Sermon delivered to the Members of the Order of Malta
San Francisco, CA
15 November 2011
If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between a Catholic Bible and a Protestant Bible, today’s reading form II Maccabees is a case in point. I and II Maccabees, as well as a few other books of the Old Testament, were written in Greek in the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria. At the time of the Reformation many Protestant scholars decided that a non-Hebrew book simply couldn’t be included in the Old Testament. And so these books became the Apocrypha, and you will look for them in vain in the King James Version, because they simply aren’t there. Which is a pity, because I and II Maccabees contain some very high drama.
With that as background, today’s readings from II Maccabees (6: 18-31) and the gospel of Luke (19: 1-10) set up quite a contrast. Eleazar in II Maccabees is willing to sacrifice his life rather than violate the Jewish prohibition of eating pork. In the gospel, by contrast, Jesus is willing to violate the cultural mores of His time, by accepting hospitality from a Jewish tax-collector — someone with whom pious Jews would have nothing to do. So what is the point of putting these two passages together? Eleazar, the hero in Maccabees, will not break the Jewish law; and Jesus, certainly the hero in Luke, is willing to bend or even ignore some of the religious laws and customs of His day. What are we to conclude?
First, I think that neither of these passages were written to extoll the law as the be-all and end-all of religious life. Eleazar, for example, knew that some would consider him a zealot and a fool to die just because he wouldn’t eat pork. But he also knew that this wasn’t really about pork. It was about the meaning of his life. Would his life stand for something, or would it stand for nothing? He knew that at ninety years of age he was a symbol within the Jewish community. His long life stood for something, and from his example others drew strength and meaning. And for the sake of others he had to do what he did.
Jesus could have won polite applause by snubbing Zachaeus. But once again, this was not about rules and the law. This was about life and the opportunity to show one wandering soul the path to God.
There’s really a lot that we can take from these readings, but the second point I draw from them is this. Following the law in and of itself does not make us holy; and if we are careless it can turn us into the person who is proverbially “holier than thou.” Instead, the law and religious customs are meant to light up the path to God. Following them leads to God.
And on that path to God we as members of the Order of Malta have a very special calling. We are not called to knock people off the road. We are not called to bulldoze the unworthy into the ditch along the way. Rather, we are called to help those of little faith or none, and to support those in need as they struggle on the path to God. In this Eucharist which we celebrate today, may God give us the strength to carry our brothers and sisters along the path to God.