2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38
In 1968, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was questioned about allegations of police brutality during the riots. He famously responded that “the policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” Although we can laugh at the mayor’s confused language, we understand the thought behind it. The common good of every society demands order. In fact, order means so much to us that from capital punishment to the military draft, we allow the government even the right to take life to preserve and protect it.
However, leaders can presume too much on this right, as the first reading shows. The story takes place about 170 years before the birth of Christ. The king is not named but is known to be Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Unlike other successors of Alexander the Great, the king took exception to the Jews’ refusal to adopt Greek culture. In his anger he desecrated the Temple by erecting a statue of Zeus in it and, as we heard, commanded that the Jews either learn to live with a pagan diet or die with their own.
Although the king was certainly a tyrant, at least he was honest; he never pretended that what he was doing was good. More recent tyrants hide their brutality behind euphemisms. Less than a century ago when the National Socialist party came to power in Germany they arrogated to themselves the legal right to define the mentally and physically handicapped as “unworthy of life” and their extermination a “mercy.” They later redefined mercy as ridding society of Jews, to “purify the race.” They weren’t alone; think of the genocides in China and Cambodia and the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and Rwanda.
Even worse, the latest attacks on life target the weakest and most defenseless. Consider the elderly and infirm. When euthanasia was legalized in parts of Europe, it was hailed as a “mercy” and critics were reassured that strict safeguards defined who could be terminated. Once again though, mercy was redefined; now a physician can legally terminate anyone over 70 or those of any age who say that they are suffering mentally or physically and no longer want to live. Those declared mentally incompetent have someone else decide for them. In the United States, physician-assisted suicide is legal in two states and under consideration in others. At the other margin of life, abortion advocates defined person-hood beginning at birth but did not foresee the redefinition proposed by the bio-ethicist Dr. Peter Singer who wrote: ‘Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons…(T)he life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.’ Singer wrote that in 1979. To atheists such as he, humans are just another animal; nothing more. As atheism has continued to grow, Singer’s ideas have gained a foothold. The cause for redefining what it means to be a person has begun. Again. We may well live to see a society where it is perfectly legal to declare an infant as “unworthy of life.”
The fatal flaw of every tyrant is that they see the worth of the human being as beginning and ending with the mortal body. Like the Sadducees’ misguided argument, this fantasy dissolves in the light of Christ who in the gospel defines the body not in terms of mortality but of eternity when he says that those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead … can no longer die, for they are like angels.. they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise. Society may arrogate to itself the right to manipulate, control, even destroy the human body but they are powerless to define its worth or control its destiny.
The martyred brothers and their mother from the story in Maccabees knew this, and it is the power behind the hope given in the second reading when St. Paul speaks of the endurance of Christ. This is the power that drives the good to endure, to hold onto the promise of resurrection in the face of a tyrant who promises only death.
We who have inherited this faith must never forget these two lessons from the readings: First, the worth of the human body was not, is not, and never will be ours to decide. God has given us freedom, so we can define and re-define who is and who is not worthy to live, but in the end these are just words; our laws are meaningless when not based on divine law and their power stops at the same death long since conquered by Christ. Second, silence that allows such deadly evil to go unchallenged is complicity in it and as such is a breakdown of the moral conscience. Even if it seems too powerful, even if it seems that everybody else agrees, even if it hides behind euphemisms such as “mercy killing” or “reproductive rights,” Christ asks us to stand – alone if need be – call evil what it is despite the consequences, and do whatever we can to bring light into the darkness, for as St. Francis of Assisi once taught, all the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.