Sunday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Commentary on 2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14, 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5 and Luke 20:27-38

It will help if we put today’s Gospel passage into its context. First of all we need to realise that at this stage in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is already in Jerusalem and he will not leave the city again. The whole of the 20th chapter deals with the coming climax of Jesus’ public life and the situations which led to his rejection and condemnation by the religious leaders of his people.

Jesus’ authority to speak and act as he does is challenged by the governing establishment, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. He gives them the warning parable about the vineyard owner who let out his vineyard to tenants. The tenants refused to give the owner the fruits of his own vineyard and actually killed servants who were sent to collect them. Finally, they also killed the owner’s son, thinking that thus they would become permanent masters of the vineyard. But, Jesus says, the owner will destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Jesus’ listeners, knowing full well exactly what he was saying, reacted in horror – “God forbid!”. Of course, that is just what happened. Just 40 years after this, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed it and the Temple with it. Even for the early Christians, it seemed the end of the world (just as the later sacking of Rome by “barbarians” seemed the end of the world for St Augustine).

Two encounters
Following on this we have encounters between Jesus and two influential groups. First, the Pharisees, who were both deeply religious and strongly nationalistic (a dangerous mix then, and now!), try to entrap Jesus into making a politically compromising statement. They show him a Roman coin, and ask an apparently sincere and innocent question about taxation. But “marvelling at his answer”, they were reduced to impotent silence.

Next, it is the turn of the Sadducees featured in our Gospel passage today. Who were the Sadducees? Basically they were a sect within the Jewish community. They included many of the priestly class and upper echelon families. Politically, they were more ready to compromise with the Romans in the interests of their own power and wealth. We may remember the remark of Caiaphas, the high priest and a Sadducee, that it was better for one man, Jesus, a fellow-Jew, to die at the hands of the Romans, than that the whole Jewish nation be destroyed. He was totally unaware of the irony and the hidden truth of his words.

Another distinguishing mark of the Sadducees was that they only accepted as the word of God the part of the Old Testament known as the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch consists of the first five books of the Hebrew (Old) Testament, which are traditionally attributed to Moses as their author (obviously, Moses could not have written all those books but it was the custom of the time to attribute authorship of a notable work to a famous person).

Because of this, the Sadducees did not accept beliefs which are only found in other parts of the Hebrew Testament. So, for instance, they refused to believe in the existence of angels – or resurrection from the dead.

It is on the basis of this that they confront Jesus with a problem, which is not a problem for them but which they deem unanswerable for Jesus (and other Jews, especially their rivals, the Pharisees*).

Levirate law
The problem the Sadducees address was based on a tradition, known as levirate law, by which a man was expected to marry the childless widow of his brother. This was so that the dead man’s name would be carried on to the next generation (it was presumed and expected, of course, that a son would be produced).

In their challenge to Jesus, the Sadducees propose an extreme case where seven brothers, who all die before having children, are married successively to the same woman. And they conclude by asking: “At the resurrection – which you believe in but we do not – which of the brothers will be the wife’s husband, since she was married to them all?” It was a mocking question meant to rubbish the belief of other Jews. The Sadducees feel that, without belief in life after death, there is no problem. The dead simply disappear into oblivion. But, for Jesus and those other Jews who did believe in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees felt their hypothetical created an insoluble solution.

Life after death
Jesus answers the question on various levels. First of all, he implies that life after death is not the same as a physical existence. Jesus’ own resurrection is never to be understood in that way either. Resurrection is not resuscitation. If we say that we rise body and soul we are only saying that we rise in the wholeness of our persons – which includes our spiritual and intellectual levels, our physical reality and, very importantly, our whole personal history (our fourth dimension!). All are part of ME and all shared in the life to come. That is what we believe.

Secondly, Jesus raises a point which pervades the whole of the Gospel message. All those who are in Christ enter into a new relationship with God and with all other people. We express this whenever we start to pray “Our Father”. These relationships transcend blood and marriage.

So Jesus says, “The children of this age take wives and husbands.” On the other hand, he says, “Those who are judged worthy of a place in the other age and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die for they are the same as the angels, and being sons (Greek, masculine, huioi) of the resurrection they are sons (huioi) of God.”

This is another assertion of the new kind of family that we enter as disciples and followers of Jesus. It belongs to the statement that Jesus made when he was told that his mother and brothers were looking for him. “Who is my mother? Who is my brother? Whoever does what God wants him to do is my brother, my sister, my mother” (cf. Mark 3:31-35).

New relationships
In “this” age, of course, people continue to marry and have other relationships but in the “new” age of Jesus, in the world of Jesus which covers both present and future existence, there is a whole new set of relationships. Seen in that light, the question of the Sadducees has no relevance whatever. There is no problem. People do get married and have families but, in the long run, it is our relationship with God, which determines our deeper relationships with each other.

It is also seems implied that in the “age” of Jesus, marriage is no longer a must for all. There are cultures in which even today every male is expected to get married and where daughters too are expected to get “married off”. It is not really essential for the Christian, as a Christian, to be concerned about having a family, about the family line being continued, about having sons rather than daughters.

The call to celibacy, whether for priests, religious or lay people, is a statement of this belief and it is why the witness of celibacy by some in the Church is seen as full of meaning in our Christian community.+

Argument collapses
Seen in this light, the argument of the Sadducees completely collapses. It is seen as very “this-worldly” and narrow-minded. However, Jesus has still one punch to throw. It is one that may not completely convince us today, but it would have made the Sadducees stop in their tracks. The Sadducees began their attack by quoting from the law of Moses concerning the obligation of a younger brother to marry his deceased brother’s wife. This law, of course, they accepted and believed as true (how well they actually followed that law in general was something their opponents, the strictly observant Pharisees, might have had something to say about).

In replying to them, Jesus concludes his argument by also quoting from a book of Moses. “Moses himself,” says Jesus, “implies that the dead rise again.” He did so when “the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exodus 3:2). And the Lord, identifying himself, said to Moses, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). And God, Jesus tells the Sadducees, is God, “not of the dead, but of the living; for to him, all are in fact alive” (even after death). The Sadducees fall silent. They dare not contradict the word of God coming through Moses.

It is not in today’s Gospel passage but immediately after this Luke comments: “And some of the teachers of the Law (possibly Pharisees) answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well’”. In other words, they were delighted to see the Sadducees put down. And Luke continues, “For they (the teachers of the Law) no longer dared to ask Jesus any question.” Jesus had established his authority but he had also guaranteed his final destiny.

Lord of life
In general the theme of today’s Mass is that Jesus is the Lord of life. And, that life is not terminated by physical death. We see this in the First Reading, which is from Maccabees (a book of the Bible, incidentally, not recognised by all Christians).

The issue here is not just about eating or not eating pork, or narrow-minded nationalism. It is about values, which transcend physical existence, which are of greater value than physical survival. Jesus knew this, the constant stream of martyrs down the centuries knew this, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe knew this. It is understood by the mother, who does not hesitate to give her life to save her child’s. “Ours is the better choice,” says the youngest Maccabee, “to meet death at men’s hands, yet relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him.”

“The glory of God is a person fully alive” (Gloria Deo homo vivens) said St Irenaeus and only that person who has the perfect freedom to let go of everything, even physical life, for the sake of truth, justice and love and total commitment to the well-being of brother and sister is a fully alive person.

*There is a wonderful scene in the Acts of the Apostles where Paul has been arrested and has returned to Jerusalem. The Roman authorities, having no idea what all the fuss was about, had sent Paul to be formally charged by the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews. Seeing the composition of the council, Paul appealed to the belief of the Pharisees (he himself was a Pharisee) in the resurrection against the Sadducees. As a result, the gathering was divided. The Pharisees now jumped to the defence of “their man”, proclaiming his innocence. The assembly was thrown into uproar as Pharisees and Sadducees went at each other. Paul had to be whisked away by the Romans who thought he would be torn to pieces in the melee (see Acts chaps 22 and 23).

+This is not really an appropriate occasion for the much longer discussion of the controversial issue of mandatory celibacy for Catholic clergy.

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