My child, perform your tasks with humility;
then you will be loved by those whom God accepts.
The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself;
so you will find favour in the sight of the Lord.
For great is the might of the Lord;
but by the humble he is glorified.
Neither seek what is too difficult for you,
nor investigate what is beyond your power.
Reflect upon what you have been commanded,
for what is hidden is not your concern.
Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,
for more than you can understand has been shown to you.
For their conceit has led many astray,
and wrong opinion has impaired their judgement.
Without eyes there is no light;
without knowledge there is no wisdom.
A stubborn mind will fare badly at the end,
and whoever loves danger will perish in it.
A stubborn mind will be burdened by troubles,
and the sinner adds sin to sins.
When calamity befalls the proud, there is no healing,
for an evil plant has taken root in him.
The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs,
and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise.
As water extinguishes a blazing fire,
so almsgiving atones for sin.
Those who repay favours give thought to the future;
when they fall they will find support. -- Sirach 3:17-31
There's something about a proverb. It's a lovely, pithy, memorable saying that says a lot in a few words. Many times it is a bit of wisdom that can be pulled out when needed in order to illuminate a decision or point to the proper direction of action. If your mother was like Mama, you'd have learned them at her knee and still remember those lessons today.
The book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) is one of those apocryphal books not accepted by the total spectrum of Christianity but which we as Episcopalians take as words of guidance and instruction but do not accept as doctrinal. Emily Post can be considered a book of guidance and instruction in the very useful way of living life with good manners (as books like Sirach were considered to be) and some semblance of social grace. Emily Post is hardly a matter of doctrine although that doesn't make it any less valuable in its own right, just like the apocryphal books like Sirach.
This part of Sirach is a lesson in humility, the kind of humility that doesn't make one a doormat but rather which seems to let things get done but without a lot of flash or ovations. Sirach's point is that no matter how great I am (or think I am), pride will eventually get me in trouble and cause me a lot of grief. The old saying "Pride goes before a fall" (which is really an adaptation of Proverbs 16:18 which uses "a fall" instead of the original "destruction") sums up what Sirach is getting at, namely, advice which the wise will accept and the foolish ignore -- to their peril.
I wonder -- who would be on the "most humble" list of famous people I could think of right off the top of my head? Among others, I think of Mother Teresa who, while undoubtedly proud of the work her nuns were doing among the poorest of the poor, was not happy in being in the limelight herself, preferring to do her work quietly but accepting that sometimes God pushed her to the forefront in order to make people more aware of those less fortunate than themselves. On the other hand, I look at many of our politicians today and think they could use a bigger dose of humility. "I have done this for you and I have done that for the good of the country" may be a good political speech but it seems to me that it is also a bit self-serving, reminding people that they owe the politician something (when in actuality the politician may have done great damage to millions in the process). "For their conceit has led many astray, and wrong opinion has impaired their judgement" seems to be a verse they might do well to consider." Good ol' Sirach.
Now when it comes to stubborn, Mama always felt I had more than my share of it. I never heard of Sirach when I was in church as a young person (I wonder if I would have listened if I had?) It certainly has landed me in a bunch of messes, but sometimes stubbornness can be a lifesaver. People who beat diseases like cancer have, I believe, a streak of stubbornness that won't let them give up until the last possible second. Martin Luther King was stubborn, never giving up his message of equality for God's children both black and white. Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi were stubborn and didn't give up, even despite years of imprisonment and cruelty. I think everybody needs a dose of stubbornness, just directed toward a positive goal, not a selfish, negative one.
Sayings like those in Sirach might not be as well known as those from the book of Proverbs, from Ecclesiastes or even from more contemporary sages like Ben Franklin, but they are still valuable guides if I just stop and pay attention to them. I'm probably never going to be a Mother Teresa or a Nelson Mandela, but maybe I could use a bit of stubbornness, and more than a dash of humility, to accomplish something worthwhile, something more than my own survival.
I wonder -- where can God use that bit of stubbornness and dash of humility in this world today? Where to even start? Maybe that's where the stubbornness comes in, stubbornness to keep asking and the humility to accept what assignment God has for me. Hmmm. I'm sure there's a plan somewhere. Now to find it.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 20, 2012, under the title "Stubbornness and Humility."