Compassion of God

A talk given at Morning Prayer on 23rd October 2019

Ecclesiasticus 18.1-14 / Mark 15.33-41

The Apocrypha

Our first reading today came from the book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach or just Sirach, which is one of the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Nowadays when we refer to something as “apocryphal” we generally mean that it’s dubious or probably untrue, and just dismiss it.

But this isn’t the whole story of the meaning of the word.

An apocryphal story, according to the dictionary, is one which is probably not true or did not happen, but which may give a true picture of someone or something.

So, with the books of the Apocrypha, the stories may or may not be literally true but they do give us a true picture of something or someone – in this case God and his dealings with human beings.

And, because of this, while the Apocrypha did didn’t make it into the official biblical collections of either Jews or Protestant Christians, the books it contains are considered to be good and holy reading, nonetheless.

Some Bibles print the Apocrypha in between the Old and New Testaments at the back.

And if you happen to be reading a Roman Catholic or Orthodox Bible you will find that these books are considered to be part of the Old Testament proper.

Bird droppings, dogs, fish and angels

My favourite of these books happens to be Tobit, which features Tobit, recently blinded by bird droppings, sending his son Tobias off a long journey to collect some money for him, accompanied by his dog and the archangel Raphael, disguised as a relative. Along the way a fish tries to eat Tobias’s foot but with Raphael’s help Tobias kills the fish and uses parts of it to heal a woman possessed by a demon and then his father.

But, going back to Ecclesiasticus, what we have in this morning’s first reading is a picture of God that seems to fit well with what we know of God from the Bible.

Power and Compassion

We see a God who is powerful and eternal, who is beyond all praise that could be offered.

He is described as living for ever, as having created the universe.

None can fully describe God’s power and great deeds because they are beyond human experience and understanding.

We might expect a being of such power to hardly notice us, like we hardly notice small insects scurrying about at our feet.

Yet Ecclesiasticus also tells us that none can fully recount God’s great mercies.

For this great and powerful God looks on humanity with compassion, patience and forgiveness.

This God sees our short lives, our confusion, our sin and our stumbling – and reaches out to help.

This is a picture we see again and again in the Bible – people go astray, fall into sin, misunderstand and generally mess things up but God comes to us with outstretched hands and patiently offers us help.

And, of course, we see the great climax of that compassion on the cross, as we heard in the second reading, when Jesus voluntarily fully entered into the human experience of feeling utterly alone, abandoned, scared and hopeless, all so that we need never feel alone or abandoned by God again.

So, as we go into this day, and all the days that follow, let us hold on to that picture of a God who cares and stands with us in the mess of life with compassion, forgiveness and love in his hands.