Wednesday of Week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Maccabees 7:1, 20-31

Today’s reading is another story of fidelity under persecution. It is part of a famous story about the martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees, all brothers, together with their mother. They gave their lives one after the other rather than betray their Jewish faith by eating unclean food.

Having given the example of a venerable teacher of the Law (Eleazar from yesterday’s reading), the author now gives that of a mother and her sons. We know that the persecution, in which exceptionally savage methods were adopted, did indeed extend to women and children. The story, therefore, has a historical basis, behind the literary elements, such as the speeches ascribed to the characters (a common literary device).

As the reading opens we are told that seven brothers were arrested together with their mother. King Antiochus tried to force them to eat pork, forbidden by the Law, by torturing them by scourging with whips.

When one of the brothers, in the name of his siblings, stood up and told the king he was wasting his time and that they were prepared to die rather than violate the laws of their ancestors, the king became furious and prepared terrible instruments of torture for them. One by one, six of the brothers were subjected to most excruciating and inhuman torture in the sight of their mother. As each one died, they had words of defiance for the king. All of this is omitted from our reading.

We pick up the reading again with just the mother and youngest son still alive. Through all the terrible experience of seeing her sons, one by one, subjected to torture and death, she maintained an extraordinary dignity “because of her hope in the Lord”. In fact, she was proud of her sons for their loyalty to God and their Jewish beliefs and their readiness to sacrifice their lives.

Speaking in “the language of their ancestors”, namely, Aramaic, so that the king and the torturers would not understand, she actually encouraged her sons. The author puts a speech on her lips to express her thoughts and feelings. She said she did not know when her children appeared in her womb, nor was it she who gave them the breath of life nor was she the cause of their physical development. But she is confident that the same God will give them back the breath and life because, for the sake of God’s laws, they have had no concern for themselves.

As she spoke thus to her son, Antiochus, who could not understand what she was saying, thought she was speaking insulting words about him. With this last son, the king tried a different approach. He promised to make the boy rich and happy if only he would abandon the traditions of his ancestors. He would even make him a “Friend and entrust him with public affairs”. ‘Friend’ was a title of honour, a survival from the court of Persia and there were various grades. ‘Friends of the King’ had free access to the sovereign who from time to time assigned them certain tasks.

When the boy paid no attention to these tempting offers, the king turned to the mother to urge her to advise the young man to save his life. After the king had pressed her for a while in this manner, she finally agreed to persuade her son. She then quietly spoke to the boy in the language that only they could understand.

She begged her son to have compassion on her. She had looked after him lovingly from his earliest days in her womb and brought him up to the age he was now. She asked him to look at the world around him and consider how God had made everything out of nothing. This is, in fact, the first explicit allusion to creation ex nihilo in the Old Testament. Namely, that God made all things solely by his omnipotent will and his creative word. In Genesis, the world is not so much created as formed from a pre-existing Chaos, order is brought into what had been pure disorder.

The mother then urges her youngest son not to be afraid of his executioner, but to prove himself as loyal as his brothers and accept death. Then “in God’s mercy”, she will receive all of them back again in the life that is to come.

The mother had hardly finished speaking, when the young man called out to Antiochus and the executioners:

What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses.

As for the king himself, he will not escape the hand of God for the terrible things he has done against the Hebrews.

Our reading stops at this point but the son’s speech continues in the same vein for several verses. The king was enraged at the young man’s words, which he had not expected to hear. The outcome was that this last brother was subjected to even more cruel tortures but remained loyal to his God to the end. And, after all seven brothers had been martyred, the mother too was executed.

The cult of the ‘Seven Maccabaean Brothers’ spread into Europe, where it clearly made a great impact in a church which had its own share of Christians dying painful deaths for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. Several churches were dedicated in their honour, for instance, in Antioch, Rome, Lyons, and Vienna. Also, a composition known as the Passion of the Holy Maccabees became widely distributed and served as model for several Lives of Martyrs.

It is, on the face of it, a tragic and cruel story. But it is clearly meant to be an inspiration to all Jews to put their faith in their God above all other considerations, including their own lives, in times of oppression. It is a message which many Jews have followed and one also followed by thousands of Christians down the centuries, people who chose to be faithful to the call of Christ even at the cost of their own lives. And there have been some outstanding examples in recent times.

Each one of us needs to ask to what extent we have ever compromised our faith in order to cling to something of lesser value. What price are we ready to pay to see that the values of the Gospel are upheld?

Therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:33)

And these “possessions” may include our life. Am I ready for this?

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