A few disconnected observations from today’s (Sunday’s) first reading.
Today’s first reading from Sirach presents a series of images which illustrate something about the nature of speech and something about trials and tests. Each image has a slightly different emphasis so that the overall point of them all together is somehow greater than the sum of them all. Each slightly shifts the meaning of the other as you jump from one to the next.
“When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;
so do one’s faults when one speaks.”
I open my mouth and out comes…. well it ain’t pretty. I am not good at holding my tongue, holding my temper. When I’m quiet, everyone thinks I’m sweet But let me lose my cool, loose my temper. I’m not proud of myself at those moments. the things that escape my lips! All my faults suddenly visible, no longer hidden under the surface.
Shake the sieve and watch all the husks come to the surface. This metaphor is rather foreign to my experience, thought I’ve certainly had the experience of shaking a sieve and watching the lighter bits rise to the surface. And I’ve had my experience with husks. When I get the occasional husk in my bowl of oatmeal, it chokes me, catches in my throat, making me gag. So if I stop to think, I can cobble together a decent mental picture of what Sirach is talking about: shake, shake, shake the grain to let the husks sort themselves out. When I am agitated, that’s when suddenly my faults are apparent. They were always there, hidden: impatience, self-importance, sloppy thinking. But you only see them when I speak.
It takes a lot of work to separate the good from the bad. You cannot do it without agitation. What does that mean to the spiritual life? How do I shake out my bad habits?
“As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace,
so in tribulation is the test of the just.” I took a ceramics class in college. And of course it happened in every firing: you Put the pot in the furnace and when you open the kiln you see that it it flew to pieces, all the flaws in the extreme heat leading to an explosion. Even the smallest bubbles when heated are enough to destroy everything in the furnace. Not only the flawed pot, but there is collateral damage. Everything nearby is also destroyed by the flying shards. All that hard work, ruined.
So before the potter even begins to shape the pot, he must wedge the clay, beat it and push it and push it and push it, until all the air has been worked out. If you do it wrong, you’re just adding more air. (a video that demonstrates wedging)
Is the tribulation of the just the hard work of wedging out the bubbles or the extreme heat of the furnace, that tests to see if the work was done well? Or is it both? If I don’t work out my flaws now, I might fly apart under pressure and hurt not only myself but everyone around me. My explosions cause a lot of collateral damage. And when put to the ultimate test: will I survive, or will I fall apart?
“The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;
so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.”
An untended or a poorly tended garden will yield fruit that is bad. Attacked by the birds, by bugs, disease. Unwatered it might be too sour; overwatered, it will be tasteless and of bad texture. Just biting into the fruit and tasting it gives you an immediate physical knowledge of the gardener’s work. You can taste and tell the plant was well cared for. So when I speak it is a window into the work I’ve done tending my soul. Taste and see the bent of my mind. Speech reveals thoughts which are hidden from the outside observer. A fruit can look fair but taste foul. Just stand in a summer garden and behold a vine full of lovely red ripe tomatoes. But a tomato that has been overwatered tastes mealy and watery, even though it looked good to eat when it was hanging on the vine. So you bite into it and spit it out again. Pah. No good.
In today’s Gospel we return to these same ideas of good and bad fruit and the mouth speaking what is in the heart:
“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit,
nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.
For every tree is known by its own fruit.
For people do not pick figs from thornbushes,
nor do they gather grapes from brambles.
A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,
but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil;
for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6: 43-45)
I love the absurdity of the image: picking figs and grapes from thornbushes and brambles.
And yet I feel utterly convicted when I realize that my heart is a bramble hedge. How could good fruit possibly come from that tangle? O Lord, weed out the brambles in my heart.
But, back to Sirach:
“Praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested.”
Speech is presented as a test of a man’s character. If you want to know what a person is truly made of, listen to him speak. If you want to shake out the bad hidden in his heart, listen to what a man says. If you want to know if the pot is a good one, put it in the kiln. If you want to know if the fruit is good, take a bite. Especially when pressure is applied.
* * *
But I’m not quite content to leave it at that. I want to know more about what Sirach is saying in context. And so I go to read the whole chapter. And the parts that strike me most are the verses immediately before and after today’s selection.
Unless one holds fast to the fear of the Lord,
with sudden swiftness will one’s house be thrown down. (Sirach 27:3)
I love the way this evokes an image of an earthquake: the house thrown down with sudden swiftness. And that shaking is then echoed in the following verse about the sieve of grain being shaken. And what does one do in an earthquake? You hold fast to whatever you can, grasping for stability. The Lord is the one stable thing in an uncertain world, the rock we can cling to when everything else betrays us, even the very ground under our feet. Hold fast to the rock, be afraid of losing your grasp on him, nothing else matters.
and then the following verse:
If you strive after justice, you will attain it,
and wear it like a splendid robe. (Sirach 27: 8)
We’ve been told not to judge someone until they have spoken, we cannot know the hidden heart unless it is revealed. But here we are told that if we strive after justice we will get it and wear it like a splendid robe for everyone to see. When we cling to God and walk in his way, when our hearts seek after what is good and just, then the good that our heart seeks will be made visible to all. God’s justice will be made manifest in us.
This morning at Mass I heard the beginning of the deacon’s homily where he was talking about learning to make ceramic mugs and his misadventures… but I missed the rest of it, my head nodded and I dozed.
After we came home… we had an ugly patch. Tempers were lost and harsh words were spoken. These things happen. Tempers have been short the last week, all around. The drear and cold are getting to us. Cabin fever. We need fresh air and a change of pace.
But I was drawn back to today’s readings. I knew I needed to sit down and write about the Sirach. And as soon as I re-read the passage and started copying verses and writing about them, I realized they were speaking to my heart. In the way Bible verses so often do. So I thought I’d just set them down, my thoughts, but without trying to refine on them too much. Just a stream of consciousness sort of ramble.