Our readings today focus on the resurrection of those who follow Christ beyond the barrier of physical death. God’s love seeks communion and closeness with all, and that love cannot be ended when bodily life decays. Taking a look at some of the past history of the Jews shows us how this hope grew and developed.
2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
The two books of Maccabees, written after most of the Hebrew Bible, are among those not accepted into the Jewish and Protestant canons. The Catholic Church has found riches in them, first for the history of the time shortly before Jesus, a period of which we would otherwise know little. Secondly, the books are valuable for understanding the development of beliefs from Judaism to Christianity. One example is that they contain some of the earliest affirmations of the resurrection of the dead and prayers for those who have died. Earlier books of the Bible were vague about the after-life and expected the good to be rewarded in this life. But as time went on, people saw that often good people suffer unjustly and perish, a deeper hope and sense of how God rewards the faithful began to develop. It is the expressed belief in resurrection that made this reading chosen for today’s gospel.
The background to this story of martyrdom is the oppressive rule of the Seleucid kings who were the Hellenistic conquerors of the Middle East. The book takes its name from Judas Maccabeus who led a revolt against them. In the conqueror’s effort to break the power of the Jewish religion, the king tried to force the people to break the Law that forbade Jews to eat pork. A mother and her seven sons refuse, and all are put to death. You can read the whole story in chapter 7, with details of their torture which our selection has spared us at mass. Our reading has also shortened the responses of all seven and the attempted bribery of the last to be rewarded handsomely if he gave in. The story of the mother also is not included in our reading, but I find it especially moving: she had to watch all her children die while she encouraged them to remain true to their faith – as she herself did. After this horrible torture to her maternal feelings, she was killed last of all.
We live in a new age of martyrs and can still draw inspiration from these accounts of the past while we honour those persecuted today. But the emphasis in the liturgy is on hope, with the firm belief that the dead still live in and with God.
Psalm 16/17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
The psalm fits well after the Maccabean story, beginning with a prayer for justice, followed by a firm commitment to stand fast, and ending with a prayer of trust in God’s care.
2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
A similar confidence in God’s care in preserving the faithful and in giving us comfort and hope in any troubles of our times comes through our second selection from this book. The writer is also concerned for the spread of God’s message, also in our time an emphasis of Pope Francis. An echo of the martyr theme is in the prayers against ‘interference of bigoted and evil people’.
When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the gospels show him meeting hostile questions from the authorities in the Holy City, debating most often with Pharisees. In this selection, we meet the Sadducees for the only time in Luke. They were associated with the priestly caste, those permitted to serve in the Temple, probably taking their name from Zadok the priest of Solomon’s temple. They were an elite upper class, religiously conservative, acknowledging only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah or ‘Pentateuch’). Since the resurrection from death is not mentioned in these books, they rejected it. This put them at odds with the Pharisees who did accept it. In this dialogue, the Sadducees have realized that Jesus would take the position of the Pharisees on the afterlife and try to show him in the wrong about that.
Their questioning is not honest: they are not asking for information, but trying to trap him with a contrived objection that they consider shows up the fallacies of believing in resurrection. The background to their story is what is ‘levirate marriage’ from the word levi meaning brother-in-law. This was a practice, widespread in the Middle East, of requiring a male relative of a man who has died to father a child for the widow. This child would be considered the heir of her dead husband, something that mattered a lot in that culture. It gave a widow both position in that society and some means of being cared for. For the Jewish Law on this, see Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
Jesus does not accept their problem, although neither confirming nor rejecting levirate marriage. (Some scholars doubt it was still practiced at that time.) Instead, he gives a teaching on how eternal life differs from life on earth. Heaven will have no need for human reproduction. Since the Torah was the only books the Sadducees accepted, Jesus shrewdly argues from that rather than other Old Testament writers with more specific hope of resurrection.
‘At the bush’ – this sort of description was the way at that time to identify a passage of scripture. We now the system of numbering chapters and verses which makes it more precise; the story of God speaking to Moses out of a burning bush is found in Exodus 3:1-6.
His argument is in the style of the rabbis and moderns may not follow the method of ‘proof’ it contains, but it was convincing to the listeners. Luke concludes the series of controversy stories by saying that after Jesus’ answers, his opponents saw that they could not win against him by questions and arguments.
Even if we miss the force of this argument from the Torah, the affirmation of ‘the God of the living’ does give us a sense of eternal life. G. B. Caird writes: ‘Jesus is saying, in effect: all life, here and hereafter, consists in friendship with God, and nothing less is worthy of the name of life. Abraham was the friend of God, and it is incredible that such friendship should be severed by death. Death may put an end to physical existence, but not a relationship that is by nature eternal.’
At a time of the year when the churches prays for our beloved dead, these words have a message of comfort and hope. ‘Love is stronger than death.’ (Song of Songs 8:6)