Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Hope for a Hopeless World: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some of the readers of our blog are aware that I wrote a little book, Bible Basics for Catholics (Ave Maria Press), that introduces people to the basic outline of the biblical storyline, in seven chapters from Creation to Jesus. 
Last week, a bishop sent me an email saying he liked the book, but thinks I should add a final chapter on the Book of Revelation, the resurrection, and the life to come.  One of the reasons for the suggestion, he said, was that people nowadays are experiencing not just a crisis of faith, but also of hope.  They feel like there is nothing to believe in, but just as importantly: there is nothing to look forward to.

The bishop’s comments ring in my ears as I look over the Readings that the Church has selected for us this coming Sunday.  We are in the month of November, the time of the Church Year given over to contemplating the Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell.  The Readings this week focus our thoughts on a topic intertwined with each of the Last Things: the Resurrection.  They remind us that, as Christians, we are not a people whose hopes are tied to this life.  It they were, how sorry we would be! 

1.  Our First Reading is from 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."

This is the only reading from either 1 or 2 Maccabees that makes it into the Lectionary for Sundays and Feast Days, and so I’ll take this occasion to say something about these late Old Testament books.

The main body of the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament end with the era of the return from Babylonian exile in the fifth century BC, whereas the New Testament begins with the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century AD.  The Books of Maccabees provide a partial history of the so-called “intertestamental” period, thus serving as an historical bridge between the two major divisions of the canon.

The two Books of Maccabees are not a two-volume work in sequence, like 1-2 Samuel, but rather two very different but complementary accounts of roughly the same events: the Jewish struggles for independence, under the leadership of the Maccabees, against the oppressive Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes (176-166 BC) and his successors, who tried to stamp out Judaism.  First Maccabees presents a soberly historical account of these events from about 175-134 BC, whereas 2 Maccabees presents a heavily embellished, passionate, and theological interpreted account of a shorter but overlapping time period (180-161 BC).

Although though they now form a complementary pair in the Catholic canon, the two works have very different literary histories.  First Maccabees was written in Hebrew, but remains extant only in Greek translation.  Second Maccabees, however, was composed in Greek from the first, and employs the literary conventions of that language. 

Despite being composed in Hebrew and being the primary witness to the origins of the Jewish Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), 1 Maccabees was not ultimately accepted into the canon of Scripture of Rabbinic Judaism.  The book’s positive view of the Romans (1 Macc 8) may have doomed its chances of acceptance, especially since the Jewish canon was not finalized until after the Roman destruction of the Temple (AD 70). Second Maccabees was likewise rejected, although its narratives are much beloved in Jewish religious culture, especially the account of the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons. 

The Protestant accusation that Catholics added the Books of Maccabees to the canon of Scripture in order to create support for “unbiblical” practices such as prayers for the dead (2 Macc 12:38-45) is simply historically false.  In the early Church, the Books of Maccabees were used as Scripture by Hippolytus, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Aphraates, Hilary of Poitiers, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. John Chrysostom.  Origen, Cyprian, Hilary, and St. Augustine explicitly identify one or both as Scripture.  Starting with the Council of Rome (AD 382), 1-2 Maccabees were explicitly included in the canonical lists of the Church, and remained so through the ecumenical councils of Florence (1441, long before Luther) and Trent (1563; after the Lutheran revolt). 

In ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint, 1-2 Maccabees appear in various places in the canonical order: for example, at the end of the prophets, or at the end of the historical books.  The Septuagint tradition eventually settled on placing them after Esther (as the end of the historical books) and preceding Job (the start of the poetical books).  The New American Bible follows this order.  The Vulgate tradition, however, settled on 1-2 Maccabees as the conclusion of the Old Testament, as reflected in the RSVCE and RSVCE2.  This arrangement places the books in a position of greater prominence, as an historical and theological bridge to Matthew and the New Testament.

For the first time in in its history, the Jewish nation in the period of the Maccabees faced persecution and death, not for political or ethnic reasons, but for their religion per se.  Modern Judaism continues to see in the Maccabean martyrs the beginning of the Jewish theology of martyrdom.  In particular, Judaism correlates Abraham and Isaac’s ordeal at the Aqedah (Genesis 22:1-18) with the suffering of the Maccabean mother and her sons in 2 Maccabees 7.  In fact, the Maccabean mother is seen as surpassing Abraham in faith, since she gave seven sons and herself to death, whereas Abraham offered but one son and received him back alive.  In this way, the Maccabean mother is a prototype and model for all subsequent Jews martyred for their faith.

Through faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ the Son of David, the community gathered around him (the ekklesia) constitutes the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16; cf. Rom 2:28-29) and understands the righteous Jewish martyrs such as the pious Sabbath-keepers (1 Macc 2:29-38), Eleazar (2 Macc 6:18-31), and the mother and seven sons (7:1-42) to be the Church’s true spiritual ancestors.  Christian persecution and martyrdom—such as that of Christ himself, as well as the early saints Stephen (Acts 7), Paul (2 Cor 11:23-27), and many others (Rev 6:9-11)—is in continuity with the Maccabean martyrdom, as both are inspired by a hope in God’s justice and the resurrection.[1]

2.  The 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.

Scholars debate what exactly were the views of the afterlife in ancient Israel.  Be that as it may, when read for their literal sense, the Psalms are full of the hope of eternal life, of confidence that the righteous will be set in the presence of God “forever” (Heb. ‘olam).  Perhaps most scholars would call it poetic hyperbole, but the Apostles and Fathers of the Church were convinced that David and the other Psalmists were inspired by God and saw reality more clearly than their contemporaries. 

In Psalm 17, David cries out because of the persecution he is experiencing from his enemies.  He has a “just cause”—his persecutors abuse him not for some wrong doing, but for their own wicked motives.  David expresses confidence that “you will answer me, O God,” and his final statement refers, in the spiritual sense, to the Resurrection and the Beatific Vision:

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness,
When I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding your form!

3. The Second Reading is 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.

Second Thessalonians is often considered one of St. Paul’s earlier letters.  The Thessalonians were animated by the thought that Jesus’ second coming was to take place soon, and in different passages of the epistle St. Paul makes efforts to allay their anxieties. 

In between the passages read last week and this week, St. Paul warns the Thessalonians about the coming of an anti-Christ figure he describes as the “lawless one,” who (like Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the itme of the Maccabees) opposes true worship and sets himself up as a god (2 Thess 2:3-12). 

It would be nice if the Lectionary had included 2 Thess. 2:15 in today’s Reading, because there St. Paul exhorts Christians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”  Against anti-traditional perversions of Christian faith, here St. Paul emphasizes the positive role of tradition, the importance of fidelity to it, and the two forms of tradition: written (“by letter,” i.e. the Scriptures) and unwritten (“by word of mouth,” i.e. the living teaching of the Church).

Until my conversion to the Catholic Church in 2001, I thought that the New Testament had only negative things to say about the role of tradition in the Christian life.  I later discovered this impression was due to my evangelical Protestant Bible translation.  I had been using the New International Version (NIV), which translates the Greek word paradosis (“tradition”) with the English word “tradition” every time it is used in a negative sense in the New Testament (e.g. when Jesus criticizes the traditions of the Pharisees).  However, in every instance where paradosis is used positively (as in 2 Thess. 2:15), the NIV translates with the English word “teaching.”  In this way, readers are led to believe there is no positive role for tradition in New Covenant.

Be that as it may, the passage of 2 Thessalonians for this Sunday is full of hope in eternal life and rich in moral exhortation for our lives as we await Jesus’ return.  In Jesus we have “everlasting encouragement” (or “eternal comfort,” RSVCE2), because we have firm hope in eternal life.  We know that God will “guard [us] from all evil one,” for even if the evil one kills our body, we will receive it back again at the hand of God.

In the meantime, we should devote ourselves to “every good word and deed,” especially prayer for our bishops, the successors of Paul and his companions.  “Pray for us, that the Word of the Lord may speed forward!”  We hear echoes of St. Paul’s supplication in the frequent requests for prayer made by Pope Francis.  The Pope and our bishops do face opposition from “perverse and wicked people” who do “not all have faith,” which sounds like a description of the media establishment.  In any event, prayer for our spiritual leaders should be a daily reality for the Christian.

4.  The Gospel is 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."

The Sadducees were a political and religious party made up of the wealthy elite in Jerusalem who were connected to the circles of the high-ranking priests who controlled the operation of the Jerusalem Temple.  The name “Sadducees” means “Zadokites,” because they (falsely) claimed descent from Zadok, the High Priest under Solomon, from whom the prophet Ezekiel had insisted all subsequent High Priests must descend (Ezek 40:46).

The Sadducees accepted as canonical only the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch.  Since the resurrection is not explicitly taught in the Pentateuch, the Sadducees did not believe in it.  Furthermore, they thought that a resurrection would present logical contradictions and dilemmas impossible to solve, such as the one they pose to Jesus: to whom will remarried persons belong in the resurrection? 

We observe a formal similarity between the story the Sadducees tell, and the account from Maccabees in the First Reading.  In both cases, we have the deaths of seven sons in succession, all of whom die childless, followed by the death of a woman.  It is a truly pathetic situation: how can God’s mercy and justice possibly be experienced for such a large family that nonetheless finds itself completely annihilated?

Jesus first points out that the Sadducees know little or nothing about the nature of the life to come, in which their will be neither marriage nor childbirth, but eternal life like the angels.

Jesus’ teaching here has indirect application to the celibate vocation in the Church.  Those who choose celibacy for the sake of the kingdom—a lifestyle Jesus himself practiced and commended to others (Matt 19:12)—are choosing already in this life to live in the manner of the angels and the life to come.  So celibacy is a “sign of contradiction”: it contradicts the worldview of the rest of society.  It makes no sense in a secular worldview.  If there is no resurrection and eternal life, celibacy is nonsensical.  Therefore it is a lifestyle that gives witness to a hope in the world to come.  Perhaps this is why so many people, even non-Catholics, experience profound comfort by the sight or presence of women religious in habits.  Mother Miriam of the Lamb of God (Rosalind Moss), a Jewish convert who started a women’s religious order, tells the story of a man she ran into at the grocery store in Brooklyn who was moved to tears at the sight of her habit, because it reminded him of his childhood, when nuns were everywhere.  The man was a Methodist.  But he missed the nuns badly: “Where have you been??!” he asked Mother Miriam emphatically.  Religious women are sign of hope that there is something more than this sex-drugs-and-violence saturated culture, there is hope for a world to come.

After dispelling misconceptions about the afterlife, Jesus takes up the challenge of demonstrating the reality of the resurrection from the Books of Moses.  Jesus could, of course, have cited one of the prophets who spoke of the resurrection (such as Ezekiel or Daniel), but the Sadducees would simply have disputed the canonicity of those sources.  Instead, Jesus goes to a passage at the very heart of those books the Sadducees considered Scripture.  He exegetes the self-revelation of God at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), where He reveals Himself as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 

Jesus’ point is this: it is unthinkable that God would identify Himself by his relationship to three men who were dead and gone!  How could the Eternal “I AM”, the Ever-Living, Ever-Existent One, be associated with three dead dudes? After all, each of the three of the patriarchs had died without witnessing the fulfillment of God’s promises to them, which included the possession of the land of Canaan by their descendants.  So if there is no eternal life and no resurrection, the LORD is a God who does not keep his promises, whose friends are long forgotten and extinguished.  Not even the Sadducees would go so far as to affirm such pathetic views of Israel’s God.  Therefore, one must concede that hope in the resurrection is affirmed, at least implicitly, even by the Torah of Moses.

It is good to perform works of mercy, but even if the Church could feed every hungry person, take in every homeless, and cure every sick, 100% of mankind would still end up dying one day.  The Church cannot forget that her mission is not primarily to alleviate suffering in this world, it is to proclaim “good news to the poor.”  All of us are ultimately poor, because we are going to die and be unable to take any wealth along with us to the grave.  So what is good news to poor, dying people?  It’s that there really is a God who can and wants to restore our lives and bodies, who wills that we live with him forever. 

[1] There have been tragic incidents in Western history when Christians have been responsible for the persecution of Jews.  This is contrary to the nature of our faith. Let this Reading from 2 Maccabees remind us of our common hope in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As Pope Francis said last month, “It is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic. His roots are in part Jewish. A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!”


Myshkin said...

2 Thess 2:15 attests to the oral/spoken mode of transmission of teachings/traditions, however it is translated.

John: How would your Evangelical friends respond to your pointing out the biased translation of the Greek to mean "traditions" when used negatively, and "teachings" when used positively? How, indeed, do they justify two ways to translate the very same Greek word? Can you comment?

James said...

I think you miss the point of the reformation when asking this. The point is that they knew what they were doing. They were intentionally trying to emphasize that Greek word with a negative connotation so that they can defend sola scriptura. They wrote it in this way so that people would do exactly what Dr. Bergsma did: Avoid tradition. It is deceptional. But the sad part is, I don't think they felt bad about it when they did this.

Nick said...

"but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead"

He means resurrection to glory, right? Because everyone will be resurrected.

Philip said...

After the end of the age, there is no one living in the world, so it would have to be a resurrection to glory.

JohnE said...

John 5:27-28:
"...the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voices and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation."

Philip said...

Actually the son of man speaks of sending angels out to gather the elect at his final coming. He never says anything about the those not saved so technically, there could still be people earth. That's a rapture debate though. In any case, regarding the elect themselves, the passage seems pretty clear that it's glory with the word worthy. Hope this helps.

Philip said...

Sorry, John, I didn't see this before you posted. You make a good point. He does speak of a resurrection of condemnation. Though I don't think that's what he was referring to in this particular passage. Typically the phrase resurrection is used in regard to the righteous.

Nick said...

Thanks John! By "resurrection to glory" I meant resurrection to life, by the way.

Pope Francis has chosen themes of hope for the next World Youth Days.

And here's a video on what Heaven is like.

Vince C said...

I'm wondering if, by their made-up story about the 7 brothers, the Sadducees were not only trying to make the idea of the resurrection of the body sound ridiculous, but could they have also been taking a dig at the deuterocanonical books themselves? It's well acknowledged that the Sadducees not only did not believe in the resurrection or the existence of angels, they also held as canonical the 5 books of Moses. The only place in Scripture (as far as I know)that attests both a belief in the resurrection or angels AND mentions 7 brothers is the deuterocanonical books of Tobit and 2 Maccabees. Could it be that they had reason to assume that Jesus held to the canon of biblical books that contained both Tobit and Maccabees, and they were trying to get in as many digs on Jesus as they could? Of course, it doesn't change what Jesus is trying to assert in this passage, but it might say something about the full implication of the Sadducee's question, as well as what canon that Jesus and his disciples used. What do you think?

John Bergsma said...

Vince C: You make an interesting point. For my part, I think it's plausible.

John Bergsma said...

Myshkin: I think the NIV translators may not have even been aware of what they were doing in mistranslating "paradosis" as "teaching." I think it was a subconscious thing: "Well, of course St. Paul can't really mean 'tradition' in the ordinary sense here, so we need to use a different English word." It illustrates how our presuppositions (and this is true for us Catholics as well!) shape translation and interpretation. It's unavoidable, so the challenge is to find the right presuppositions.

Peter said...

My biggest objection in translations of any type in scripture is why cant we just use what the origional language wrote or stay as close to it as possible? If a word in greek is tradition, than keep it as tradition. There is one bible I picked up weeks ago that said "I am the meat of life." I dont think that was subconscience choice. Its a clear and obvious referance away from the catholic doctrine of the eucharistic feast in John 6. I believe this was a gideons bible, but Ive seen the same thing in our catholic bibles. the good news bible for instance: Horrid. If the greek says something, both catholics and protestants should keep the word right. They may or may not have done this subconsciously with the particular verse referanced, but regardless both catholics and Protestants should keep the verse as close to the origional greek as possible...of course maybe this isnt as easy as it sounds. They are two completely different languages. Still certain things like using meat instead of bread seems pretty obvious as steering clear of the sacrament of the eucharist.