32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Macc 7: 1-2, 9-14
2 Thess 2: 16-3:5
Lk 20: 27-38
When I was a boy my parents had this big old bible, the one with the gold on the edges of the pages, and it had all these full page color paintings of bible stories in it. There was the story of the Good Samaritan, the Woman at the Well, and the Fall of Jericho. I liked to look at the pictures because, heck, I was a kid.
I remember one picture in particular, that of the third brother in today’s first reading. He had his eyes raised to heaven and his hands on the chopping block, and a thin stream of blood was flowing out of his mouth. I know, pretty gruesome, but it isn’t the drawing of his hands and mouth that has stuck with me all these years. It is his eyes. The artist had captured almost a look of ecstasy on the man’s face. And I still remember the words written on the page, the same words we heard him say this morning. And I wondered what it meant to be raised to new life. I still ponder that today.
There are two themes to today’s readings. The first is conscience and the decisions we will all be called to make for our faith. The second is the reason why we make those decisions, the promise of what is to come for those who endure.
The story of the Maccabees isn’t read very often in our liturgy, and in fact, is not even included in Protestant bibles. But I think we see a lot of parallels between their story and what we are experiencing in our world today. What was happening to force such choices on the Jews and why were they so stubborn in their opposition?
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, there was a struggle for control of Israel, Egypt and Syria. Eventually the Seleucids from Syria gained control and began a program of Hellenization that threatened to force the Jews to abandon their monotheism for the Greek’s paganism. They erected a shrine to the Greek god Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem, outlawed circumcision, and forced the Jews to either eat pork as a sign of abandoning their law or be tortured and killed. That is the choice that faced the seven brothers in today’s reading.
To the Jews, this was more than a religious struggle. This was a struggle for their identity as a people. They saw the Law as being both a sign of their fidelity to God and a symbol of themselves as a nation. It is easy to see why they would resist the Greek’s effort to assimilate them. They could not in good conscience go against the Law. They chose death over assimiliation.
We talk a lot about conscience today, don’t we? Your conscience is the thing that guides you in your choices, and it does not form in a vacuum. It is your sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and it must always keep in mind the consequences of your actions.
The movie, Hacksaw Ridge, opened this week. It is the story of a World War II conscientious objector who faced the difficult decision of how to serve his country without taking human life. He went on to save 75 men’s lives during the battle of Okinawa, and received the Medal of Honor for it. We celebrate his heroic story, and it is inspiring to us all. In the movie he prays, “Lord, help me get one more.”
Most of us will never have to face a life or death choice like his, or the Maccabees. But we are witnessing Christians in the world today who are making that choice daily. Coincidentally also in Syria and other areas of the Middle East, Christians are being forced to choose between conversion to radical Islam or torture and death. What drives these Christians to choose death rather than go against their consciences is their faith in Jesus and his message of hope. I wonder how we would choose in the same situation.
When we hear these horror stories, what do we think? Do we stop and say a quick prayer for the Christians who have died? Do we do more and offer financial support to groups who are trying to help them? Do we write our senators pushing to grant more of them refugee status? Do we even notice the horror of it all because it is happening so far away? A movie about a soldier who saved 75 men without lifting a gun or firing a shot we find heroic because we all recognize and agree that war is horrible and to be avoided. But would anyone go to see a movie about a lone Christian who kneels outside the local abortion clinic or stands vigil outside a prison gas chamber, or the spouse desperate to save a dying marriage, praying, “Lord, let me save one more”? Those are the life and death things we must deal with. Those are our battlefields.Those are the tough choices we need to make, those everyday decisions on how to view our fellow human beings.
Consider the upcoming election. I think that most if not all of us have been struggling with our consciences on how we should vote. What does it mean to vote your conscience, and what are the consequences of our vote? I think so often we choose our faith based upon our politics and not the other way around. Do you see your vote as an act of faith? As an act of discipleship? As an act of heroism? Do you seek the Church’s guidance on the issues before making a decision? Do you separate church and state in your own heart, as well as in the public square, or do you view all things through your eyes of faith?
You will form your conscience whether you want to or not. It is formed by your life experiences, your moral upbringing and belief, and your faith, or lack of faith, in God. As faithful Catholics, we are called to constantly be forming our consciences. It is not that right and wrong are constantly changing, it’s that our understanding of right and wrong develops and grows. As Catholics, we are required to form our consciences within the teachings and guidance of the Church. Not because we blindly follow the law, but because, like the Maccabees, our faith defines who we are. Our relationship with God is central to our lives, because we are all called to build up the kingdom. We can abide by changes in thought and practice in society to a certain extent, but eventually we will be called upon to make a choice. It seems that more and more society’s norms are in direct opposition to our consciences. Some choices are easy and obvious, others are actually between life and death.
It is a good thing that we have a conscience to guide us, and it is a good thing that it is often a struggle to determine the correct course of action in a given situation. However, as the writer Robert Royal once said, “When someone wrestles with their conscience, it’s remarkable how often he wins.” What do you do when your conscience tells you the right thing to do is the opposite of what you want to do? What do you do when the consequences are just too dire, so you go against your conscience? I think that every time we choose to go against our conscience it dies a little bit, and it takes a long time to build it up again. It takes courage to follow a properly formed conscience.
The thing that gave the Maccabees the courage to resist was their hope in what was to come. There was a growing belief in Judaism at the time that there was an afterlife, that they would be raised again by their God to a glorious future. It was this hope that drove them to resist. It was that hope that gave them their conviction.
In Jesus’ time there were still divisions in Judaism around the existence of an afterlife and especially of the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, and it was they who were testing Jesus in the gospel today. They were focusing on the letter of the law and Jesus was trying to help them see the bigger picture. He was focusing on the hope of the message, and they would not allow themselves to see it. They were focusing on death, He was focusing on life.
But then, Jesus always focused on life. He never said it would be easy. In fact, he predicted the opposite. But he always said it would be worth it. And he promised to never leave us orphans. He is always there to strengthen us and give us the grace we need to make the right choices, no matter how hard they are. As St. Paul tells us today,
But the Lord is faithful;
He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God
and to the endurance of Christ.