2 Maccabees 6:18-31
Eleazar, one of the foremost teachers of the Law, a man already advanced in years and of most noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth wide to swallow pig’s flesh. But he, resolving to die with honour rather than to live disgraced, went to the block of his own accord, spitting the stuff out, the plain duty of anyone with the courage to reject what it is not lawful to taste, even from a natural tenderness for his own life. Those in charge of the impious banquet, because of their long-standing friendship with him, took him aside and privately urged him to have meat brought of a kind he could properly use, prepared by himself, and only pretend to eat the portions of sacrificial meat as prescribed by the king; this action would enable him to escape death, by availing himself of an act of kindness prompted by their long friendship. But having taken a noble decision worthy of his years and the dignity of his great age and the well earned distinction of his grey hairs, worthy too of his impeccable conduct from boyhood, and above all of the holy legislation established by God himself, he publicly stated his convictions, telling them to send him at once to Hades. ‘Such pretence’ he said ‘does not square with our time of life; many young people would suppose that Eleazar at the age of ninety had conformed to the foreigners’ way of life, and because I had played this part for the sake of a paltry brief spell of life might themselves be led astray on my account; I should only bring defilement and disgrace on my old age. Even though for the moment I avoid execution by man, I can never, living or dead, elude the grasp of the Almighty. Therefore if I am man enough to quit this life here and now I shall prove myself worthy of my old age, and I shall have left the young a noble example of how to make a good death, eagerly and generously, for the venerable and holy laws.’
With these words he went straight to the block. His escorts, so recently well disposed towards him, turned against him after this declaration, which they regarded as sheer madness. Just before he died under the blows, he groaned aloud and said, ‘The Lord whose knowledge is holy sees clearly that, though I might have escaped death, whatever agonies of body I now endure under this bludgeoning, in my soul I am glad to suffer, because of the awe which he inspires in me.’
This was how he died, leaving his death as an example of nobility and a record of virtue not only for the young but for the great majority of the nation.
Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the town when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance: he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him: ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’
“Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me”
Yesterday, we talked about the challenges of remaining faithful amidst the growing trend towards secularism and atheism. As more people increasingly identify themselves as ‘Nones’ or Atheists, how the rest of us live our faith has come under greater scrutiny. The Bible tells us that at the end of days, families will turn against one another on account of God. Some version of that has begun to play out in my household. Whenever the topic comes up, more often than not it devolves into hostility, anger, shouting and banging of doors. Though I refuse to let something as ‘medieval’ as religion drive a wedge in my family, people feel what they feel, and I have to respect that. Their criticism is not unfounded. It is very difficult to defend the evil that men have done allegedly in the name of God and His Church. And though these men are nothing to me, their actions have railroaded my own attempts to bear witness to my family, some of whom identify themselves as ‘Nones’. So what happens now? Where do Catholics like me go from here? How do we move on from this?
In today’s first reading, Eleazar shows us what it means to lead by example. One has to be honest beyond reproach. Even when he was offered a clever way out of his predicament, Eleazar chose the truth and adhered to the spirit of it. Authenticity and credibility go hand in hand. We can profess to be Catholic, but if we don’t behave like Catholics, we lead others astray with our bad witness. One also has to be ready to lose one’s friends (and maybe even one’s family!) in the process. People will think it mad that we persevere in our Catholic faith with all the scandal that is plaguing God’s house. But if we leave, don’t the bad guys win? Shouldn’t we stay and try to take back the Church, try to fight the good fight from within? That’s the line I have fallen back on when questioned by friends and family about my motivations. It’s a little radical, but maybe these are radical times? Finally, one has to be prepared to die to one’s self in order to lead by example. We have to put the good of others ahead of ourselves. This point was made clear to me at All Souls’ mass this month. Death comes for all of us; it is one of the certainties of life. When we are gone, we will be remembered by how we made others feel, not how we gratified ourselves. And as Catholics, we are duty-bound to reflect this other-centeredness. Were we selfish or loving, compassionate or calculating, humble or self-aggrandizing? Our actions speak volumes about who we truly are and the faith that we profess to live by. Words will fade away, but our works endure. Let us all take time this week to ponder on that.
(Today’s Oxygen by Sharon Soo)
Prayer: We pray for the courage to live our faith authentically, even if it means being isolated from friends and family.
Thanksgiving: We give thanks to the Holy Spirit, who inspires us to discern God’s will for us, and the path that He wants us to follow.