During my conversion, I always found great solace in the so-called “Wisdom” literature of the Old Testament. This literature is typically classified as the book of the Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), Proverbs, The Wisdom of Solomon (Book of Wisdom, and the book of Jesus Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). In their reading, one finds great wisdom for how to live a life pleasing to God, especially in our relationships with others.
Sometimes, people find great fault with the texts. Of particular note is the phrase from Sirach:
Turn away your face from a woman dressed up, and gaze not about upon another's beauty. (Sirach 9:8)
Sometimes this is interpreted as “turn your eyes away from a shapely woman.” Scholars such as Christopher West have stated that to the one “maturity in purity” such statements are not binding:
As experience attests, the battle with lust remains fierce. For the man bound by lust, “Turn away your eyes” retains all its wisdom. Christ, however, “speaks in the context of human experience and simultaneously in the context of the work of salvation.” In the new ethos, these “two contexts are in a certain way superimposed upon and pervade one another.” [Reference from the 143rd address of Theology of the body, KMT] This means that, although we all experience lust, we can also experience a real transformation of our hearts through the salvation Christ offers us. As the Catechism teaches, in the “Sermon on the Mount…. The spirit of the Lord gives new form to our desires, those inner movements that animate our lives.”
….The man whose heart has been transformed and vivified by the Spirit of the Lord need not merely “cope” with lust by turning his eyes away from a woman.” (West, Theology of the Body Explained, page 168.)
I believe there are two assertions in this text. One, that Sirach was only writing for the unregenerate. Two, that the regenerate is not bound by this advice. I further believe that the text of Sirach, combined with plain common sense, does not bear this interpretation out. If anything, such advice is playing with fire.
We must first establish the general context that causes Jesus Ben Sirach to write what he does. Sirach is writing during a time of great cultural upheaval. He wrote the book generally around the early second century B.C. This was a time of a great cultural clash within Israel. The Greeks, having conquered the Persian Empire, began a plan of Hellenization, the imposition of Greek culture, philosophy, and morals throughout the realms of the Diadochi (the generals who were Alexander the Greats successors.) Some of them pursued this policy liberally. Some pursued this very aggressively, such as what was happening in Egypt. Sirach wrote in the form of proverbs, common-sense ways to preserve the Jewish identity.
What does all this mean? Sirach was writing to the believing Jew. The believing Jew obviously viewed lust as a grave sin and are presumably not bound by lust. As a way of maintaining their identity as God’s people, he is writing ways in which to accomplish that. To say that this writing means nothing to the man “not bound by lust” is a grave mis-reading of the text.
This understanding is reinforced when we read the actual context of Sirach. In Chapter, it starts as follows:
Be not jealous over the wife of your bosom, lest she show in your regard the malice of a wicked lesson. Give not the power of your soul to a woman, lest she enter upon your strength, and you be confounded. Look not upon a woman that has a mind for many: lest you fall into her snares. Use not much the company of her that is a dancer, and hearken not to her, lest you perish by the force of her charms. Gaze not upon a maiden, lest her beauty be a stumbling block to you. Give not your soul to harlots in any point: lest you destroy yourself and your inheritance. Look not round about you in the ways of the city, nor wander up and down in the streets thereof. Turn away your face from a woman dressed up, and gaze not about upon another's beauty. For many have perished by the beauty of a woman, and hereby lust is enkindled as a fire. Every woman that is a harlot, shall be trodden upon as dung in the way. Many by admiring the beauty of another man's wife, have become reprobate, for her conversation burns as fire. Sit not at all with another man's wife, nor repose upon the bed with her: And strive not with her over wine, lest your heart decline towards her and by your blood you fall into destruction.
We see first and foremost that the “target audience” in this chapter is the married man. He is warning against the sin of adultery here clearly in the context. What is the best way to avoid adultery? Do not be jealous. Do not spend much time away from your wife. Do not spend time frequently in the company of other women. Most importantly, do not desire the beauty of another woman. To the devout Jew, to look upon another woman with lust was a grave sin. So much so, that if a Jew did it, he was not to sleep in the same bed with his wife. The only woman one should desire is your wife.
Is this wisdom applicable to the unmarried? Of course! Sirach is giving one of the best pieces of wisdom around: the externals are deceiving. While the body and external beauty are meant to be a representation of internal beauty, this is not always the case. Even if we are not bound by lust, we should still not be going out seeking physical beauty above all else. To do so is an invitation to be caught in a snare. The Greeks used many of these snares, especially with the flesh.
The Greek sexual more was far different than that of the Jew. The Greeks were very “carefree” in regards to their sexuality. Sex was very frequent. Men slept with women, men, boys, girls, just about anything they could get their hands on. The women many times dressed this part, heightening the sexual activity in their dress. Athletics were a very big thing for the Greeks, and they were frequently performed fully naked. To the Jew, this was an abomination. By not going out and seeking sexuality the way the Greeks did, this was another way of preserving their cultural and religious identity. Sex was sacred to the Jew. Treating it with the highest reverence was in order.
Why is this important? When we seek only the externals, we are missing out on who that person really is. One’s physical body does not define what one is. While the body can provide a mirror into the soul, such is ultimately an imperfect mirror, as the visible cannot fully explain the invisible.
I would like to relate a story that I believe bears this out. In a past relationship, we were vacationing in Spokane. At the time, a very immodestly dressed woman walked by. My girlfriend screamed “don’t look.” Being a guy, I looked. What I saw in no way incited lust, yet I still turned away my eyes. I turned away my eyes not out of being tempted, but out of sadness. I was sad that a woman completely misunderstood her body and who she was as a person. At the same time, I was no fool. Just because I didn’t feel any temptation, does not mean I should’ve kept looking at her. Sirach’s admonition held great wisdom. When you start focusing too much on physical beauty, a hunger can be awoken. That hunger is never satisfied. Someone is always better looking. If you are basing that relationship simply on how one looks, you will never be satisfied. I also did not want to give her that attention this woman was obviously craving by the way she dressed. I was stating a message. That message was “I desire far more in a woman than simply the externals. I desired the woman I loved, and she offers a lot more in her hidden modesty than you could ever offer in your very public immodesty.”
We forget today about the positive aspects of modesty and “turn away your eyes.” To the man bound by lust, this admonition has great wisdom. Yet the wisdom in this statement is even greater to the one bound by purity. We state in a positive fashion that we look for far more than simply this. We look for the human person, who is far more than a corporeal body. We gain custody of our eyes not only in avoiding sin, but choosing that which is right. We cannot forget this.