Commemoration of Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr of Smyrna (d. 156)

The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, ‘Return to Balak, and this is what you must say.’ So he returned to Balak, who was standing beside his burnt-offerings with all the officials of Moab. Then Balaam uttered his oracle, saying:

‘Balak has brought me from Aram,

the king of Moab from the eastern mountains:

“Come, curse Jacob for me;

Come, denounce Israel!”

How can I curse whom God has not cursed?

How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced?

For from the top of the crags I see him,

from the hills I behold him;

Here is a people living alone,

and not reckoning itself among the nations!

Who can count the dust of Jacob,

or number the dust-cloud of Israel?

Let me die the death of the upright,

and let my end be like his!’

Then Balak said to Balaam,

‘What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.’

He answered,

‘Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?’ — Numbers 23:5-12 NRSV

Balak was in a spot. The Israelite army was advancing on Moab and Balak was a bit perturbed. Picking up the local paper, he looks in the classifieds under “Prophets” and finds the name Balaam of with a “Curses are our Specialty”. Just the man, it seems. So Balak, using his power as king, summons Balaam with the express intent of having him lay a powerful curse on the Israelites and save the kingdom. Balaam finally showed up (after a harrowing episode on the road featuring his talking donkey) and Balak told him what he wanted, namely curses, lots of potent curses. Balak did this three times, each time taking Balaam to a mountain peak to show him the imminent danger but each time Balaam blessed the Israelites instead. Balak was confused. His prophet for hire turned out to be a dud. “Why?” he wonders. Balaam had a simple answer, “Hey, God told me what to say so what else can I say?” Balaam must have been impressed, because he, a non-Israelite, not only heard but obeyed the God of Israel.

There is the common thread between the reading from Numbers and Polycarp, the subject of today’s commemoration. Polycarp refused to worship the authorized gods, the Roman pantheon and Caesar himself, and as such was considered an atheist. Given the chance to save himself, he was urged to renounce Jesus but, like Balaam, he had refused the pressure, saying, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” Polycarp was martyred without renouncing the Lord in whom he had fully put his trust.

Two different men, two different outcomes. Balaam eventually walked away while Polycarp paid with his life. Balaam was not Israelite but obeyed God when God spoke. Polycarp was from what is now Turkey but obeyed the call of a Jewish preacher from Galilee. With God there is life and there is death, just as surely as there is without God. The shoes (sandals) of both men could have been on the other foot: Balaam could have cursed Israel and been richly rewarded by Balak but he could have been put to death had Balak ordered it. As it was, he seems to have gone back home to his people. Polycarp could have renounced Jesus and lived, but at what cost to himself and his faith? There’s always a choice — and there are always consequences of the choices.

I don’t think I’d particularly want to be in the shoes/sandals of either man, not because I doubt God but I don’t know how brave or strong I could be when facing what could be my death for my refusal to stand by my belief. It’s really easy to say that I’d be willing to be martyred for my faith, but the instigator of martyrdom, persecution, seems to be a cheap word these days. Lots of people claim to be persecuted because of their belief when what really happens is that other people disagree or oppose those beliefs (or the insistence that they are the only right ones). In some areas, people are literally standing their ground for their faith at the risk of their lives, so just being verbally opposed doesn’t seem like much of a threat, in my opinion. The Polycarps of the world die without renouncing their faith, often unheralded by the greater world and even by the faith they share and profess. The Balaams speak the right words but then go home to their families, having done what they believe they had done all that God required. Maybe so — I’m not God so I can’t say for sure. I can say, though, that there are probably a lot more Polycarps in the world than Balaams.

Today I will think of those Polycarps of all faiths who die because of what and in whom they believe but who will be considered atheists by others who hold different beliefs. Maybe I should restrict myself to Christians (such as the real Polycarp), but I can’t. Maybe I’m too much of a — what’s the word I want to use? — believer convinced that God loves all, no matter by what name, if any, others use to speak of, speak to, or speak about God, even atheists who must have some image of a God in whom they do not believe.

Hopefully I’ll never have to face burning at the stake or a king who would chop off my head (or some other gruesome means of dispatching me from this world), but if I do, I can hope to be as brave as Polycarp, or as strong as Balaam. Meanwhile, I think I’ll practice thinking of opposition to my beliefs as something to build up my strength, like resistance training, but not as a path to martyrdom. Practice makes perfect, I hear.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

Past Posts