The Bible is a library of books, letters, history, poetry and instruction. When the prophets spoke, it was expected (sometimes even devoutly hoped) that people pay attention and change their ways. When Jesus taught and Paul carried the message forward, it was an invitation to change. Then there are the Wisdom books of which Sirach is one. Sirach is, in a way, like the Ann Landers of the Bible; it is a book that offers solutions to problems and concerns. Where prophets command, Sirach suggests.
Sirach speaks to his students and his audience about the wisdom of being humble. It isn’t a new teaching, but rather one that needs continual retelling because it is so easily forgotten.
Throughout the book ( probably written down by his grandson) there seem to be references to customs more Greek than Hebrew which might be a reason why Sirach never made it into the Hebrew canon. Among the Greeks, debate and discussion was a mark of intelligence and, at times, status among the upper classes who undoubtedly had more leisure to study and perpetuate such discussions. Sirach warns, though, that even intellectual debate and discussion can lead to pride and that pride can lead to trouble.
There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: those who are proud of what they do and those who are proud of what they know. Both groups are capable of doing great things and/or causing great things to happen. On the other hand, many are just proud of their own accomplishments, thinking little of how much they could contribute to the benefit of the man rather than simply amassing a wealth of goods or knowledge for themselves, becoming misers who do no good for anyone else. It is this intellectual pride that Sirach is warning his students about, detailing some of the negative repercussions of thinking too highly of oneself and one’s accomplishments.
When we read the part about “Neither seek what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your power,” it seems a bit confusing. We’re taught Robert Browning’s poetic line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?” and it seems to be exactly the opposite of what Sirach is trying to say. I think where the difference lies is in for what we are reaching and what we are grasping. Is it to benefit ourselves or is it others we seek to help?
We can’t reach heaven by our own stretching, but accepting grace as a gift while trying to be better human beings puts heaven closer to attainment. If we’re proud of our accomplishments, that’s one thing; if we are proud and arrogant about them, that’s another kettle of fish altogether. Sirach is warning of that kettle. True wisdom lies in hearing the words and weighing them in favor of humility. Maybe the humble don’t get so much press, but they probably accomplish a lot more for the world than those who strut about, proclaiming their own intelligence and accomplishments.
Jesus proclaimed in Matthew, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”(5:5 NRSV). Not the captains of industry, not the generals of vast armies, not the prideful academics in their towers of books, but the humble who seek to do what is right and of benefit to many, not just to themselves who will be the beneficiaries. If we don’t try to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, we’re missing something big. So what if it is out of reach? We won’t get anywhere until and unless we try. Sirach doesn’t say don’t make an attempt, just don’t believe that only we as individuals can do it alone. I think too that is what Jesus had in mind.
Some of the greatest people on earth have been the most humble. We need to look to people like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, George Washington Carver, and any number of the saints and others as examples of humble people making a big difference without getting a big head about it. Who knows who of us can join that group? It isn’t impossible, merely difficult. Once attained, difficult things are more valuable than any prize.
“The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise.” That’s certainly a true statement; more can be learned through listening than through speaking. Perhaps I need a day where I focus more on hearing, really hearing, what others are saying than in saying what I want (or feel I need) to say.
Maybe today I need to pay attention to a proverb from Benjamin Franklin, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” That’s a real humility raiser right there. I think Sirach would approve.