Brief Synopsis of the Readings: We begin with the 2nd Book of Maccabees. This was written about 150 years before the birth of Jesus, at a time when the Israelites were oppressed by the Greeks. Here a mother and her seven sons were being coerced to eat pork, in violation of their own kosher laws. They all endured torture and were eventually killed. But they died proclaiming that they would all be raised from the dead. In Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus in dialogue with the Sadducees (who had no belief in the resurrection). Trying to test Jesus they asked about remarriage. If a widow remarries (and they suggested this woman had seven husbands), who is she married to in the resurrection? Jesus told them that those who rise from the dead are not married but are like angels. God is God of the living, not the dead.
I recently had a discussion of the daughter of one of my hospice patients. She, like most of the caregivers I know, found herself overwhelmed with the details: how long will my father live, what do I tell my family, how should I plan his funeral, etc. I told her that she should think of herself as standing on the goal line of a football game. She should not look at midfield but instead look at the 10 yard line. In other words I told her not to look too far down the road but instead look to those things immediately in front of you.
That said, I’m going to defy my advice and look anew at today’s readings.
I recognize that our first reading comes from the Second Book of Maccabees, a book that Catholics recognize but Protestants and Jews don’t recognize. But, let’s face it, I’m a Catholic and I take the two books of Maccabees seriously. And it’s my blog.
For most of the Old Testament, little is said about what happens to someone after death. There are some passages that speak of a place called “Sheol” but it’s a place of darkness, beyond the worship of God. That’s a long way from the general Christian belief of salvation and resurrection from death to new life.
In many ways the journey to our belief in Heaven begins in Maccabees
If life is good and should be preserved at all cost, and if you are told from your earliest days to follow the law, what do you do when faced with breaking the law or being killed? Is there a role for martyrdom? For most of the Old Testament this question never came up. Our ancestors suffered oppression from the Egyptians and the Babylonians but were never forced to betray their beliefs. It only happened with the Greeks.
And from this we learn that while life is precious, even the danger of death can’t defeat us. This mother and her seven sons could have easily eaten the pork and they would have been accepted by the Greeks. But something in them told them that if they did that they would have been assimilated and lost their identity as God’s chosen people. And today we wouldn’t have knowledge of Abraham, Moses, and perhaps even Jesus.
But if the God who gives us life gives us eternal life, even life after we die, that changes everything. If we know that we will live on then nothing here can kill us.
By the time of Jesus this was an open question. Some did believe in the Resurrection, but one group, the Sadducees, did not. They were strong in their belief that all life ended at death, and they attempted to trap Jesus. This was pretty common in the Gospels and you have to feel some sympathy for these groups. Without exception Jesus toyed with their foolishness. Simply put, he explained that while life goes on forever, marriage doesn’t. The love we feel in Heaven moves us beyond the relationships we have here.
And this belief in eternal life meant a great deal to early Christians. From the martyrdom of Stephen we Christians have revered and celebrated those who “died for their faith.” But let’s face it: realistically (hopefully) nobody who reads this will be called to make the choice of the family in Maccabees.
But that doesn’t make these readings outdated. As a matter of fact, I believe these readings resonate in our lives today. In our workplaces, in our social circles, and even in our families we are often pressured to act against our values.
We work in an office where someone is determined to be the scapegoat, the person solely responsible for a bad evaluation. We are pressured to support this coworker’s termination even though we know it’s not true. A neighbor is accused of something and we don’t believe is true, but we’re afraid if we come to his defense we’ll be suspected also. Our grandson meets someone who the family doesn’t like but we think she will be good for him.
Surrendering to the expectations of others may make our lives easier in the short run. But these readings call us to the long run. They call us to recognize that our lives don’t end with this decision, this problem, or even this life. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wrote something that I’ve thought of a great deal and have used from time to time. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said this: “When you are called to make an important decision, imagine yourself talking about this at the end of your life. What decision would you like to have made?” This transcends our desire to be accepted in the moment and gives us the perspective to recognize the decisions we make in the moment create the image we have of ourselves at the end of our lives.
This brings me back to the first reading. If the mother and seven sons had eaten the pork they would have lived long lives, but at the end of their lives I suspect they would have been ashamed of what they gave up to get out of the Greek’s demands.
I like to think that they are now in Heaven rejoicing in the courage they showed.