Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus the Third of Syria, was a descendant of one of Alexander's generals. Antiochus Epiphanes had been a hostage in Rome before he became king of Syria in the year 137.
At that time there appeared in the land of Israel a group of traitorous Jews who had no regard for the Law and who had a bad influence on many of our people. They said: Let us come to terms with the Gentiles, for our refusal to associate with them has brought us nothing but trouble. This proposal appealed to many people, and some of them became so enthusiastic about it that they went to the king and received from him permission to follow Gentile customs. They built in Jerusalem a stadium like those in the Greek cities. They had surgery performed to hide their circumcision, abandoned the holy covenant, started associating with Gentiles, and did all sorts of other evil things.
Antiochus then issued a decree that all nations in his empire should abandon their own customs and become one people. All the Gentiles and even many of the Israelites submitted to this decree. They adopted the official pagan religion, offered sacrifices to idols, and no longer observed the Sabbath.
On the fifteenth day of the month of Kislev in the year 145, King Antiochus set up the Horrible Abomination on the altar of the Temple, and pagan altars were built in the towns throughout Judea. Pagan sacrifices were offered in front of houses and in the streets. Any books of the Law which were found were torn up and burned, and anyone who was caught with a copy of the sacred books or who obeyed the Law was put to death by order of the king.
But many people in Israel firmly resisted the king's decree and refused to eat food that was ritually unclean. They preferred to die rather than break the holy covenant and eat unclean food and many did die. Terrible suffering was inflected upon Israel.
Today’s Gospel is taken from Luke (18:35-43):
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by."
He called out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?"
"Lord, I want to see," he replied.
Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has healed you."
Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
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Today is the twentieth anniversary of the assassinations of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador, an institution of Christian inspiration that had made a preferential option for the poor, the vast majority of the country’s citizens. But the martyrdoms of November 16, 1989, were hardly the first or only instances of persecution of the church and repression of movements for social change by the U.S.-supported armed forces of the Salvadoran government from the late 1970s into the early 1990s. The litany of dead and disappeared, including the saintly and prophetic Archbishop Oscar Romero, as well as four U.S. women missionaries, is heartbreakingly long, numbering in the tens of thousands.
An infamous slogan of the day was “Be a patriot! Kill a priest!” Women, including pregnant women, and children, including infants, were not spared. Unspeakable massacres at the Rio Sumpul and in the village of El Mazote seemed intended to wipe out the next generation of peasants – potential “subversives” – and to terrorize the current generation into submission.
“In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people,…abandoned the covenant,…and sold themselves to wrongdoing… Whoever was found with a scroll of the covenant…was condemned to death by royal decree.” Apparently persecution of the righteous by the ruling powers is nothing new, as the story of the Maccabees in the second century before Christ makes clear. “But many in Israel were determined and resolved in their hearts…[and] preferred to die rather than…to profane the holy covenant.” And so was born the idea of religious martyrdom.
Faced with such inhumanity and idolatry, one cries out to God, with the Psalmist, “Indignation seizes me because of the wicked who forsake your law.” One begs the Lord, “Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may keep your precepts.” When wicked men rule, as in the time of the Maccabees, or of Jesus, or of Romero and the UCA Jesuits, observing the commandments to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself becomes subversive and makes the righteous targets for violence.
In such a broken world, when the risen Jesus passes near, for what do you beg? How do you respond to his question to the blind man of Jericho, “What do you want me to do for you?”
I find myself praying for the courage to sustain compassion when so many suffering people around the world and over my back fence cry out for justice and solidarity. I find myself praying for the courage to be faithful to the covenant when it might be risky to speak out. I find myself asking for mercy, since I know from long past experience that my courage will sometimes be found wanting.
I find myself begging for sight, to see the world as it really is, in all its beauty and all its misery, its love and its hate, and to see it through the eyes of Jesus. I pray that I will never grow too tired, or cynical, or comfortable, to experience indignation in the face of yet another atrocity.
From the Maccabees to Jesus, and from Jesus to the Salvadoran martyrs, we have examples before us of those who persevered and paid the price. Dare we pray to have that kind of subversive faith?
Roger Bergman has been the director of the Justice & Peace Studies Program in the College of Arts & Sciences since 1993. He began teaching theological ethics at Creighton University in 1989.