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27 February. 1 Maccabees chapters 14-16
The record of the short-lived Maccabean dynasty ends with the death of Simon. The “euology” to him in chapter 14 is almost unrelentingly secular: his magnificence, military conquests, bringing prosperity to the elders of the towns (though not the common folk), logistical expertise, and so on. True, he achieved a short-lived peace in the sense of absence of military threat from outside, but again that was only because he had bloodily put them all down. The eulogy ends with praise for Simon’s “striving to obey the Law” (apart, presumably, from the commandments not to kill or seek to amass wealth) and his furnishing the temple with new sacred vessels. But there is no suggestion that he was a pious or humble man, or generous to the poor, or concerned for justice, or showed any of the other marks of holiness. The euology is followed with the text of bronze tablets in his honour “on pillars on Mount Zion” (presumably outside the Temple) and “in the Temple precinct in a prominent place”.
The more I read this story, the more I am reminded of the English Victorian nobility and merchant class. They too boasted of Britain’s overseas military might. They too liked to be thought of as “obeying the Law” in the sense of seeming respectable in society, without paying much attention to personal morality in private. They too liked to talk of increasing prosperity for investors, while turning a blind eye to the working conditions of the common people. They too loved putting up memorials to members of their own class in churches with fulsome praise for their perceived (or even imaginary) virtues. I recently saw such a memorial to a major 19th century landowner, Member of Parliament and Justice of the Peace, which made much of his stand against corruption in public life. But look up his Wikipedia entry and you find that he lost he seat in Parliament for being corrupt himself.
The Maccabees, then, may be thought of as like Victorians – bringing their country out of an age of isolation and engaging with the world around; bringing prosperity, at least to the upper classes; bringing peace at home by means of military force abroad; and all in the name, ostensibly, of religion, but in the words of Paul to Timothy, “keeping up the outward appearance of religion but rejecting the inner power of it” (2 Timothy 3:5). No wonder that this book is regarded as “outside the canon of Scripture” for although it tells of an important period in Jewish history, it does not present a model to follow.
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7 November. Mark chapters 6-7
In these chapters we see Jesus giving his closest disciples – “the Twelve” – an intensive training course. For some time (months? Possibly a year or two?) they have been following him and watching him preach and heal. Now it is their turn. They are sent out in pairs (still good practice, both for ‘safeguarding’ and as an encouragement to each other, but for Jesus it may have had more to do with the Jewish rule about the testimony of two witnesses being required to be valid). They are told to take no food or money, and minimal clothing (6:7-11). I have come across one missionary organisation working within Britain that applies this rule literally to their own volunteers – they must not use any of their own money, and must stay with host families and accept hospitality from them. It’s not necessary, of course – St Paul took completely the opposite view and insisted on working for a living alongside preaching and pastoring, so as not to be a burden on his hosts. But for these disciples, it was right, as they had to learn to live by faith. The test of whether a village or household was willing to bear the cost of feeding and clothing these travelling preachers was a good indicator of whether they would accept their teaching too.
When they returned, tired from their ministry, Jesus took them away for a ‘debriefing’ and also rest and relaxation (6:30-32). But it was just at that point that they found themselves followed by the great crowd of 5000 men (and women and children). In feeding them miraculously, Jesus again gets the disciples to work – “no, I won’t feed them – you will”. By this, and the healings they had performed in the villages, he shows them that his power can be at work in them even though he was not physically with them. But it was not an easy lesson to learn – that same night when they were in difficulty in stormy weather on the lake, it was only when Jesus appeared that the storm was calmed – although he had probably knowingly sent them out on a stormy night as a test of their faith, and they failed.
When it comes to healing, though, faith is required in both the healer and the recipient, as Jesus found when he could perform few miracles in his own town where people did not believe that someone they had known well as a boy could be so extraordinary as an adult.
The power of Jesus is still available to those who believe – and yet the vast majority of his followers today, most of the time, do not use it. I include myself there. I, and most other Christians, are reluctant to try praying for people to be healed because I doubt that it will “work”. I think those who do exercise this gift must know in some intuitive way that God’s power is within them, and so must those who are healed.