III Maccabees is about the attempt by King Ptolemy IV Philopator in the late third century B.C.E. to obliterate the Jews of Egypt, and God’s deliverance of the Jews. In the course of this plot, God messes with Ptolemy’s brain, such that Ptolemy says to his friends who are participating in the plot: “In fact you would have been deprived of life instead of these [Jews], if it were not for an affection arising from our nurture in common and your usefulness” (III Maccabees 5:32 NRSV). Ptolemy out of the blue is telling his friends that he would execute them, if not for the affection that he has towards them on account of their growing up together, and also their usefulness.
This is actually a pretty profound passage. I would not say that it is completely right, but there is some truth in it. It is understandable that people would feel some affection towards those with whom they’ve grown up or have had a shared history. That doesn’t always happen, but it does happen. Familiarity can breed contempt, but it is also a factor in friendship. And don’t underestimate usefulness! Some librarians at a public library were rude to me one day, and I fantasized about taking over the library and firing them. The problem, within my fantasy, was that I would then have to find other people to learn the ropes. I asked myself: Why not stick with those who already know the ropes? So the librarians kept their jobs in my fantasy. I still gave them a stern lecture, though!
III Maccabees also explores the attitudes of the non-Jews in Egypt towards the Jews’ persecution. Many were reveling in it. Part of that may have had to do with the non-Jews’ cruelty, and part of it related to a sincere belief that the Jews were a danger to the country, that the Jews were strange, clannish, and misanthropic in their approach to outsiders, and that the Jews may join the enemies of Ptolemaic Egypt in a war. These non-Jews either explained away or did not pay attention to the times when Jews were loyal to the Ptolemaic realm.
III Maccabees 4 is rather jarring. III Maccabees 4 depicts old men, young men, new brides, and new bridegrooms being taken to their destination of death, and many non-Jews did not look at them with pity. Here these non-Jews were, looking at fellow human beings, like themselves, being brutally handled and taken to their deaths, and they did not feel any compassion. It was ironic that I read this passage after watching a miniseries about the rise of Hitler, in which Robert Carlyle (of Once Upon a Time) played Hitler). But I thought about a scene in another movie, Schindler’s List. Schindler was riding horses with one of his girlfriends, and he saw Jews being rounded up. Among the Jews was a little girl dressed in red. That caught Schindler’s attention and set him on the path of wanting to save as many Jews as he could from the Holocaust. Not all Germans had that reaction, however. Schindler’s girlfriend did not want to see the Jews being rounded up. A number of Germans rejoiced at it.
We do not know everybody, but hopefully we can respect the common humanity that we share with other people, including those we don’t know, and that can bring about compassion within us.
I was reading a post recently, though. It was on the web site Prayer Coach, and the post was about loving one’s neighbor. The author was saying that love for neighbor was about more than helping people, but it involved getting to know them. Getting to know them is part of our love for God, for it allows us to appreciate the piece of Godself that God put into them. And the interaction enables us to identify what exactly we believe about God: “As we get to know others we test what we actually believe about God. Do we feel we can comfort others, or do we remain silent when others are hurting (2 Corinthians 1:4)? Do we believe we are accepted in our weakness, or do we hide our faults for fear of being rejected (2 Corinthians 12:9)? Do we believe in God’s protection, or do we refuse to forgive others when they hurt us (Colossians 3:13)?”
I can easily get defensive about what this post says on account of my shyness, my introversion, and my Asperger’s Syndrome. But, in applying this post, I do not have to beat myself up for not interacting with everyone, as if God will not love me if I do not. But I can be encouraged to see God’s greatness in the make-up of human beings, to remember that all people have a story, and, if I can summon the nerve or the right things to say, to listen to their stories. I can do this through reading and also social interaction.
I can also identify with what the post said about how our interactions can reveal what we truly believe about God. I am sometimes afraid that, if I interact with others, I will fall short spiritually. I am not saying that I fear others would contaminate me with their worldliness, but that I fear falling short—-that I will become impatient with someone, or unforgiving, or desire to leave the relationship. Better not to start the relationship in the first place, I think to myself. Then I won’t fall short spiritually! What does that reveal about what I think about God? That God is a perfectionist who will not accept me if I make mistakes, or find that I have difficulty coping with a relationship.
That brings me to something else that III Maccabees says. III Maccabees 5:13 calls God “him who is easily reconciled” (NRSV). The story of III Maccabees is so-so, maybe even a bit odd, but some of its jewels are in its incidental statements. God is easily reconciled. Imagine that!