When I saw that there are two possible first readings for thisSunday, I read them both. And then I said to myself, “The only reason anyone should ever choose Ecclesiasticus (aka Sirach) is if she or he wanted to preach about how wrong it is.” Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote a beautiful piece on thistopic, beginning the conversation about how the readings could easily be construed in favor of the Pelagian heresy, which, he points out, “is gaining in popularity these days.” I couldn’t agree more.
“If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.”
Ask an addict if sobriety is merely a choice.
Life is full of choices, but not all of them are open to us. My third-grade teacher asked us to write down our life’s goals. I had two: to be at least six feet tall and to have dimples. (The cute girl sitting in front of me had commented that she liked tall guys with dimples.) I am 5’9¾”. I have a cleft chin but my cheeks have no creases (other than old-man wrinkles) when I smile. No amount of choosing or trying or planning to be tall and dimpled (short of radical and foolish plastic surgery) could make those goals a reality. The same is true of sin.
Without Christ, we are slaves to sin. That doesn’t mean that the choices the law spells out for us are bad. The law is a good thing. It directs us toward a life of holiness. But that’s like giving me an instruction manual for how to be an Olympic gymnast. I might get better at cartwheels, but let’s be honest: I’ll never make the team, much less stand on the podium. Sin is human nature. It’s part of who we are—just as much as being short or tall, being dimpled or not, being bald or not. Sin is human nature. To be human is to be sinful. And to be sinful means not making the choices we want.
Maybe Ben Sira needs to meet Paul. Here’s what he says about choosing the good:
7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20 ESV)
That’s the life I know. That’s what my life looks like—and the lives of everyone else I know. What about you? Anyone think he or she can choose a life of holiness? Without God’s help? Without Christ’s sacrifice? Without the a higher power (the Holy Spirit) working in you?
The preacher has chosen Sirach for the first reading this week. It’s no accident that I’ve directed our lay readers to end it with “Here ends the first lesson” rather than “The Word of the Lord.” I hope people notice that big-old asterisk.