When titles do not triumph – Wednesday, 33rd week in ordinary time – 2 Maccabees 7:1, 20-31

In 167 BC, the Greek King Antiochus IV Epiphanes issued an edict which cancelled the concessions made by his father to the Jews. He prohibited the religious customs of the Jews and imposed Greek religious customs. The Jews were compelled to violate the law and its ordinances. Jewish practices were forbidden and the forbidden sacrifices of unclean animals were imposed. The observances of the Sabbath and the traditional feast were cancelled. The rite of circumcision was banned. The Jews were compelled to eat pork and copies of the law were ordered to be destroyed and possession of them was outlawed. The Jews were now forced to worship the Greek gods. Pagan altars, temples and shrines were built throughout the land. To crown it all, in December 167, the cult to Olympian Zeus was instituted in the temple. An altar to Zeus was erected and swine’s flesh was offered on it. Disobedience in falling in line with any of the above carried a death penalty.

The Jewish reaction to this vile verdict was mixed. While the Gentiles accepted the king’s command the Jews did not have a uniform reaction. Many Jews welcomed the edict; some out of fear. However, many Jews refused to comply and even opposed it to death. The book of Maccabees gives us two examples of Jewish Heroism. Today’s narrative focuses on the second one. Maccabees tells the story of a family of seven sons and an unnamed mother who sacrifice their lives for the cause of religious freedom. No scene other than Jerusalem and Judea is ever established in the narrative, yet Antioch is a possible setting for chapter seven since the king seems so thoroughly on his own turf.

When the family is arrested for breaking the laws imposed by the King, they are tortured by the King who attempts to feed them swine flesh. The mother, who acts with a woman’s reasoning and a man’s courage, encourages her sons to refuse to obey the King and all choose martyrdom. The death of the family is the culmination of a martyrology that lasts from 2 Maccabees 6:7–7:42 (the first of its kind in the Bible).

“Last of all, the mother died, after her sons” (7:41). With only this brief statement the unnamed mother’s death is recorded. She dies after witnessing each of her seven sons cruelly tortured. She bore the deaths of her sons with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She is the focus of the story as “especially admirable and worthy of honourable memory” (7:20). Because her hope was in the Lord, she had encouraged each of her sons, in Aramaic or Hebrew, to persevere. Addressing these sons and not Antiochus, she claims not to comprehend how life came to them in her womb, even as she expresses confidence in the Creator, who “will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws” (7:23). What mother, beholding the brutal deaths of seven sons, could speak such words?

Ironically, the king is the only one in the story who loses control. Antiochus’s brutal efforts are completely ineffective. Death has lost its power in the face of obedience to the laws of the ancestors and belief in God’s mercy and resurrection of the dead. Faith in the resurrection cancels all fears of earthly death for the faithful. The likes of Antiochus and his ideology do not win the day. Seven brothers and their widowed mother have shown conclusively that God disciplines the faithful, but never withdraws mercy.

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Give me Red – Saturday, 32nd week in ordinary time – Wisdom 18;14-16: 19:6-9

The general purpose of the third and final part of the book of Wisdom is to demonstrate, by a series of contrasts, how wisdom preserved the people of Israel in the Exodus. This part of the book (11:2-19:22) can be divided in to five parts or five examples intending to show that Israel has benefitted by the very things that punish Egypt.

1.That God gave them water from the rock instead of the plague from the Nile.
2.That God gave them quail instead of the plague of little animals.
3.That the elements bring favour to Israel instead of punishment.
4.That the pillar of fire was given to the Hebrews instead of the plague of darkness and
5.The ten plagues and the exodus by which God punished the Egyptians and glorified Israel

The tone of this part of the book is more like a homily and the author takes liberties in explaining the text of the Book of Exodus. The author recalls for the Alexandrian Jews for whom this book as primarily written, that once before the Jews had suffered in Egypt, the very land they now lived and then, as he does now, the Lord comes to their rescue. It thus provides a historical basis for trust in God. The exodus events are recounted as an image of God’s final intervention on behalf of the just. The text of today is part of the fifth example; the death for both Egypt (18:5-9) and Israel (18:20-25) and then the events at the Sea (19:1-21)

The fifth example begins with a general summary of the Exodus event. Following the authors cast of thought, the Egyptians were to suffer a fate proportionate to the murder of Israel’s children (verse5). The passage of today elaborates on the traditional accounts of this most dreadful punishment.

When the Egyptians resolved to destroy the Israelite children, God killed the Egyptian first born and later drowned their army in the Red Sea; while thus punishing the Egyptians, God also in the same events glorified his people (18:5-8). Then follows a detailed description of the events as the author sets the stage carefully. It is at midnight, in the quiet and darkness, that the personified word of God appears. As Israel was celebrating the Passover, the Word of God brought death to the Egyptian first born (18:20-25). At his coming, the scene changes from peace to mourning, and from darkness to a disturbed mixture of ghostly manifestations. The Egyptians then foolishly resolved to pursue the Israelites; thus, they experienced the completion of the punishments begun in the tenth plague, and Israel experienced a wondrous journey (19:1-5).

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Lost with the creature? Seek the creator! – Friday, 32nd week in ordinary time – Wisdom 13:1-9

This text of today forms part of a larger section of the book of Wisdom ranging from 13:1 –17:17 and can be divided into two parts. Our text for today is the first part on nature worship and 13:10 -15:17 on idol worship. When we read the text of today, we realize that the mind of the author shows itself as more ‘understanding’ in 13:1-9 where he distinguishes one form of paganism, namely the worship of the elements, nature and heavenly bodies from the more condemnable sin of idolatry. The theme of today’s text is seen in verse one and nine, namely; God’s human creatures (which obviously includes us) should be able to see God’s power at work in the world. So, if we were to describe what is going on in today’s text, we could well describe it in the phrase, ‘missing the woods for the trees.

The first part of the text of today is directed against the ‘cult of nature’ and the nature worshippers in Alexandria. These may have included several Jews who are now influenced by the Hellenistic way of thought and life. The text begins by calling out the foolish and is directed primarily at the Hellenist (the Greek speaking people). They who were struck by the overpowering beauty of nature were fascinated by the energy displayed in natural forces, and stopped en route in their search of God. They thought that nature in itself was god.

The author calls such men out for their foolishness because they who have studied God’s creation and works now considered the works themselves as gods. They began to get distracted by the beauty and energy of created things and have failed to arrive at the knowledge of Him who created these things. They worshipped the creature instead of the creator. The works of nature are great and mighty but he who made them is exceedingly so and he can be known through these works.

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Little knowledge is dangerous, not a little wisdom! Thursday, 32nd week in ordinary time – Wisdom 7:22- 8:1

Our text of today forms part of a larger section of Wisdom 6:22-11:1 and deals with the nature of Wisdom and the author’s quest for her. We know that in reality this book was written by a Jew who desired to caution the Jews of Alexandria in Egypt to follow the wisdom the of the Jewish faith and in Yahweh who is the creator of all things. The author, identifies himself with the wise king Solomon in the Old Testament so as to reach out to his brothers and sisters who were influenced by Hellenism while rapidly giving up their faith. He seeks to praise and celebrate the beauty of Wisdom and describes how he sought her out. In the verses of today and those that follow, the relationship between Solomon and wisdom set forth as a model for all the wise, so that the readers of the book will take the proper steps to become the true rulers of the earth (1:1)

Today’s passage opens with a very long sentence which applauds the venerable qualities of wisdom. If you look at verse 22 it has 21 characteristics of wisdom. For the Jews, seven was a perfect number and multiplied by 3, which is the number of divine persons, gives you the 21 characteristics of wisdom numbering to absolute perfection. The result is a picture showing wisdom as identical with God in all but the most subtle senses, somehow distinct, somehow the same. The remarkable description of wisdom in verses 22-23 is made up of terms borrowed in large part from Greek, especially stoic philosophy. Obviously, the author wishes to show that whatever words might be used to describe such Greek philosophical concepts as the logos or world soul, might also be used to characterize the biblical concept of wisdom.

The author then singles out two of these characteristics for further comment. Wisdom is mobile because of her purity and divine origin. She is omnipotent in producing holiness because she is fairer than the sun and wickedness cannot prevail over her. Much of the terminology used in verses 22-23 is borrowed from Greek philosophy and religion, where these qualities were attributed to Isis, the pagan goddess of wisdom and to a world soul or logos. In using this vocabulary, the author wishes to show that it is really the divine Wisdom that possesses these attributes and not some pagan goddess.

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Trifles and Titles  – Wednesday – 32nd week in ordinary time – Wisdom 6: 1-11

The first part of the book of Wisdom consists of Chapters 1:1- 6:21. Our text finds its self at the tail end of this large section. The entire section is divided into five parts arranged concentrically. The central part is verse 3:1-4:19 and contains the authors teaching on retribution. Today’s text is an exhortation to seek wisdom written specifically to those in power but generically to all of us who read God’s word. The writer takes on the same theme with which he began the book in 1:1 and concludes this section of the book with a warning of impending judgment.

Once again as in 1:1 the Jewish writer calls on judges, rulers and kings to listen to his words of wisdom. Three groups of powerful people; monarchs, civil rulers and judges in a court of law are singled out. Listening is different from hearing. Listening involves the whole of ones being. Listening involves a spirit of openness and perhaps the constant hearing of God’s message has fallen on deaf ears. Now those in power are called to give ear, to learn and understand. Clearly, because one sits in a seat of authority, because one may boast of being in control of nations or may have the power to judge over peoples, does not make one infallible. We have seen governments fall, monarch fail and the high and mighty thrown in jail. Therefore, to those in power is the call to give ear, to listen and to understand.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Often those that sit in the corridors of power forget that it is God who chose them. King Saul was appointed by God and yet he forgot that dominion and sovereignty was given to him by the Lord. To those who forget, the author has several strong words of caution. God will ‘search out their works and inquire into their plans.” Clearly, accountability will be demanded from those to whom authority over others has been granted and while some may be dazzled with the seat of authority they occupy, that too will one day end. And lest we forget, the reality is that we are but ‘servants of HIS kingdom.’

God is clear, when those who sit in the seats of judgement will themselves be judged, the judgment against them for their failure to rule wisely and work hard will be ‘swift and terrible.’ The higher the authority the greater is the punishment for failure. Each will be punished according to the responsibility that they were given; more for those in ‘high places’

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