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.”
Brothers and sisters:
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father,
who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement
and good hope through his grace,
encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed
Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us,
so that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified,
as it did among you,
and that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people,
for not all have faith.
But the Lord is faithful;
he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.
We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you,
you are doing and will continue to do.
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God
and to the endurance of Christ.
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone's brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.
Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless.
Finally the woman also died.
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus said to them,
“The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out ‘Lord,’
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”
We’re so accustomed to thinking and speaking about an afterlife that we can’t imagine people of biblical faith not believing in a hereafter. Yet the vast majority of the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures knew only this life. That’s why their theologies revolve around Yahweh rewarding us for our good and punishing us for our evil right here and now, long before our physical deaths.
Only about 100 years before the birth of the historical Jesus did some Pharisees begin to reason – especially in chapter 1 of Wisdom – that if we build a relationship with Yahweh in this life, Yahweh will continue that relationship into an afterlife. We especially hear that novel theology expressed in one of the Hebrew Scriptures’ last books: Second Maccabees.
In today’s reading from that book, the first of the seven martyred brothers, buying into that Pharisaical theology, can taunt his executioners with his conviction that “. . . you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.” The fourth brother heroically states, “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.” Obviously at this point of theological development there’s still no concept of a hell (or a purgatory.) People only have a choice between resurrection and death. Those who have a proper relationship with Yahweh will live with Yahweh; those who don’t will end up being dead for all eternity.
Obviously the authors of the Christian Scriptures bought into the faith of their mentor, Jesus, and also professed faith in an afterlife, else the unknown author of our II Thessalonians reading could never talk about an “everlasting encouragement.”
Yet as we hear in today’s gospel pericope, the historical Jesus had to deal with a large segment of his fellow Jews – the Sadducees - who thought the Pharisees’ teaching on being with Yahweh after this life was simply ridiculous. To prove their point they bring up the classic example of a woman successively married to seven brothers. They demand to know, “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?”
As part of his argument, Jesus goes back to the Exodus 3 burning bush passage. He reasons if Abraham and Isaac and Jacob weren’t still alive after their deaths, Yahweh would have told Moses, “I was their God,” not “I am their God.” (Though we might disagree today with Jesus’ exegesis of that particular passage, in his day and age, it followed all the rules of proper biblical interpretation.)
But his most important argument revolves around a mistake the Sadducees were making. They presumed the eternal life in which Jesus believed and taught was simply an eternal continuation of this life. Nothing could be further from the truth. This Galilean carpenter was convinced that our resurrected life will be a totally different existence from the life we live right here and now. Just as angels live a different life from ours, so a resurrected person will no longer have to live within the limits this life imposes. Our deepest relationships with one another, for instance, won’t be restricted to the human boundaries of marriage. Once we cross into eternal life, we’ll “neither marry nor be given in marriage.”
Though we often like to talk – in a consoling way - about our deceased loved ones continuing to do the things in heaven they enjoyed doing on earth, Jesus insists we’ll eventually have to deal with the fact that our existence in heaven will be the biggest surprise we’ll ever experience.