Commentary on the Readings
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 10, 2019 – Year C
Between fear and illusions, only one hope
Men of all ages have been confronted with the distressing enigma of death and have tried in every way to overcome or at least to exorcise it. The Egyptians resorted to mummification to preserve the body from decomposition. They have made rituals, ceremonies, complicated and detailed funeral practices to ensure the deceased a life in the world of Osiris. The people of Mesopotamia spoke of death as a descent to “the country of no return” and resigned, they had to admit: “When the gods formed humanity, they attributed death to people and held life back in their hands”. Others have thought about the possibility of a return to the life of this world through a succession of countless reincarnations.
How many things happen in our life: we are born, we grow, we fall in love, we form a family, we educate our children, we experience joys and sorrows, we cultivate hopes and dreams. Then one day everything seems to conclude in the void of death. All end, everything disappears! The dialogue of love, affections, relationships with loved ones are broken. Do we go back into the nothingness from which a gesture of love of our parents drew us? Has God truly created a person for a fate so cruel? What is left of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, only their first names?
God gave an answer to these questions: “The Christian hope—said Tertullian, the famous father of the Church of the second century—is the resurrection of the dead; all that we are, we are because we believe in the resurrection.”
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“In my waking, O Lord, I will enjoy contemplating your face.”
The first books of the Bible clearly show that, in ancient times, the Israelites did not believe in another life. If we had asked them: Is there a resurrection of the dead? They would have answered: “We do not know! What interests us is life in this world. We want a life full of joys and satisfactions.”
If we had asked the same question to a pious Jew of Isaiah’s time, he could be even more explicit: “The dead will no longer live, the shadows will not rise … God has wiped out all remembrance of them” (Is 26:14).
The answer of Job is identical: “Man, born of a woman like a flower that blooms and withers. There is hope for a tree: if cut down, it will sprout again, its new shoots will still appear. Though its roots grow old in the ground and its stump withers in the soil, at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a young plant. But when man is cut down, he comes undone; he breathes his last—where will he be? The waters of the sea may disappear, rivers drain away, but the one who lies down will not rise again, the heavens will vanish before he wakes, before he rises from his sleep” (Job 14:1,7-13).
Only much later in the second century B.C. in Israel, a talk started about an awakening of those who sleep in the dust of the earth (cf. Dn 12:2). The episode narrated in today’s reading is placed at this time.
The wicked Antiochus Epiphanes wanted to force the Israelites to abandon the faith and the religious practice of their fathers. To achieve his objectives, he did not hesitate to resort to persecution and torture. One day he wanted to compel a mother and her seven children to violate the law by eating pork (vv. 1-2).
Today’s passage refers to the courageous answers given to the king by the first four brothers: a profession of faith in the resurrection of the dead. A clear affirmation of this truth was never made before in the Old Testament. The seven brothers declare themselves ready to give up this life because they are sure that God will give them another (vv. 9,11,14).
It should be noted, however, that their faith in the existence of another life, is not equal to our faith in the resurrection. They were convinced that the righteous would have received from God a life similar to that which because of their allegiance to the law—was taken from them. With death, they did not expect to be introduced into a completely new condition.
Among the Christians of Thessalonica, there were some tensions, some not so correct theological ideas, even a bit fanatic but all in all the life of that community was quite satisfactory.
In the first part of the reading (2 Thes 2:16-17), Paul asks the Lord to confirm the hearts of everyone in this good disposition.
In the second part (2 Thes 3:1-5) he urges the Thessalonians to pray that the word of God that has already produced many changes in their midst, be spread and be known to all people. He asked them to pray for him because there are many difficulties that he must confront; there are many people who hate and seek to destroy that which he constructs.
The first reading spoke of the seven brothers. They still had a very imperfect concept of the resurrection. They imagined it as an extension of the life of this world, nothing more. On this issue, even in the time of Jesus, the ideas were not much different.
The Pharisees who firmly professed the faith in the resurrection of the dead continued to interpret it in a rather crude way.
In future life—they said—the joys of this life will be increased dramatically. In heaven, there will be no hunger, disease, suffering, misfortunes. People will enjoy every pleasure; they will have bread, meat, and wine in abundance.
Today’s Gospel introduces a new political-religious group, so far not yet spoken of in the Gospel of Luke, the Sadducees. We know they constituted the class of the rich, who were collaborators of the Roman government. They were not held in good esteem by the people and from the religious point of view, they were conservatives. All chief priests (who were primarily responsible for the death of Jesus) belonged to this sect.
One of the theological issues that placed them at odds with the Pharisees concerned with the belief in the resurrection of the dead. While the Pharisees claimed it, the Sadducees argued that in the Torah (the only books of the Bible they recognized as sacred) there is no mention of this topic; accordingly, they declared themselves skeptics. Moreover, with the money at their disposal, they were able to enjoy paradise in this world and no one felt any need to dream of one in the afterlife.
Pharisees and Sadducees fiercely defended their positions on the Bible and sought reasons to oppose each other. There were sympathizers of the Pharisees among the people who shared their belief in the resurrection.
Listening to Jesus, the Sadducees one day realize that on this point, he agrees in part with the Pharisees: he believes in eternal life, even though he gives the impression to interpret it in a very original way. To convince him to change his opinion they resort to a text of the Torah. They outline a curious story (vv. 28-33) and they tell it to him.
The Law of Moses—they say—states that if a man dies without any child, his brother marries the widow. Children born of this new marriage are considered children of the deceased (Dt 25:5-10). Now there was among us a woman who was able to “exhaust” seven husbands, one after the other. Then she died. Now, if we admit the resurrection of the dead, the situation becomes intricate: in the future life which of the brothers will be her husband?
It’s not the first time that the Sadducees use this strange story to embarrass their opponents. For the Pharisees, the objection is extremely serious. They are convinced that eternal life is the perfection of this life. They, therefore, can only lower their eyes, muttering some explanation and moving away quickly among the funny comments of those present.
Jesus understands resurrection so radically different from the Pharisees. He is not at all touched by the objection of the Sadducees. He took the floor and articulates his answer in two parts.
The first: “The sons and daughters of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those of the other world … they are like angels … they are the sons/daughters of God” (vv. 34-36).
The objection of the Sadducees is based on a false assumption that the future life is the continuation (improved and enhanced) of this life and this is not accepted by Jesus. He does not preach an awakening from the tomb to resume life as before. Such a thing would be ridiculous, absurd and cruel of God.
It would make no sense to die and then return to the same body, the same life. Life with God is a completely new condition: when introduced into it, a person, while maintaining his own identity, becomes a different being, immortal, equal to the angels of God.
How will this life with God be? Here is a question to which we must respond with great caution: because there is an ever-looming danger of projecting the afterlife—as the Pharisees and the Sadducees did. Whatever positive thing we experience here, infinitely multiplied: joys, pleasures, satisfaction and—as the rabbis supported—also the return to married life.
Behind certain statements, certain prayers, certain questions of many Christians today there still lurks, unfortunately, an image of the “resurrection of the dead” similar to that of the Pharisees. The resurrection mentioned by Jesus—the one that puts man in common with the angels of God—is completely different. For Jesus, a person lives on earth as a gestation. He prepares for a new birth after which there will be no other because the world he will enter will be final. In it there will not be any form of death.
Like the fetus in the mother‘s womb that cannot imagine the world that awaits him, even so, a person is not able to imagine how life will be with God. It’s a mystery that is not revealed, not because the Lord wishes to increase the suspense and surprise, but simply because our mind is not able to understand it. “A perishable body is a burden for the soul and our tent of clay weighs down the active mind. We are barely able to know the things of earth, who then may hope to understand heavenly things?” (Wis 9:15-16)
We can approach these sublime and ineffable reality only through faith, believing that those things that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor any mind fathomed, God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). Instead of inquiring about what we are not able to understand, it is better to dwell on the certainties that the resurrection of Christ offers: in particular the fact that no two lives exist—the present and the future—but one life that continues under two completely different forms.
Death, understood as the annihilation of the person, does not exist. It was defeated, destroyed by the death and resurrection of Christ. What we call death is simply the abandonment of the form of life—weak, fragile, ephemeral—we lead in this world to be welcomed into God’s world.
The mortal body gets sick, withers, ages and undergoes dissolution and is not introduced into the eternal world. It remains in this world: the person is invested with another body “incorruptible, glorious, full of strength, spiritual” (1 Cor 15:42-43).
The second certainty is that the resurrection of Christ demolished all barriers that separated the living from the dead. An intimate and deep bond unites all. When on earth, we, the living, gather around the Eucharistic banquet, we are in communion with the brethren in heaven. We are confident that our memory makes them happy, increases our love and theirs, rekindles our desire and hope to be united one day with Christ and with them.
With our prayers we tell the deceased that we are happy that they are with God, despite the pain of their loss, alive in us. We tell them that we remember only the good they have done, their help, their gestures of love and their generosity. Their flaws, mistakes, weaknesses have been totally purified by the encounter with the “fire” of God’s love. In them no form of evil or death remains.
The second part of Jesus’ answer (vv. 37-38) is made up of a clear statement of the truth of the resurrection.
We cannot imagine how life will be with God, but faith gives us the certainty that, after death, the person continues to live.
The evidence Jesus brings to convince the Sadducees is the following: “The Lord, the God of Abraham, God of Isaac and the God of Jacob is not God of the dead, but of the living: because all live for him.” What does he mean to say? He refers to the authority of Holy Scripture. He says that Moses, who lived many centuries after the death of the patriarchs, calls the Lord: “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
This means that they were still alive, otherwise Moses and, after him, all the Israelites would have invoked a God of the dead.
How can one imagine a God who creates people, establishes a covenant with them, makes a lot of promises, defends them from their opponents, considers himself their friend and then one day abandons them, makes them disappear in the dust and return to nothing? If he behaves in this way he would be the author of the projects of death. However, Jesus says, he is not the God of the dead but of the living, for he has compassion on all because all is his and He is “a lover of life” (Wis 11:26). “He did not make death nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wis 1:13). Nothing that has some connections with death can approach him.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.