Thursday, November 03, 2016

Resurrection from the Dead: The 32nd Sunday of OT

We are advancing in the “unofficial liturgical season” of November, and the Mass Readings turn toward meditation on the Last Things.  This Sunday we are directed especially to the consideration of the resurrection of the dead.  

The resurrection of the dead is controversial.  It is a traditional belief in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but Eastern religions have no necessary commitment to it.  Indeed, bodily resurrection makes no sense in Buddhism.  Likewise, ancient Greek philosophy had little use for the body in general, and it was often regarded as a prison for the soul.  Western secularism espouses materialism; therefore, there is nothing to a human person except his material body.  Resurrection is impossible, unless it be through some technology.  

Christian faith, following Jesus Christ, proclaims the goodness of the body, and affirms that God will one day restore and transform our bodies, similar to the transformation we witness in the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection physical appearances.

1. Our First Reading is 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 Books of Maccabees are seldom read in Mass, but they chronicle a critical and dire period of the history of God’s people Israel.  During the middle of the 100s BC, the survival of the Jewish people was threatened by the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, which was the middle portion of Alexander the Great’s once-world-wide kingdom.  Antiochus IV was a crazed egotist, and tried to force the subjects of his empire to follow Greek religion.  This involved the forcible paganization of the Jews.  Many Jews cooperated out of fear for their lives, but a resilient minority resisted.  This was one of the first times in the history of the people of Israel when faithfulness to the true God meant almost certain death.  During this time, a theology of martyrdom grew rapidly.

We read in Mass only an excerpt from the larger, heart-rending story that extends all the way to the end of 2 Macc 7.  Sadly, we miss the counsels of the heroic mother, who kept urging her sons to hope in the resurrection:

Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, 
22 “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 
23 Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”


28 I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. 
29 Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.”

Not only was the Maccabean mother a pious and courageous woman, she was a darn good philosopher, to boot. Reasoning from the intelligent design of the universe and creatio ex nihilo, she argues that the good God obviously responsible for the creation of the cosmos will certainly restore life to the creatures who loved him.  It is interesting that she relies on philosophical reasoning rather than the quotation of Scripture to bolster her case.  Perhaps she is intentionally arguing against the Greek philosophical case against resurrection, employing their own style of arguments against them. 

In any event, this First Reading encourages our faith, not only by reminding us of the great examples of these pre-Christian Jewish martyrs, but also by showing us that it is not by faith and revelation alone that we can have confidence about the resurrection of the dead: there are natural reasons that also lead to this doctrine.

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15:

R. (15b) Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.
Hear, O LORD, a just suit;
attend to my outcry;
hearken to my prayer from lips without deceit.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.
My steps have been steadfast in your paths,
my feet have not faltered.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me; hear my word.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.
Keep me as the apple of your eye,
hide me in the shadow of your wings.
But I in justice shall behold your face;
on waking I shall be content in your presence.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.

The literal meaning of several psalms suggests a resurrection or some kind of eternal life with God to come in the future.  It is standard practice for commentators, based on some Psalm texts that seem to express agnosticism or disbelief in any future life, to regard the texts that do seem to reflect such a belief as liturgical hyperbole, not meant to be taken literally.  However, I’m not so sure. The great psalm commentator M. Dahood, an expert in Canaanite and ancient Near Eastern culture generally, defended a full-blooded notion of a life to come in the psalms.  And indeed, many ancient cultures did believe in an after life, including Egypt, with which Israel had long-standing cultural ties.  For myself, I believe the ancient Israelite worshippers did believe in a life to come for those who loved the LORD, yet some psalms express the despair and doubt about this hope that periodically strikes all of us who live a life of faith.

Psalm 17 is a cry of justice from David over against his oppressors.  It suits the situation of the righteous suffering martyrs of the First Reading.  The most striking line of the psalm is the last, v. 15:

As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied
with beholding thy form.

In light of Christian faith, we can see that the “sleep” from which the psalmist will “awake” is the sleep of death (cf. John 11:11).  When he awakes, he will be “satisfied with beholding [God’s] form,” the beatific vision.  Beholding the form of God is an eschatological desire: Job, Moses, and David all wanted to see God, but did not in this life (Job 19:26; Exod 33:18; Ps 42:2).  The “sight” of God denotes intimate communion with him, a communion that goes beyond mere words or communication.  This is what we hope for: communion with God deeper than words, the beatific vision, not the beatific conversation.

2. Our Second Reading is 2 Thes 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.

 Second Thessalonians was written by Paul to a local church that was very concerned with the last things and the second coming of Christ, so it is appropriate that we read from this epistle at the end of the Church year.  Fittingly, this excerpt shows St. Paul comforting Christians in the face of persecution: “may we be delivered from perverse and wicked people.”  The Lord will “guard you from the evil one.”  The virtues we want to have are “the love of God and the endurance of Christ.”  Christ’s “endurance” refers to his fortitude when undergoing the painful martyrdom of his passion.  As followers of a martyred teacher and lord, we should not be surprised if we suffere martyrdom of various kinds.

G. Our Gospel is Lk 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.”

The Sadducees were the elite sect of Jews who controlled the Temple and the government.  They rejected all sacred books except the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses.  Since the resurrection is not clearly taught in the Pentateuch, they refused to believe in it, although the majority of Jews did. 

The Sadducees come with a story designed to prove that the resurrection of the dead would leave to insolvable conundrums; therefore, it cannot be true.  This is a form of modus tollens (proof through refutation) known as a “reductio ad absurdum,” where you disprove a proposition by showing that, if it were true, it would require other, clearly false (absurd) things to be true as well.

The example the Sadducees choose, of seven brothers married to one woman who all die, sounds suspiciously similar to the account in our First Reading.  It may be that the Sadducees were inspired by this famous narrative in popular culture, and modified it to pose the question to Jesus. 

In other Gospels, Jesus is rather blunt in his rebuke of the Sadducees: “You are wrong because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt 22:29).  Luke does not record the rebuke, but does give us the substance of Jesus reply.  First, the resurrected no longer marry.  Since there is no longer death, there is also no longer the need to procreate to maintain the race.  In that respect, we are like the angels—but we do not become angels, and in other respects we remain different  from the angels (for example, we retain physical bodies).  This is important to clarify, since popular belief often entertains the idea of us becoming angels at our death (witness numerous movies). 

Secondly, Jesus proves the reality of a life after physical death from the heart of the Penateuch itself—the only part of the Bible the Sadducees accepted as authoritative.  At the key point of Exodus where God reveals his name (and thus his nature), we find Moses calling him “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Now it is unthinkable that the living God, the all-powerful creator, would be identified by his relationship to three dead guys.  Death brought uncleanness; how could the holy name of God be so closely associated with the dead?  It cannot.  So, following the theological logic in use by the Jews of his own day, Jesus succeeds in proving to the Sadducees what the Pharisees had never been able to prove to them, namely, that Moses himself affirms the life to come, in the Pentateuch, by identifying the LORD as the God of the patriarchs.  Had they ceased to exist, Moses would have had to say, “the LORD, who was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Belief in the resurrection of the dead has always been a threat to the power of the wealthy elite who run society, as the Sadducees were.  If there is a resurrection from the dead, then this life is not all that there is, and there may be something worth dying for.  People who are willing to die for truth are hard to manipulate over long periods of time.  People whose only hope is for this life are easier for the elite to control, because making their lives miserable right now is usually enough to dissuade them from rebellion.  So the elite of our age are similarly against the populace entertaining notions of eternal life and final judgment.

Be that as it may, the point of our Gospel is that we have it from the lips of Jesus himself that there is a robust life to come; in fact, that one may almost say the true life begins on the other side of the grave, when we will “behold the form” of God.  In the midst of all the confusion, oppression, and sufferings of this present life, it is always necessary for us as followers of Jesus to cultivate a lively hope and joy in the prospect of the resurrection and the life to come.  We must say with St. Paul,  “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).  This is key to our joy, and without joy we will not convert those around us.

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