Nov 10, 2019: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14

It happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested
and tortured with whips and scourges by the king,
to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law. 
One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said:
“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? 
We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

At the point of death he said:
“You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life,
but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. 
It is for his laws that we are dying.”

After him the third suffered their cruel sport.
He put out his tongue at once when told to do so,
and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words:
“It was from Heaven that I received these;
for the sake of his laws I disdain them;
from him I hope to receive them again.”
Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,
because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

After he had died,
they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way. 
When he was near death, he said,
“It is my choice to die at the hands of men
with the hope God gives of being raised up by him;
but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

The title of 1 and 2 Maccabees is taken from the surname of Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 2:4), the hero of the war of Jewish independence against Syria. The two books have separate authors. The first book is thought to have originally been written in Hebrew (although only a Greek translation survives) by a Palestinian Jew around 100 BC. The second book is believed to have been composed in Greek by an Alexandrian Pharisee about 124 BC. This would mean the second book was actually written before the first. Both books encompass a similar period in Jewish history, the first book covering 175 to 135 BC, and the second covering 175 to 161 BC.

In 198 BC, Antiochus II, king of Syria, conquered Palestine. The conqueror himself did not interfere with the religious life of the Jews, but his son and successor, Antiochus IV tried to force paganism upon all his subjects. In 170, he plundered the Temple and slew many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Two years later he ordered all Jews under pain of death to adopt pagan rites and customs. A statue of Zeus was placed above the altar of burnt offerings, and an edict was issued ordaining the erection of heathen altars in every town of Palestine. Many apostatized, but many also preferred to suffer torture and death rather than transgress the law of God.

The Jewish resistance fighters were led by a single family, the Mattathias, or as they were called, the Maccabees (the Hammers).  Today’s reading is part of the inspiring story of their bravery.

It happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king, to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law. 

Israel had strict dietary restrictions, which they traced back to the promulgation of the law given to Moses.  For reasons of which we are not certain today, they were forbidden to eat meat of animals that did not have cloven hooves or did not chew their cud (Leviticus 11:7).  Pigs, therefore, were considered unclean animals and were forbidden as food.

Fidelity to these laws, along with circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath, became an identifying characteristic of the Jews.  Rejection of them was considered apostasy.

Essentially the king is demanding renunciation of their allegiance to God.

One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to achieve by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

Through one of the brothers who acts as spokesperson, the family refuses.  These few words constitute an act of faith, which is why they are put to death.

At the point of death he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”

As gruesome as this scene of martyrdom is, the point of this narrative is the faith in resurrection these brothers profess.  Early Israel believed that justice would be accomplished in this life, either during the life of those directly involved or in the days of their descendants.  The idea of individual reward or punishment became a major issue only after the experience of the Exile (see Ezekiel 18:1-32).  Even then the people believed such justice would be served in this lifetime.

This reading reflects the shift that took place in Israel’s thinking around the time of the Maccabean revolt (circa 167 BC). It was precisely because of the martyrdom of the righteous that the theodicy, the justice (díkē) of God (theōs) became an issue.  How could a righteous God allow the faithful to suffer such injustice?  Although the Hebrew worldview and language did not provide the possibility to develop a concept of an afterlife, Hellenism did.  The answer to the dilemma was sought in the idea of a life after this life.  In this passage we find the beginnings of such faith.

After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put out his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.” Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

The introductory verses of the reading tell us there were seven brothers who faced this fate, along with their mother. Although not all seven are detailed, we can safely conclude that they all died in a similar way.

After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.  When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

The words of the brothers reflect various stages in the development of the afterlife concept.  The first brother asserts that God, who is really the ruler of this world regardless of what circumstances might suggest, will raise up the faithful to live again.  The second is willing to be stripped of his tongue and hands because he believes that his body will share in his resurrection.  The third insists that only the righteous will be raised to life.

These declarations reveal only a hint of the resurrection faith we have come to know.  Its development will come in the future.  However, it does provide an answer to the question of theodicy and a form of encouragement for those who must face this ordeal.

2nd Reading – 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

Brothers and sisters:
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father,
who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement
and good hope through his grace,
encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed
and word.

Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us,
so that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified,
as it did among you,
and that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people,
for not all have faith.
But the Lord is faithful;
he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. 
We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you,
you are doing and will continue to do. 
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God
and to the endurance of Christ.

Last week we began our study of 2 Thessalonians, a letter that Paul wrote to clarify his teaching on Christ’s second coming.  Today’s passage is a composite, including wish-prayer of encouragement, a request for prayer on behalf of Paul himself, a prayer for encouragement, and a final benediction.

Brothers and sisters: May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word. 

Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians is two-fold.  He prays for encouragement and for strength.  The first is an interior attitude; the second is the power needed for the external manifestation of that inner disposition.  It is clear he believes that all the good things for which he pleads come from God.  It is God who has loved them and who, as a fruit of that love, grants them both this encouragement and hope.

Finally, brothers, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified, 

Having prayed for them, Paul now asks that they pray for him.  However, the content of the prayer he requests is significantly different.  He is not concerned with his own needs but with the progress of the gospel he preaches.

The word for “speed forward” is trechē, a word often used for runners moving at maximum exertion.  This dynamic image is not intended to imply that the runner brings the gospel; rather, Paul envisions the gospel itself as moving swiftly throughout the world and bringing glory.

In other words, Paul prays that the gospel be heard and respected, that it move unimpeded wherever it goes.

as it did among you,

Paul compliments them, suggesting that they are an example of the way the word of God can take root in the minds and hearts of people and transform their lives.  This kind of compliment can go a long way in encouraging them.

and that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.

The second concern for which Paul would have them pray is his own deliverance from opposition.  Here he is less concerned with the consequences of the persecution in his own life than with how this may set up obstacles for the progress of the gospel.

This is probably a very general reference to those who know about the good news but who have closed their minds and hearts, or who have even tried to undermine it.

But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.

Paul does not doubt the goodwill of his audience, but he knows from personal experience the weakness of human nature.  For this reason, he places his trust in the faithfulness of the Lord.  It is Christ who will strengthen the believers; it is Christ who will be their protection against the forces of evil; it is Christ who will keep them on the path of righteousness.

We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you, you are doing and will continue to do. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ.

To this end, he pronounces a blessing.  It is the love of God that will ground them in their faith; it is the example of the endurance of Christ that will enable them to persevere in their commitment.

Gospel – Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.

Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless. 
Finally the woman also died. 
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus said to them,
“The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise. 
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out ‘Lord,’
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive.” 

Today’s gospel reading depicts Jesus in a theological contest with the Sadducees, a religio-political party that claimed to be descendants of Zadok, high priest at the time of David (see 2 Samuel 8:17).  They seem to have been a conservative, aristocratic group who cooperated with the Romans and enjoyed a certain amount of privilege as a result.

Theologically, they accepted as authentic only what was actually written in Scripture.  There were not like the Pharisees, who also revered the collection of oral traditions that grew up out of interpretation of the written tradition.  Thus they would not have believed in the resurrection or in the existence of angels or demons, concepts addressed in this passage.

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, ‘If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’

The Sadducees base their argument on the law (the first five books of the Old Testament), which was natural for them as it was their sole religious authority.  They remind Jesus that the law requires a man to raise up an heir in the name of his brother should the brother die without having children (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).  His brother was to take the widow as his wife in order that an heir be born to the dead man; this is referred to as levirate marriage.

The thinking behind this law was that since there is no life beyond earth, the way to give meaning to one’s life and extend it into the future was to have offspring.

Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman but died childless. Then the second and the third married her, and likewise all the seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.” 

The Sadducees then point out that under no circumstances would it be considered moral for a woman to have more than one husband at a time.  If there is life after death, wouldn’t obedience to the law result in multiple husbands?  In their eyes, this would obviously be wrong; therefore, there can be no life after death.

They pose this as a trick question, disguised in the form of a rabbinical debate. This hints that they have resorted to ridicule, demonstrating what they consider to be the folly of resurrection faith.

Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

Jesus first draws a line of distinction between this age and the age to come.  He challenges the Sadducee’s assumption that life after resurrection is simply a continuation of life as it has been experienced on earth, where people marry and have children.

They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.

The next age will be radically different from the current one: there will be no death, and all will be spiritual beings, like angels.  As children of God, they will have a share in the very nature of God.

In the resurrected life, we’re not just resuscitated, but resurrected.  The resurrected life is the life of a completed human person.

That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

Next Jesus turns to the one authority he knows the Sadducees will accept, the same authority they used in posing their question: the law.

Jesus points out that in the story of the burning bush, God is called the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:2-6).  When Moses heard from God, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were long dead.  Yet God had said, “I am the God” of these three patriarchs, not “I was.” Since God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead, these patriarchs must still be alive.  Therefore, Moses himself showed that the dead rise again.

(This is a traditional Jewish method of argument.  Reading something within the text literally, conclusions are drawn that were probably never in the mind of the original author.)

Connections and Themes

As the end of the liturgical year arrives in two weeks, it’s natural for our thoughts to turn to life after death.  The Judeo-Christian tradition has a lot to say about it. Although we we might think of the close of the year as the end, we are actually being invited into the future, the end-time.  Each of the remaining Sundays flashes a spotlight on some aspect of what God is doing in preparation for this future. Today we look briefly at the question of resurrection and the character of the life we are to live in anticipation of or in fidelity to it.

The covenant bond is not severed.  Both the reading from Maccabees and the passage from Luke’s gospel speak of resurrection.  The first is a testimony of faith, the second demonstrates a measure of scorn that accompanies unbelief.  Belief in resurrection is not the same as conviction of the immortality of the soul.  The latter is based on the makeup of the human person; the former rests on the fidelity of God.  The doctrine of resurrection is grounded in the concept of covenant, which claims that God has established a relationship with human beings.  At issue is whether this relationship is severed by death.  Is death powerful enough to break the ties that bind us in covenant, or is it God’s desire that the covenant endure?  The later traditions of the Bible, the place where this issue is addressed, clearly state that God’s desire to be united with us is stronger than death.

Once we believe in the endurance of this covenant bond, we are pressed to thematize our conviction with metaphors that attempt to explain the implications of what we believe.  Since God is a God of the living, we believe our continued union with God must unfold in some kind of life.  Since the only kind of life we know is the life of the here and the now, the metaphors we fashion, like those that we find in the Bible itself, resemble certain aspects of our present experience of life.  We must remember, however, that these are only metaphors that stand for and point to a mysterious reality, not precise descriptions of the future.  We do not really know what it will be like.

Something radically different.  The Sadducees insisted on understanding the next life as if it were merely a continuation of the present one.  This was their error, the error Jesus corrected without reverting to the sarcasm they had employed.  He does not say what this future life will be like, he simply states that it will be different.  Social systems and gender relationships will be radically transformed.  Whether it is accurate to say that life itself will continue is not clear; what is clear is the assurance that our relationship with God will endure.

Living proleptically.  If this is the future that awaits us, how are we to live until it dawns? Actually, it has already dawned.  This is the eschatological hope in which we live by the grace given us from God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our future is already present; therefore, we are called to live lives that have been radically transformed.  However, the future has not yet completely dawned, and so we find ourselves living both in this age and in the age to come.  Thus we live proleptically; we live future lives, but we live them in the present.  As difficult as this may be, we have the eternal encouragement of Christ.  We have the promise that the Lord will strengthen us and guard us.  We have the instruction of our religious tradition that directs our minds and hearts.  When we live lives of the future, we truly enable that future to dawn in the present.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s