Friday of Week 8 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Sirach 44:1, 9-13

We now come to a section of Sirach, near the end of the book, which is a hymn in honour of the great ancestors of Israel. The eulogy shows how a devout Jew of the second century BC thought of the history of his people.

He recalls two sets of people – both the famous and the unknown. In today’s reading he recalls those countless good people who have lived down through the ages but of whom nothing is known and everything forgotten. Generation after generation, they brought children into the world and handed on their traditions and will continue to do so.

Later he will sing the praises, one by one, of some of the prominent personalities of the Hebrew Testament. Some of these portraits are read in our weekday liturgies at the end of a week which features one of these people.

The Harper Collins Study Bible makes the following introduction to this section of Sirach:

“Chapters 44 to 51 comprise a long poem eulogising the great leaders of the people throughout the epic history of Israel. It consists of an introductory poem in praise of all the ancestors, even those who left no name, a series of poetic units dedicated to specific figures from Enoch to Nehemiah and a concluding encomium, or work of praise, on the high priest (Simon) from Ben Sira’s own time…

The hymn as a whole is patterned on the model of Hellenistic encomia, eulogistic histories in commemoration of local shrines and cities, in this case with an eye on the temple at Jerusalem…

The ancestors are glorious because of their recognition by God, their honourable achievements, their recognition by their own generations, their godlikeness, their legacy to their children, and their lasting name and memory.” (Edited and abbreviated)

The passage opens with a phrase which has passed into the English language – “Let us now praise illustrious men (sic)”. In fact, all the names mentioned later are only of men, all ancestors of the Israelites; there are no tributes to any of the famous women.

However, the author also mentions that that there are others, a far greater number who have left no memories behind. It was as if they never existed, and it is no different with the children who followed them. The vast majority of the human race falls into this category, and many of us will be among them when we pass on, remembered only by some relatives and the friends we made in life.

But Ben Sira wants to introduce a list of “generous men”, whose good works remain in people’s memories. They have left behind a rich inheritance in their descendants. Not in the sense of material things, but in their ongoing observance of the covenants, expressed in the Mosaic Law and other traditions. And these traditions have been handed down to succeeding generations.

These covenants were contracts or agreements made between God and the patriarchs or the leaders of Israel at the time. They led to the setting up of institutions for the social and religious structure of the people. Most covenants, too, were linked with special ritual, and the stories surrounding them set the pattern for the rituals. Later in the poem, covenants with God will be mentioned for Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob-Israel, Moses, Aaron and Phinehas, from the ancient period and for David after Israel has settled in the Promised Land.

Lastly, Sirach asserts that the descendants of these great people will last forever and “their glory will not fade”. And, as we Christians regard ourselves as the continuation of that covenant tradition through the new covenant made through Jesus, this prophecy has been confirmed.

Perhaps today is an opportunity for us to recall with gratitude our ancestors without whom we would not be here today and who handed on the cultural and religious treasures of earlier ages, especially our Christian faith. The people of East Asia (the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese) have always demonstrated a great sense of the contributions their ancestors made, and pay the greatest reverence to them. In ways consonant with our own culture and beliefs, we should do the same.

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