Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
November 06, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
II Maccabees &:1-2;9-14 | Psalm 17:1;5-6;8;15
II Thessalonians 2:16-3:15| Luke 20:27-38
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
One of the advantages of being a Priest of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion is that we welcome married priests, of which I am one. I have the high honor and distinct privilege of being the husband of Deacon Sharon Kay Talley, to whom I have been married for over twenty-six and a half years. Quite honestly, I could not survive without her. I would not be where I am today without her. So, no one, including God, should be the least bit surprised when I say that I want to be in her arms all night, every night, forever and ever.
However, marriage in the days of Jesus was much different than it is now in twenty-first-century America. Marriage in those days was primarily for procreation, not love. Women were property. Before marriage, a father owned his daughter, and after marriage, a husband owned his wife. A woman’s status and survival in the ancient world depended on being attached to a man.
Hence, we find in the Book of Deuteronomy the practice called yibbum, also known as “levirate marriage,” under which the brother of a man who dies without children is permitted and encouraged to marry the widow. This sounds to me like passing a woman along like she were a piece of property whose most important characteristic was to be a baby machine. That sounds rather dehumanizing, doesn’t it?
When the Sadducees told their tale of woe about a woman who was shuttled from one brother to another each time one died, their concluding question sounded an alarm for Jesus: “To whom will she belong in heaven?” They could not think of the resurrection as anything more than a continuation of life as it is in our earthly existence. Jesus, however, was focused on the eternal existence of humanity, a concept the Sadducees ridiculed.
Who were the Sadducees? In First Century Palestine, there were four major groups of Hebrews, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zionists. The last two aren’t mentioned in the New Testament, but as a point of information, the Essenes were a sect of mystics, and the Zionists wanted to confront and eject the Roman Empire from Palestine.
The Pharisees appear throughout the Gospels and were frequently engaged in spirited discussions with Jesus. We’ve heard plenty about the Pharisees the last few Sundays. They were known for looking at life through a hermeneutical lens that included both the law written in the Torah, that is, the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, as well as an oral Torah known as the Tradition of the Elders that I discussed in my homily two weeks ago.
This brings us to the Sadducees. They were the conservative element of the Hebrew Community in first-century Palestine. In contrast to the Pharisees, they relied solely on the written Torah for guidance in their relationship with God and other people, much like conservative, strict-constructionist judges on today’s Supreme Court interpreting the United States Constitution. Just like today’s conservative sola scriptura evangelical Christians, the Sadducees accept as true only what is actually written in the Bible.
But the major theological distinction of the Sadducees from the other three groups of Hebrews was that the Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection of the dead. In the Sadducees’ worldview, if a person died, that person’s soul went to the place of the dead, called Sheol, never to live again in any form. For the Sadducees, life ended with death. In their world, there was no everlasting life. Such an idea, to them, was pure folly.
With their rather pessimistic approach to life, the Sadducees ridiculed Jesus, who, believe it or not, identified as a Pharisee, even though he frequently took his fellow scholars of the law to task for their hypocrisy. Besides developing his very own version of an oral Torah, which he laid out in the Sermon on the Mount found in chapters five through seven, the principle eschatological teaching of Jesus is that life does not end if a person dies, but continues, albeit in a different form.
That’s the point of today’s Gospel. Jesus did not criticize those of us who want to be with our beloved spouses forever and ever. Instead, Jesus taught that life will go on after death, but in a different mode of being. Saint Paul expounded on this idea in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, where he contrasted mortal physical bodies with immortal spiritual bodies.
Immortal bodies are liberated bodies, that is, liberated from human institutions and all their rules. Jesus was saying that in the resurrection, there will be no more giving women away as if they are property. Paul picked up on this theme in his Epistle to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
When Jesus responded to the Sadducees’ question about marriage, he announced that the age of resurrection would end the oppression of women. The “Our Father,” which we sing every Sunday, has us petitioning God, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” In that prayer, we are asking God to make our lives on earth as they will be in Heaven. There, women will no longer be considered baby machines and treated as property.
What this is saying is that human legal and social rules that oppress women are exactly that: human rules, not divine law, and therefore, do not apply in Heaven. Those oppressive human rules, like the laws of some states that require women to remain pregnant against their will, were made primarily by male individuals who, biologically, cannot empathize with the situation of a pregnant woman who does not want to be pregnant. That’s because it’s a biological fact that only women can become pregnant.
Male politicians who pass laws against abortion are like the Sadducees in today’s Gospel, who lacked empathy for a woman who was widowed seven times. They displayed no compassion for her whatsoever, and neither do conservative male politicians in twenty-first-century America show any compassion for a pregnant woman who does not want to be pregnant.
Those Sadducees in today’s Gospel described a woman losing her husband, then remarrying his brother and losing him and then the next brother, and on and on: seven weddings followed by seven funerals. If Jesus sounded exasperated by their telling of the tale, perhaps it was because the Sadducees spoke without an ounce of empathy. How did the men die? How did she get through it all? Maybe they were all wonderful husbands who cared for her tenderly. It was all so sad. The Sadducees were, indeed, a sad bunch of people.
Every ounce of who we are as Christ’s followers should long to reach out to this woman. No one empathized with that woman more than Jesus. The tale unfolded so quickly that Jesus had no time to say, “Take me to this woman.” Instead, the Sadducees announced in their insensitive voices, “The woman is dead now, too.”
Jesus invites us to think of the Kingdom of Heaven as a place where all will be made new, a place where divisions of people by arbitrary human rules is no more. Eternity will not be a continuation of things as they are on earth. Jesus came to say, “No! Open your minds and hearts because what is coming will be so much greater.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us that in eschatological time, there are two coexisting realms, that is, two eras. The former era is one of waiting for the Messiah. The new era began with the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. This new age revealed the reality of the resurrection. God revealed in Jesus means that God is living and active in this world, here and now. Through Jesus, God will bring the world to the fulfillment God intends for it.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus does not address who is raised and welcomed into heaven and who is not. What he does proclaim is the certainty of the resurrection by directly asserting that there is a resurrection.
The idea of resurrection was foretold in today’s First Reading from Second Maccabees about seven brothers who died horrible deaths rather than compromise their conscience. They were devout Jews who put God’s demands ahead of those of the oppressive Seleucid King, Antiochus the Fourth, a truly evil man who desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by decreeing that it be used to practice pagan polytheistic worship. How disgusting that is!
You can read the full story of the deaths of the seven brothers in chapter seven of the Second Book of Maccabees, from which today’s reading is excerpted. There, it recounts their horrible end in far more gruesome detail than in the snippet of that chapter selected for today’s First Reading. As gruesome as the details of their martyrdom may be, the real point of this narrative is the faith in resurrection these brothers professed.
The first brother asserts that God, who is really the ruler of the entire universe regardless of what circumstances might suggest, will raise the faithful up to live again.
The second brother is willing to be stripped of his tongue and his hands because he believes that his body will share in his resurrection.
The third brother insists that only the righteous will be raised to life.
These declarations were beginnings that suggest the resurrection faith we have come to know in the life and teachings of Jesus. However, today’s First Reading is not the only place in the Old Testament that talks about resurrection.
In chapter thirty-seven of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, we have the story of the dry bones coming back to life. In this story, God brings Ezekiel to a valley full of dry bones in a dream-like vision. God commands him to proclaim a prophecy wherein the bones connect into human figures, then become covered with flesh and skin.
God reveals those bones as the People of Israel in exile. Ezekiel has been chosen to resurrect them and return them to the Land of Israel. The fundamental lesson of this story is that the spirit of God enables people to live. Our ancestors in the early church taught that the dry bones prophecy foretells the resurrection of all humanity when the Kingdom of God will truly be realized.
In Psalm sixteen, we read, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” The psalmist, believed to be King David, is praying that he doesn’t merely want to be saved from immediate physical danger but to overcome death. In other words, the psalmist envisioned resurrection.
And in today’s Gospel, Jesus himself links the resurrection characterizing the Messianic Age with the ancestors of the Jewish people when he refers to Moses and the burning bush in the third chapter of Exodus. There, Yaweh appears as the God of the ancestors of the Jewish nation, that is, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The text in Exodus has God saying, “I am,” not “I was.” While the implication is that God is still the God of these ancestors, the God of the Israelites is a God of the living, not of the dead. This means that somehow the ancestors are still alive in some form.
Yes, as William Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage.” We are all actors and actresses in a play called “Human History,” an ongoing drama without a foreseeable ending. The last three Sundays of the liturgical year, which ends in twenty-twenty-two on November twentieth, are often characterized as foreshadowing the end of time, but a case can also be made that these readings actually foretell the beginning look towards the future.
Although both the First reading and today’s Gospel talk about resurrection, the doctrine of the resurrection is not the same as a conviction that the soul is immortal. Rather, the biblical idea of resurrection is grounded in the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. Is death powerful enough to break the ties that bind us in that covenant, or is it God’s desire that the covenant endures? I say that God’s desire to be united with us is stronger than death.
Jesus teaches us that our next lives will be different from the lives we know today. Jesus does not explicate what our next lives will be like, only that they will be different. Suffice it to say, however, that our existence will not be a continuation of life today as we know it. Human rules will become history. God will reign and govern. No matter what else happens, our relationship with God will endure and never be extinguished.
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 God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our future is already present; therefore, we are called to live radically transformed lives enlightened by Jesus.
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; that is, we live in the present as we would in the future. Relying on the instruction of our religious tradition that directs our minds and hearts toward the future, we truly enable that future to dawn in the present.
We live now during a very troubled period of human history. Although progress in science, technology, medicine, and other branches of learning have raised standards of living, increased the comforts of life, and lengthened life expectancy, yet, the human social conscience has not kept pace with material improvements. Millions of people still live destitute, not only in the underdeveloped parts of our globe but right here in the United States, the world’s wealthiest country.
Expansion of government control over people’s lives has been proposed and is being put into action in parts of the world as a cure for not only the unequal distribution of this world’s goods but for everything from fighting disease to the preservation of natural resources. However, in a society that reverences government power, the poor and the powerless find that they have exchanged one set of tyrants in the private sector for another set of tyrants in the public sector. All tyrants, however, are like the Sadducees in today’s Gospel: they lack human empathy. They are concerned only about remaining in power to enrich themselves.
Government, by definition, lacks empathy. In theory, laws apply to everyone no matter who they are and whatever their individual situation. The basic error in trusting the government to solve every problem is that human life ends like that of stock farm animals, that is, in death. We saw this during the pandemic. Despite social distancing and mask mandates, people still got sick and died. All that government intervention was for naught and made people miserable.
We are now seeing the same thing with climate change. Although, in theory, increased regulation of the economy will change the weather, we still have hurricanes and wildfires. The point is God is ultimately in charge. But unlike governments, our God is one of unconditional love and empathy for the human condition.
Yet somehow, many people contend allowing governments to control everything is considered “progressive.” In that scenario, so-called progress can become oppression. But all so-called “progress” is meaningless if it does not lead to a future. If there is no God, and therefore no future life, by what logic can earthly rulers exact honesty and fraternal love from their subjects? If there is no higher power and no higher consequence than earthly punishment, why should any sane person exert to provide for the common good, as long as he can escape judgment from an earthly court?
In that instance, what do people have in common if they are no different and have no higher end or purpose in life than that of a herd of cattle? What, then, is their basis for the love of one’s neighbor?
In a future with God, rather than one without God, Christian love would conquer the world. The causes of unrest and strife within nations would be removed. Fear of aggression among nations would gradually disappear. Vast sums wasted on weapons of war could be spent on the improvement of underprivileged nations.
The greatest need of our world today is to return to the Two Great Commandments and to love God and one’s neighbor. When these two Commandments penetrate everyone’s social consciences, hatred and division will terminate, wars will cease, and the wanton destruction of the gifts which God gave us will end.
Jesus reveals that God is with us. Jesus reveals that, in the end, God’s realm will triumph. Hence, we are freed to live in the varied contingencies of our world with hope, patience, and courage. AMEN.