We can better understand our first reading from the Book of Wisdom if we put it into context. The common thinking of the time was that what we see is all there is, there is nothing beyond it. The author of this book tells us the thinking of the times was along these lines: “short and sorrowful is our life and there is no remedy when life comes to an end and no one has been known to return from Hades. For we were born by mere chance and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been. Our name will be forgotten in time and no one will remember our works, our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud… for our allotted time is the passing of a shadow and there is no return from death…. Come then let us enjoy the good things that exist and make use of creation to the full… let us take costly wine and perfumes and let no flower of spring pass us by… let none of us fail to share in our revelry and everywhere let us leave signs of our enjoyment because this is our portion and this is our lot.”
These words were written over 2000 years ago but sound so familiar to the way many people live life today. What you see is what you get and so people live their lives as if purpose and God did not exist. Then we hear of some mysterious and righteous person whose way of life really bothers these people. Scripture scholars would say this mysterious person is a faithful Jew the tenor of whose life is a standing protest against the lawlessness of the ungodly lifestyle of apostate Jews in Alexandria, men and women who bought into the godless ways of their non-Jewish neighbours. They are annoyed, angered by this unknown man who lives his life as a faithful witness to the God of Israel. His faithfulness is a silent protest to their way of life. They resent him to the point of plotting his death.
“Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life, for if the righteous one is God’s son God will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture so that we may find how gentle he is.” In planning the use of the scriptures used at our Sunday masses the scholars always connect the first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures with the gospel to show the connection between the old and the new.
The words from the Book of Wisdom sound so much like the last days of Jesus when the authorities could take no more of his confronting them with their hypocrisy and lack of faithfulness to God’s law.
Whoever this annoying man was in our first reading he knew as Jesus knew there would be a cost to his fidelity to God’s will and God’s law. The time of confrontation would come. The chief priest, the scribes and elders would join forces to get rid of this trouble maker. Jesus of Nazareth. To their way of thinking it is better for one man to die than that the whole nation perish. Through false testimony and a phony trial his enemies brought Jesus to a humiliating death, death on the cross. The mocking words hurled at the crucified “he trusts in God let God deliver him now if he wants to, for he said I am God’s son,” echo the words from the book of wisdom: “let us see if his words are true and let us test what will happen at the end of his life, for if he is God’s son God will help him and deliver him.”
In our own time we see men and women who lived the gospel of love and justice die for their fidelity to the teachings of Jesus. Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, Martin Luther King of the U.S. to name but a few. They are the ‘righteous ones’ of our time.
But Jesus told us, “if anyone would be a disciple of mine let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Many times the cross we are asked to carry is the cross of fidelity, fidelity to the teachings of Jesus.
We are faithful witnesses to the teachings of Jesus when we support efforts for social justice, when we support men’s and women’s right to a just and living wage, when we support efforts for affordable housing, when we stand with the newcomers to Canada. We are faithful witnesses to the teaching of Jesus when we oppose bigotry and discrimination in all its forms. We are faithful witnesses to the teaching of Jesus when we support life in all its stages.
I mentioned Archbishop Romero, Martin Luther King and the nuns and priests who have been murdered in Latin American as they worked with people seeking justice and peace. They are all martyrs. Martyr means witness, they witnessed with their lives the teachings of Jesus and it cost them their lives.
Each one of us is meant to be a martyr, not by dying but by living, as best we can the teaching of Jesus. As we continue to celebrate this Mass we pray for ourselves and for each other that we will be the best of martyrs bearing witness to our faith by what we say and what we do, by living this Mass outside these walls.