Today’s readings clearly direct our attention to the importance of being generous and charitable to all, especially to the poor. The great sage Jesus ben-Sira (commonly called Sirach) begins this instruction with a reflection on the bond between humility and almsgiving; the Psalmist continues the theme, writing how our own kindness to the poor is an image of God’s gracious kindness to all his children, who, though they may be rich in this world, are ultimately empty-handed before his divine majesty. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus himself completes the picture, teaching us with his personal authority the inherit link between a humble disposition, generosity to the poor—and closeness to God.
I have always liked the Book of Sirach, also called the Book of Ecclesiasticus, and so my thoughts immediately turned to it when I saw this Sunday’s scripture texts. Sirach was long known to the Church only in its Greek translation which was made before the time of Christ; the original Hebrew version had seemingly been lost to history. In the late nineteenth century, however, manuscripts of much of the Hebrew text of Sirach were discovered and we now have access to this great book in that language as well.
That all might sound very academic, but it is not meant to be: on the contrary I thought that a good pastoral lesson that would amplify today’s Gospel message might be drawn from examining Sirach’s rich Hebrew vocabulary—and I was not disappointed. The first verse of today’s reading, “conduct yourself with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts” (Sir 3:17), uses the Hebrew word “ah-nah” to describe what we translate as “humility;” its basic meaning is to be lowly, afflicted, or humbled. While this condition does not sound like something that we would wish for, it may be surprising to know that often in the Old Testament, and particularly in the Psalms, when the Lord refers to the people who are closest to him he calls them the “ah-nah-wim”—the plural form of “ah-nah,” meaning “the lowly ones.”
Perhaps what this says is that it is precisely when we are reduced to lowliness that we are most open to the grace and presence of God. Seeing how the Lord eagerly comes to the aid of his humble friends, even though we cannot repay his kindness, we are moved to imitate this gesture of compassion and to extend to others the same sort of graciousness that the Lord has shown to us in our moment of need.
Humility thus leads to showing true love for others who are in straits, especially to the poor. This could be taken as a summary of Sirach’s wisdom above: recognizing our lowliness before the Lord leads to a deeper capacity to love and to be loved, which in turn carries us to a life of self-giving. As we take up the progression outlined by Sirach we also understand better Jesus’ lesson in the Gospel, where we hear that those who are most attuned to the Lord and the salvation he brings are at peace knowing their own humble place before him. They are confident that by receiving humbly the love of the Lord they will be moved to share humbly that generosity of heart with others in need, and thus will bring to fulfillment the words of Jesus: “Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—blessed indeed will you be” (Luke 14:13-14).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.