John Lilburne's journal about 2 Maccabees 6:18-31, today's reading about Eleazar.



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1206 L Tue 20 Nov 2001

For today's Mass the first reading is 2 Maccabees 6:18-31. Here is the text from the Australian lectionary, which uses the Jerusalem Bible:

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 gray hairs, worthy too of his impeccable conduct from boyhood, and above all of the 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 out 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.

What does it bring to mind for me? Death before dishonour. Martyrdom as rational choice. The importance in the motivation of individuals of example.

Groups form in society with particular stigmas. People make clear that they are members of a group e.g. skin-heads, goths. They can be identified by ties, high heels, uniforms, etc.

Dietary laws are often used in religious groups. The Catholic Church is an example. According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

1250. The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

1251. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Bishops' Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

1252. The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

1253. The Bishops' Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

Not the clearest of legislation. 1251 there is to be abstinence, 1253 the bishops can decide not to have abstinence. But as a whole it seems to recommend abstinence, but leaves the decision to the Conference of Bishops.

Divisions occur over stigmas. The passage highlights some of the divisions: Catholics accept Maccabees as part of the Bible, most other Christians do not. From the Gospel of Mark 7:19 we have the comment on what Jesus says "(Thus he declared all foods clean.)". But the Council at Jerusalem highlights there was "no small dissension and debate" (Acts 15:2) on this.

But there will be groups in society. These will be based on the actions of individuals, such as Eleazar.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 20 November 2001.