by Brother Julian McDonald cfc
“Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush saying: ‘God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead people, but of the living. To God, all are alive.” Luke 20, 27-38
The readings of the last few Sundays of the Church’s year invite us to reflect on “the end times” – what will become of us when our life here on earth comes to an end. Those of us who were schooled in the contents of the “green Catechism” (sometimes called the “Penny Catechism”) learned about what was referred to as “the four last things” – death, judgement, heaven and hell.
Today’s gospel reading opens with a debate between Jesus and the Sadducees, who had no belief in spirits of life after death, about what happens to us after death. To make their point and to ridicule Jesus’ teaching on resurrection, they fabricated a far-fetched hypothetical case of seven brothers who, in turn, ended up marrying the woman who was widowed as each brother died in succession. If there happened to be an afterlife, then which brother would claim her as his wife? The mistake the Sadducees made was that they had limited themselves to thinking about the “reign of God” only in human terms. Jesus went on to clinch victory in the debate by quoting Moses to them. Central to their way of practicing religion was there unshakable belief in Moses. And Jesus reminded them of how God had spoken to Moses about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as still living in God’s presence. They were much more than memories of heroes who had died and disappeared.
But the debate between Jesus and the Sadducees is a bit like an intellectual contest. I don’t think that today’s readings are really about challenging individuals or groups to see who are the best at debating. Nor do I think that they are about an intellectual exploration into the meaning of resurrection or life after death.
But, as a way into exploring the message of this Sunday’s readings, let’s begin with a couple of verses from the second reading from Thessalonians. Paul urges his audience: “Pray that we may be delivered from confused and evil people, for not everyone has faith. But God is faithful, and will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” (Thessalonians 3, 2-3). Our experience tells us that not all those people who have no religious faith are confused or evil. Moreover, many of us who do have faith in Jesus and his Gospel often struggle with doubt. I don’t know about you, but there are times when I am invited to proclaim the Creed at Mass that I have moments of hesitation. Do I really believe in “one baptism” and one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”? I have to admit that my faith in the Church has been shaken by scandals of sexual abuse and embezzlement of funds contributed by generous people in the pews. But I still believe in a Church that is a community of God’s generous, compassionate and caring people.
When I recite the Creed and say “I believe” I am really making a statement of commitment. The English word “believe” has been borrowed from Old German and originally meant “to commit to”. As Christians we commit ourselves to living in imitation of Jesus. Saul, before his conversion referred to the early Christians as “followers of the Way” (Acts 9, 2). In fact it was gentile believers who were the very first to refer to themselves as Christians (Acts 11, 26). For them, believing in Jesus was committing themselves to imitate the way in which he lived.
We have all met people who adhere inflexibly to Church doctrines, propositions and dogmas, whose lives are all about conformity to rules and regulations but who fail to understand that true belief is about commitment to actually practicing justice, mercy, compassion and kindness. When we grasp that being a Christian is about engaging with people, whatever their religion, their prejudices, their sexual orientation or their skin colour, and treating them with dignity and respect, then we are living out our faith and testifying in action our belief in Jesus and his Gospel. Then we are much more at ease in coping with doubt, which, of itself, is an indication of our limited humanity. Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher and bitter critic of the institutional Church, once commented: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” And we know that our institutional Church has not been without its share of people in leadership whose “certainty” has at times been nothing less than absurd. About a century after Voltaire, another Frenchman, Victor Hugo said: “To love another person is to see the face of God”.
Today’s first reading from Maccabees raises for us the question: “What is it worth spending a life on?” It certainly was not the hope of resurrection to an afterlife that motivated them. They were committed to living in fidelity to the Law that bound them to their Jewish brothers and sisters. They refused to buckle to the pressure of a king who resorted to torture in his efforts to force them to eat pork. Their commitment was to God. Their cause was their religious faith and they were not going to let the king force them into compromising their integrity. The courage they invested in that cause was admirable and truly heroic.
Our Church and our world has seen no shortage of people whose motivation for living good and decent lives is “to get to heaven”. But apart from that, their lives seem to lack meaning and passion. They seem not to have grasped that life has an intrinsic value; that God has loved us all into life for a purpose, but not one that has been pre-planned by God. We have been blessed with freedom and creativity, and know that we have been created to love. To lose sight of the fact that our lives are meant to be an adventure, characterised by excitement and drama, with a focus on wholesome relationships and service of others, is to fail to appreciate the God-given gift that we are. People who are trapped into thinking that life is all about getting to heaven will find it difficult to be captivated by causes, however worthy they may be, even the cause of Jesus and the Gospel.
The issue that confronts us all is not a matter of whether we will end up facing death with hope in a life hereafter. The real issue is whether our way of facing life here and now has the mark of authenticity about it; is valid, genuine and effective. The very thought of death raises in us all the question of “What next?”! If we’re not careful, we can be caught up in dualistic thinking – that there is one kind of life here in this world and another kind of life when we die. It just might be that the way we live our lives now will be the way we live after we die. If we live now full of our own importance, locked up in ourselves, motivated by self-interest, refusing to love and care for others, we are already shaping the future we are choosing for life after death. The choice is ours, for life after death may well be a continuation of the kind of life we are already choosing here and now. Perhaps the writer of Deuteronomy got it right when he reported Moses as saying to the people of Israel: “Today I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life then” (Deuteronomy 30, 15).