If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.
3 March. 2 Maccabees chapters 12-15
These last chapters of the second book of Maccabees summarise the whole of the struggles of Judas and Simon against the Syrian armies, to the point where after the defeat of the Syrian general Nicanor “the city has remained in possession of the Hebrews” (15:37). The whole period, so reminiscent of the present fighting in Syria with its multiple factions fired by religious and political zeal, does not make pleasant reading, even if tales of the destruction of tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians are exaggerating the figures. Just a couple of points stand out as worth a mention:
One is the frequency with which political agreements and military truces are broken and the lack of trust between opponents. Many times in the course of these books, enemy leaders hold peace talks – usually because one side or the other has suffered a heavy defeat and realises that they dare not risk another confrontation in the short term – but nearly every time the peace is broken, often very quickly. We see this in today’s Syria too, where only last week a short truce intended to bring humanitarian aid to Ghouta failed almost before it had begun, and before any aid could be delivered. The human spirit, especially in times of war, is inclined to mistrust those who have been opposed to us, and only with the aid of the Spirit of God can true peace be established.
It seems a chance had been missed by Nicanor in chapter 14, when he did maintain an agreed truce for long enough for his opponent Judas Maccabeus to lay down his arms, get married and settle down (so presumably years rather than months). But he made the mistake of listening to one man – Lacimus, a former high priest in Jerusalem who had an axe to grind – and started treating Judas badly, thereby prompting a renewal of hostilities that led to his own defeat and death in battle. One of the commonest cries of prayer to God recorded in battle is “How long, O Lord?” – usually meaning “how long until war stops and there will be peace in our land?” But the answer to the prayer lies in the hands of men as much as with God.
The other point concerns devotion to the Temple. We read that in the final battle, “Their concern for their wives and children, their brothers and relatives, had shrunk to minute importance; their chief and greatest fear was for the consecrated Temple.” (15:18). That, perhaps, was their greatest mistake – by these last centuries before Christ, the Temple which had twice been rebuilt had become not merely the centre of religious worship but a focus of adoration in itself – in a word, Idolatry. They did not realise that they were breaking not only the commandment to worship nothing other than God himself, but also the ones about loving one’s neighbours and honouring one’s parents.
It is not surprising, then, that in the Gospel reading for today [4 March when I am actually writing this] Jesus condemns those who have turned the Temple into a market place, reminding them that its purpose is a place of prayer. He then says to the Temple authorities “Destroy this temple” [probably pointing to himself], “and in three days I will raise it up.” Their reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”, shows that they fail to understand his point, that as God in human flesh he, and not the building, should be the focus of their worship from now on. If the Maccabees and their zealous followers had paid more attention to their wives and children instead of arming themselves to fight to the death for the sake of the Temple, how would Jewish – or world- history have turned out differently?