Today’s first reading is from the Wisdom of Ben Sira also known as Ecclesiasticus, a book that is part of the canon of the Old Testament for Catholics and Orthodox, but not for Protestant or Reformed denominations. Why? That’s a topic for another post. The contents of the Wisdom of Ben Sira are of a discursive nature, not easily divided into separate parts, but most scholars agree that Chapters 1–43 deal largely with moral instruction; 44:1–50:24 contain a eulogy of the heroes of Israel – our reading is drawn from this section. There are two appendixes in which the author expresses his gratitude to God (51:1–12), and invites the unschooled to acquire true wisdom (51:13–30).
Consistent with the first readings for this week, today’s readings hold up Elijah and his successor, Elisha as two figures writ large from Israel’s history. Who are the heroes of our day and age.
A couple years ago the administrators of the Barron Prize for Young Heroes polled American teenagers and found only half could name a personal hero. Superman and Spiderman were named twice as often as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Lincoln. It is clear that our media makes it all too easy for us to confuse celebrity with excellence; of the students who gave an answer, more than half named an athlete, a movie star, or a musician. One in ten named winners on American Idol as heroes. The director Spike Lee lamented the fact that, while his generation grew up idolizing great civil rights leaders, today young people in his community aspire to become gangsters and rap musicians.
Are Elijah or Elisha heroes to you? Maybe, yes? Can you tell their stories? We only call heroes those whom we admire and wish to emulate. But still the concept retains that original link to possibility. We need heroes first and foremost because our heroes help define the limits of our aspirations. We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals — things like courage, honor, and justice. These values and aspirations largely define us. Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy. A person who chooses Martin Luther King as a hero is going to have a very different sense of what human excellence involves than someone who chooses Paris Hilton.
Take a moment and make up a list of your heroes….
Was Jesus or one of the saints on the list? Do you tell their stories to the next generation? If we don’t, American Idol will.