First Reading


Commentary on Sirach 36:1,5-6,10-17

The reading is part of a beautiful prayer of God’s people. It reveals the sentiments of pious Jews about the year 190 BC, just before the Maccabaean revolt.

It is a prayer for the deliverance of Jerusalem and the people of Israel from foreign oppression. Such a prayer comes as a surprise within a book of wisdom and brings to expression political judgements and hopes that are extremely veiled elsewhere in Sirach. In form it draws upon the Psalms and shares many features with prayers and poems found in somewhat later apocalyptic literature.

– Harper-Collins Study Bible

Expressing his faith in God as the Supreme Power in the universe, Ben Sira begs God to continue showing forth his holiness and mercy through his people Israel, and his power and justice by punishing the nations, especially those who bring such great suffering on his people, so that the nations will come recognise the God of Israel as the only true and all-powerful God.

It reflects the difficult times his people are having during the period after their return from exile, times of oppression from invading and godless outsiders. There is a plea for a return of the glorious times of old, for the restoration of the temple, for a fulfilment of the many prophecies made in the past. “Thus it will be known to the very ends of the earth that you are the eternal God.”

The prayer begins with a plea for God’s mercy and that all the nations (especially those persecuting Israel) become filled with awe for God’s power.

Only then will they realise, as his People do, that their God is the only true God. They ask God that he give new signs and work wonders to reveal his power and glory. The allusion here is to the wonderful things that happened to God’s people when they were liberated from slavery in Egypt and made their 40-year trek under his protection to the Promised Land.

They ask that the tribes of Jacob, the 12 tribes that make up the Israelite people, have their inheritance restored as it was at the beginning. That inheritance was the land promised by God to the descendants of Abraham. The sense of coming together again as one people, what was called the “ingathering”, which was particularly strong during the Exile, remained a characteristic of Judaism long after the exiles had returned home. The Jews always regarded their dispersion abroad as a passing and unfortunate phase, to which the coming of the Messiah would put an end. And, undoubtedly, is what motivates many people in Israel today.

“Vindicate those whom you have created first.” The author may mean Israel as a whole (his “first-born”), or he may be referring to the patriarchs, who according to an ancient midrash were among the seven things created before the world, or else created Wisdom, the first-fruit of creation (Prov 8:22). Or perhaps he believes that the Messiah or the messianic Kingdom, “created before all things”, is shortly to appear on earth.

There is a special prayer for Jerusalem, the place where God dwells in his holy Temple. It has been desecrated again and again by the enemies of God’s people. May Zion, that is, Jerusalem be once again filled with song in praise of Yahweh and his sanctuary in the Temple filled with his glory.

They ask God to give witness to the People he created from the beginning, with Abraham as their ancestor and carry out all the promises which had been made in his name. May all those who wait for the Lord receive the reward which belongs to them and may the word of the prophets be fulfilled. This petition is an early example of the idea that the prophecies of the prophets in general referred to a divine liberation of Jerusalem yet to be accomplished. It is a theme which became more common in later literature and is found in Mark’s gospel.

Finally, there is a plea that their prayer be heard, “in accordance with Aaron’s blessings on your people”, so that peoples everywhere may recognise that Yahweh is the one God and everlasting Lord.

There will be times in our lives, times when things are not going well, times when we feel that people are being very unfair to us that we will feel like making such a prayer. But we need also to realise that, no matter what situation we may find ourselves in, God, our Emmanuel, is there with us and among us.

 

 

 

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