Today's First Reading comes from the Second Book of Maccabees. Written sometime in the two centuries before Jesus' birth, Second Maccabees tells the story of how Greek world leaders tried to force the Jews to give up their religion and how some brave Jews resisted to the point of death.
We hear part of one of those tales of martyrdom in our reading. Seven brothers and their mother were arrested for refusing to violate the Jewish Law, which was God's Law as far as they were concerned. The king was so intent upon homogenizing his realm that he wanted everyone to follow the same customs, namely, Greek customs. Jews were ordered to give up their dietary laws, refrain from circumcising their children, and sacrifice to Greek gods. Many, like the mother and her seven sons, simply would not do so. They were ready to die instead.
One of the brothers makes this position clear when he speaks up for his family after being ordered to eat pork (an unclean food for the Jews) or suffer torture. The brother confidently responds, "What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors."
So, one by one, they die. The king, in a rage, orders each of the oldest six brothers to undergo extreme torture before they die. The kings' servants cut out their tongues, scalp them, chop off their hands and feet, and burn them alive while their mother and brothers look on. All the while, they remain firm in their decision. They will not violate the Law at any cost.
Further, they are certain that they will receive a reward for their brave actions, certainly not in the present life but in the eternal life to come. One of the brothers articulates this belief just before he dies when he tells the king, “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for His laws that we are dying.” Death is not the end. There is another life to come, an eternal life, one that is far more important than the current, earthly life. It is this life that the mother and her sons are reaching out to embrace, and that knowledge gives them courage to endure whatever torture the king can dish out.
The third brother offers more perspective on the value of earthly things compared to that of heavenly, eternal things. Just before his tongue, hands, and feet are cut off, he calmly says, “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of His laws I disdain them; from Him I hope to receive them again.” He knows where his life has come from; God has given him all he has, even his very self, and he is quite willing to give it all back, including himself, rather than violate God's Law.
The fourth brother, too, speaks up bravely before his death. “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by Him;” he announces, “but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” Here is a warning. The brother lays his life down because he is positive he will receive something even greater in return. But there will be nothing greater for the king.
When all the brothers have been martyred except for the youngest, the king appeals to the mother and urges her to tell her son to eat pork and live. The mother leans close to her son and speaks to him in their native language. Perhaps the king thinks she is pressing her son to give in, but she is not. Instead, she is reminding him of his brothers' bravery and of the reward God has promised. She urges him not to be afraid and to accept his martyrdom so that she may have him back in eternal life. The son listens to his mother and obeys. He refuses to follow the king's command and is killed along with his brothers. Finally, the mother herself becomes a martyr.
All eight have fought the good fight, to use St. Paul's phrase. They have won the race. They have held on to their faith until the end, enduring the worst possible pressure and torture. They knew their priorities and followed them without fail. God and His Law were more important than anything in the world. Can we Christians say the same when earthly rulers and laws challenge our faith? Do we stand up for what we believe? Would we be willing to become martyrs like the Jewish mother and her seven sons?