This week the Church presents excerpts from the Old Testament Book of Maccabees. The Book of Maccabees describes a terrifying conflict as the Israelites are afflicted with a civil war that leads to the invasion of their lands by the armies of the Greek overlord, Antiochus Epiphanes.
Antiochus Epiphanes seizes control of the city of Jerusalem and imposes martial law on the Israelites, compelling them to perform public acts of obeisance to his authority, acts which meant that the Israelites would have to not only deny their cultural and religious heritage, but worse, they would have to blaspheme God and commit sacrilege.
Many of the Israelites resist and this results in a great and terrible war.
The heroes of the Book of Maccabees are those who resisted, even to the point of death, rather than comply with laws that would compel them to deny their faith in the God of Israel.
Yesterday we heard about the death of a courageous man named Eleazar, who died, rather than violate the dictates of the Law of Moses. Today we hear another tale of resistance. A man named Mattathias kills agents of king Antiochus Epiphanes who are compelling the Israelites to worship false gods. The violence is just escalating!
What are to make of these texts?
One way is to read today’s text spiritually, and in the context of an overarching theme of the entire Bible- the danger of worshipping false gods. The “capital” sin of the Bible is idolatry and the false gods of the Bible do not just have the form of mythological beings created out of stone or metal. Instead the most dangerous of the false gods are created out of our own desires- desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors.
The gods we create out of our desires for these things are utterly monstrous and they consume the life out of our souls.
The false gods created out of desires must be resisted, if not, the false gods we create will undermine and destroy us.
The violence of the Book of Maccabees is unsettling. It is also not unique in terms of the Bible. The Bible is a “book of battles”, as it tells not just the story of God, but the story of humanity and human relationships are wrought and riven by conflict.
The violent stories of the Bible do not justify our violence, but compel us to contend with the truth of the human condition. The world can be a dangerous place. Sin, death and the devil are not abstractions, but realities that afflict us. Christians are not to be lost in a fog of idealism, but are to be fully immersed in the reality of human experience. This immersion in reality necessitates that we be honest about not only the great good that we are capable of, but evil as well.
Eventually, the rebel Israelites will prevail over Antiochus Epiphanes and drive him out, but this will not end the afflictions of the Israelites. There will be new overlords who will demand the obeisance of the Israelites. The bloody war of the Maccabees prepares the way for the Romans.
This is the situation that afflicts the Israelites during the time of Christ’s revelation, and it is Christ’s concern in his Gospel for today.
Christ is realistic about Rome and its power. Eventually, the Israelite resentment towards Roman rule will lead to a violent confrontation and another bloody war.
Christ foresees that this confrontation will lead to the Israelites’ defeat and a situation worse than that of the catastrophe of 587 BC, when the Babylonians brought the Kingdom of David to a disastrous end.
Christ the Lord’s prediction comes to pass in 70 AD, when the Romans invade Jerusalem and raze the city and the temple to the ground.
God in Christ had revealed that despite this catastrophe, a new kind of Israel would endure, and that this new Israel would have within itself the power to outlast worldly empires, not by force of violence, but by a love that manifests itself in self-sacrifice, in a willingness to forgive, in aligning itself with the vulnerable and by bestowing mercy, even on those for whom that mercy may not be deserved.
When the Church, in her saints and martyrs proves herself capable of all this, we are the New Israel that Christ promised would have the power to bring his peace into the world.