11139 Praise is unseemly on the lips of a sinner,
for it has not been sent from the Lord.
10 For in wisdom must praise be uttered,
and the Lord will make it prosper.
11 Do not say, ‘It was the Lord’s doing that I fell away’;
for he does not do* what he hates.
12 Do not say, ‘It was he who led me astray’;
for he has no need of the sinful.
13 The Lord hates all abominations;
such things are not loved by those who fear him.
14 It was he who created humankind in the beginning,
and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
15 If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
16 He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
17 Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.
18 For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power and sees everything;
19 his eyes are on those who fear him,
and he knows every human action.
20 He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
and he has not given anyone permission to sin.-- Sirach 15:9-20
I really like the book of Sirach. I haven't read it enough times to have it memorized and there's no plot with the need to keep characters and their stories straight. Instead, it is a collection of teachings on various topics more or less categorized and presented for consideration, meditation and emulation.
This passage begins with a brief statement on praise. Praise, to Sirach, is a bad thing if God didn't send it and if the person offers some kind of praise in order to gain something for themselves. We've seen people butter up the rich and powerful in the hopes that there would be some sort of reward for stroking their egos. Kids try to butter up Mom or Dad when they want money over and above their earned allowance or they try to flatter a teacher into giving them a better grade than they deserved. But what if the person did something really good? Would offering a few words of praise be out of line? Not necessarily, if the praise is honestly given and doesn't try to curry favor because of it. It's all about intent.
And then the reading turns to choices. People were given free will and the ability to make choices, whether good or bad. It's more than a child's choosing chocolate ice cream over strawberry, or a teen choosing this college over that one. It's about the little choices we make every day, how we make those choices and why. Each choice has a consequence, whether a positive one or a negative, depending on the choice that is made and the situation that demands the choice. Choosing to drive drunk is probably a very poor choice with the high possibility of very negative consequences both for the driver and for anyone else on the road or in the vehicle. Choosing to enter a profession that helps others rather than is based solely on what salary one can earn is a potentially good choice. Not all wealth is measured in the size of a bank account.
"Before each person are life and death." Even that is a choice -- sometimes. Suicide is a very real choice for some people. Teenagers can't necessarily see that what is seems so earth-shattering to them now is, most likely, temporary and will get better with time, or someone whose palliative medications just cannot control the pain of an injury or illness that could be fatal. Sometimes it is hard for others to understand someone making a choice to end their own life, and often it is condemned as selfish or a usurping of God's purpose. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is all about the person, not the family, friends, co-workers and the world in general. When a teen commits suicide, we condemn it as a waste of a good life, but to the teen, it is an escape from something like bullying or messages of condemnation for something they know they are but can't reveal for fear of rejection or bullying. A terminally ill patient is considered a bit more leniently; after all, they have pain to endure, but to some, it is selfish and circumventing God's will as to when they are appointed to die. I don't think it is ever an easy choice, no matter which stage of life a person is in, yet the consequences of the choice are clear.
Most religions have sets of rules that are designed to create order and some uniformity in the group that comprise that religion. Most teach that their adherents are to honor their deity or deities, care for others whether in the group or outside it, to respect the land they live on and to live their lives in an honest and upright way. When one group decides that another is wrong and seeks to change, take over or even eliminate another group for its beliefs, then there is conflict, war, death and destruction. If the choice is made to live as peaceably as possible (and it has been done in a number of diverse places with diverse groups for hundreds if not thousands of years), then everybody benefits. It only takes a few fanatics, however, to impose chaos and begin a conflict that can shatter a culture, a religion or a way of life forever. It all comes down to choice.
We choose our candidates in an election with the hope that they will do their best to represent all the people of their district, not merely pander to their own wants and ideas. There was a political flyer in the mail this past week from a candidate who accused the opponent of abandoning their Roman Catholic teachings because they, the opponent, favored letting women choose to use birth control or even abortion. Which would be better, an elected official who enforces their own beliefs on others or one who seeks to represent all the people, not just those of his or her own religious affiliation? The voters will have to make a choice between the two and the fate of many lives may rest on which one is chosen.
In the book of Joshua, he calls out to the wayward to make a choice: "...[C]hoose this day whom you will serve" (24:15b). It is a call to us in our generation as well. Will we have the wisdom Sirach tries to impart to us or will we ignore it and go on our merry way? Will we choose to serve God or will the idol of the world, it's pleasures and riches, get our loyalty and fealty?
What will our choice be?
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, October 25, 2014.