24 November 2012

They can no longer die. . .

St Andrew D√ľng-Lac & Companions
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Our gospel reading this morning is not about marriage and re-marriage. Let's set all that aside and go to the meat of the Sadducees' question to Jesus: isn't the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead inconsistent the Mosaic Law? Jesus answers emphatically, no. All that stuff about a woman and her dead husband's brothers is just a way of setting up a more basic challenge. To better understand this challenge, we need to know a little bit about the Sadducees. They were a religious faction among the Jews closely allied with the temple priesthood, the political aristocracy, and the Roman occupiers. As traditionalists, they accepted only the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures as authoritative. In practice, they were the ancient equivalent of modern naturalists: rejecting supernaturalism, they denied the existence of the soul, of angels, and heaven/hell. Their challenge to Jesus is an attempt to use scripture to embarrass him and discredit their theological opponents. Our Lord's response to their challenge impresses them b/c he cites Moses to support the reality of the resurrection, saying, “[God] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” 

In his response to the Sadducees, Jesus defends three fundamental Christian doctrines: 1) the immortality of the human soul; 2) the resurrection of the body; 3) and the perfection of those raised from the dead. Together these three doctrines mean that those raised will have no need for the sacraments in heaven. Jesus defends these teachings by reminding the Sadducees of Moses' encounter with God in the Burning Bush recorded in Deuteronomy. Upon hearing God's voice calling him from the bush, Moses tries to run. But the voice calls him again, saying, “I am the God of your father. . .the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses accepts this truth and calls the God of his father, “Lord.” So, if God is the God of the long-dead patriarchs and Moses' Lord, then, Jesus reasons, He—God—is the Lord of the living; therefore, the patriarchs and Moses must still be alive in some sense. Using the scriptures, Jesus is able to rebut the Sadducees' objections to the resurrection and show that they do not truly understand the scriptures they claim to revere as holy. Luke reports them saying, “Teacher, you have answered well." And he adds, “. . .they no longer dared to ask him anything.” 

Now that we have a better sense of the argument, let's consider the relevance of Jesus' answer for us here in the 21st century. Jesus concludes his response to the Sadducees by saying, “[God] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus is a living God for all that lives. Even after death, we are alive in the presence of the Living God. Jesus says, “[Those raised from the dead] can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God. . .” This announcement should have a singular effect on us: the dispelling of any fear of death we may have. What's to fear? We are not Sadducees who believe that death ends life. We are not modern naturalists who believe that humans are nothing more than really smart chimps. We call the God of the Patriarchs “Lord.” And as our Lord and God, He is the everlasting God of Life, this life we are living right now and the life we are hoping for after death. To fear death is to mistrust His promises of eternal life. Look to the martyrs. In the face of torture and death, they remained firm in calling Him Lord, and now they live forever in His presence. If we will be “like the angels” after death, we must work hard to live like angels before we die—striving for perfection with the help of His grace, and announcing His Good News to the four corners of the world. 

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