This past All Saint's Sunday I spent the afternoon reading first and second Maccabees, never having read it before. The story was familiar to me from a past lecture, but why should it come up now?
This is how it happened. A very famous Christian author and pastor, Eugene Peterson, had died the week before, which promoted a Roman Catholic friend of mine on Facebook to remark that he himself hopes that when he dies, people will remember to pray for his departed soul, not like this famous protestant pastor who was assumed to have gone straight to heaven, by protestants who talked about his departure.--As we know, Roman Catholics promote a teaching about a thing called "purgatory", where many souls are said to go be purified for an undetermined time to eventually be promoted to heaven, leaving people, the departed as well as their living family, in a kind of limbo, as least for the present. As to where a dearly departed has departed to precisely, one dare not say, especially if he or she was not perfect, which none of us are. This gives rise to a whole industry of indulgences, praying for the dead, saying masses for the dead, etc. To which every "Protestant" says: "what exactly are you, dear Roman Catholic, proclaiming regarding the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ? Was his sacrifice not for sinners like you and like me?" Indeed, this whole praying for the dead reads like a racket, as the Reformation has clearly shown, and as the height of faithlessness in the cloak of piety. But Christ is left out. He is not there. (As Jesus said: "Where the corpse is, the vultures will gather." Matthew 24.)
So, what about Maccabees?
Well, the said Friend on Facebook, of Roman Catholic confession, as I said, just slung that one out: "It's in 2 Maccabees!" Yea, sure, "It's in 2 Maccabees..."--So I read all of 1. Maccabees and all of 2. Maccabees.
Without belaboring the matter, in Maccabees we have the story of the strenous Jewish revolt against oppressive Hellenization during the second century B.C. (Also read about such topics, here.) It does not read like a sermon, nor a theological treatise, nor prophecy, nor prayer. The Jews did not include it in their canon. The Reformation excluded it from the canon. It is not a source of doctrine about God and spiritual matters. Maccabees highlights the events of the oppression and the revolt, as well as the deeds of the Maccabees. It demonstrates the struggle for conscientious objection involving martyrdom.
We see in Maccabees a high regard for the law. The leaders of the revolt defended the Jewish way of life with great zeal, the regulations the Lord had put down for the nation. Their efforts were of military nature. Outsiders were "sinners." The book does not promote mercy, nor does it speak about the Lord or for the Lord. The authors speak for themselves and their version of the historical record. They do not claim to be prophets, nor to have been living among prophets. In fact, it says, that prophecy had ceased in those times. It should follow, therefore, that the editorializing comments of the unnamed author/s, be taken under advisement.
It boggles that mind that precisely here, our Roman Catholic friend wants to find corroboration for the doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead.
The concern for the dead, so it is said in Maccabees several times, should be taken as a sign of the belief in the resurrection of the dead. This rings a bell when we think about what St. Paul said, as an aside, such as: if there is no resurrection for the dead, why do some bother to be baptized for the dead? (1. Corinthians 15:29). Also, there is the time, where he causes a commotion saying in Jerusalem that he is persecuted for his belief in the resurrection. (Acts 22:6-8.)
Obiously, these issues had been brewing for some time, just as much as the Pharisaical emphasis on the law vs. mercy and justice. For me, reading Maccabees put some things into perspective regarding thorny issues Jesus and Paul were speaking to in the culture and in the life of the individual consciences in relationship to God.
So, now, what does it exactly say in Maccabees that gets some people on the road for praying for the dead? At the conclusion of 2 Maccabees, an incident is related where some of the warriors of the Maccabaean conflicts had been found dead, and when it came to the recovery of the bodies, it was found that they were wearing in their layers of clothing some sort of amulet dedicated to a foreign idol. This presents the leaders with a nasty dilemma. Here they were fighting zealously for the law of the ancestors, but their fighters are found practicing a form of idolatry. This really does present a unique embarrassment. What to do and say about this?
Ingenious to the end, they take up a collection of money to send to the temple, so a sacrifice could me made for the dead who had died relying on a foreign god, hoping they might still attain the resurrection of the dead.
Elegant? Not. Hopeful? Maybe. Mandated? Definitely not.
Here comes Tetzel. You know about Johann Tetzel. "As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs." Who sent Tetzel? Those who needed money for their simony and for their construction projects.
Maccabees closes by praising this solution as pious. The leader is pragmatic in his actions. No wonder, the book is excluded from the canon. Theology: fail. God cannot be manipulated. Not the God of the Bible. At some point, you have to leave things to His judgement and to his mercy. Save your money and your time.
1 day ago