Very Early Martyr: Eleazar
In today’s first reading we visit one of the Old Testament books that rarely is mentioned ... the Second Book of Maccabees. In this part of the book that is considered an historical account, we are introduced to a man of loyal dedication to his faith. His name is Eleazar. He is one of the earliest examples of martyrdom for the faith. The book focuses on events in the 180-160 BC.
Eleazar was a man in his late years. 100 years was not that far ahead for him. He had a great reputation as a distinguished teacher of the Law. It was not old age that took his life. It was, rather, his loyalty to his faith, his dedication to what he believed to be his responsibility: living the life as called for by the Jewish Law. To most today the cause of his death, the Jewish custom, seems unusual and, perhaps, somewhat silly. He was forced to eat a piece of meat, from a pig. Some may know that some Jewish people, the stricter segments of the Jewish faith, refuse to eat pork. Despite various schemes of deception suggested to Eleazar by close friends, this man of honor refused and willingly went to the torture that would bring about his death.
A sentence recorded as the words of this noble man certainly can be applied to our own times. “Pretense does not befit our time of life,” were words to his friends trying to persuade him to change his determined course of action. For Eleazar to eat a “trumpted up” piece of supposed meat was not possible. “I should only bring defilement and disgrace on my old age.” he said.
What this early martyr taught is simple. It is a quality that is considered as lacking in our culture today: there are some goals, some values in our lifetime that are more important than life itself. Loyalty to Jesus Christ and the life of the gospel that he taught us are realities that make the current struggle or perhaps fascination with “transparency” take on special meaning for men and women who profess to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
This visit to refresh our minds about Eleazar, the early martyr, might likewise provide an opportunity to understand the meaning of the word “martyr.” It is derived from the Greek language. It means “witness.” Surely the martyrs we have learned about through our faith and elsewhere provide a marvelous school of learning about character, strength and determination. While most of us today will not be called to the altar of martyrs, we are invited through our baptism and confirmation as well as the Eucharist we receive in the liturgy to give witness to our faith through the actions of our lives. We are, each one of us and each day, called upon to profess our faith because our society today is so lacking in the profession of genuine values.