We don’t often get readings from Maccabees in our Sunday lectionary. However, today’s reading is the great story of the 90-year-old hero Eleazar.
I just returned from Sacramento where I got to celebrate my Mom’s 80th birthday. I’m so grateful to know so many women and men who have lived according to God’s promises and continue to act with righteous joy in their eight and ninth decades.
“Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man of advanced age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork. But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he spat out the meat, and went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture, as people ought to do who have the courage to reject the food which it is unlawful to taste even for love of life.
Those in charge of that unlawful ritual meal took him aside privately, because of their long acquaintance with him, and urged him to bring meat of his own providing, such as he could legitimately eat, and pretend to to be eating some of the meat of the sacrifice prescribed by he king; in this way he would escape the death penalty, and be treated kindly because of their old friendship with him. But Eleazar made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his grey hair, and of the admirable life he had lived since childhood; and so he declared that above all he would be loyal to the holy laws given by God.
He told them to send him at once to the abode of the dead, explaining: “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young people would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age. Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws.”
Eleazar spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture. Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness. When he was about to die under the blows, Eleazar groaned and said: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from the scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to God.”
This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of courage and an unforgettable example of virtue no only for the young but for the whole nation.”–2 Maccabees 6:18-31
Here’s a nice reflection by Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon on Eleazar’s social conscience