Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Today’s 1st reading from Daniel 3 offers one of the most awe-inspiring statements in all of the Old Testament (indeed, in all of the Bible). Threatened with death for failing to worship the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, the young men (Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, to give them their original Hebrew names) reply:

“If our God, who we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up” (vv. 17-18).

Written most likely in the middle of the 2nd century BC (or BCE), the stories were rallying cries to courage in the face of torture and death by the Greek Seleucids. These young men were saved, of course, but they offered their bodies “even if [God] will not…”

It is around this time that belief in an afterlife where good and evil will be recompensed really took hold in certain segments of Judaism (in the school that would become the Pharisees, for example). Its logic (once you grant the ‘major premise’ of the syllogism) was air-tight: God is just. But injustice is rampant. Therefore God’s justice must be played out in a world after death. Therefore, what Christians came to call the “Four Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven, hell) came to be more and more a belief held in Judaism.

But it was not so in the 2nd century, when this idea was only just percolating. And so what we are faced with in this story is the witness of 3 young men who are willing to offer their lives and the totality of their existence (with no reasonable hope of afterlife) for the sake of fidelity to God. This is what makes their statement so awe-inspiring.

After all, Christians would endure terrible tortures and persecutions, but they did so in the confident hope of resurrection and glory (read I Corinthians 2:8 or Romans 8:18-24 to see what I mean from a New Testament point of view). These young men were offering everything (absolutely everything) out of love for God. Their only salvation would be here and now, and that did not seem likely.

Back in the 19th century, in a famous sermon, John Henry Newman asked his congregation if they had the heart to make a “venture in faith”—to risk something that, should the Gospel prove false, would actually have produced a loss for them. The three young men risked it all. What are we willing to risk, for the love of the Lord?
Footnote: the illustration above is from the catacombs of Santa Priscilla in Rome. The 3 Young Men were popular catacomb art images of resurrection.

1 comment:

    My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
    Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
    for behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
    Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and Holy is His Name;
    And His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him.
    He has shown might with His arm,
    He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
    He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
    and has exalted the lowly.
    He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
    He has given help to Israel, His servant, mindful of His mercy
    Even as He spoke to our fathers -
    to Abraham and to his posterity forever.