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NOVEMBER 11, 2007: Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year


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

Our first and third readings are united not only by "seven brothers," but also by both authors’ belief in an afterlife.

We who believe in a life beyond this one often presume all our sacred authors did also. Our Christian authors do, but only a few of the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures do. Such a concept doesn’t enter Jewish thought until a little over 100 years before Jesus’ birth.

For instance, nowhere in the Torah - the Bible's first five books – does anyone refer to an afterlife as we know it. This seems to be why some Christian theologians later developed the idea that “the gates of heaven were closed” after Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree. Not realizing concepts of heaven only evolved centuries after the two Genesis creation myths were composed, they presumed the sacred Torah writers didn’t mention heaven because people couldn’t get into heaven.

But even after Pharisees began to develop the idea that those who formed a relationship with Yahweh in this life would carry and deepen that relationship into the next life, a large number of Jews still maintained this was the only life we’d ever experience. Some of these belonged to a religious faction called Sadducees: arch-conservative Jews rarely mentioned in the Christian Scriptures. St. Louis U.’s Fr. Frank Cleary contends that the historical Jesus directed his teaching to people willing to change and grow. He had little to offer to anyone, like Sadducees, determined to live in the past. The evangelists seldom call attention to them because Jesus seldom interacted with them.

Considering Sadducees would have objected to much of Jesus' teaching, it's significant this particular encounter revolves around the issue of the afterlife. Their question is logical: "In the resurrection whose wife will she be?" Death has a way of handling situations which couldn't be handled without it.

Jesus first responds to the Sadducees' question by assuring them that eternal life won't be an eternal extension of this life. Those who attain that existence "neither marry nor are given in marriage." (What answer would you give an unborn fetus who asks how she can attend college connected to her mother by an umbilical cord?) We're dealing with something we've yet to experience in the way we'll experience it.

Second, knowing the Sadducees' Bible comprises only the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) Jesus argues from one of these five books. Referring to Moses' Exodus 3 burning bush encounter with Yahweh, he zeroes in on how God identifies God's self. "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Jesus presumes if those three patriarchs aren't still alive when Yahweh talks to Moses (more than 500 years after their deaths), Yahweh would say, "I was the God of Abraham, etc." There must be a heaven if, at the time of Moses, these three pillars of Judaism continue to relate to God.

Jesus' key argument comes at the end: "God is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive." God's true followers continually grow in their understanding and experience of what it means to be alive in God. Jesus presumes this evolution is an essential part of faith.

Before Maccabees, faithful people limited their idea of the life God offers to this life alone. After that period, they could state, "The King of the world will raise us up to live again forever." Quite a sea change!

But as we hear in II Thessalonians, Jesus adds another dimension to our life in God: our dying and rising makes us one with him not only in heaven, but also now. Jesus is "directing our hearts" in both of these experiences.

Just as we're constantly expected to learn new ways to die with Jesus, we're also expected to constantly surface new ways to live with Jesus.