By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; Response: Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15; Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Gospel: Luke 20:27-38
As we come closer to the end of the liturgical year and the approach of the winter season, the readings remind us of the end of time and final judgment. Last Sunday, for example, we heard St. Paul talking about “the day of the Lord,” meaning the day of final judgment. In today’s first reading, the theme is the resurrection of the dead. That teaching appears first in the Book of Daniel 12:1-3. It was composed about 165 B.C., in response to a persecution waged against the Jews of Jerusalem and vicinity by King Antiochus IV of Syria. His purpose seems to have been to bring religious unity into his kingdom, which then included much of the Holy Land. The pious authors of Daniel were giving solace to bereaved families who had lost family members in the persecution. How could God allow this to happen to devout people? How could things be set right? The answer was the resurrection. On this Sunday, we have a reading from the Second Book of Maccabees. The date of this book is about 124 B.C. The heads of the Maccabean clan led resistance to the persecution.
As the story opens, a mother and her seven sons were undergoing torture to force them to eat pork. This was in violation of the kosher laws in Leviticus 11:7-8 and Deuteronomy 14:8. This law distinguished Jews from others, just as abstinence from meat on Fridays distinguished Catholics. One of the seven brothers spoke, “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” He addressed the king, “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.” Another brother, threatened with amputation, held out his hands, and said, “I received these from Heaven, (a reverent way to avoid speaking the name of God). For the sake of his laws I am ready to give them up. From him I hope to receive them again,” thus professing belief in the resurrection. Under torture the next of the brothers said, “It is my choice to die … with the hope God gives of being raised up by him.” Following the words of Daniel, the young man distinguishes between resurrection of the just and resurrection of the wicked. He says to the king, “For you there will be no resurrection to life.” The persecution was a real event in history. Stories that were told later may be legendary, but legend is a legitimate way to reveal divine truths — in this case, the resurrection of the body.
Psalm 17 chants nothing explicit about the resurrection of the dead. It may, however, be implied in this verse: “. . . in justice I shall behold your face. On waking I shall be content in your presence.” The original meaning of waking as used in this psalm referred to waking up in the morning. By using it in a liturgy that emphasizes the final resurrection, it takes on a new, and fuller, meaning. Just as falling asleep became for Christians a metaphor for death, so waking up became a metaphor for resurrection of the dead. By the way, our English word “cemetery” originates in the Greek word for a sleeping room, a dormitory.
Surprisingly the Lectionary does not give us an explicit reading about the resurrection of the dead, though the Second Letter to the Thessalonians abounds in that theme. The author encourages his readers and hearers by asking God to strengthen them in every good deed. This is followed by a plea to pray for the author, so that proclamation of the word picks up speed. Paul always endured persecution; and therefore, they are asked to pray, “that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people.” The author is confident that the Thessalonians will follow his instructions. The term “good hope” in the first sentence was used by so-called mystery religions for happiness after death. The author of the letter gives it a Christian meaning, probably the resurrection of the dead.
To understand today’s gospel reading, we must take a look at the Old Testament background. In Deuteronomy 25:5-10, the Torah gives us the Law of Levirate. A Levir is a brother-in-law to a widow – her late husband’s brother. If a husband dies without a son, by this law her husband’s brother must take her as his wife, even if he is already married. “The first son she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” There are interesting details added to this law, in case the brother-in-law refuses to do his duty, but those details are not relevant to our gospel reading. In our gospel, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, see an opportunity to ridicule their Pharisee opponents who did believe in the resurrection of the dead – plus an opportunity to poke fun at Jesus. Their question: there were seven brothers. The oldest one married a woman, but he died without children. The second and third and eventually all of them successively, though unsuccessfully, did their duty to the serial widow, but still no son.
The punchline: at the resurrection, whose wife will she be, since all seven were married to her? Jesus had earlier been tested by the Pharisees on the matter of paying taxes to the Roman government. He cleverly put them into their place. The Sadducees tried their luck.
They accepted only the Torah (the first five books of our Bible) as a source of revelation. They claimed that the Torah taught nothing about a resurrection, Therefore, there was none. So Jesus had to respond from the Torah. First, he stated that, in life after the resurrection, people neither marry nor are given in marriage. Since they are immortal, there will be no need for children to propagate the human race. In that way, they will be similar to the angels. As to the question of the resurrection, Jesus cites Exodus 3:6, where the Lord God says, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Conclusion: God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must still be alive, “for to God all are alive.” This response may not seem to everyone a convincing proof of the resurrection of the dead. The Pharisee opponents of the Sadducees, however, felt justified in their own belief in the resurrection. The scribes among them, the Scripture scholars, said to Jesus, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” We owe to the belittled Pharisees the belief in the resurrection of the dead, a foundational tenet of Christianity.