Sunday, November 7, 2010

Gospel of Luke: Jesus and the Sadducees

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. 2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 2: 16--3:5
Gospel. Luke 20: 27-38 (seven brothers).

The month of November is sometimes called the month of the dead. As we look around we see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun riding lower in the sky and setting earlier and earlier. Animals are preparing for the long cold winter. The Church year also follows the cycle of nature. We began this month with the great feast of All Saints, and then remembered all the departed on All Souls day. Throughout the month we will remember our beloved departed and at the end of the month we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King where we will come face to face with the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

But today rather than dwelling on death the Church presents us with the theme of resurrection from the dead. In the first reading from the Book of Maccabees, we have the terrible story of the cruel torture of the seven brothers, a story which reminds us of some of the atrocities we see in our headlines today. Despite their suffering the brothers remain true not only to their faith but also to their belief in another better life. One says to his torturer,

You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life,
but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.

The themes of persecution, death, and resurrection in this account of the seven brothers are repeated in today’s gospel account of the hypothetical case of the woman with seven husbands. It is a good idea to put St. Luke’s account in context. In the preceding chapter of his Gospel, he told of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus went to Jerusalem not only to endure persecution and death, but also to triumph over sin and death by his own resurrection.

Now in chapter 20 the persecution begins. At first the Scribes and Pharisees question His authority. When that didn’t work Luke tells us that they sent forth spies, “who should pretend to be just men” to question Jesus and trap him into making claims that would enable the authorities to arrest him.

First, they ask Him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. After his masterful answer puts them off, another group enters the picture. This time it’s the Sadducees, a group of wealthy priests who controlled the Jerusalem temple. They were a political and economic elite who were generally despised by the Jews because of their cooperation with the Roman rulers; their watering down of Judaism to conform with new and foreign ideas; and the resultant laxity of their own morals.

Unlike the heroic Maccabees, the Sadducees resembled most of our own political, economic, intellectual, and cultural leaders. The lived for the here and now and did not believe in the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection from the dead.

So their ridiculous question about the woman and her seven husbands is just a way to make Jesus play the fool. In much the same way modern atheists try to play the same tricks on believers. I recently heard of a teacher who advised one of his students that he would have to give up his belief in Jesus in order to study science. How unscientific is that advice? Why would belief in Jesus inhibit anyone from studying botany or chemistry?

St. Paul in today’s reading from the second letter to the Thessalonians prayed for his friends. He prayed that God would give them “good hope through his grace,” but asked that they be “delivered from perverse and wicked people.”

At a recent public debate a well-known atheist asked the audience to question everything; everything, that is, except his own infallible pronouncements. He offered no evidence to back up his criticisms of religion. It was only his ardent belief that God, even though He didn’t exist, was responsible for all that had gone wrong with the World, and for all the suffering that still continues today. Like the Sadducees he could not believe in the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the dead. He was full of anger and bitterness. Today, the poor man is dying of cancer. I don’t believe that his illness is a punishment from God. Anyone can get cancer. But I feel sorry for anyone who has turned his back on Jesus and has to face death without any hope.

The Book of Maccabees was written less than two hundred years before the birth of Christ. It indicates that even at that time the idea of resurrection from the dead was taking root among the Jewish people. This idea of resurrection was competing with an earlier concept which supposed that all the dead--both good and bad--went to Sheol, a place of shadow and nothingness from which they would never emerge. By the time of Christ the new concept of a life after death was competing vigorously with the old traditional one. Jesus, however, brought the debate to a new level.

He answered the Sadducees by reminding them that God was the God of the living, and that all whom God loved would live forever. This was not mere theorizing. He backed up his words with His own Resurrection from the dead. Not just the Apostles but also hundreds of others saw Him after the Resurrection. Not only did they see Him, but most willingly gave up their own lives to cruel persecutors who insisted that they give up their belief. As St. Paul said before he was cruelly executed, ‘if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain.”

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