given to us.
God is a generous giver—and has provided for us abundantly.
All that we have—and all that we are—is a gift from God.
Everything we have is from God.
That is why we give.
The Creation Story in Genesis tells us that God created human beings “in his image.”
In the image of God he created us—both male and female.
God is a generous giver--and he created us to be like himself.
So it is part of our human nature to be generous—and to give.
When it comes to giving to the Church—we must not fall into thinking that we give merely to cover the expenses—or to maintain the building—or to pay the priest.
It’s not for anything so mundane as that!
We give for something far far more important.
We give to the Church--in order to return directly to God a portion of what he has given us.
As the wise and wealthy King Soloman said:
“All things come of Thee, O LORD—and of thine own have we given Thee.”
We give to the Church—knowing that all we have is a gift from God.
We give because we were created “in God’s image.”
We give—because God has first given to us.
That is the why of giving—now for the how.
“Give as generously as you can afford”—Sirach says.
“For it is the LORD who repays, and he will repay you seven-fold.”
God is a generous giver—and we are to be generous givers as well.
We are not to hold back—nor to worry about how much we give away.
For God will repay us “seven-fold.”
As for what you can “afford” to give—that is between you and God—and every person’s situation is different.
Never the less—there is a “standard” of giving in the Scriptures.
The “standard” is the “tithe.”
A tithe means “one tenth”--ten per cent of what we have.
Deuteronomy chapter 14 commends the tithe to all God’s people—as a way of measuring our generosity.
It should not be regarded as a legalistic requirement—but as a helpful “yardstick.”
The tithe is a “yardstick” to help us decide how much we should give.
Sirach says that God will “repay” us for giving generously—but then he quickly takes a step back.
That is not the reason we give.
We do not give in order to receive a “payback” from God.
“Do not offer God a bribe”—Sirach says.
“For God will not accept it.”
This was part of the problem with the Pharisee in our Gospel story.
The “other Jesus”--Jesus of Nazareth—told a parable about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector—both of whom went into the Temple to pray.
The Tax Collector recognized that he was a sinner—and therefore unworthy before God.
But because of his humility—he found forgiveness and Grace.
The Pharisee, however, was proud.
Because he fasted according to the Law—and gave a tithe of all he had—he congratulated himself before God.
He believed his tithing and fasting made him worthy—or even special—in God’s eyes.
And he expected a reward.
But Jesus said the Pharisee’s prayer was empty—and he went home without God’s blessing.
Don’t use your giving as an attempt to manipulate God—or extract a special blessing from God.
If your gift is really a “bribe”—it won’t work!
God will not accept it.
God only honors gifts that are freely given.
St. Paul sums it up perfectly in Second Corinthians, chapter 9, verse 7:
“Each one of you must do as you have made up your mind--not reluctantly or under compulsion—for God loves a cheerful giver.”
“Give to the Most High as he has given to you—and give as generously as you can afford.
“For the Lord is the one who repays—and he will repay you seven-fold.
“Do not offer God a bribe—for he will not accept it.”
Those are Sirach’s “instructions” today.
That is the “example” for us to follow.
That is the “wisdom” he has to offer.
God has blessed each one of us so generously.
So make up your mind to give generously in return.
Give a tithe if you can.
But whatever you decide to give—be a cheerful giver.
For that is what God loves!