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God still has new things to say to us

May 25, 2015

Ecclesiasticus 17: 24 – 29                                     Monday 25th May 2015

Let me start with a little reminder of the wonderful Pentecost gospel yesterday, when Jesus said some intriguing words:

‘I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth….

John 16:12-13a

Yes, there are some things that we struggle to understand at first, but with a bit of help, we can work things out. If you were at the ten o’clock mass yesterday you would have heard Fr. Nicholas describe how the Holy Spirit works rather like good parents helping a child with some difficult maths homework: the child really wants the parents to just do the homework so it can be finished and out of the way; but good parents don’t do that – they encourage the child they love by always being there when needed, not dominating or taking charge; always ready to patiently give hints and little pointers in the right direction. The result is that the child actually learns and understands better, actually develops, reaching his or her true potential.

Studying God, which is called theology, is a similar process. As Christians we know our guide, comforter and inspiration is called the Holy Spirit, present in each one of us through our baptism. Our understanding of God today, 2,000 years after Pentecost, is built upon the profound thinking of earlier great theologians. We cannot ignore what learned people have said in the past – that would be extremely foolish – but we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, seek to reflect upon and develop our own deeper understanding of what God wants of us, based on the knowledge accumulated down the centuries but applying our own modern insights in the light of current issues and scientific developments. This is nothing new. Down through history, as human society has repeatedly thrown up new ethical and moral issues to challenge our understanding of God, so theologians continued to ponder on the way we express and understand our faith in order to answer the challenges.

In our own times we are faced with the moral and ethical issues of changing patterns of relationships and family life, driven by the scientific advances that, for better or for worse, have in just two generations, for the first time in human history, broken the link between having sex and having children. This is what the Synod on the Family and Evangelisation is going to prayerfully consider when our bishops meet in Rome in the Autumn.

So, let’s consider today’s first reading. The Book of Ecclesiasticus is also known as Sirach in some bibles. Ecclesiasticus just means ‘the church book’. I think the name Sirach is better because this is actually the name of the person who wrote the book – the original Hebrew title of this book was “The Wisdom of Joshua ben Eleazar ben Sira”, but when the Jews translated their bible in to Greek the title came out as ‘Sirach’.

Ben Sira came from Jerusalem. He was a well respected teacher, a college principal in Jerusalem about 180 years before Jesus was born. At that time Greek culture was becoming dominant in people’s thinking. Now, Ben Sira also happened to be a well travelled man, and his purpose in writing this book was to use his experience of other countries and cultures to demonstrate to his readers that the Jewish way of life, as lived in Jerusalem – its culture and the way it worshipped God – was far better than the pagan philosophy, theology and culture coming from Greece.

Actually it’s quite difficult to read ben Sira’s book because it’s a bit of a jumble – there doesn’t seem to be any clear plan to the content. There’s a reason for this: you know I said ben Sira ran a men’s college? Well, this book is basically a collection of his teaching notes that he collected over his years in the teaching profession.

But it was a controversial collection of thoughts in its time – some of the Pharisees certainly disagreed with ben Sira’s theology, his understanding of God. For example, they did not agree with his claim that God would not be seeking retribution against people after they had died. In contrast to the Pharisees, the earliest Christian placed great store in what ben Sira had to say about life after death. They re-interpreted what ben Sira had written in the light of their knowledge of the resurrection.

The extract we have heard today emphasizes that there is always hope for the sinner who repents. I think the key section in today’s extract from ben Sira’s book goes like this:

Who will praise the Most High in Sheol

if the living do not do so by giving glory to him?

To the dead, as to those who do not exist, praise is unknown,

only those with life and health can praise the Lord.

What you need to understand about this in the Jewish understanding of Sheol. It’s a word you hear repeatedly in the Old Testament, especially in the psalms.

Ancient people, including our Jewish forefathers, strove to understand God better. Sira’s writing is an example of how the ideas about God that we, as Christians, just take for granted, actually had to emerge and develop over time. The reading today shows us the way in which the Jewish people began to have better insights and understanding of what ‘life after death’ would mean. We take it for granted that there is life after death; that resurrection is possible, that people go to God in a place we call heaven. Two hundred years before Christ, this was a source of great controversy.

Jews have always believed in some form of afterlife, but opinions differed on things like the immortality of the soul and resurrection. Early Jewish theology understood that on dying, a person descended to a place called Sheol.

[Now, don’t fall into the trap of confusing Sheol with the Christian ideas that emerged in mediaeval times about a horrible place of eternal punishment in place called Hell. Sheol was not the mediaeval idea of Hell.]

Sheol was thought to be an enormous sort of waiting room deep in the earth. Dead people simply were held in a kind of suspended animation there. They were still and silent. That’s why the reading says, “Who will praise the Most High in Sheol…?” The answer is no-one. They thought only the living could praise God. “So please God”, they would pray, “let us stay alive, don’t let us die, where we’d be useless.”

We as Christians now have a different insight. We believe in the Communion of Saints, the coming together through prayer of the living and the dead into an enormous throng of people praising God.

Why is it that we no longer cling to the idea of Sheol like our Jewish ancestors? Why did their ideas develop, and then, based on their understanding, how come Christian theologians were able to rise to an entirely different plane, a far better understanding of God’s designs?

Because we have had and continue to have the benefit of the Holy Spirit, leading us, as Jesus says, “to the complete truth”. We’re slowly getting there. 2,000 years on we still struggle to understand some things properly. We are part of an enormous flow of human though over the past 2,000 years that is continuing to grow in our own times.

And new ideas continue to be very controversial and divisive. As we approach the Synod later this year, as a world-wide Church we have to redouble our efforts to place ourselves prayerfully before God, open to the Holy Spirit, trusting we will be guided towards the truth in a difficult world. Jesus still has many things to say to us, but still some ideas still remain too much for us. We build carefully on what has gone before, just as the earliest Christian theologians developed the ideas and understanding of ben Sira’s emerging understanding of God.

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