6th Epiphany A 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGThere is some significant tension between the language of today’s opening collect and that of the author of Ecclesiasticus, Joshua the son of Sira. For while that wise man, who wrote about two hundred years before the birth of Christ, portrays being good or bad as a simple matter of choice — in which one can always choose the good, and keep the commandments and act faithfully simply by choosing to do so — the collect today with which we began our worship acknowledges, a bit more humbly, and realistically, that “in our weakness we can do nothing good without” God’s help and grace.
It is written in the Book Ecclesiasticus: If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of you own choice.
In a case like this I am very glad to endorse the official Anglican position that the writings of Joshua ben Sira, the book of Ecclesiasticus, like all of the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books — which are part of the Bible for Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, but are treated separately by Anglicans and Lutherans, and completely ignored by most Protestants — that these apocryphal or deuterocanonical books can be read for instruction but not to “establish...doctrine” as the Sixth Article of Religion puts it. And if you’d like to look it up, it is on page 868 of the Book of Common Prayer.
It is helpful to have the church’s authority for this point of view. For even if it weren’t our own experience, even if it weren’t just common sense, you know that what Joshua ben Sira said is just not true. The idea that one can simply choose to be good, and always act faithfully as a matter of one’s own choice, conflicts with the teachings of Jesus and of Saint Paul, and those teachings form a part of our canonical and authoritative Scripture, not just for instruction, but for doctrine!
Towards the end of today’s Gospel reading Jesus takes on those who, like Joshua the son of Sira, put all the stress on us: ben Sira says, “Do not swear falsely, but carry out your vows” — as if vows could simply be carried out by the force of our own will alone, unaided by grace; as if you could just choose to be good and the action would follow the choice as the night the day. Jesus teaches in contrast (and in contradiction) that it is folly to swear in such a way. It is beyond our strength to rely on our own strength unaided, to take it into our head that we could do such a thing when we cannot even control a single hair on that head, to make it change from white to black!
Saint Paul even more readily admits his own weakness when he writes to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (7:18b-19) And in the epistle before us today he calls out the quibbles and quarrels of those Corinthians, accusing them of acting like infants — and anyone who has had to care for an infant knows that infants cannot always choose to do the good! It is said that Saint Augustine once pointed out that anyone who doubted the existence of original sin only needed to spend an hour or two with an infant to be convinced otherwise!
The sad truth, though, is that adults often act no better than spoiled, whining children; as Saint Paul says to the Corinthians, not ready for solid food, still on milk. If you don’t believe me, or Saint Paul, just turn the TV on to any of the 24-hour news stations; it’s like turning on a faucet that will pour forth a steady stream of infantile behavior, by supposedly grown people.
Saint Paul also points out — and here we return to the collect of the day — that the ultimate victory over such petty and infantile quarrels and quibbles and fleshly temptations of human inclination, infant or adult, do notcome from Paul, or Apollos, or from the Corinthians’ own inner virtue. They are God’s servants, working God’s field. Paul echoes the beautiful language of the 100th Psalm, though translating it a bit from sheep to agriculture: “Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” Just so the collect of the day appeals to God for the help of God’s grace, so that God can supply what is lacking to give us the strength — not our own strength but God’s strength at work in us — to keep God’s commandments.
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Now, you might well say, if it’s all about God and we can’t do any good on our own, and that any good we do is just God working in us and through us, is this trip really necessary? Let me say that’s a cynical thought, but it’s one I can understand — as I’m sure Joshua ben Sira would have understood too, and it’s a sentiment he would have stood by: God has given commandments and we are expected to do them under our own steam and by our own power, and if you do, in the end you will receive the reward for having done well.
There are whole religions built on this principle — but thankfully Christianity is not one of them, at least not in the way we Anglicans and Episcopalians understand it. We understand, on the contrary, and as the collect of the day says, echoing Saint Paul, that “in our weakness we can do nothing good without” God.
Still, you might say, Then if it is just God acting through us when we manage to do good, is God just pleasing himself through us? Are we just puppets? Let’s look at it another way; not as puppets, but as children. There is a charming TV commercial that shows a little boy standing with his chin just reaching the top of the jewelry counter in a fashionable store, pointing to an item he wants to get hismother for her birthday. The sales clerk nods and the little boy proudly empties his hand on the counter, revealing a crumpled dollar bill and a few coins. The clerk raises her eyebrows sympathetically and looks over the head of the child to see the boy’s father standing there behind him, discreetly waving his credit card. He and the clerk almost wink at each other — though no wink is needed.
This is what we are like and God is like when we do good. Our inclination is in the right direction, but our handful of change could never actually accomplish what God has willed for us — or what we have willed for ourselves or for each other. It is nowhere near enough to make the purchase we desire and need.
Yet God is with us, and the credit of God’s grace can cover any good towards which we set our minds and our hearts and our wills. On our own we could never accomplish the good intent that warms our hearts, but with God’s grace and support we can accomplish this — and anything good, to which we set our hearts. And God is pleased with our intent even though it is God who supplies us with the means to put that good intent into action — just as that little boy’s father and mother are and will be pleased even though he didn’t actually buy that bracelet with his own money.
There is an old saying, “It’s the thought that counts,” and in this case it is true, for it is the thought and choice to do good, when undertaken in prayer and in confidence in God’s grace, not our own strength, that we will receive timely help in putting that good will into good action, that, as the collects says, we may please God “both in will and deed.” God is pleased when we will to do good, and will give us the grace to do it.
After all, he paid a debt for us far greater than the cost of a bracelet, far more costly than the most precious jewel. Godin Christ paid for all our lives with his own life, and bought salvation for us at the cost of his own blood. If we swear by anything at all let it be this: Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your Name alone, be glory given, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.+