The one who keeps the law makes many offerings;
one who heeds the commandments makes an offering of well-being.
The one who returns a kindness offers choice flour,
and one who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering.
To keep from wickedness is pleasing to the Lord,
and to forsake unrighteousness is an atonement.
Do not appear before the Lord empty-handed,
for all that you offer is in fulfillment of the commandment.
The offering of the righteous enriches the altar,
and its pleasing odour rises before the Most High.
The sacrifice of the righteous is acceptable,
and it will never be forgotten.
Be generous when you worship the Lord,
and do not stint the first fruits of your hands.
With every gift show a cheerful face,
and dedicate your tithe with gladness.
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
When Sirach took part in the temple liturgy, he was filled with joy. His exuberance pours out while praising "the greatest among his associates, the glory of his people,... Simon the high priest" (Sir 50). What a contrast to the prophets who often excoriated the temple priesthood for their laxity and self-serving ambition. The words of Hosea capture this: "With you is my grievances, O High Priest. My people perish for want of knowledge. Since you have rejected knowledge, I will reject you as my priest... They feed on the sin of my people, and are greedy for their guilt (Hos 4:4-8).
The prophets called out passionately for social justice and kindness towards the poor. Micah has given this cause its most pity expression: "You have been told what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8). Isaiah reduced the entire law to hearing the orphan's plea and defending the widow (Isa 1:16). Orphans and widows were the accepted symbols of defenseless people. In a less fiery mode Sirach expresses the same concern for the poor, stating that works of charity are equivalent to offerings of fine flour on the altar. For him also, to refrain from evil and to avoid injustice is the best kind of sacrifice. God cannot tolerate injustice for long.
When Jesus appeared, he identified with the poor, gravitated towards them and spoke up in their defense. The village of Bethany was prominent because this city marked the spot where lepers came closest to Jerusalem, to overlook the holy city from the Mount of Olives. To reach out and touch the leper in one sense it renders us unclean, not fit to share in temple ritual. Yet in another way it renders us holy with the Jesus who befriended lepers and declared that "The last shall be first."
Sirach bids us never forget the poor, even in the midst of elegant ritual with its pomp and circumstance. If we will not listen to the gentle voice of this wise teacher, the prophets will fling their threats at our conscience. At moments of prayer, when we are closest to God, we must not forget the poor, for all of us in our deepest need, turn out to be God's poor ones.
Today's Gospel begins with a question from Peter, "What about us? We have left everything and followed you." He and the rest of the twelve had given up a great deal to become followers of Jesus. They may have wondered if it was really worth it all. We too have responded to the Lord's call, maybe not in the same very radical way that those first disciples had answered his call, leaving their livelihood and family for a very uncertain future. Perhaps on our off-days we might be tempted to ask like Peter; "Is it worth the effort, this following of Jesus, this struggle to live by the values of the Gospel day in and day out." The answer of Jesus to Peter and to us all is that, "yes, it is worth the effort." Jesus promises us in that Gospel reading that when we respond to his call, when we give of ourselves for his sake, we will receive far more than we will give. In particular, he says that we will gain a new experience of family, far beyond the confines of our blood family, the family of believers. We will find ourselves co-travellers with others who are trying to take the same path as ourselves; we will experience the richness of the church, the community of the Lord's followers. That community embraces not only those of us still on our pilgrim way, but all who have passed beyond this life, including the saints, that "great cloud of witnesses."