Tuesday of Week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Maccabees 6:18-31

For today’s and tomorrow’s readings we go to the Second Book of Maccabees. It is not a continuation of the first book and covers only part of the same period (180-161 BC) seen from a more religious, less historical, angle. However, chronologically speaking, today’s and tomorrow’s readings fit in here.

Today and tomorrow we will be reading of the heroic martyrdoms of people who refused to compromise what they regarded as fundamental principles of their Jewish faith and sacrificed their lives as martyrs. The story of Eleazar and of the mother and her seven sons, among the earliest models of martyrdom, were understandably very popular among the Christians of the early centuries. Written originally to encourage God’s people in time of persecution, they add gruesome details to the record of tortures and place long speeches in the mouths of the martyrs.

Today we read about Eleazar, who was one of the leading teachers of the Law. He was elderly and a man of great dignity and presence. When he was forced to eat a piece of pork, something completely forbidden by the Law, he spat it out, ready to die with honour rather than to live on in disgrace among his fellow-Jews.

Those who had known him for a long time and had the greatest respect for him wanted him to go through the motions of eating the forbidden food without actually breaking the Law rather than see him lose his life. They urged him, during the lengthy preparation of the ritual meal, to have a kind of meat brought, prepared by himself, which he could legally eat and just pretend to eat the meat prescribed by the king.

By availing of this help provided by friends, he could escape death. But Eleazar, having lived a life of total integrity since he was a boy and followed the Law with the utmost fidelity, told his friends to send him at once to Hades, the place of the dead. What his friends were suggesting might save his life, might not involve a literal breaking of the law, but would have given the appearance that he had conformed to the demands of the idolatrous king. Not only the letter but the spirit of the Law had to be maintained. And then there were the effects it might have on others, especially the young and impressionable.

Eleazar said to his well-meaning friends:

Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life, for many of the young might suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year had gone over to a foreign way of life, and through my pretense, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they would be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age.

He might, by the suggested ruse, escape physical death, but he would never escape from his accountability to God. By showing his readiness to die, he will prove himself worthy of his old age. In addition, he would leave behind:

…to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.

He then proceeded to walk straight to the torture wheel on which he would be lashed. But those who just now had been encouraging him to save his life now turned against him. They thought his decision sheer madness.

But Eleazar, just before he died under his executioner’s blows, spoke his last words of testament:

It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.

In dying this way, he left a striking example of nobility and goodness not only for the young, but for the greater part of the nation. He died both a hero and a martyr.

The lesson of this story is important in our age when so much attention is given to image. Appearing to be rich is more important than actually being rich. What people think about you is more important than what you really are. People go to great lengths for image, status, reputation, ‘face’. They surround themselves with the trappings of the consumerist society – the right car, the right house, the right mobile phone, the right restaurants, clothes, cosmetics, hair styles.

Sometimes, for the sake of ambition and “success”, they will not hesitate to compromise religion and morality. Eleazar’s lesson is not so much about his bravery in the face of death, but his integrity, his refusal to compromise on vital issues. With the help of his supporters, he could easily have escaped suffering and death. They thought he was mad not to do so.

For them it was only a question of a few pieces of meat; for Eleazar his loyalty to his God and his own conscience was at stake. He would not have been able to live with himself if he had followed their advice. There are some values which are more important than life itself. It is a lesson much needed in our time.

Origen and some of the Church Fathers, notably Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen and Cyprian, praise Eleazar as a pre-Christian martyr. This narrative, like the next, which we will read tomorrow, is of the same literary type as many of the Acta of the martyrs.

Our Church should be proud that every single century since its foundation there have been people ready and willing to give their lives as an expression of loyalty to Jesus Christ and the way of life he stands for.

The word ‘martyr’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘witness’. Not all of us will be required to die for our faith, but it is absolutely certain that we are called on to give witness to Jesus Christ and his mission to build the Kingdom of God in the world, a Kingdom of Truth, Love, Fellowship, Justice, Freedom, Peace. It is important to reflect on the question: How do I give witness?

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