In a speech fifty years ago, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. preached to the Detroit crowd before him, “I submit to you that if a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” On the eve of Veterans’ Day, today’s first reading, the only Sunday occurrence of the Book of Maccabees in the Roman Lectionary, probes us with that very question: have you discovered what is worth dying for? While other pericopes of 1 and 2 Maccabees occur in the Lectionary on weekdays, for funerals, and in commons (e.g., the account of Eleazar’s martyrdom which I often appointed for the memorial of our patron, St Thomas More), it seems prudent to spend some time reflecting on this passage, both in relationship to today’s Gospel as well as within the entire Maccabean corpus as we seek to discover what is worth dying for.
As to the former, it is clear that today’s first reading was chosen in order to show that within what Christians would come to regard as the Old Testament there is a recognition of the resurrection by the righteous therefore providing the textual ground for Jesus’ riposte to the Sadducees’ challenge in their mockery of the resurrection as an innovation in the Jewish tradition. Situated today, within this month which we began with the celebration of All Saints and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls) throughout which we pay special heed to the passing-away of all created things mirrored in the change of the seasons and anticipate our forthcoming eschatological liturgical season of Advent, the reflection on the meaningfulness of death anticipates Jesus own passing-over into which we are lead in the next two Sunday’s Gospel readings.
The importance of the Maccabean corpus within the Christian and Jewish framework cannot, I believe, be overstated. Though not included in the Masoretic Text (the Jewish canon post-second century) and having been excised from the Protestant canon by the sixteenth century reformers, this work among other things relates how Judas Maccabee instituted Hanukkah following the brief restoration of the temple, contains clear testimony about the prophesied resurrection of the dead, is the first time in history that martyrdom as we now know it is exemplified, offers evidence of intercessory prayer on behalf of the faithful departed and, as such, has retained great importance both beyond and certainly within the Catholic and Orthodox Christians who retain Maccabees in the canon of scripture (following the Septuagint). 1 Maccabees concerns itself principally with the history of the Jewish resistance to the increasing Hellenization of Seleucid rule of the Jews in Palestine while 2 Maccabees provides a more theological account of this struggle as revealing the centrality of right worship in the Jerusalem in keeping with the trajectory of the entire Hebrew Bible and thus further foreshadowing Christ as the revealer of pure sacrifice, that is, worship in spirit and in truth.
The example of the seven sons martyred as they took a stand against the Seleucid prohibition of Jewish worship (2 Maccabees 7) inspires us to this day as it has the countless others willing to die in order to give witness to their faith rather than forsake that which gives meaning to life whether in third-century Imperial Rome, seventeenth-century Imperial Japan, during the sweep of anti-clericalism during the French Revolution and the exterminations of twentieth-centry Nazi and Soviet regimes, the humble witness of Archbishop Óscar Romero or the countless martyrs in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, and beyond during our present century. As that servant of God Dr Martin King, Jr. provocatively stated fifty years ago, “if a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” What would you give your life for?