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.