Reflections on the readings for Sunday 7 November 2010
2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38
Belief in the resurrection is a defining feature of the Christian faith. What role does it play in my own thinking about life and its meaning? I must admit that heaven and the afterlife do not occupy my thoughts very often. I suppose I resist the notion of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ as escapist thinking that can insulate us against engaging fully with life now. I’m missing out. These readings challenge me to reflect more seriously on this central Christian hope.
It comes as a surprise to many that most of the Old Testament has no firm conception of an afterlife. The belief in the resurrection of the righteous sufferer emerged powerfully during a time of extreme crisis and persecution under the tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ca 167 BC) which is reflected in our first reading. When strong faith in a just, powerful and compassionate God comes face to face with torture and death for obedience to that faith, a general hope of national deliverance is not enough. If that kind of death does not kill off trust in God, it is because the sufferer can look with expectation beyond the catastrophe to God’s just intervention beyond the grave. Courage to face such extreme opposition demands such extreme hope.
But a resurrection faith is not only called for in the face of death. Our lives are strewn with crises and endings. The Christians to whom Paul wrote were facing opposition to the practice of their faith, as well as being confused by contradictory teachings, so that they were unsure what to believe. Paul and his colleagues were themselves facing opposition in their own ministry. Paul prays for the Christian community and asks them in turn to pray for him. They can pray with confidence if they remember that they are loved by a faithful God. The resurrection of Jesus, God’s stamp of approval on his faithful life and the guarantee that death is not the end for those who follow him, is the basis for the everlasting encouragement and good hope which enables them to endure.
Psalm 17 is that kind of a prayer. It is a cry for help that is saturated in trustful confidence. The faithful God will come to the aid of the faithful worshipper. A hopeful confidence like this can be cultivated by learning to look for and recognise the little resurrections after times of crisis. Then death, even a difficult one, is another step on the same hopeful journey.
The Jews in Jesus’ day held various views on the afterlife (or lack of it); it was a subject that was still up for debate. The Sadducees, a Jewish sect drawn from the upper classes, did not believe in the resurrection. Their question to Jesus makes it clear how irrelevant the whole notion was to their way of making meaning out of their lives. How different their situation was from that of the martyrs! Their lives were probably comfortable enough without their feeling a need to hold onto a strong hope for God’s intervention in the future. Resurrection was simply a notion which, read literally in conjunction with certain Mosaic laws about marriage, could produce interesting theological conundrums. The law they quote to Jesus has its roots in the old Israelite view of the afterlife. Because there was no clear belief in an existence beyond the grave, one lived on in one’s children. A person who died without an heir to carry on their name would sink into oblivion, hence the law that provided for an heir through the brother of the deceased man. They were probably quite taken with their own ingenuity in pitting one understanding of ‘afterlife’ against another to produce a ridiculous hypothetical situation. Jesus claims that their question is based upon a wrong understanding of resurrection as simply a continuation of life as it is now. But then he returns to Moses’ words to make a case for the resurrection. I love the concluding words of Jesus: “God is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.” When we remember those who have died we can take comfort from the fact that to God, the ground of all being, those whom we experience as absent are in fact alive. God will not allow even death to break the relationship of love with God’s own.
Resurrection faith is not ‘pie-in-the-sky’ after all. It is a powerful symbol of openness to the future even in the darkest circumstances. It is trust in the justice and love of God which triumphs over the worst catastrophe.
Here is the reading from 2 Maccabees, for those who do not have it their Old Testament:
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.”