Sunday, November 10, 2013

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

I have a confession to make:
When it comes to life after death
I am something of a Sadducee.
The idea that death is not simply the end
sometimes strikes me as just a bit too good to be true.
God has blessed me with a family that loves me,
meaningful work to do,
a Church community that challenges and supports me,
and I sometimes think that that would be enough,
that eternal life is sort of gilding the lily,
and that if my death were definitively the end of me
I would still believe that God is good;
I would still thank God
for all the blessings of this life.
So I am, at least by disposition if not belief,
not unlike the Sadducees in today’s Gospel
who look for their rewards
in the blessings of this life.

Of course, when you find yourself
identifying with Jesus’s opponents
it is usually a sign
that you have gotten into theological trouble,
so we should reflect a bit more
on the Sadducees and their disbelief.
The ancient historian Josephus notes
that the Sadducees were a group within Judaism
who had their support primarily among the rich.
I suppose this makes a kind of sense:
enjoying in this life what they take to be
their just deserts from the God whom they serve,
they hold to the ancient Israelite belief
that God justly rewards people
for the good they have done in this life
with blessings bestowed in this life.

But what about those
who do not receive blessings in this life?
What about those who faithfully serve God
and, like the seven brothers in our first reading,
receive as their recompense torment and torture
at the hands of a tyrant?
What about those who seek to do God’s will
and end up abandoned and alone?
What about those who, through no fault of their own,
lead lives filled, not with blessing,
but with disappointed dreams?
If our hope is only in this life
then it becomes difficult to believe
in a God who is either just or good;
if we allow ourselves to remember
all of the kindnesses that have gone unrewarded,
all of the injustices that have gone uncorrected,
all of the sufferings that have gone unrelieved,
it becomes difficult to believe that,
as Martin Luther King put it,
“The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends towards justice.”
To believe this we must believe not only
that justice in this world
will one day be achieved;
we must also believe that all those
who have suffered unjustly
or had their goodness unrewarded,
will one day find vindication,
will one day receive the reward that they deserve,
will one day have the wounds of injustice healed.
And to believe this is to believe in resurrection,
to believe that there will be justice
for all those whose lives
have been ground beneath the injustices of history.

A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI wrote,
“I am convinced that the question of justice
constitutes the essential argument,
or in any case the strongest argument,
in favor of faith in eternal life. . .
only in connection with the impossibility
that the injustice of history should be the final word
does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life
become fully convincing” (Spe Salvi n. 43).

If agreeing with Jesus’ opponents is a sign
that your theology has gone wrong,
the perhaps agreeing with a Pope
is an indication that you’re on the right track.
For me, the most compelling argument for eternal life
is not my own desire to avoid death,
but rather my conviction
that the God we know in Jesus Christ
is a God of justice,
who will heal the injustices of history.
I still find it difficult to imagine
what eternal life would be like.
Of course, in this I am not all that different
from the Sadducees in today’s Gospel,
who think eternal life would be simply
an extension of life in this world.
But perhaps my difficulty in imagining eternal life
is simply the difficulty of imagining true justice.
We cannot imagine how God could set right
the injustices of the past,
could restore wholeness of body and soul to the tortured,
could heal the indignities already suffered by the disabled,
could assuage the hungers of those who have starved to death.
But we do know that our God
is a God of the living, not the dead,
and the promised eternal life that we cannot imagine,
we can still believe to be true,
we can still hope one day to see,
we can still love as our true homeland.