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Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
In a civilized society, there are laws that cover almost every facet of human life. And sometimes those laws can be overreaching or burdensome. It’s the price we pay for living as part of a community instead of as a bunch of unorganized loners. But at least most of our laws make sense. Maybe we’d complain less about the laws of our state or town if we lived in a town where there are laws that don’t make any sense. For example, how about a law against dying?
That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, to create a law against dying? But did you know that throughout history, there actually have been governments that have tried to outlaw dying.
For example, over 2500 years ago, the Greek island of Delos tried to ban being born or dying on that island. You see, Delos was considered to be the birthplace of the mythical Greek gods Apollo and Artemis. Local authorities considered the island to be sacred. Consequently, they didn’t want anyone to claim inheritance rights to the land on Delos through being born there or having an ancestor buried there. And thus, the authorities decreed that all graves on the island were to be dug up and the bodies were buried elsewhere, and ordinances were passed forbidding any more births or deaths were to occur on that island. And by decree, it became illegal to die on Delos.
Ridiculous, right? But not isolated. Something similar happened on a Japanese island which was considered sacred to the Japanese Shinto religion. And at least five small towns in Europe have outlawed dying within their town limits as a way to force their town council to approve permits for more cemetery space.
For example, a mayor of a small village in Southern Italy who is also a pediatrician, became concerned that his elderly constituents weren’t visiting their doctors enough and weren’t maintaining their health. So he passed ordinances trying to make it more difficult for citizens to get ill or to die in his town. His concern was that the residents needed to protect their health, or they would all die off. He said, “Those who don’t take good care of themselves, or who take on habits that are against their health, will be punished with more taxes.” The mayor’s ploy worked. Within weeks of passing the ordinances, 100 residents of the village signed up for regular health checks.
And the mayor of a small town in France, passed a similar ordinance when the local cemetery became too full. He applied to the local town government to build a cemetery on an unused plot of land. His proposal was turned down. So he passed an ordinance forbidding any of the town’s residents from dying. This was an obvious publicity stunt, but it worked. The story of the town that banned dying got picked up by media outlets all over Europe. Within three months of passing the ordinance, the mayor received approval from the local town government to build a cemetery. (1)
On the surface, our Bible passage for today is about death and the afterlife. But in reality, it is about the limits we place on God. Our lesson begins like this, “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection . . .” Let’s pause here for a moment. Make a mental note of that bit of information: the Sadducees, say there is no resurrection. Now let’s continue: “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
There are some things you need to know about the Sadducees. These men were a Jewish religious sect representing the high priests. They dominated the Temple and the priesthood, at least until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The Sadducees believed that all God’s laws and divine revelation were contained in the Books of Moses—the Torah—which includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These five books were the basis of their religious practices. This also meant that the Sadducees rejected the idea of the immortality of the soul, the afterlife, the resurrection of the dead, and the existence of angels. (2)
So the Sadducees asked this question of Jesus when they didn’t really care about the answer. Why worry about who will be married to whom at the resurrection if you don’t believe in the resurrection in the first place. They were simply trying to start an argument to make Jesus look foolish. They thought they could trip him up or trivialize his teachings. They hoped to dilute his power and popularity with the people. But what they saw as a challenge, Jesus saw as an opportunity. Jesus was just days away from his arrest and crucifixion. He was days away from an agonizing death. He couldn’t care less about winning arguments; in this moment, he cared deeply about showing us the truth of God’s character and purposes.
A major part of Jesus’ ministry involved challenging our limited view of God. That’s one of the reasons Jesus so often answered a question with another question, or with a story. Rather than giving us a set of rules to live by, Jesus gives us an enlarged view of God. So often, our arguments and questions and doubts about religion stem from asking the wrong question. And one of the toughest questions, the one that breaks our hearts and pushes us far away from faith in God, is often, “Why do people have to die?” But the questions we ask limit the answers we get.
It’s like a preschool teacher who asked her class to name an animal that begins with an “E”. One boy said, “Elephant.”
Then the teacher asked for an animal whose name begins with a “T”. The same boy said, “Two elephants.”
The teacher wanted to give the boy one more chance, so she asked for an animal whose name begins with “M”.
The boy had reached the limits of his animal knowledge, but he was willing to give it one more try. He hesitated, then answered, “Maybe elephants?”
The questions we ask limit the answers we get. And Jesus was all about asking the right questions. What if we were to start every religious inquiry with the question, “What is God like?” Once we understand what God is like, then we could use that as the foundation of understanding every other question, doubt or argument we might have. So let’s see how Jesus answered the religious leaders.
Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” Did you catch that? “They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection . . . But in the account of the burning bush,” he continued, “even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
In this moment, Jesus is challenging our limited view of God’s love for us. Think about it. God made us for a relationship of completeness in Him. Why does it matter that in the resurrection, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage? God created marriage to fulfill our needs (Gen. 1: 27) and for creating children (Gen. 1: 27-28; Gen. 2: 24) and to give the world an image of Jesus’ love for the Church (Eph. 5). And in practical terms, marriage was meant to protect widows from poverty and exploitation. God gave us marriage to offer us a sense of comfort in a lonely and challenging world. But we will never find our completeness in human relationships.
Instead, God’s ultimate purpose for us is revealed in verse 36 of this passage: “They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” Through Jesus, we have been adopted into God’s family. We have been adopted into all the fullness of God’s love and care.
Lori Wood was working as an ICU nurse at Piedmont Newnan Hospital in Newnan, Georgia in 2018 when she met a patient named Jonathan Pinkard. Jonathan was 26 years old, autistic, and in heart failure. His grandmother had been his guardian until her death. Now Jonathan was a ward of the state. Because donor organs are so rare and precious, they are only granted to people who have the ability or the support system to follow a strict health regimen to ensure the organ recipient lives as long as possible. With no family to help him and a disability that made it difficult for Jonathan to care for himself, he was taken off the transplant list. Doctors at Piedmont Newnan did not expect him to live much longer. Without a parent to care for him, Jonathan couldn’t receive a new heart. Without a new heart, he would die. Lori Wood was haunted by the question, “What if he were one of my children?”
Let me stop right there and ask you, what would you do to save your child’s life? If your child were in that situation, what lengths would you go to, what sacrifices would you make, what if it were your child? Now read those words again from verse 36: “They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” From the beginning, God created us to be God’s children. With these words, Jesus is challenging our limited view of God’s love for us. God loves us. That the reason why we are assured of resurrection. Here’s the rest of Jonathan’s story.
Lori applied to be Jonathan’s temporary legal guardian. He moved in with Lori and her youngest son, Austin, who willingly gave up his own bedroom so Jonathan would have a room of his own. On August 1, 2019, they got the call that a heart had been found for Jonathan. Jonathan survived the surgery; with Lori and Austin’s help, he learned to follow the strict health regimen necessary to keep his new heart healthy. After a few months, he was even able to live on his own. As Lori wrote in Guideposts magazine, “God orchestrated everything to heal Jonathan, beyond anything I could have asked for.” (3)
Jonathan is alive today because of the love Lori and her family and we can be assured of eternal life for one reason alone: We are loved by our heavenly father. Jesus is proof that there is no limit to God’s love for us.
Genesis 1 and 2 tell us two essential pieces of information about God and God’s purposes: We were made in God’s image and God breathed God’s own life into us. All other living creatures were either spoken into existence or formed by God. But only for humans did God breathe His own life-force into us. And if God is eternal, and we were made alive by the very breath or spirit of God, then God made us to be eternal too. How many Bible verses are there about God’s steadfast love, or God’s enduring love, or God’s everlasting love? Why would God make us for a loving relationship, then let us die? Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are proof that God planned us for eternal life with Him.
Some of you are familiar with the origin of a classic Gospel song that is dear to many hearts. In 1932, a young singer and songwriter named Thomas Dorsey lost his wife in childbirth. His newborn son died the next day. Dorsey commented later, “I became so lonely I did not feel that I could go on alone.” But his church community held him up in prayer. They brought him food. They wrote him letters. They didn’t leave him alone in his grief. And Thomas Dorsey leaned on his faith in God. He leaned on God’s love for him. He leaned on God’s purpose for him. One day, he scrawled the lyrics to a new song on the back of a letter from a church member. That song eventually became “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” one of the most famous songs in all of gospel music.
The song begins, “Precious, Lord, take my hand.
Lead me on. Help me stand.
I am weak, I am tired, I am worn.
Through the dark, through the night.
Lead me on, to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” (4)
Thomas Dorsey understood that God’s purpose for us was not to leave us in death but to lead us back home. We don’t need a law against dying. Christ has already taken care of that matter in our behalf.
1. “Where in the world is it illegal to die?” by Leo Benedictus, The Guardian, September 30, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/sep/30/where-in-the-world-is-it-illegal-to-die.
2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sadducee by the Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.
3. “This Nurse Went Above and Beyond for a Patient in Need,” by Lori Wood, Apr 27, 2020 Guideposts.com. Lori Wood and Jonathan Pickard in Central Park in December. Their Today Show interview with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager aired in December 2020. Published in “Angels on Earth” magazine. https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/angels/this-nurse-went-above-and-beyond-for-a-patient-in-need.
4. “How One of Gospel’s Essential Songs Gave ‘Selma’ Its Soul” by Anna Powers NPR Morning Edition January 15, 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/01/15/377427650/how-one-of-gospels-essential-songs-gave-selma-its-soul.
Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Object: A drinking glass or eyeglasses
Good morning, boys and girls. What have I got here in my hand? That’s right, it’s a glass. Do you know what glass is made of? Would you believe that glass is made of sand? “˜That’s right. You take sand and some other ingredients, mix it together, heat it up until it’s really hot, and it turns into glass. This piece of glass is just sand in a different form.
The Bible says that when people die who believe in Jesus, they go to heaven. But in the process something happens to them. They are made more beautiful–just like sand is changed to beautiful glass. We call our bodies glorified. This is why Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus in the Garden on the morning of the Resurrection. He didn’t look like a dead man and she didn’t recognize Him. And life in Heaven will be like life on earth because we see that Jesus still ate after Easter. And life in Heaven will not be like life on earth. There won’t be any sin or sadness in Heaven. We will all be friends and we will all love each other. We have a lot to look forward to, don’t we? And if someone we love dies, we don’t have to be afraid for them. If they love God and believe in Jesus, then God has made them beautiful new people in heaven.
What is the one question you can never answer YES to? Are you asleep? Today’s gospel has a much better riddle in it but before we get there let’s look at the first reading for this Sunday, which is intense. It describes the suffering of some of the martyrs at the time of the Maccabees. A little explanation is necessary. The story really begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great about 330 years before Christ. Not only did Alexander conquer the military of the nations of the world, he conquered the culture of the nations. Greek philosophy, Greek art, Greek religion, all things Greek became the new way of the world. Parts of the world adapted quickly to this. Parts of the world adapted gradually. Most of the known world was Hellenized, became Greek, though. That is with the exception of the Hebrews. The Jews held on to their faith and life.
Now when Alexander died, his empire was divided up among twelve counselor/generals. The Jews were in that part of the empire governed by the Seleucid dynasty. This became one of the largest of the Greek kingdoms. It extended all the way to India, Persia, Turkey, as well as Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Perhaps, the empire was so large that the Jews were left alone, at least until about 165 BC. A new King, Antioches Epiphanes decided that everyone in his domains should worship the Greek gods and follow Greek practices. In Palestine many of the Jews were ecstatic. They were tired of being left out of what they called modern society. They wanted to be Greek, part of the mesh of the Hellenistic culture. They built gymnasiums where they would exercise in the rather immodest Greek style. This was very much against the Law of Moses. The men even covered over the distinct male marking of their faith. They rejected the Law of God. They were now modern men and women. They built Greek temples, worshiped Greek gods, dressed and acted like Greeks. Basically, they became Greeks in Jewish bodies. Antioches had a statue of the Greek god Zeus put right on the altar in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Right there, in the holiest part of the Temple where a chosen priest would only enter once a year, right there on the most sacred altar of Israel, Antioches put a statue of a pagan god.
But there were faithful Jews who were appalled. They would refer to the statue of Zeus as the abominable desecration. They refused to give in to the emperor’s decrees. Antioches then issued a proclamation that anyone who kept the Jewish practices and did not worship the Greek gods would be tortured and put to death. In our first reading from the Second Book of Maccabees we hear about these sufferings. It is a grisly account. It is also accurate. Second Maccabees became one of the favorite books of the early Christians. They would choose Christ and his Kingdom rather than give in to the so-called modern yet pagan world of the Roman empire. Like the Jews in Maccabees they also would choose to suffer rather than reject Christianity. And they did suffer. No pain, no fear, not even death could dissuade Peter and Paul, and all the apostles, who were killed, some, like Bartholomew in horrible ways. From that old man, Ignatius of Antioch, to the 12 year old girl, Agnes, to those two new mothers, Perpetua and Felicity, and all the martyrs, from the earliest days of the Church to those dying now for the faith under the persecution of radical Islam and other agents of the devil, witnesses, martyrs, continue to choose Christ over death.
So what does this have to do with us? Unless the United States is conquered by a brutal people determined to persecute and kill all who do not renounce their faith, we are not going to be put in the position of the Hebrew and Christian martyrs. We will not have to make a choice between our faith or torture. But we will still be persecuted. We are persecuted now. People continue to belittle our faith and Christian lifestyle. People mock us for exalting in our Catholicism. They did this to Jesus, too. Look at the Gospel reading for today. Jesus was belittled for preaching that there is life after death. Of course, what is really suspicious is that the Sadducees who asked this question didn’t even believe in the resurrection—not just Jesus’ resurrection, but any resurrection. The Pharisees at least held out the hope of a resurrection . . . but not the Sadducees.
The Sadducees were a wealthy and powerful Jewish sect. They controlled the priesthood and the temple. The Sanhedrin was the governing body over the Jews in the Roman Empire. The Chief Priest of the Sanhedrin and most of its members were Sadducees. The Roman government supported the Sadducees and kept them in power because the Sadducees preferred Greek customs over Jewish ones. The Sadducees based all their religious beliefs on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. According to them, there was no evidence in the Torah for an afterlife, or angels or a resurrection from the dead. The Sadducees believed that all of God’s plans and covenant promises were for this current life, and that death was the end of everyone’s story. The Sadducees made fun of Jesus. “So, there is life after death, huh? Well, how could that be? What if a woman had seven husbands, and they all died before her. Whose wife would she be when she died? So there, we’re a lot smarted than you Jesus. We’ve got you backed into a corner.” Let me point out here that throughout the Gospels—the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—Jesus almost never answers questions directly. Usually, when someone comes to Jesus with a question, he answers with another question, or with a parable or a challenge. In fact, author Philip Yancey says he once heard a theologian say that Jesus was asked 183 questions in the Bible, and he only answered three of them directly. Three out of one-hundred-eighty-three. So we need to pay close attention to Jesus’ answer here. Jesus very nicely responded, in our words, “You guys are clueless. You have no idea what the afterlife is like, the spiritual, heaven.” First of all, he leaves no doubt that there is a resurrection from the dead.
This has been God’s plan from the beginning of time. When God created Adam and Eve, he knew that they would sin. So he put in his plan B, Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is how we are in the image of God.
Returning to the story the Sadducees’ method of argument sound familiar. There are many who belittle people rather than consider if there is any truth to their beliefs. Most of us have experienced this when we profess our faith. Someone says to us “So, you believe in the Trinity, prove it. So you believe in the spiritual, prove it. Tear a body to pieces and see if you can find the soul. Your Catholicism, your Christianity, is just child’s stories.”
Jesus did not back down. He would also suffer being scorned by others for his faith. He would be crucified for his faith.
We cannot back down either. Because so many around us do not respect our faith, or respect us as Christians or as Catholics, we are often called to put up with their scorn for the sake of the faith.
So, you sit down at lunch with work companions or schoolmates, and someone says to you, “You don’t really believe all the Catholic garbage do you? I mean, you can’t really believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ?” Or maybe they come up with the anti-Catholic bigotry of the last century, “You Catholics worship Mary. You have statues in your churches. Aren’t you are really a bunch of idolaters.” Or maybe they lay into our morality, “common you can’t be against abortion because that would make you anti-women” or “You don’t really believe that you have to put others before yourselves, do you? Get real, will you. That’s not how the world works. You don’t really believe that the physical expression of love belongs only in marriage, do you?” and so forth. It takes a lot of courage for us to say, “This is my faith. I am completely convinced. I don’t ask you to believe my faith, just to respect me for having it.”
That statement will most likely be followed by one of two things: silence or more scorn. And right here we have the great fear that confronts us. Our great fear is not torture or death. Our great fear is that we won’t fit in, that people won’t accept us, that people won’t like us because of our faith. Look, we have been and will be belittled for our faith. We are being mocked right now for our faith. The mockery of the world fits the pattern of its immorality. The early Christians were told to be in the world but not of the word. That applies to us too. We are not of the world. We have chosen to be holy. Holiness means to be set aside, separate for God. We have chosen to be different from those elements of our society that exalt in what is basically a pagan lifestyle. These people can’t stand our holiness. Evil will always attack good. In fact, when we are attacked for what we believe or how we live our Christianity, then we know that we are doing something very right, we are giving witness to the Kingdom. But we are afraid. We are afraid that we are not fitting in. We fear not being accepted even though we freely choose Christ.
St. Paul was aware of this. It is as though he speaks directly to each of us in today’s second reading from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. “Pray that you might be delivered from perverse and wicked people. For not all have faith. Be faithful to the Lord and the Lord will be faithful to you. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” Paul’s prayer, and our prayer is “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and the endurance of Christ.”
St. John Paul the Great told us from the very beginning of his papacy, “Do not be afraid.” We cannot be afraid of what others are thinking about us. We cannot be afraid of what others might say about us. We cannot be afraid of what others might do to us. Our only fear should be the fear that we cave into the world, reject Christ, or in any way push Him aside.
With St. Paul, we pray, “May the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God the Father who loves us and gives us everlasting encouragement and hope, fortify our hearts and strengthen us.”