Today we started reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which is also known in some places as the Book of Sirach, named after its author Jesus ben Sirach. This book comes out of the ‘wisdom’ tradition that also gave us Proverbs and Job. Ecclesiasticus is a compilation written in Hebrew around 200BC and translated into Greek seventy years later by the author’s grandson. The grandson adds an introduction in which he commends his grandfather not only for studying the law, the prophets, and the other sacred writings, but also for trying to help other people understand them. The purpose of the Book of Ecclesiasticus is to teach us that “fear of the Lord” is the beginning and the end of human wisdom.
Some of us may have been raised with the notion of God as a stern judge keeping careful watch, waiting to pounce on our slightest indiscretion and punish us. Who wouldn’t fear such a God, powerful enough to make it very uncomfortable for his subjects? But how could this kind of servile fear lead to a genuine love for God? How could it “warm the heart, giving gladness and joy”?
Reverence for the God revealed in Scripture is not that of a slave living in fear of a master, and a brutal master at that. To ‘fear’ God is to be in awe of his power and his knowledge. To fear him is to bow before mysteries we can never fully understand, like the fact that God gave us freedom to choose, even though our free choices often have dire consequences for ourselves and for others. To fear God is to believe that he created each one of us – as the old catechism teaches us – ‘to know, love, and serve him in this life and to be happy with him forever in the next’.
God is so much greater than we could ever ask, and so much closer than we could ever imagine. God loves us so much that he became a man, he forgave our sins as he hung on the Cross, and he defeated the last enemy of humanity which is death.
This is not a God to cower from, ours is a God to love, a God to reverence, and a God to honour with our whole lives.