Summary: A brief description of Hanukah, Judas Maccabeus, the hero, and how this relates to our hero and Lord Jesus.
We all seem to need heroes. It’s true now, and it was just as true in the time of Jesus. The people we meet in our Gospel reading were in the grip of heroic dreams like these. That’s what lies behind the question they ask Jesus. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
It wasn’t just any hero they had in mind, though. They had someone particular in mind – a hero from their history - and the clue to who that was is in the opening words of the reading. “At that time, the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple.”
The festival of the Dedication. What’s that about? It’s called Hanukah in Hebrew, and it is a celebration of a victory won by Judas Maccabeus about 170 years before Christ. Israel was under the control of a foreign empire. It was the story of their nation’s life. Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks had all ruled over them. Now it was the turn of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids had inherited the Eastern part of Alexander the Great’s empire when he died and their power stretched from the Mediterranean shores right to the edge of India, land where there were people of many different cultures and faiths. The Seleucids were basically Greek in their outlook, though, with a Greek model of what civilization should look like. They didn’t mind people worshipping their own Gods and following their own ways, so long as they accepted Greek gods and Greek ways of organizing their societies too, just as we tend to assume that everyone would be better off with our models of Western democracy, and a McDonalds on every corner.
To many people, even among the Jews, this sort of cultural imperialism was fine. The Greeks were seen as sophisticated and modern. But there were some Jewish groups who were having none of it. They stuck rigidly to their principles, their ancestral faith and customs. There was only one God, one right way of living, and it was the Jewish way. They weren’t remotely interested in multi-culturalism or Greek ideas of progress. The Greek world could do what it wanted; they weren’t going to bow down to it.
The Seleucid king Antiochus IV saw trouble looming and he decided to get tough. He sent troops into Jerusalem, right into the Temple. They looted its treasures, desecrated its altar, set up an altar of their own to the Greek God Zeus complete with statues, which Jewish law forbade. They even sacrificed pigs in the heart of the Temple; it couldn’t get worse than that for traditionally minded Jews.
One of those Jews was a priest called Mattathias. He had five sons – Judas Maccabeus was the middle one. The nickname, “Maccabeus” means “the hammer” which probably tells you all you need to know about him. Mattathias was appalled at what was happening in Jerusalem. So he withdrew into the mountains, with his sons and his followers, to wage a guerrilla campaign on the occupiers.
To do this, though, they had to have the support of the local people, and not all of them saw things Mattathias’s way – some of them weren’t even Jews. So Matthatias used force. His followers compelled the local people to keep their very strict version of Jewish faith. They made them circumcise their sons. They destroyed the places of worship of other gods. They savagely punished anyone who stepped out of line. If that sounds familiar, it should. These are exactly the same tactics that the Taliban are using in Afghanistan today.
Finally Judas Maccabeus came down from the mountains, leading his army, and marched on Jerusalem. Against all the odds, somehow, they prevailed. His troops took back the city, and the first thing they did was to go to the Temple, tear down the statues of Zeus, clean up the mess, put things back to rights. When they had done that they held a festival to re-dedicate their sacred space. The people of Israel never forgot this great triumph. They never forgot Judas Maccabeus, the hero who’d brought it about. Every year they told his story again at the festival of the Dedication, Hannukah. And when they were conquered by the Romans – their independence didn’t last long – it was Judas Maccabeus they looked back to, Judas Maccabeus they longed for.
When the people in today’s Gospel meet Jesus in the Temple at that festival of Dedication it is this story they are thinking of; the story of a hero, the story of deliverance. It stirred and excited them, but it is a story that is profoundly disturbing to modern ears. Many liberal Jews today feel ambivalent it. This victory was a victory for a very narrow, nationalistic view of God’s kingdom, and it was a victory won by oppressing others.