Sunday, November 6, 2016

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Maccabees7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

The hypothetical situation posed to Jesus by the Sadducees
presumes the practice, based in the Old Testament Law,
of what was called “levirate marriage.”
It is prescribed in the book of Deuteronomy
that when a man dies without a son
his widow is not to marry anyone outside of the clan
but rather the dead man’s brother is to marry her,
so that, “the firstborn son she bears
shall continue the name of the deceased brother,
that his name may not
be blotted out from Israel” (Deut. 25:5-6).
Notice that the purpose is to secure offspring
in whom the name of the dead man might live on,
so that he will not be forgotten.
For the Sadducees,
who rejected belief in the resurrection of the dead,
this was the only sort of immortality on offer.
They believed that the situation that they posed to Jesus
regarding the woman who was married
successively to seven brothers,
and the question of whose wife she would be
when they were raised from the dead,
pointed out the absurdity
of believing in such a resurrection.
Much more sensible, much more realistic, they thought,
was to focus on this life and on this world
and on finding our hope of immortality
in securing offspring to carry on the memory of our name,
so that it “may not be blotted out from Israel.”

Whether it is a matter of having offspring
who will carry on our name,
or of having a life whose achievements
will merit monuments and memory,
we humans often live our lives
as if our only hope of immortality
was in leaving our mark on history,
so that our memory will endure.

But Jesus knows how fragile such hope is.
Jesus knows that even if we have children
who carry the memory of our names,
and even if our children’s children,
and their children in turn,
carry that memory,
the day will come when human memory will fail.
The day will come—
for some sooner,
for others later,
but for all eventually—
when our names will be forgotten,
when our tombstone and monuments will crumble,
when all record of our too-brief life
will be obliterated.
The idea of living on in human memory,
rather than being more realistic
than belief in resurrection,
is in fact a fantasy.

But Jesus offers us a better hope.
In responding to the Sadducees,
he brushes aside their hypothetical scenario,
because it misses the point
of belief in resurrection from the dead.
To be raised by God is not simply
to resume the life that you lived before,
but is to live in a new way.
It is not a matter of taking up again this life,
with its fears and anxieties
and its desperate attempts to keep death at bay
by making our mark on history;
rather, it is a matter of entering into
the undying life of God.

But even if we abandon the fantasy of immortality
gained though the memory of our achievements,
we can still be tempted to think
that our faith in resurrection
is based on there being some immortal “spark” in us
that is incapable of dying.
Of course it is true that we possess an immortal soul,
but faith in the resurrection of the dead
is not based on a belief about who we are—
possessors of immortal souls—
but on our faith in who God is.
For our God is the one who knows and remembers us,
even though all others should forget.
As St. Paul says in our second reading,
“The Lord is faithful.”
To be held in the memory of our children
or of those who admire our achievements
is simply a temporary respite from death’s obliteration
and a shadowy imitation of life.
But to be held in the memory of the eternal God,
is to live more truly than we have ever lived before,
for our God “is not a God of the dead,
but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”

During the month of November
we remember our beloved dead:
we remember the multitude of unknown saints
whom we celebrate on All Saints Day,
and we remember those still awaiting
the full vision of God
for whom we pray on All Souls Day.
But we do not remember them
because they live only in our memory,
as if their last remnants would vanish from life
if we were to forget them.
No, our hope for them is that they are now
more alive than we are,
because they look upon God with unveiled faces
and know the God of life even as they are known.
We remember them because in our remembering
we are sharing in God’s act of remembering,
and we touch and taste
a tiny share of their immortality,
the immortality that is promised to us
in Jesus Christ.