The price of witnessing to the truth

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Witnessing to the truth against those who are determined not to listen or be convinced is always difficult, and frequently brings about persecution for the one witnessing (in Greek, a martyr). When, in our gospel, (Luke 20:27-38) Jesus argues with the Sadducees, we should remember that this was not a ‘real’ debate which might have led to a changing of minds. The Sadducees were the religious fundamentalists of his day, holding that the Jewish law was fixed long ago and could not be added to or amended. Quite apart from the fact that we know it grew up over the centuries; and was adapted to deal with settled agricultural and urban living; and no longer represented the original Jewish Exodus circumstances; and that other groups of devout Jews did continually argue its interpretation; why did this group pose such an odd question to Jesus? Perhaps, behind their ridiculous question there lies a much deeper issue, one in which women, or rather wives, were seen as the possession of men? We know that for Jews who had no belief in life after death one ‘lived-on’ in one’s family, and through that progeny possessed land. These, along with the law and the temple were the bastions of Judaism. Perhaps then Jesus was implicitly challenging their notions of women as possessions?  After all, our gospels are replete with stories of his encounters with women in which he defied the law and treated them with care and respect, thereby rocking the proverbial boat of expected custom and tradition.

In Luke’s story of Jesus, Our Lord has already entered Jerusalem for his passion; he has already thrown the sellers of sacrificial beasts out of the temple where they polluted it; and already told that final and devastating parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard – the great critique of what the Jewish hierarchy were all about. His entire ministry had been to the needy and to those who in some shape or form failed to measure up to ‘correct’ Jewish behaviour. The elite in Judaism were determined to get rid of him, and I suspect this peculiar story of the seven times bride was all part of the plot. The real clash was about life now and in eternity in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus was adamant that the treating of women as commodities here and now was an unacceptable preparation for eternal life. It was his whole understanding of what God is like which was so unpalatable to his enemies and for which he died.

Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians, (2:16-3:5), was written to a group of early Christians undergoing persecution. Now we know from other Pauline letters that his ministry and the churches he established were dogged by Judaisers, groups who insisted that to be saved in Christ the believer had to adopt the entire Jewish law. We witness their activities and the effect they had in Galatians, Colossians and Romans, and Paul’s vigorous and even violent responses to them. I suspect that the “bigoted and evil people” Paul complains about in Thessalonians were also Jews. In Greek they are described as ‘poneron’, workers of satanic wickedness, and not simply as pagans or gentiles – terms Paul normally used for those heathens who did not know God. At this early period, Christians were largely persecuted by Jews, who brought indictments against them before the pagan authorities; rather than any state intervention as happened later. All early prosecutions against Christians had to be brought by individuals who then bore the legal costs of the case. So those prosecuting had to have a real will to see things through in the courts, and most pagans at the time would not have recognised the significance of this ‘cult’, unlike Jews who did. In these circumstances, Paul writes to encourage and support fellow Christians, reminding them of Christ, their model, whose ‘fortitude’ they can emulate. In Thessalonika we read the story of the continuing battle for the faith and the price paid by one small community in northern Greece.

The story of the torture and deaths of the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees (7:1-2, 9-14), illustrates the period in the 2nd century BC when Judaism was just becoming familiar with the idea of resurrection to eternal life in God, and in which living according to the Jewish law was fundamental to that vision and hope. The Seleucid heirs of Alexander the Great, who ruled Syria and Palestine, wanted everyone to become pagans and worship the Greek gods. The Maccabees were a group who rejected this attempt at assimilation and incorporation by the Greeks, and eventually led a successful revolt against their enemies. So the accounts of their martyrs and the stance they took would have been very important both to Jews, at the time occupied by the Romans, and to Christians of the 1st century AD as they searched for an identity at once both Jewish in its origins and then passing beyond Judaism as it reached out to pagan converts with its offer of continuing life in and with God – a life beyond the confines of this world. We can see then how the Maccabean early interest in resurrection would have been of great interest to Christians. Here the seven young men are prepared to set aside all hope of continuing earthly life, and thoughts of marriage and the production of sons, in order to remain faithful to their beliefs. Indeed, it is precisely these beliefs – in eternal life with God – that sustain them and provide them with the conviction they need to battle against the whiles of their Greek masters in their bid for complete control of their lives. Sometimes there must be things, ideas, truths, for which we are prepared to die. The clothing of our baptismal rite speaks of us ‘bringing unstained into eternal life’ the Christian reborn in Christ.

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