32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
What the First Reading, from 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14 and the Gospel, Luke 20:27-38, have in common is clearly an affirmation of life after death, specifically resurrection.
While the text from Maccabees sets up the theme up usefully in this way, many contemporary readers might find offputting the idealised picture of martyrdom that it portrays – not shrinking from fairly specific detail. Were the young men quite so bold in the face of death as the text suggests? Is there not a touch of fanaticism here, a far too literal embrace of a better life beyond death – the sort of thing that in other contexts, all too familiar today, can lead to suicide bombings and other atrocities?
Because of this, the reading needs careful handling. Genuine martyrdom is always an affirmation, not a denial, of life. People of faith are prepared to surrender their lives, not because they despise or belittle present human existence but because some values are so essential to human existence that they are, in fact, worth dying for.
Power of God
In this case what the brothers are affirming in their readiness to die is the value of the Torah (the law of Moses) to Israel. They do so confident that God’s promise that in the Torah Israel will find life extends even beyond death. Their stance reflects a powerful belief in the fidelity and power of God.
However, not all parties in the Judaism at the time of Jesus welcomed belief in resurrection. It was a matter of division, in particular, between the Pharisees, who affirmed it, and the Sadducees, who denied it. The latter armed themselves with quibbles of the kind illustrated in the Gospel that sought to make the notion of a risen existence ridiculous. The quibble derives from the prescription of the law of Moses whereby a man is required to raise up offspring for a brother who has died, “so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deut 25:5-6; cf. Gen 38:8). In the (unlikely) event of all seven husbands predeceasing the woman, will she not find herself, in the risen existence, wife to all seven!
The quibble rests upon a crass assumption that life after death would simply be a repetition or extension of life in the present time, with the same conditions applying.
This flaw in the argument (still alive and strong in the religious imagination of many people today) enables Jesus to respond with a majestic two-stage clarification. First of all (vv. 34-36), in the case of the risen life we are dealing with a totally new situation. Those who share in the risen life enjoy the immunity to death that “the angels and children of God”, as spiritual beings, enjoy (“children of God” is synonymous with “angels”). But since no one dies any more, there is no longer any need for procreation and hence no need for marriage, the institution designed to supply it.
If we look here for a rich theology of marriage, we shall surely be disappointed. But Jesus is not downplaying that institution or denying that faithful marital relationship in this life finds no resonance in the life to come. He is simply refuting the Sadducees within their own terms of reference. Their error is to fail to realise that to understand and speak appropriately of the resurrection involves a preparedness to contemplate a form of existence that, while fully human, will completely transcend the conditions and limitations of present life on earth.
God is not trivial
More significantly still, in the second part of his response (vv. 37-38), Jesus points out how the quibble trivialises both the nature of God and human relationship with God. The same Moses who wrote the prescription cited by the Sadducees, in a far more central passage recorded God’s self-identification to him at the burning bush (Exod 3:6) as, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. In that moment of revelation God did not say “I was the God of Abraham, ...”, but “I am ...”. The description, evoking the eternal being of God (cf. later [Exod 3:14]: “I am who I am”), implies the continuing personal existence of those with whom God remains in relationship – including, necessarily, the three patriarchal figures listed. The relationship God seeks to forge with human beings here and now is one that causes them to enter into God’s own eternal being and so necessarily transcends death. Ultimately, then, denial of the resurrection is a denial of God as Israel – and the whole Judeo-Christian tradition stemming from Israel – conceives God to be.
Rather a pity that the Second Reading is not taken from Paul’s treatment of the risen existence in 1 Cor 15:35-49 – though at least the one provided, 2 Thess 2:16–3:5, does stress the faithfulness of God as basis for Christian hope.
Fr Brendan Byrne Sj