I am sure there are some who think that Eleazar’s stance in today’s first reading is a bit foolish. In today’s culture, dietary restrictions may seem a little eccentric. His contemporaries, many of whom profess some love for him, urge him to make it seem like he is eating the pork while eating meat that is sanctioned by the Law. Eleazar’s response illustrates a point that I have made about the culture of the Middle East more than once; namely, this culture was driven by the quest for honor and the avoidance of shame.
“If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age. Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up 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 nobly for the revered and holy laws.” (2 Maccabees 6:25-28)
Notice that he specifically states that he could not think of bringing dishonor on his old age.
As we read on, we cannot help but notice that his friends suddenly turn on him: “Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness.” (2 Maccabees 6:29) While the sacred author tells us that they are motivated by what seems to them utter madness, I suspect something else is at work. Eleazar has raised the issue of honor and has been adamant in his insistence that he will not even think of bringing dishonor upon himself. However, in making this statement, he has shamed those who proposed the dissembling. They now bear the burden of this shame while Eleazar has chosen the honorable way. In an attempt to expunge the shame, they turn on him and viciously torture him to death.
The last verse of the story makes the point very clearly: “This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation.” (2 Maccabees 6:31) Eleazar has preserved his nobility by embracing honor and by distancing himself from shame.
While the issue of eating a meat forbidden by the Law may not be completely understandable by our culture, surely we can admire his fidelity to God’s commandment and his refusal to take the easy way out.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator