This passage from Sirach seems to be a midrash on the fifth commandment,
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. Exodus 20:12 NASB
“Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the LORD your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12 NLT
It provides us, no doubt, with an example of the Jewish family, and the view that a merited following of the Law brings salvation.
(1) Listen to me, O children, for I am your father; and act accordingly, that you may be safe.
The Greek σωθῆτε which is translated as ‘safe’ here is found twice in the New Testament (John 5.34, Acts 2.40), both times with the meaning of ‘saved’ as Christians have developed. Although it is a stretch to have Sirach use it the same direct (Christian) way, we do find a general idea of temporal salvation in act of honoring one’s father and mother. If we apply this passage in light of Cyprian’s (“No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519) then it this passage becomes an instruction for the Christian.
We may first read it as Sirach’s words, referring to our natural parents, and then with the words of Paul who called God our Father and the Church our Mother.
For Sirach, the phrase ‘may be safe’ refers to the promise, that is if you would honor your father and mother, then your life would be long upon the earth.
We find much the same thought in the Apostle Paul,
Children, obey your parents because you belong to the Lord, for this is the right thing to do. “Honor your father and mother.” This is the first commandment with a promise: If you honor your father and mother, “things will go well for you, and you will have a long life on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3 NLT)
The surviving Greek MSS has this verse as corrupt, however, the Syriac and the Latin preserve this verse.
(2) For the Lord honored the father above the children, and strengthened the judgment of the mother over her sons.
(3) Whoever honors his father atones for his sins,
The thought that deeds can ‘cancel’ sins is not foreign to Jewish thought:
By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, And by the fear of the LORD one keeps away from evil. Proverbs 16.6 NASB
Unfailing love and faithfulness make atonement for sin. By fearing the LORD, people avoid evil. Proverbs 16:6 NLT
See also Daniel 4.27.
The Gospel, however, teaches
“So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'” Luke 17:10 NASB
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT)
What must be remembered by later Christian thought the Law is seen as a temporary measure which removes nothing, but under Grace, all sins are removed. At any rate, Sirach stresses atonement by repentance later in the work. (5.5-6, 34.26, 35.3)
(4) and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure.
(5) Whoever honors his father will be gladdened by his own children, and when he prays he will be heard.
(6) Whoever glorifies his father will have long life, and whoever obeys the Lord will give rest to his mother;
(7) He who fears the Lord will honor his father; he will serve his parents as his masters.
The words in the italics appear in the Latin.
(8) Honor your parents by word and deed, that a blessing from him may come upon you.
Several translations have ‘father and mother’ while others simply have ‘father’. Following the Latin, parentes, I would choose parents. (Deligere parentes prima naturae lex. – Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia 5.4.7)
(9) For a father’s blessing established the houses of the children, but a mother’s curse uproots their foundations.
(10) Do not glorify yourself by dishonoring your father, for your father’s dishonor is no glory to you.
(11) For a man’s glory comes from honoring his father, and it is a disgrace for children not to respect their mother.
(12) O son, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives;
(13) even if his understanding fails, be considerate and in your youth not despise him.
(14) For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and against your sins it will be credited to you;
(15) in the day of your affliction it will be remembered in your favor; as frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away.
(16) Whoever forsakes his father is like a blasphemer, and whoever angers his mother is cursed by the Lord.
Sirach stresses not just the father, but the mother as well, asserting the importance of the mother to the child. We may, again, see this as an insight into the Jewish family of the 2nd century B.C., or as the proper family of any era; however, we may also see it as a key to understanding Paul’s vision of the Church (the New Jerusalem) as the mother of us all, and the importance placed by Paul upon the Church.