The first reading from Maccabees describes a government-directed project of assimilation that affects the wellbeing of the people of Israel. Historians reveal that a gymnasium was an important institution in Greek society, which provided a focal point for common sporting, military, and cultural activity. This cultural influence would apparently play a part in dissolving the glue that held the Israelites together, including their religious bonds. Many people adopted the intellectual, aesthetic, and religious values of the Greek culture; I imagine it was easier to fit in than to resist. But of course, some faithful ones recognized the threat this posed and resisted this assimilation process. A remnant persisted to bear witness, regardless of the awkwardness, alienation, or suffering, when their relationship with God was threatened.
The power of the “herd” to compel conformity is a force to be reckoned with in every generation. Often the herd wants to put an end to a contrary example or a persistent witness to truth that the herd wants to devalue, but cannot manage to stamp out. Fortunately, God places some truths deep within us, making them difficult for the herd to snuff them out entirely. Those truths can be lost temporarily but rekindled and restored, though often great suffering accompanies that process.
Threats to our freedom come from many forms, not the least of which is our own sinfulness. However, the propensity to dominate shown in this passage should give us pause before embracing big institutional solutions to our problems. Those who capture the reins of power may be unfriendly to God’s people, causing them to suffer and cry out to God for deliverance. Today’s psalms reflect cries for deliverance by those vexed by evil and injustice in the world around them. Augustine once wrote that the Psalms should be read as an exchange of songs between Jesus Christ and the Church. The mournful conditions in the psalms resonate with the alienation that we may experience from time to time, while we await deliverance that God alone can give. And Christ alone knows what it means to receive life and to fully do God’s commands.
Today’s Gospel gives us another example of persistent cries from one who needs help. While others attempted to silence him (that conformity from the herd thing, once again), he persisted in crying out. Remarkably, Jesus does not ignore or marginalize him, but instead engages with him in a beautiful way. Jesus’ question is a powerful one: “What do you want me to do for you?” All of us could sit for a while with that question. We are often tempted to turn it around so that we get to ask the question. It is more comfortable that way, and of course it is good to want to do something for Him with our lives. But perhaps today it would be good to sit with the possibility that God is asking us that question. How will we answer?
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