given on Sunday, April 28, 2013: Sometimes we get so involved in the world about us, that we do not see how our Christian lifestyle is slipping away. Here is my question, are we like the Maccabees or are we succumbing to the secular world?
April’s Apocrypha Lesson: Meet the Maccabees
Why in the world do we need to meet the Maccabees? Reviewing the books in the apocrypha, I could not understand why there are four books of the Maccabees. True, in the New Testament there are the first, second and third letters of John, but they are letters and each one has a specific purpose. But the four books of the Maccabees simply do not follow any recognizable style or purpose that connects them. The connection appears to be found in history.
The Maccabees were a priestly tribe. As the Greek or Hellenistic Empire grew through the ancient world surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, cultures clashed. The Maccabees struggled to maintain their Judean culture under the Greek rule. The Greeks struggled to supersede the Jewish culture. The story, as outlined in the four books of the apocrypha, is filled with the details of these clashes.
The Greeks outlawed the practice of circumcision. The Jewish parents continued to practice it. Defying the Greek law lead to the death of many Jewish parents. Yet the Maccabees persisted and even when one leader died, the task of maintaining the faith continued:
1 Maccabees 2:49-50: Now the days drew near for Mattathias to die, and he said to his sons: “Arrogance and scorn have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger. Now, my children, show zeal for the law and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors.” the NRSV
The apocrypha includes the works written during that time between the prophecy of Malachi and the birth of Jesus. The stories continue to demonstrate how the Jewish people struggled to maintain their faith in God despite all the cultural challenges to their beliefs.
The first book of Maccabees includes the story of the Greek rulers taking over even the temples. The Greeks forced themselves into the temples to put their own pagan gods into place. They defiled the altars by placing the very types of sacrifices forbidden by the Jewish priests. Greeks demanded taxes from the temple in order to have more money for themselves. The stories continue to demonstrate how the Hellenistic culture was forced upon the Jewish culture.
Consider this: How is our Christian faith being challenged by the secular world? Are we able to demonstrate as much determination as the Maccabees did to protect our standards? Are we able to withstand the constant pressure to give up our Christian practices? Are we determined to protect our faith practices over the secular practices swirling around us?
The four books of the Maccabees shares how the faithful fought back. The Jewish people refused to give in to the Gentiles now practicing the pagan religions or following the Greek culture. The story turns into one of rebellion as outlined in the second book.
When the Greek leaders decided to enter the temple and confiscate the treasury, the Maccabees resisted. The story of this family and all the sons who stood up against the Hellenistic demands and influences demonstrates faithfulness to a degree I cannot comprehend. The brothers were tortured and killed before their mother, but even she defied the authorities encouraging her sons throughout the horrific ordeal and even through her own death. These are the words she spoke to her seventh son as he was tortured and killed:
2 Maccabees 7: 27-29: But, leaning close to him [her 7th son], she spoke in their native language as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.” the NKJV
I cannot imagine having the strength of faith, of character, to conduct myself so faithfully.
In the testimony of the seven sons and their mother, as recorded in 2 Maccabees, also brings to light two theological points that continue to be discussed today: (a) the creation of the world from nothing, and (b) the possibility of life after death. I was not surprised to learn this about the Jewish stand on creation, but I was surprised to hear the reference to eternal life.
Yet, the Maccabees’ stories continue. After the death of the Priest Eleazar and his family, the next Jewish leader Judas, also called Maccabeus, continues the story further. He becomes a strategic leader, gathering up the faithful secretly, creating an army that takes back the temple and purifies it for the Jewish people. The historical record of Judas is considered proof that God listened to the Jewish faithful and guided them through the conflict successfully.
So why should we meet the Maccabees? Today, as we find ourselves challenged to protect our own Christian beliefs and practices, the stories can give us models. Hopefully no one will ever have to endure the horrendous forms of torture and death as Eleazar’s family, but we need to identify the challenges to our faith and find ways to strengthen our faith.
Humanity sees behaviors repeated in cultures worldwide, in all the different time periods, and yet today. Just in the course of the last decade, stop and consider what secular changes challenge the Christian practices.
The first thing that comes to my mind is the simply the attitude to maintaining a day of worship, a day of rest. First blue laws were written, then loop holes developed (such as how alcohol can be sold on Sundays).
A second one which is much more recent, that is filling up Sundays with athletic competitions. Even if one is accustomed to practicing worship each Sunday, now kids athletic competitions are schedule throughout the day. The importance of worship is lost.
In reading through the various study materials concerning the Maccabees, I stumbled across this little piece of history: When the Greek were trying to instill their culture, after capturing the temple, they built an arena for athletic competition. It was built in a position that placed it above the temple. This clearly demonstrated the attitude the Greeks held toward the Jewish faith—athletics first, faith comes lower in the priority list.
I could not help but see the parallel in today’s secular world. Athletic competition and even the practices for it seem to have more value in our society than our faith does. Consider how much players are paid versus how much the religious leaders are paid. Figure out how much money fans spend on tickets, parking passes, clothing and even food in order to attend a sporting event and compare that to what happens tithing in our churches.
Meeting the Maccabees in the first two books is different from meeting them in the third and fourth book. The last two books have entirely different writing styles and purposes. The third book is a novel. This is surprising since it is published as though it were part of the historical narrative.
Another reason including a novel is surprising is that today typically novels would not be considered a reading for faith development. Yet, when I read through Father Tim’s stories from Mitford, I found lessons in faith. In fact, his favorite verse was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me.” the NKJV. This is a verse that guides me through each and every day, and it was the basis for an entire series of novels.
Finally, there is the fourth book of Maccabees. Another entirely different style of literature, this book is a series of biographical sketches on various martyrs or heroes in the Jewish culture. In fact the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha indicates that these stories are “part moral treatise, part funeral oration.” Another words, they are like eulogies in today’s culture.
“The value?” you might ask. Every culture has historical personalities that have led the people to understand how to live. We have legends in our American culture like Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Adams, and the list goes on. There are legends from other countries and cultures like Gandhi or Dr. Schweitzer. And think of all the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestants who died during World War II, all have stories that guide us in our daily lives.
This week was the day to remember the holocaust victims. Having just finished the movie and discussion over Schindler’s List, the examples of all the people who died helping one another explains one more time why providing literature like the fourth book of Maccabees can be inspirational.
Meeting the Maccabees may seem more like a history lesson, but knowing history helps us to prevent repeating the tragedies of the past and to encourage us to maintain our faith, our principles, and our Christian lifestyle. Knowing the history of the Maccabees and the many other faith-based cultures can develop our personal resolve to live a God-centered, faith-disciplined life despite all the secular pressures in our culture today. The stories provide us hope, too. Hope that our lives serve as models for future generations wanting to transform the world into a Christian community where God’s grace reigns forever and ever.
Day after day we struggle.
We find ourselves challenged
by demands at work, at play and at home.
Sometimes we feel weak and tired
unable to fend off the secular influences.
Day after day we resolve to put our faith in you.
We wake up to grey skies
yet we know the sun still shines.
We feel so tired as the day fades,
but we know night’s rest renews.
Day after day we begin anew.
Thank you for your grace
when we tire or make mistakes.
Thank you for inspiring words
written generation after generation.
Guide us each and every day.
Be with us as we battle
challenges to our faith.
Help us to be models of faith
transformed by your love. –Amen