Wisdom Part 24: Sirach-More Counsel

Sirach reminds us that we have freewill to choose what is good, to choose God himself.  It was the Lord who created the human person in the beginning and “left him in the power of his own inclination. If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. … Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him … He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given anyone permission to sin” (15:14-15, 20).

In chapter 23 he deals with difficult sins of passion, warning of their destructive effects. He deals with sexual sins, focusing on adultery—first by a husband (23:18-21) and then by a wife (23:22-26). What is interesting is the psychology of adultery he portrays. Regarding the man he outlines the deceptive self-justification that takes place: no one will know; I’m doing no harm; God doesn’t mind. Sirach writes: “The one who sins against his marriage bed says to himself, ‘Who can see me? Darkness surrounds me, the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I worry? The Most High will not remember sins.’” Sirach traces the consequences of adultery—disobedience to the Lord, injustice to the other spouse, as well as the complications and confusion of having children to other parents. Sirach’s point is that while we try to justify these sins in our own mind, they damage relationship with the Lord and with others; they damage families, communities and society. Only fidelity to the Lord and his will leads to happiness.

Yet there is always hope of reconciliation and of healing with the Lord and others. While for Sirach, sin is punished, the main point is always relationship with the Lord.  Sirach’s central message is that “nothing is better than fear of the Lord, and nothing sweeter than to heed the commandments of the Lord” (23:27).

Sirach 24, the Praise of Wisdom, is at the very centre of the book. There, wisdom is personified, presented as a female figure since the Hebrew and Greek words for wisdom are feminine nouns (hokmah and sophia) and a tradition of Lady Wisdom arose. She is presented as a creature of God, “created wisdom.”  She pitches her tent in Israel, in the Temple of Jerusalem. She is not any kind of goddess or deity. Christian reflection will see in her an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The early Christians took over this personification of Wisdom in describing Jesus. They used the language and imagery from Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24 (e.g., Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-2).  The idea of Jesus as the “Word” of God is a wisdom concept.  In Jesus the uncreated Word was made flesh. Jesus is Wisdom Incarnate. And Mary, bearing Christ and seating him on her lap, truly becomes the Seat of Wisdom.