Commentary on the Readings
Feast of the Holy Family – December 29, 2019 – Year A
The Elderly: Builders of a Young World
The sons of Eli, the priest of the Lord at Shiloh, were depraved and did not pay any attention to the call of their father (1 S 2:12). One day a man of God appeared to Eli who told him: “In your household, no one will live to a ripe old age” (1 S 2:32). It was not the promise that his descendants would be freed from hassles related to the care of the elderly and the sick, but the announcement of a terrible calamity. Educators of new generations, the guardians of sacred traditions, the leaders, and the transmission of the faith would be forever missed. His grandchildren would never have experienced the commotion of the psalmist who exclaimed, “With our ears, O God, we have heard: our ancestors have declared to us the works you did in their days” (Ps 44:1-2).
In Israel there was the commandment “Honor your father and mother,” however, the formation of new generations was often marked by tension and conflict. There were spoiled, arrogant and judicious young people (1 K 12:8). There were wise old men who watched, with serenity and trust, beyond the narrow horizons of their time. There were also dull old people who fought for a nostalgic return to the past, trying and trying to curb the evolution of the future.
The prophets indicate that generational reconciliation is the sign of the advent of the Messianic era. The Old Testament closes with the announcement of the return of Elijah who will reconcile parents with their children and children with their parents (Mal 3:24). The New Testament opens with the words of the angel to Zechariah: “Elizabeth will bear you a son; … he will be great in the eyes of the Lord; … he will reconcile fathers and children” (Lk 1:13-17).
In families where there is no elderly person, life can, at times, be easier, but it is certainly the poorest of humanity.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Even when my strength lessens, my heart will remain young.”
Sirach, a book of the Old Testament, contains many good and useful counsels for a wide variety of situations in life. It teaches how to deal with friends, with guests, with women, how to manage money, and how to maintain rapport with leaders, servants, and disciples. A good part of the book is devoted to family life, to the duties of husband and wife, and the obligations of children to their parents and vice versa. Some delightful verses can be useful, such as Sirach 30:1-13 and 42:9-14, although some of its teachings can no longer be applied to the latter since some educational methods are definitely outdated.
The author, a certain Ben Sirach, from whom the book takes its name, is a wise rabbi who lived in 200 BC. He is a scholar of the Bible who has assimilated the message and from which he draws counsel for all.
At the time of Jesus, Sirach, although not included in the holy books of Israel, was used by teachers to educate young people. Even Christians have always appreciated it. In fact, after the Psalms, it was the most widely read book of all the Old Testament. The book was also called Ecclesiasticus in the past. It means “book to be read in the churches.”
The passage mentioned in today’s reading speaks of the duties of children towards their parents. We introduce it recalling the first verse of the chapter, not mentioned in the reading. It allows us to capture the identity of the author. He is a father of the family concerned with teaching his own children the way of life: “My children, it is your father who speaks, listen to me and follow my advice, and so be saved” (Sir 3:1).
To save in the Bible means “to put in a large, spacious place.” Its opposite is “to reduce free space.” Taught by experience accumulated over the years, Ben Sirach knows that young people run the risk of withdrawing into their projects, to thinking only of themselves. So, a misunderstood yearning for complete independence, they can lead them to fall into the most subtle of hardship, that of selfishness. There is a way to save them from the narrowness of the heart by educating them to gratitude, and making them sensitive to the needs of others, especially the needs of those from whom they have received life. “Honor your father with your whole heart and do not be forgetful of the sufferings of your mother. Remember that they gave you birth. How can you repay them for what they have done for you?” (Sir 7:27- 28).
In the first part of the reading (vv. 2-6), Ben Sirach summed up the term to honor—the behavior that the children should demonstrate toward their parents. He repeats this verb five times and applies it equally to both the father and the mother. In a world in which women were still discriminated against and considered inferior to men, this is no recent news. This is not an absolute novelty, because Ben Sirach has inherited it from the holy books of his people. The first commandment that appears, after those pertaining to God, is: “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16).
The first, most obvious and immediate meaning of the verb to honor is to render honor. The children are asked to lead a good, whole and correct life so that parents can feel proud of them.
The second duty of children expressed with the verb to honor is to provide financial assistance to parents when they are in need. At the time of Ben Sirach, the elderly did not receive pensions. After a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, they were sometimes forced into dire straits and humiliating circumstances. No child should endure seeing their parents in such a condition.
Finally, there is a third meaning of the word honor. In Hebrew it means to give weight to something. Parents are to be honored, while continuing to give the value of their lives the weight they deserve. It is a dramatic experience for older people to feel snubbed, sometimes even derided and to realize that their words, advice, recommendations and gestures of affection no longer carry any weight.
The love of children for their parents is something God appreciates. This is clearly evident from the promises of blessings given to those who take care of father and mother. Ben Sirach enumerates five.
The love of parents—he says—atones for sins (v. 3.14). It does not mean that God reduces the debt that one may have to anyone in proportion to the services rendered to the parents. To show attention to parents, giving them love and care is an opportunity not to let pass. It makes one mature, helps to discover the true values of life, detaches from what is ephemeral and draws away from sin.
Love of parents makes one acquire treasures before God (v. 4). Maybe before people, it cost time, reducing the chances of success and accumulating wealth in this world. The assessment to take into account is not that of people, but that which the Lord gives at the end of life.
Those who honor their parents will, in turn, be honored by their children (v. 5). Wise judgment! Children, as we know, learn with their eyes more than with the ears. They see and do not forget the behavior of their parents towards their grandparents.
The attention given to children can also be manifestations of possessive love, the ones given to the grandparents, especially when they need everything done for them, can never be misunderstood. They are an unrivaled life lesson.
The prayer of one who honors their parents will be granted (v. 5). The love of parents produces an inner feeling that brings one closer to God. When this love is lacking, rapport with the Lord becomes a formality, a cold and heartless religious practice not of God’s interest.
Finally, those who honor their parents will have a long life (v. 6). It was only much later (in the second century B.C.) that the belief in a life after death started in Israel. Before they thought only in terms of this earthly life, so that the highest good was to die as Abraham “in a good old age … after a full span of years” (Gen 25:8). The promise of blessing for those who take care of their parents could not be missed (Dt 5:16; Ex 20:12).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 12-14), how to behave towards elderly parents is suggested. It is possible that the weakening could not only be physical but also mental. To take care of one who has lost his memory, who repeats the same boring and sometimes even offensive phrases, is very heavy. That’s the time to show one’s depth of affection.
The reading speaks only of the duties of the children, which is understandable as Ben Sirach is an old man. Rightly, the children would like to address a word to their parents because, as we know, they are not always exemplary. Should they be “honored” anyway?
True love is always free and unconditional. A person is not loved because he is good, but he becomes good by loving him. If this applies to all, it especially applies with regard to parents. Loving them does not mean favoring their flaws and limitations, endorsing their caprices, but to understand and help them. They are not “honored” if one does not try to help them overcome their uncouth behavior, certain obnoxious habits, or ways of impolite speech.
When they create irrecoverable situations, then all that remains is patience.
Clothing is important. It differentiates us from the animals that go naked. It is an extension of our body. It reveals our tastes and our feelings, shows if we are happy or in mourning, having a day of celebration or business. Its style cannot be imposed, because everyone has the right to choose the image they want to project of themselves.
In biblical language, one’s clothing is a symbol of what externally manifests the interior disposition, the choices of the heart.
The Christian, who in baptism has risen with Christ to new life, cannot continue to wear an old robe. “You must give up your former way of living, the old self, whose deceitful desires bring self-destruction” (Eph 4:22-24)—Paul recommends. The same image occurs at other times: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14), “have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). The letter to the Colossians also recalls it: “You have put on the new man” (Col 3:10), and it is developed in the following verses of today’s Second Reading.
In the first part (vv. 12-15), Paul lists the characteristics of the Christian robe: “Put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, to bear with one another and forgive whenever there is any occasion to do so.” We count the threads in the fabric from which it is made: there are seven. which are all fine, but almost impossible to isolate.
But the description of the Christian robe is not yet complete. One must also gird oneself with a bond (love) that gives a touch of elegance and finesse to everything else. This cannot be reduced to a vague feeling, but manifests itself in a constant attitude of service of brother and sister, the willingness to sacrifice self for the brethren.
This robe is not reserved for anyone in particular. Every Christian should wear it; it’s the same for everyone: men and women, priests, nuns and lay people. It should be worn day and night and cannot be taken off.
In the middle of the reading (vv. 16-17) some ways are indicated to maintain or build harmony among family members.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you in all its richness” (v. 16). It is an invitation to meditate together on the Gospel. The family that finds time to devote to reading a page of the Gospel on a regular basis, provides a solid basis to always coming to agreement and making enlightened choices.
“You teach and admonish one another” (v. 16). When an agreement is arrived at with the choice of the word of Christ as a reference point, it is possible to engage in a constructive dialogue. The counsels and comments are not interpreted as undue interference, as a constraint in what does not concern us, but as manifestations of loving care for the person one loves.
“With thankful hearts sing to God, hymns and spontaneous praise.”
How many tricks, how many strategies do we employ to achieve the mutual trust, harmony, and accord that reign in our families? Paul suggests his way: family prayer.
In the third part of the reading (vv. 18-21), Paul applies the law of love to the rapport among members of the Christian family. Above all, he says that women should be submissive to their husbands, then recommends the latter to love their wives.
Women usually do not like Paul’s language and wonder why he did not also tell husbands: “Be subject to your wives.”
It must be recognized that the wives have every good reason to complain, but what Paul was really saying must be understood. It is true that he does not apply the word to serve to husbands, but employs another word that means exactly the same thing: to love. Does “to love” mean “to become a slave” for a Christian?
The Master has dictated to his men and women disciples, without distinction, the rule that should guide behavior: “And if you want to be the first of all, make yourself the servant of all. Be like the Son of Man who has come, not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:27-28).
In the concluding verse, Paul asks obedience from the sons. Unlike Ben Sirach, he has a word for parents: beware not to fall into authoritarianism that does not educate, but instead stiffens, creates distrust and exasperates the children.
The people of Israel were waiting for a Messiah who would repeat the glorious deeds of Moses, the great leader. This expectation was founded on what the liberator had said before he died: “Yahweh, your God will raise up a prophet like myself, from among yourselves, from your own brothers” (Dt 18:15). Matthew in his Gospel wants us to understand that Jesus is this new prophet. Using the teaching method of his time, he does not say so explicitly, but explains to us how the life of Jesus was similar to that of Moses.
Pharaoh gave the order that all male children of the Jews be thrown into the river (Ex 1:15-22). Herod ordered the killing of all the children in Bethlehem. Moses was the only one who escaped the massacre (Ex 2:1-10) and the same thing happened to Jesus. Later on, Moses had to flee to avoid being killed (Ex 2:15). Jesus was forced to do the same. Finally, when those who wanted to kill him had died, Moses was told, “’Go, return to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you are dead.’ Moses then took his wife and his son, and putting them on a donkey started back for the land of Egypt” (Ex 4:19-20). These are the same words we find in today’s Gospel (v. 20).
It is clear that Matthew wanted to show Jesus as the new Moses. I have insisted on this point because this year we shall be commenting on Matthew’s Gospel and we will often come across this parallel between Moses and Jesus.
Today’s Gospel is also linked to the quotation from Hosea’s prophecy: “I called my son out of Egypt” (v. 15). The prophet probably means the people of Israel who in the Bible are called “my first-born son” (Ex 4:22). The Israelites were called out of Egypt to the Promised Land. By applying this saying to Jesus, Matthew tells us that Jesus identifies himself with the people he wants to save.
READ: The Book of Sirach instructs us in the Fourth Commandment—honoring our father and mother, and the many blessings it brings. Paul speaks of what makes for a peaceful and holy family—love, deep respect, mutual submission, obedience, compassion, forgiveness, and the centrality of God. Matthew narrates the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt.
REFLECT: What made the family of Mary and Joseph holy? Even in the midst of life’s struggles, they remained faithful to God and to each other. Do I expect God to remove all the struggles of everyday life just because I have remained faithful to him?
PRAY: Pray for broken families in our midst. Pray that our families may become holy and blessed. Pray for the values of love, deep respect, mutual submission, obedience, compassion, forgiveness, and centeredness on God to reign supreme in our families.
ACT: Visit other family members and dine with them, especially your parents. If distance prevents you, give them a call and engage in loving and respectful conversation. Bless each other in your family.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.