Thirty-second Sunday of the Year–November 9, 1974–CNR
Our Gospel-reading today is one in a series of disputes between Jesus and his various opponents. Taken together, they illustrate and demonstrate his authority and wisdom as the Messiah. Each of them separately at once teaches something about the nature of the Kingdom he was announcing and calls his hearers to the conversion that alone gives access to it.
The opponents today are the Sadducees, a more conservative group among the Jews, who, accepting only the first five books, the Torah, denied the resurrection of the just. The homey story they propose to Jesus was meant to point up the absurdity of that belief, and was probably borrowed from their disputes with the Pharisees, who took the resurrection so literally and uncritically that they could say, for example, that in the next life, “women will bear children daily.” Their argument takes the classic rabbinic form of quoting a single text, here about the obligation of a brother to marry his brother’s childless widow, and rigorously deducing conclusions from it.
Jesus’ reply is not an out-and-out rejection of the argument. He agrees with the Sadducees’ denial of a resurrection which is just a repetition or prolongation (even with certain spectacular accelerations!) of this life. Rather, the kingdom will mean the transcending of death, so that there will be no need for marrying. But then Jesus responds in similar rabbinic form, taking the famous text that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and similarly deducing from it, since God is the God of living persons, the conclusion that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not dead, but alive.
It is important to note that this is an argument for the resurrection of the just. It cannot be, then, that Jesus is merely speaking of some vague continued existence of the “souls” of the patriarchs. God is the God of the living, and of living persons, and persons are not disembodied souls. It seems, then, that in some fashion death–the dissolution of soul and body–is already overcome for the just, if they truly live now to God.
The reply of Jesus, then, moves between two extremes, the one an overly materialistic view of the Kingdom and the other an excessive spiritualization of it. The tendencies were not phenomena of only his day. They are, as Christian history manifests, the enduring temptations of us all. Nor does the issue only concern the next life: it bears also on how we understand our lives now, on whether we collapse human life into a constant quest of more and ever more exotic forms of physical pleasure and comfort or whether we evaporate the life of the Spirit into a liberation from rather than of the body. Either way is a denial of our humanness and a slur upon the wisdom of God in fashioning this human frame of ours in which spirit is embodied, in which the stuff of the universe bursts forth into wonder and thought and speech and love.
Without this healthy appreciation of our full humanness, nothing much about Christianity makes sense. We are not merely flesh and bones, and this transcendence even can reach the point where a person will imitate the Maccabean martyrs and die for a principle. Nor are we merely “souls”: we believe in a Word become flesh, whose gestures and accents we see and hear in sacraments that break upon our ears and eyes and touch. The Spirit washes as water is poured; bread and wine are taken and we have communion with the Body and Blood of the Lord; a hand is raised in blessing and our persons are cleansed of sin; oil is spread on our bodies and we, not just our “souls,” are strengthened and even healed. The Word and act of God are not just unmediated gifts of God; our ears have heard that Word from the lips and seen them in the acts of other persons; our bodies have felt in the gesture of others the reconciling presence of the God who has so loved what he has made that he has become one of us and is so pleased with his creation that he has raised it from the corruption that is death.
The seemingly archaic dispute of the Gospel-passage, then, still has something to say to us. We have only to look around us today, both in society and in church, to see how difficult it is to keep this middle ground, between the obscenity of the merely physical and the blasphemy of the merely spiritual. No small part of true health, both individual and social, lies in finding and accepting for ourselves the truth of Jesus’ teaching today, in letting him set us free, that we may serve him as He would be served, as embodied spirits, as thinking and loving animals, as men and women.
32ND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – NOVEMBER 11, 2001 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
In today’s Gospel we see Jesus caught in a theological battle between Sadducees and Pharisees, two important groups of his time. The Pharisees believed in a future life, a resurrection, which, however, they interpreted very literally and physically, simply as the continuation of the kind of life we have here. “Women will bear children daily,” one of them wrote. The Sadducees accepted only what could be proven from the first five books of the Bible, and since they did not find a future life clearly taught there, they denied the resurrection. It is they who pose the question to Jesus about the woman who married seven brothers, as the ancient law required: whose wife would she be in the next life? (They were assuming the view of the Pharisees.)
Jesus’ reply is to deny that the life of the resurrection will be like our life on earth: we will not marry, but will be like angels. It is a new form of existence. In this he at once distinguishes himself from the Pharisees and denies the premise of the Sadducees’ question. But then he himself makes use of a typical way of rabbinical argument and offers a proof of the resurrection from the books which the Sadducees did accept: Moses called the Lord “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God could not be the God of the dead, but must be a God of the living. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must be alive when Moses is speaking. Of course, it is an argument that only holds in terms of ancient Jewish, rabbinical adherence to the literal text of the Torah.
But the reply of Jesus retains importance for us. It, and the reading about the seven martyred sons of the mother in our first reading, bring us before the Christian understanding of death. They both hold out to us the conviction that the God who made us for this life made us essentially for himself, and that the love that brought us into existence and sustains us now in existence will not end with our deaths but will sustain us into an eternal existence with and in him. This has not been believed in all religions; it is denied by many philosophies; and it may be that many people today simply do not raise the question at all, although I think their number is rather smaller since the events of September 11th.
It is not selfishness, as some have argued, to be troubled by the question of life after death. For Christians it is a corollary of our belief in creation. God creates for life, and there is to death something of the what-ought-not-to-be, some sense of an interruption to, a threat to, the creative purpose of God. That is why St. Paul so insists on Christ’s victory over death and on the eventual triumph of us all in Christ when that “last enemy” is overcome, and death loses its sting. On that day, John Donne’s poem, ends: “Death, thou shalt die.”
This is part of our central Christian convictions, and one that we ought to treasure both as comfort for the loss of loved ones and as grounds for hope as we ourselves approach the prospect of our own deaths. We are precious in God’s sight and he holds us in his hands, even in death.
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 11, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
We have just heard in the Gospel an example of how arguments about religious questions were carried on at the time of Jesus. The party of Jews called Sadducees accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and, not finding anything in them that indicated the belief, they denied the resurrection. In addition, they offered an argument from Jewish law about marriage that they thought would refute their chief opponents on the matter, the Pharisees, who believed in an afterlife that was more or less more of the same that we enjoy here below–or don’t enjoy: one rabbi said that in the Kingdom women would give birth everyday!
The reply of Jesus avoids the trap set by the argument with the statement that in the new age, since no one will die any more, there will be no need for marriage and reproduction; all will be “children of the resurrection,” as he puts it. But then he offers his own argument from the Torah for the resurrection. To Moses God revealed himself as the God of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If God is the God of the living, not of the dead, then the patriarchs must be alive, and therefore there must be a resurrection.
This argument has been misunderstood by many to be a proof simply of an afterlife, of the immortality of the soul. But the debate into which Jesus inserted himself was not about the soul’s life after death, but about the resurrection of the body. If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are to be alive to God, then more than the continued existence of the soul is necessary because, as St. Thomas Aquinas put it very precisely: “Abraham’s soul is not Abraham himself.” We human beings are incarnate, enfleshed spirits; the body is integral to our existence as men and women. The body is not a prison; it is not like an automobile which we steer around for a while but which we can abandon without loss to ourselves. We are our bodies also, not just “souls” briefly in exile in this flesh. That is why death is an evil: it dissolves our being, what God created and created good: this body-soul unity that is our distinctive human being. Aquinas also put this neatly: “My soul is not me,” he said, and for the integrity of human fulfilment, my body must also share in the joys of the Kingdom, and whatever joy those who have died already enjoy includes the confidence and expectation that they one day will be “children of the resurrection”.
We assert this at the end of our Creed, of course, when we say: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” It is an important element in the Christian vision of things. It means that the end of all things is like the beginning of all things. The creation account in the first chapter of the Bible repeats that all that God has made–this whole physical cosmos, from atoms to galaxies, and all things living, including human beings formed from the earth with God’s spirit breathing them into conscious life–all that God has made is good, indeed very good. And correspondingly we await a new age, a second creation, a new heaven and earth, and in that the restoration of our integrity as human beings, when the redeemed children of God will also be, as Jesus put it, children of the resurrection.
Our bodies, then, are holy things, created good by God and destined for life in him. Which ought to lead us to have a real care for them, take proper care of our health, for example, avoiding foods and drugs that abuse them. And this respect for our bodies should also include respect and care for this physical universe in which we live our human lives, which we once could take for granted, but which we recognize now is more fragile than we had thought. We do not live human lives except in our bodies, and we do not live these bodily lives except on this good earth, and we need to learn to appreciate and care for it as God’s good creation, which one day will be included in the final peace for which God created it, and us.