In my research on wisdom on 1 Corinthians, I have taken some time to read through the wisdom of ben Sira in the Old Testament apocrypha. Without going into great detail, I believe that Sirach’s wisdom in one of three different forms of wisdom that stand in the background of 1 Corinthians (the other two being Stoic philosophy and Greco-Roman rhetoric).
But as I am reading, I can not help but but observe something important. On the one hand, Sirach clearly continues in the tradition of wisdom of the canonical Proverbs. However, there is also a particular shift in Sirach’s style. Whereas occasionally, Proverbs will praise the wise person, it more frequently focuses on wisdom as an idea, commonly personified in the form of Lady Wisdom. Sirach, by contrast, tends to spend more time humanizing wisdom, portraying specific persons as wise or its opposite of foolish, evil, etc. To put differently, where Proverbs spends more time idealizing wisdom, Sirach spends more time idealizing wise people.
This difference has a particular effect
In other words, by focusing on the wise person, rather than on the ideal of wisdom itself, Sirach instrumentalizes wisdom for the purpose of the possessor of wisdom. Wisdom is increasingly not regarded something to value that then provides benefits, wisdom
It is against this background then that we may then consider Jesus’ own practice of eating with sinners and tax collectors. By being lumped with tax collectors, sinners could be considered on the treacherous side, just as tax collectors were deemed Roman-conspiring traitors to their own people. For the Pharisees and scribes, no doubt influenced to some degree by Sirach if his description on the scribe in Sirach 39 is any suggestion, they were questioning Jesus’ judgment more than the commonly modern political romanticization of “Jesus being on the wrong side of things.” It is interesting, then, that Jesus response to this question “Those who
But it is important to recognize the nature of Jesus’ own actions with the sinners. Nowhere do we reach the sense of: “Hey. You guys have been too hard on them. They are really good people that you just haven’t recognized.” or “You need to forget all they did and just accept them.” Nor do Jesus’ actions fit into questions access and inclusion that our modern social and political debates are concerned about. Rather, it boils down to a simple question: are sinners worthy of being reached out to or are they lost to the judgment of God? The Torah never directly addresses this question, as those who sin in a defiant, high-handed way are excluded from the community with no hope of atonement. (Numbers 15:30-31) In this ambiguity and gap, the judgment of the sinners as treacherous could very well have left the sinners as unworthy and unsafe of ever being restored. But for Jesus, the answer to this ambiguity is a bit different and isn’t
But before getting to that, it should be noted that nothing Jesus says and does suggest that Torah’s principle of exclusion and vulnerability to the guilt of one’s stubborn defiant actions is no longer the case. For instance, Jesus association with sinners does not fit into the modern rhetoric of “grace” and “forgiveness” that allows abusers to keep their status, power, and access as has become the penchant of many who claim Christ and yet exonerate severe breaches of misconduct from political figures. Rather, Jesus’ actions are pointed towards this basic conviction: sinners can be redeemed and given a place at the table of fellowship, not sinners should be given the keys to the kingdom (sinners are included in God’s Kingdom, but it is because God has the keys, not the sinner).
Against this backdrop we can understand the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the father chases after his son upon seeing him making his way back, even after the high-handed defiant actions of his son. Why? Because the father’s love makes him go out and then provide a fatted calf. The son is not “unsafe” but is sought out to be restored by the father’s own actions. And the older son, far from simply whining about
And it is this reading of the Prodigal Son against the backdrop of high handed sin and the treachery of sinners that Jesus’ action can make sense: God has provided the atoning sacrifice that goes far beyond the atonement of the Old Covenant; God has taken it upon Himself to invite those who have forgotten and rejected Him to come close again. Jesus is personally reaching out the dangerous. He isn’t simply reaching out to the unpopular, the disliked as the modern prophets of inclusion make him out to be. Jesus is going into a den of thieves so to speak.
Thus, recognizing Sirach as a probable influence on the Pharisees and a pattern of mistrust whereas Jesus’ actions fit closer to the mentality of the Proverbs in a pattern of behavioral contagion, it helps us to shed light on what it means to be like Christ eating with sinners. It is neither a story of absolute inclusion nor absolute absolvement, but rather a story with a point that the Torah itself never gave an answer to in the case of high-handed sin: God can and will reach out to and redeem even those who are considered dangerous and unsafe.