The author of Sirach acclaims the wondrous events in Elijah’s life but tells us nothing of his place as a prophet to the Israelites. What was his message? Why did God empower him so greatly?
We can answer this question rather easily because it is at the core of every prophet’s message. It is found in the Shema, the essential prayer of faith of all Judaism.
Image by RÜŞTÜ BOZKUŞ
By Steve Hall
As with so many of our readings it is useful to know it’s context. First, Sirach is a book of ethical teachings. In this part the author is here reminding his readers of their history with God. It is not itself a history. Rather it reviews the story of Israel after the death of King Solomon. Therefore, we turn to what immediately preceded our reading to get the context.
Solomon rested with his fathers, and left behind him one of his sons, ample in folly and lacking in understanding, Rehobo'am, whose policy caused the people to revolt. Also Jerobo'am the son of Ne'bat, who caused Israel to sin and gave to E'phraim a sinful way. Their sins became exceedingly many, so as to remove them from their land. For they sought out every sort of wickedness, till vengeance came upon them.
Solomon had set the stage for what followed him and both Rehobo’am and Jerobo’am were satisfied following his example. It is then that we read “like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah whose words were as a flaming furnace.” We haven’t time to review the details of Elijah’s prophetic life so suffice it to say that he is commonly considered the greatest of the prophets.
The author of Sirach acclaims the wondrous events in Elijah’s life but tells us nothing of his place as a prophet to the Israelites. What was his message? Why did God empower him so greatly? We can answer this question rather easily because it is at the core of every prophet’s message. It is found in the Shema, the essential prayer of faith of all Judaism.
Hear, O Israel! God is the Lord. God is one!
This simple statement is the essence of Israel. It took a long time for that truth to sink in. The laws, the feasts, the Sabbath observance, the practice of circumcision — none of these were on par with the basic acclamation Hear, O Israel! God is the Lord. God is one! Israel is frequently admonished, chastised even punished for turning to foreign gods. But as far as practices go, the only mention of those from among the complaints of the prophets have to do with justice, mercy, and care for widows and orphans. Idolatry is the singular thing incompatible with the Jewish faith. But it was the confusion about essentials that led Jesus to tell the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'" (Matthew 9:13)
In the course of reflecting on the Scriptures for today I ran across a short but provocative article. Here’s a portion.
“Prior to 313 AD was a time of real Christian persecution where Christianity was illegal and underground mostly, not the American whining ‘persecution’ that we see now. The earliest Christians didn’t discriminate who was worthy of God’s love and care from the Church and who they thought ‘were not.’ They gave to all marginalized people unconditionally. They did indeed care for the widows, orphans, the poor, and who Jesus called ‘The Least of These.’ According to several church historians, the earliest Christians even took care of minority and outcasts populations like Eunice and sexual minorities. They didn’t cast them out and condemn them for being ‘differently created in God’s image.’
“The early Christians did not win or convert people over by brute force but by acting as humble example# through caring for the poor, living holy lives, and actually displaying the virtues of Christianity to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ As a result they turned Rome upside down.” *
The article, together with the reading from Sirach raised questions. Have we confused the essence of our faith with the customs and practices provided to nourish it? Early in his papacy Pope Francis caused both confusion and consternation when he said regarding homosexuals: “Who am I to judge?” Paul should cause equal confusion when he tells the Romans:
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
That’s what my Evangelical relatives claim. It’s one of their favorite quotations. Are they just hanging tight to the essence while denying themselves so many gifts given for our spiritual nourishment. Similarly, are we clinging like barnacles to the restrictions of another age that we comfortably determine who is worthy of God’s love and the Church’s care? This has nothing to do with doctrine; but it has a lot to do with who feels welcomed to share our faith.