Funeral Lectionary: 2 Maccabees 12:43-46

With Mel Gibson and some Jewish leaders feuding on filmmaking, I thought it slightly opportune to look at a favorite Catholic passage from one of the books of Maccabees.

A note before we get into it … these books are sometimes referred to as “apocryphal” or as part of the “Apocrypha.” Some Scripture scholars would object to this term. “Apocrypha” refers to a writing that is partly or wholly secret–something only shown or revealed to those on the inside. Clearly, this isn’t the case with the books of Maccabees. Though not part of the Jewish canon of Scripture, they are in no way hidden from good Jews. Or Christians. Indeed, the stories are well-known among people with a basic literacy of the Bible or of Jewish history. “Deuterocanonical” is the preferred term.

2 Maccabees relates the story of a surprisingly successful uprising in response to the tightening grip of foreign oppression. Almost two centuries before Christ preached, Judas Maccabeus was praised for his piety and his thoughtfulness for the dead:

Judas the ruler of Israel
  then took up a collection among all his soldiers,
  amounting to two thousand silver drachmas,
  which he sent to Jerusalem
  to provide for an expiatory sacrifice.

In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way,
  inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view;
  for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again,
  it would have been useless and foolish
  to pray for them in death.

But if he did this
  with a view to the splendid reward
  that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness,
  it was a holy and pious thought.

Thus he made atonement for the dead
  that they might be freed from this sin.

This passage is part of the theological justification for praying for the dead, and is valued among Catholics, especially those traditionally-minded. As such, these verses are more of an “instruction” or a comfort to the grieving. Do loved ones need the encouragement to pray for the deceased? This would be a good choice. Do they want traditional Catholic teaching on purgatory reinforced? This passage is associated with that doctrine.

I don’t find people choose this reading very often at all. I struggle to remember one instance in twenty-plus years of ministry. Any comments on this Scripture or on the use of this for a funeral? Have you heard it recently?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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13 Responses to Funeral Lectionary: 2 Maccabees 12:43-46

  1. Liam says:

    I think it’s most likely to be chosen by people who appreciate the resonance of the struggle behind the reading. And there are people who die whose lives would have that resonance.

  2. Todd says:

    Atonement is an Old Testament practice. As believers we certainly believe in the essential role of Jesus Christ in salvation. But the Christian tradition of praying for the dead is not quite the same thing as what the author of the Hebrews was talking about in describing the actions of Christ. Apples and oranges, here, my friend.

  3. Patti.RCIA says:

    I am going to use this reading at my daughter’s funeral Mass. She was depressed and took her own life. Please pray for her immortal soul and my family. Her name is Jude, named for St. Jude Thaddaeus.

  4. Todd says:

    I think you misunderstand, Dick. People don’t pray for the dead to save them. We pray for them because we love them, and we want to express that love to God. The same would be true of prayers for a living person. I pray for my daughter and wife, for example, to experience God’s daily graces and blessings. I don’t pray to save them. Their salvation is in the hands of Christ.

  5. Todd says:

    As is often true in conversations that go nowhere, one person seems to lack comprehension of the other’s words.

    When I shop for groceries for my family, I don’t affect their eternal salvation either. But I still do it. Why do you suppose that is? Is praying for other people. living or dead, any different?

  6. Liam says:


    Your attempt to proof-text your point as dispositive is not dispositive for Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Yours is a relatively modern approach in Christian history, alien as an exclusive approach to the Christian bishops who in Late Antiquity determined which texts belonged and which didn’t; Christians had generations of teachings under their belt before there was a canonical Christian bible. The practice of Christian prayer for – and with (that cloud of witnesses) – the souls of those who had departed mortal life (the “dead” in the realm of time and space; but even they have immortal souls outside time and space) antedates the finalization of the Christian bible. Even those purgatory-detesting Puritans couldn’t expunge all traces of prayer for the dead from their funeral practices; their sense overcame their logic in that regard (as Chesterton remarked, mad men have lost everything except their reason).

  7. Todd says:

    Luke 11:5-13 contains the Lord’s advice on persistence in prayer, as well as his promise that the Father isn’t confined to human expectations. There’s no mention of exemptions for those beyond the grave. The key passage is:

    “… because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives …”

    I pray for you, Dick, and it has no effect on your salvation, but the Father indeed hears my prayers for openness to the whole of Christian tradition. I can also pray for my deceased father, and likewise, I cannot effect his salvation. But God, who is not bound by human time, can also hear me, especially when I persist in asking for his good.

    Your attempt to cite Scriptures is done from a human perspective, not a divine one. But you do have the persistence angle down pat. You just have to apply it to your prayer life. Take the Patriarch Abraham as your guide (Genesis 18:16-33).

    The bottom line for the Christian believer: ask. We can always ask. No harm, but much good in that.

    • Liam says:

      Todd, to elaborate: the traditional Christian understanding of petitionary prayer is that God invites us to join our agency in time and space to his will outside time and space.

  8. Todd says:

    “Praying for the dead is not a biblical concept.”

    Apparently it is, according to the author of 2 Maccabees.

    And nowhere in the Bible does it say that prayers for another person are ever in vain. Jesus suggested otherwise: simply ask, ask, and ask: insist that God hear.

    And remember my friend, we don’t pray for the dead to save them. We pray to intercede on their behalf with God. Our prayers have no effect on saving anybody–only Christ saves.

    • Todd says:

      Dick, my friend: you are reading and doing your research.

      What most Catholics believe, and what I believe is that we can ask God to have mercy on other people, living and dead. God is free to listen to us or to disregard our petitions. It happens for the living, I’m sure it happens with the dead.

      To be sure, I don’t have iron-clad, rational evidence that my prayers for anybody or anything are in any way helpful. But I continue to pray for people because I think it’s important to focus on other people rather than myself.

      I’m sure it offends a few of my Protestant sisters and brothers, but I don’t focus my prayers on *my* own self. God knows what I want before I speak it, so I confine most all of my intercessory praying for others, including the dead.

      As I said before, God is timeless, and at this “moment” is experiencing the faith or lack thereof of people who, in this universe, are considered dead. If it helps, God’s ear is getting my prayers before people have died.

      So I’m sticking with 2 Maccabees here: praying for the dead is good, useful, and an act of love and charity. I’ll encourage others to do so. And, my friend, there’s nothing you or any other skeptic on this point can do about it. You’d rather pray for the living? Fine. You should be lauded for doing so. Lots of Christians pray for deceased loved ones, and if it helps them, so much the better.

  9. Pingback: Praying For The Dead | Catholic Sensibility

  10. Michael says:

    Wasn’t the books/ story’s of the New Testament bible handed down by apostolic tradition ?

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