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Prudence & Courage

Most of us will never be placed in the position of these prudent and courageous brothers featured in this weekend's first reading, yet we are given the task of acting prudently and courageously in small ways every day. But can we use these men as our inspiration and guides?

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: 2nd Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15

Second Reading: St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

Gospel: According to St. Luke 20:27-38

According to Josef Pieper, one of the greatest Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century, prudence is defined as “the ability to view objectively the realities surrounding our actions and making them have…a direct bearing on our actions.”  For Pieper, and for the source of his philosophical insights, St. Thomas Aquinas, this means that prudence isn’t about being too nice to say and do things that might offend other people.

When someone gets you a gift that is definitely NOT for you and you put the plastic grin on your face and you lavish praise on the giver and the gift, then that is what Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV called “discretion” – it being for him the better part of valor. The context of that now famous proverb was Falstaff’s pretending to be dead on the battlefield in order to save his life.

The seven sons described in this weekend’s first reading would have seen nothing either comedic or courageous in the action and words of Falstaff.  The time described in 2nd Maccabees was one of great tribulation for the Jews and people like these seven men gave their lives in order to stand by the Word of God, and they did so over something that most people would have seen as trivial and certainly not worthy of losing one’s life over: whether or not to eat pork.

For these seven brothers it was neither trivial nor unworthy of one’s life not because of the importance of the rule itself, but because of the importance of what and Who it represented.  In their decision to refrain from eating pork they sacrificed their lives, lives that they saw as dedicated to the God who gave them both life and the Law that they felt bound to follow.

In the eyes of many these might seem to be the most imprudent men in all of biblical history.  Eat some pork and save your lives – how difficult could that be?  For this family it was more difficult than suffering at the hands of the cruel Seleucid Empire. Its difficulty lie in the virtue of prudence.

These brothers understood reality objectively, without prejudice to their personal predicament, and they acted on that understanding.  If there is an afterlife, a plane of existence where we live on beyond this world, then they acted in line with reality, they acted prudentially.  To act courageously, which is exactly what these martyrs did, is to act in light of what Pieper describes as “divinely created truth.”  And what is divinely created truth if it is not the reality in which our actions are lived out?

Most of us will never be placed in the position of these prudent and courageous brothers, yet we are given the task of acting prudently and courageously in small ways every day.  How often do we take the Falstaffian approach of discretion and feign death on the battlefield in order to avoid the difficulty of prudence and courage?  How much better would it be to use these seven brothers as our guides, as our mentors, in the daily struggle to be prudent and courageous?  For it is adherence to these virtues that gives us the same hope as that expressed by the fourth of the seven martyred brothers – “the hope God gives of being raised up by Him.”

A.M.D.G.