Thursday of Week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Maccabees 2:15-29

Today, we go back to reading from the First Book of Maccabees and continue the story of the persecution of the Jews.

The New Jerusalem Bible comments:

“Persecution produces a revival of religious awareness. Jewish opposition to Hellenism takes the form of physical violence, passive resistance, and ultimately a war of religion under the leadership of Mattathias, but particularly under Judas Maccabeus. Judas had realised that religious and political independence were interconnected: for this reason the struggle continued even after religious freedom had been won. But the shift from the religious to a political ground led to the compromises and party squabbles occupying the last part of the book. These in the end were to oust religious zeal and discredit the Maccabees’ successors, the Hasmonaeans, in the estimation of their devout contemporaries.”

As the reading opens we are told that officials of King Antiochus had arrived in Modein, the town where Mattathias, son of a priest and originally from Jerusalem, had settled. The officials’ task was to force people to abandon their traditional religion and join in the sacrifices of the now official religion imposed by the king. While many of the Israelites complied with the government order and joined in the sacrifices, Mattathias and his sons stood apart.

The officials approached Mattathias and tried to persuade him to change his mind. They used words of flattery and spoke of Mattathias as a great man in the town and a respected leader. Because of his position, they urged him to step forward and give an example which others would then surely follow. Then came the enticements. If Mattathias and sons would step forward for the sacrifice, they would be reckoned as:

Friends of the king, and…[his] sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.

“Friend of the King” was a title of honour and a survival from the court of Persia. There were several grades. A “Friend” also had free access to the king, who would, from time to time, assign him various responsibilities. In yesterday’s reading, we saw that the youngest of the seven Maccabee sons was also bribed with this honour.

Mattathias responded to the king by saying that even if every nation in the king’s dominions were to conform to his commands, he, his brothers and his sons would remain faithful to the Law and its observances. So they would not obey the king’s command or deviate in any way from their religious beliefs.

Just as he finished speaking, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice as the king’s edict had laid down, and:

When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal, and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and slaughtered him on the altar.

In these circumstances, the anger against such a flagrant violation of the Law is seen as justified. The killing is another matter.

But things did not stop there. Mattathias went on to cut down the royal commissioner responsible for enforcing the offering of sacrifice and also tore down the altar. In so doing, we are told that he imitated the example of Phinehas against Zimri, son of Salu.

The story of Phinehas is told in the Book of Numbers. Phinehas belonged to the priestly caste and was a grandson of Aaron, while Zimri was a prince of the ancestral house of the Simeonites. When Phinehas saw Zimri bring a Midianite woman (an unclean gentile from a hostile people) into the camp, presumably with sexual intentions, Phinehas immediately, fired with the same kind of anger, went and stabbed both Zimri and the woman in the alcove where they were ensconced. For this act of zeal for the Law he was commended by Yahweh (see Num 25:6-15).

Mattathias then went through the town calling on all those who, like him, had zeal for the Law and based their lives on the covenant, to follow him and leave Modein. He then fled with his sons into the hills, leaving all his possessions behind. Many people “who were seeking righteousness and justice” did not actually take to the hills, but went out into the desert and remained there. The rebellion had begun.

We certainly admire Mattathias for his zeal, his courage and his total dedication to God’s Law as he understood it. We could hardly – in the light of the Gospel – admire his violence in killing two people.

There is also the danger, in a situation like his, of fanaticism taking over, as has been seen in religion-associated movements of our own time: Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims in the former country of Yugoslavia, Hindus and Muslims in India, and of course, the great sadness of the Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East. There is no wonder religion is so poorly thought of by some!

A true religion requires fidelity unto death, but it also rejects violence of any kind and respects other religious beliefs held in sincerity and good faith. We might profitably examine our own behaviour for any sign of bigotry, intolerance, prejudice, judgementalism – even against fellow-Catholics.

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