December 28, 2014
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
First Reading: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Normally our strength remains untested. Most people don’t have to lift the heaviest object they possibly can at their day job or run as fast as they can on a regular basis. It is only in the heat of the moment, when a tree trunk has fallen on your dog or you’re being chase by a bear that your latent athletic talent is tested to its full potential. Hopefully, adrenaline kicks in! The same thing is true of love, of virtue. Often, we can think well of ourselves, but when we’re confronted by a difficult relationship, it can be challenging to do the right thing. The way we relate to our family reveals everything about our true character.
This Sunday’s first reading from Sirach comes at the beginning of this long wisdom book. Sirach is one of the lesser-known books of the Bible since it is included in the Catholic canon, but not in the Protestant canon. The “canon” is the official list of biblical books. Sirach gives wisdom instruction, which is often couched in a kind of father-to-son style. Here at the beginning of the book, he expounds on the general duties we have toward God and toward others before getting into the rewards of wisdom and specific wisdom instructions. Our reading presents only part of a longer section on honoring parents (Sir 3:1-16).
Family: Testing Ground for Love
As children, the family is the first place where we are taught how to love, how to behave, how to obey and how to choose the good. In the best of situations, the family is a safe place for children to learn, to grow and to develop both physically and morally. It makes an excellent testing ground for love. The way we relate to our parents as children reflects how we will relate to God as adults. Learning to honor, obey and submit to our parents is a great preparation for learning to honor, obey and submit to God. The family, as a place of love, should teach us how to curb our selfish attitudes and love others. The first “others” we love are our parents and siblings, which trains us how to love those outside the family: friends, co-workers, even strangers.
Rewards of Honoring Family
Our reading from Sirach extracts the commandment to honor our parents from the Ten Commandments and fluently expounds on all the wonderful rewards of obeying it. Ephesians 6:1 emphasizes how it is the first commandment with a promise attached and Sirach certainly takes a crack at explaining to us all the benefits. (Notice that doing the most selfless kind of loving is the most beneficial, self-interested thing to do!) He teaches that honoring our parents atones for sins, preserves us from sin, stores up riches, blesses us with children, obtains long life and brings comfort to our moms. That’s a lot of blessing wrapped up in one command! What Sirach is showing us is that our behavior toward our family members, and in particular our parents, is reflective of who we are deep down and that it has serious ramifications in the rest of our lives. We want to receive the promise attached to the commandment: to live a long life in the promised land, which for us equates to our eternal destination.
The Triumph of Humility
One of the most upside-down virtues is humility. It feels contradictory to grow bigger by getting smaller, that is, to come closer to God by realizing our own small status. Here Sirach repeatedly emphasizes how we should submit to our parents and show them honor and deference even if dementia takes hold in their old age. It is a tough command to consistently live out in all circumstances. However, submitting to our parents—though it does not mean literal obedience in every particular—is a powerful antidote to pride. When we honor another as greater than ourselves, we recognize our own limited role in the world, the fact that we are not the center of the universe. Showing honor and obedience to our parents is a great way to recognize our dependence on God, whether it takes the form of a child’s obedience or caring for our parents’ bodily needs in old age. If it would not have been for our parents, we would not be here. Likewise, if it were not for God, we would not even exist.
Notice how humility, honoring our parents and loving God all flow from gratitude for the great gifts we have been given. We can give thanks to God for creating us and thanks to our parents for co-creating us with God. God did not have to make us. Our parents were not forced to bring us into the world. Though he did not have to, Jesus decided to come as a child and set an example for us by honoring his parents perfectly. When our “strength” is confronted with the challenge of loving and showing deference to our parents, we might remember his humble example.