Wisdom Part 25: Sirach-More Counsel
For Sirach, what is most important and transcends all other things is fear of the Lord, noting that, “Rich experience is the crown of the aged, and their boast is the fear of the Lord” (25:6). He goes on to say: “How great is the one who finds wisdom! But none is superior to the one who fears the Lord. Fear of the Lord surpasses everything; to whom can we compare the one who has it?” (25:10-11). Some ancient authorities add a verse 12: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of love for him, and faith is the beginning of clinging to him.” This fear is not a servile, cringing, domineering fear. Rather, it involves great respect and leads to love, reverence, and attentiveness to what the Lord wills.
From sublime to minor details, Sirach has it all—he also deals with courtesy and table manners. In the midst of listing serious matters to be frowned upon, he throws in, “and of leaning on your elbow at meals” (41:19, in Greek, “fixing your elbows on the bread”). Basically he means selfish behavior at meals. This is probably why generations of children were taught not to put their elbows on the table! “Be ashamed of selfish behavior at meals, of surliness in receiving and giving, and of silence, before those who greet you…” (41:19-20).
Sirach then goes on to write about greediness and overindulging. He offers a guide to basic courtesy based on self-discipline, respect, thoughtfulness, and attention to the needs and comfort of others before ourselves. He points out the obvious pitfalls of overeating, e.g., sickness and restlessness. “Are you seated at the table of the great? Do not be greedy at it, and do not say, ‘How much food there is here!’… Do not reach out your hand for everything you see… Judge your neighbor’s feelings by your own, and in every matter be thoughtful. Eat what is set before you like a well brought-up person, and do not chew greedily, or you will give offense. Be the first to stop, as befits good manners, and do not be insatiable, or you will give offense. If you are seated among many persons, do not help yourself before they do. How ample a little is for a well-disciplined person! He does not breathe heavily when in bed. Healthy sleep depends on moderate eating; he rises early, and feels fit. The distress of sleeplessness and of nausea and colic are with the glutton. … In everything you do be moderate and no sickness will overtake you” (31:12-22). Later too he talks of greed: “Do not eat without restraint; for overeating brings sickness, and gluttony leads to nausea” (37:29-31). His advice about pulling back from the table is echoed by medics today. Whoever said the Bible wasn’t relevant or practical?!
Sirach is serious about more important matters also. Sirach 34:21-35:26 deals with true religion and social justice. While he is very positive about the worship of the Lord in the Temple (50:1-21), he insists on justice and concern for the needy and the poor. We should not appear before the Lord empty-handed (35:6).