Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 11, 2007
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; Psalm 17; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38)
Down through the ages people have wrestled with the finality of death. Is it the end? Is it possible that there could be personal, bodily life after the grave?
In our own day Peggy Lee gives us one very common response to the question:
♬ Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is,
then let’s keep dancing.
Break out the booze and have a ball
if that’s all
there is . . .
(Of course she sang it purtier than I can. . .)
But the question persisted even for the people of God’s special love, the people of the Covenant. For many centuries they show no evidence of a belief in personal bodily resurrection. At best, they spoke often of some sort of shadowy existence in a grim place called ‘sheol.’
The very first clear evidence of a belief in personal resurrection to life shows up, in fact, in the very passage we just read, from the Second Book of Maccabees. Remember, this is less than 200 years before the coming of Jesus.
The mother in the story, and her seven sons, testify to a belief that when the sons are killed the Lord will raise them up and restore to them the body that was offered up in death. Their firm conviction and trust in the Lord’s fidelity trumps all other values, even life itself. Believing that they will receive their life back again, they become free to hand over their very body to their torturers.
Then in the Gospel we see the same question still at work.
Jesus had, as Luke so powerfully put it, ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem. He had left Galilee and was going up to the Temple to confront the religious leaders who were oppressing his people. He had entered the Temple and was scandalized at what he experienced there. What his Father had intended as a place of prayer for all the nations had become a place where the poor were taxed exorbitantly to enter and offer sacrifice. He erupted in rage and threw over the tables.
There follow three struggles. First the priests and scribe challenge him on his authority: “By what right do you do these things?” And being a good Jewish debater, he responds with a question, putting them on the defensive: What about John the Baptist? If they say he was a genuine prophet, they will be guilty of not following him; if they say he wasn’t, they will suffer the anger of the people. So Jesus leaves them flat-footed.
Then they go on to put him on the spot regarding acceptance of the Roman emperor. You remember the Roman coin: worship Caesar or God? And again he confounds them with his answer, putting the responsibility for decision back on them. And finally in today’s Gospel he is challenged by the Sadducees, who reject the idea of resurrection. They were wealthy conservatives who exercised power in Jerusalem.
They present him with what we call a ‘hypothetical’ in today’s political scene. You know, “if we captured a suicide bomber and we knew he had information that could save the lives of thousands of people, would it be OK to torture him?” They’re doing the same thing. It’s not really a dialogue aimed at seeking truth. They’re playing a game of “Gotcha!” They want to trip him up: either there’s no resurrection or else the woman in the case is going to be a polygamist in the afterlife.
Once again Jesus turns the issue around by asking a question in return. He’s showing them that their whole approach is based on their human expectations about a risen life, that it had to involve marriage and be modeled on our earthly life. They’re turning a mystery into a puzzle. Our belief in the resurrection is an act of trust, acceptance of a mystery. As we frequently sing, “We walk by faith and not by sight.”
I want to share with you a lovely set of reflections from a sermon of St. Augustine:
Jesus came to save us. He died but at the same time he conquered death. He put an end to what we fear so much. He took it on and conquered it. So be of good heart, my friends. What has already taken place in Jesus will also take place in us. Listen to those who have triumphed and now live where death is no more. Hear Paul saying, “When what is mortal has been clothed with what is immortal and when that which will die has been clothed with what cannot die, then the Scripture will come true, ‘Death is destroyed; victory is complete! Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” (Sermon 233, 3-4)
Then Jesus takes the argument further. He reminds us that God is not the god of the dead but of the living. He reminds us Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and he says “for [God] all are alive.”
I have the picture of God looking down on the whole of creation. It’s as if God sees the whole long line of humanity. Some in the line are alive having already passed beyond the point of death, while the rest of us are moving toward it—but it is still one living body of living individuals. Death is real, but it turns out to be only the transition from one form of life to another. Remember what we say in the funeral liturgy: “for your faithful people, Lord, life is changed, not ended.”
These readings are especially suited to the month in which we celebrate our participation in the communion of all the holy ones of the Lord. We began the month with the feast of All Saints—and that’s not just the biggies who are canonized but all the little folk who lived the journey of holiness in very ordinary circumstances. On All Souls Day and through the rest of the month we pray for the ‘souls of the faithful departed’ but we need to keep that celebration connected to the first feast: we pray for our deceased ancestors but we need also to pray with that whole body of saints. We are all one living body in Christ. We have countless brothers and sisters who are really just a bit ahead of us in the line, joined in the one mission of Jesus: to reveal to the world the compassion of the one he called “Father.”
We are never alone. Those who have gone before us have become advocates. Augustine tells us to listen to them. They have experienced the passage into and through death that we will face; they know what it’s like to be still on the way as we are.
Every time we celebrate the liturgy the Eucharistic prayer reminds us of our oneness with that whole body of saints. I’m afraid we hear it so often that we gloss right over it and don’t stop to realize what we are professing. We are celebrating with Mary; with the martyrs; with all the holy men and women who did the Lord’s will down through the ages. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us that great image: we are down in the arena fighting the good fight, and surrounding us in the stands is a “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on. Some we have known, and all know us.
As we receive the life of the risen Jesus it is the same life the saints enjoy in a different form. Our God is not a god of the dead but of the living.