This weekend we hear two stories about 7 brothers who are seeking an inheritance, who are looking to secure their future.
In our Gospel, Christ is presented with the story of the first set of brothers. Their eyes are fixed on this world, on securing a legacy, an earthly future for their family. The first marries, but tragedy strikes: he dies before bearing a child. And so the next attempts to rescue the family’s fortunes: to no avail – he also dies before a child is born, and so on with all 7 brothers. And then the widow also dies. It is a portrait of futility, a tragic story of brothers who seem to have been cursed by God, deprived of a future.
Our first reading from the 2nd Book of Maccabees also tells the story of 7 brothers. And it is not an easy story either. But for a different reason. These 7 could have had an earthly future, the king offered them a legacy of riches and honor: in exchange for one thing: eating pork in violation of their faith. A trivial thing, right? A small price to pay for future security. But unlike the first 7 brothers, the eyes of these 7 are not fixed on this world, on securing an earthly future. When it is free for the taking, they refuse the security, the future prosperity offered by the earthly king.
And one by one, as their mother is forced to watch, each of these brothers is tortured with the most horrendous cruelties imaginable before being slaughtered before her eyes. Then she is killed. The family wiped out.
7 brothers and a spouse or a mother – they all meet the same fate.
What are we to make of all of this?
I’d like to follow the lead of venerable Bede. In his commentary on this chapter of the Gospel he said that we could consider these bands of brothers as metaphors for a group of 7 that each of us in much more familiar with. The days of each week. These 7 days are, for each of us, also in a sense a story of 7 brothers: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And, like the brothers in the passages we hear today, the story always ends the same way: they all die – after 24 hours each day comes to an end, whether we want it to or not. There is no going back. There is a finality to each day.
Yet, we can see in our readings, and as we know from life, the way that brothers choose to carry out their lives, the way that each day unfolds, can vary greatly.
What, or who, leads and guides our days, guides our brothers? The women in these two stories show us two very different portraits:
In the first case, in the story related to Christ in the Gospel, we hear of the wife of the first seven brothers. She represents the thinking of this age, of this world: she gives herself to the arms of one man and then the next, one day to the next, a slave to the vain hope of finding a future in them. When they fail her, she becomes more despondent, more anxious, more restless and discouraged. Yet she cannot break the trap of thinking that one day one of these men will give her the new life in her womb that she desires and yet cannot find. She is like Eve, in the garden of Eden, eating from a tree and wanting it to feed her, wanting it to satisfy her, but she remains hungry.
How stark the contrast between her and the mother who we hear of in our first reading. She stands before each brother, each day, with strength and courage, she patiently guides and encourages them along the right path, urging them on and helping them not to give in but to persevere to the end. She is no passive woman to be handed from one brother to the next, fearful of the future. She is a mother who knows that her sons, her days, are made to be children of God, not the children of this age.
This is the mother, this is the wisdom that you and I must pray guides our band of brothers, guides our days. A mother who will give encouragement even in the midst of suffering, who will call the brothers to greatness, reminding them that each of them, each day, is not given to secure an earthly future, but to be offered back to God.
It is not in our reading today, but I want you to hear the words of a wise Maccabean mother, who in her native tongue quietly encouraged her 7 sons to offer themselves to God. Even as she watched them being brutally murdered before her, these are the tender words she spoke to her son:
“'I do not know how you appeared in my womb; it was not I who endowed you with breath and life, I had not the shaping of your every part. And hence, the Creator of the world, who made everyone and ordained the origin of all things, will in his mercy give you back breath and life, since for the sake of his laws you have no concern for yourselves.”
“I implore you, my child, look at the earth and sky and everything in them, and consider how God made them out of what did not exist, and that human beings come into being in the same way.
Do not fear this executioner, but prove yourself worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that I may receive you back with them in the day of mercy.'
Who is the woman who stands with your 7 brothers each week? Is she weak and swept along by our current age, married to each day one after the other, hoping to find in them the happiness she seeks, unable to be alone or in pain, anxious about the future? Have you allowed your band of brothers to wander listlessly through life with such a woman for their bride? To become children of this age, to place their hope in this world?
Brothers and sisters, let us pray for wisdom: pray for a wise and courageous mother to guide our days, our band of brothers! May she encourage and guide them to be offered courageously with Christ to our Heavenly Father in a sacrifice of love. May she remind each of us that we are children of God, not children of this age. May she help us to stay focused on loving God today, and on the eternal life he has promised us. May she keep us from letting our days be swept away in anxieties and concerns about future pain or trials. May she help us to keep each brother, each day, fixed on the reality of heaven and on trying to be faithful to the God who has prepared a mansion for us there!
Solomon loved wisdom, he sought after her and prized her above all things. I would like to close with his prayer for wisdom, and I hope you will make this prayer your own.
“God of our ancestors, Lord of mercy, who by your word have made the universe, and in your wisdom have fitted human beings to rule the creatures that you have made, to govern the world in holiness and saving justice and in honesty of soul to dispense fair judgment,
grant me Wisdom, consort of your throne, and do not reject me from the number of your children.
Dispatch her from the holy heavens, send her forth from your throne of glory to help me and to toil with me and teach me what is pleasing to you; since she knows and understands everything she will guide me prudently in my actions and will protect me with her glory.”
Our Lady, seat of wisdom, pray for us.