This week, the Revised Common Lectionary offers preachers a choice in Old Testament lessons. Well, that’s not entirely true, actually the RCL offers us a choice between a lesson from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) and the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus). Every time Ecclesiasticus comes up in the Lectionary, I have to Google it because my HarperCollins Study Bible lists it by the title Sirach in the Table of Contents.
Whatever you call it, the book is assumed to have been written by a teacher called Ben Sira, which I think means son of Sirach and is where the alternative title for this book comes from. It was written somewhere between 200 and 180 AD as a set of instructions (a book of Wisdom) for the people of Israel to hold onto as Judea was the battle ground between the Seleucids from Antioch and the Ptolemies in Egypt. The book carried enough importance that it was included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and therefore held a place in the Christian canon very early on. As time has gone by and as Jewish leaders have argued over the validity of Sirach in their own canon, it has come to be included in various ways across denominations, with more reformed traditions excising it entirely. (Thanks HarperCollins Study Bible and wikipedia for dropping this knowledge on us)
What really gets me about the optional text from Ecclesiasticus for Sunday is just how non-Christian it is. Or, should I say, just how non-post-reformation Christian it is. This section from chapter 15 makes the book of James sound soft on works righteousness. Just read the opening sentence, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” Hey now! Couple this with Jesus’ difficult teaching on the Law and you could find yourself deep in down the road of Pelagianism, a fourth century heresy that is gaining in popularity these days.
It is a tricky passage, and I’m guessing most preachers will choose Deuteronomy instead, but it at least deserves some thought.