Today’s first reading from Maccabees may be such an occasion. Biblical language, including the words of Jesus in the Gospels, can usefully be placed along a spectrum running from nearly literal to deeply symbolic. It also matters who is reading and under what circumstances, and for that I thank Dean Brackley, S.J. (also occasionally appearing on the pages of this publication). When I was exploring with him ways to mitigate the language of violence in the psalms preparatory to a workshop I was giving, he constrained me not to quickly take away from the poor language that allows them to speak the truth of their unjust and painful situation.
So five questions to ponder for the first reading: 1) When is it set? How crucial is it that the scene pictured is at the actual moment of ultimate accountability: die or compromise a principle? 2) Is willingness to die for a noble cause--and in hopes of life after death--different for Christians than for Muslims? We can find differences in the circumstances between martyrs and suicide bombers, but still, the question arises. 3) What dangers tend to cluster when we feel absolute certitude we are right? What is the untold story here about those not able to rise to the courage that these brothers show? How would they be judged? 4) For whom might this be a dangerous reading? Perhaps for those in the majority and in positions of power, likely to urge this act on others or to exact it of opponents. 5) For whom is it more clearly salutary? Those loving, compassionate, deeply self-knowledgeable, aware of God’s grace.