FAITHFUL UNTIL DEATH Commentary on some verses from The Books of Maccabees
Year 1, Week 33, Monday East Doncaster, 1989
“Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion.” 1 Maccabees 1: 41-43
Throughout their history, the Jewish people had adopted customs from the countries in which they had lived. From the Bedouins of the Sinai they had adopted the Passover rites. From the Canaanites in the Holy Land they had adopted the forms of temple worship. From the Babylonians they had understood that YHVH was the creator of the universe. At the same time, throughout their history, they had also refused to adopt customs which were foreign to their faith. So, in Egypt they refused to make images of God in the likeness of animals. In Canaan they had rejected fertility rites and the eating of pig’s flesh. In Mesopotamia they refused the pantheons of gods and goddesses. During their long travels, the pilgrim people took on various customs or refused them according as they were acceptable to the wisdom that came from above.
During this second last week of the liturgical year we read from the last historical books of the Bible written before the coming of Christ: The Books of the Maccabees.
Antiochus Epiphanes, an ardent admirer of Greek culture, wished to impose it upon his subjects, and therefore on the Jews. He does not allow them to select according to the divine wisdom that is theirs. He imposes another religion and culture on them. The last and greatest drama of the Jewish people before the coming of Christ is ‘cultural imperialism’.
Christians, from the cultures and countries in which they find themselves, are free to adopt what is good and to refuse what is contrary to their faith, led by the Holy Spirit that is in them.
Year 1, Week 33, Wednesday Glenroy 1977
If anger is dreadful, oblivion is worse.
“But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God” 2 Maccabees 7:31
The force of good cannot but sweep away whatever is evil. Like the power of a broken dam, the power of good sweeps all wickedness before it. In the ardor of his blessing, the pure God relegates evil to oblivion. This ignoring is terrible. This silence is horrible. To be forgotten by God! Nothing is more abominable when one’s nature is wholly directed to God. If anger is dreadful, oblivion is worse. In fury there is some recognition of one’s existence, but in ignoring there is complete withdrawal of attention. No more just judgment could be directed against them.
Therefore, God’s terrible judgment comes from the purity of his intention, which is to bless all that is good.
Year 1, Week 33, Wednesday East Doncaster, 1989
God cannot but be faithful to those who are faithful to him.
“Therefore, the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws. … Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.” 2 Maccabees 7:23, 29
In the Book of Judges, when misfortune falls on the People it is is interpreted as punishment for sin. Later, when the Kingdom of Israel is destroyed and Chosen People are sent into exile to Babylon, the disaster is attributed to their rejection of the covenant. However, with the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes, as recounted in the Books of the Maccabees, the interpretation is quite the reverse. If the people are afflicted, it is precisely because of their fidelity.
Today’s episode, recounts the martyrdom of the seven brothers. They will not eat pig’s flesh. They are being faithful to the point of death, for to eat pork was synonymous with infidelity to God.
The mother, so blessed as to have born seven sons, now sees them put to death, one by one. She encourages them and proclaims a faith not heard before so clearly in Israel: “…… the creator of the world, …. in his mercy will most surely give you back both breath and life, seeing that you now despise your own existence for the sake of his laws.” To the youngest of her sons she says: “Do not fear this executioner …. make death welcome, so that in the day of mercy I may receive you back in your brother’s company.”
The experience of innocent suffering has thrown resurrection into sharp focus. God cannot but be faithful to those who are faithful to him. Thus, by the time of Christ, many pious Jews come to have faith in in the resurrection.
This will be fully shown in the case of Christ Jesus who must rise from the dead since he has been most truly faithful to the faithful God.
Year 1, Week 33, Thursday East Doncaster, 1989
Jesus will come to reconcile Jew and pagan.
“Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.” 1 Maccabees 2:21-22
We have seen the attempt by the pagan king, Antiochus, to impose Greek culture on the Jewish people. We have seen the heroism of the mother and her seven sons. They, like so many of the people, have refused to comply. They are put to death for refusing to eat pig’s flesh. These are the first martyrs. In this context, we have seen the first inklings of the resurrection.
This morning’s reading shows the king’s officers attempting to enforce pagan worship. “The king’s officers …. came to the town of Modein to make them sacrifice” to false gods. The reaction is different. Mattathias and his sons slaughter the king’s commissioner and escape to the hills. They begin the revolt and the whole nation will rally around him. The stage is being set for the entry of Jesus onto the scene.
Jesus will come to reconcile Jew and pagan. He will come to give a new Law, to do away with sacrifice and with prohibitions about food. He will make armed revolt unnecessary. He will enjoy a martyr’s death and reveal the resurrection.
Year 1, Week 33, Friday East Doncaster, 1989
Jesus himself will replace the Temple
“Then Judas and his brothers said, “See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” 1 Maccabees 4:36
The revolt of the Maccabees has been successful. Surpassingly, the small number of Jews has been able to defeat the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes. The Temple is cleansed and re-dedicated; it becomes the centre of Jewish life.
A number of issues – food laws, the sabbath, contact with the pagans, observance of the Torah, the use of armed revolt – become identified with the faith of Israel. As a result, the very success of the Maccabean revolt becomes a problem, for the people become hardened in self-defense.
When Jesus comes he will find himself pitted against this hardness of the people who are now under pressure from the Romans. In softening the attitude to the prescriptions and in introducing a new way of thinking, he will be judged a threat to his people and will be put to death as someone unfaithful to God.
However, in rising from the dead he himself will replace the Temple and will be declared Lord and Christ.
Year 1, Week 33, Saturday East Doncaster, 1989
This intense reverence for the Temple prepares the way for the coming of Jesus in the flesh.
”But now I remember the wrong I did in Jerusalem. I seized all its vessels of silver and gold, and I sent to destroy the inhabitants of Judah without good reason. I know that it is because of this that these misfortunes have come upon me; here I am, perishing of bitter disappointment in a strange land.” 1 Maccabees 6:12-13
The king, Antiochus, who had seemed so powerful and had even erected his own statue over the altar in Jerusalem, now lies dying from acute disappointment. He is far from home and his people; he has failed in his Persian campaign; his army in Judah has been defeated and his statue pulled down. He lies on his sick-bed and now admits that he dies because he has profaned the Temple.
This is Jewish propaganda. History would not support every detail of the story. The revelation is not in the historicity of the account. The interest lies in the enormous importance attached to the Temple. To profane the Temple in any way is to sin most profoundly. It has become the centre of Jewish life. The possession of the Temple has become, and still is today, of utmost importance.
This intense reverence for the Temple prepares the way for the coming of Jesus in the flesh. Christians have placed their trust not in a Temple made of stone and mortar but in the Temple made of flesh and blood: in the Lord who is their foundation.