My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. As I reflected on this week's readings, it reminded me of a story that I heard from a Baptist. I make one slight alteration to the story.
“There was a man who died and went to heaven and was being shown around by St. Peter. As they went from cloud to cloud they came to various doors which St. Peter would open. One showed a large group rolling on the floor and talking in tongues. "Our Pentecostals" he said. Next was a serious ritual. "Our Jewish people" he replied. Then another ritualistic service. "Our Episcopalians". At the next cloud, he didn't open the door but instead put his forefinger to his lips in the hush motion and they both tip toed past. Once past, the man asked what that was all about!? "Those are the Catholics", he explained. "They think they are the only one's here".
Our readings today deal with eternal life. The first reading and gospel, in particular, make some very interesting clarifications about eternal life. The first reading is taken from a book of the Old Testament that you will find in Catholic Bibles but not in Protestant or Jewish Bibles. Both 1st and 2nd Maccabees describe some of the most violent, horrific stories in all of scripture. There are stories about war and torture. This story of the seven sons is particularly gruesome. It tells the story of a mother and her seven sons who are being tortured to death because they will not violate Jewish dietary laws. The three sons each add an interesting detail about the afterlife as they are being killed. The first professes faith that there will be a resurrection, a fact that was still relatively new at the time this book is supposed to have been written. The third son speaks about a bodily resurrection that will restore a certain wholeness to his body. In other words, if a part of your body is ever removed for some reason, according to this son, it will rise and be returned to you on the last day. The fourth son adds another interesting wrinkle to the whole story by saying that, not only will he and his brothers be raised, but his executioners will not be. All of this probably sounds rather matter of fact to us but, for them, they would have been professing faith in something totally new and not clearly understood in the Old Testament prior to this.
The Gospel, likewise, tells a story involving seven brothers but it’s really doubtful that the Sadducees were referring to the story in Maccabees when they posed this question to Jesus. The Sadducees were partly a religious group and partly a political group. They were strongly in league with the Romans who were occupying Israel and very wealthy because of that association. They believed that only the first five books of the Bible were authentic and, since, as I said before, resurrection is not mentioned in the first five books of the Bible, they didn’t believe in it, which was a good thing since the Pagan Romans likewise didn’t believe in it. They concoct a story about a barren woman who marries seven brothers, all of whom fail to have children with her. The question is raised regarding whose wife she will be in heaven. Jesus’ response avoids their question altogether and, instead, answers the real question they are trying to ask. They aren’t really concerned about marriage. They’re concerned about the afterlife. To prove this, Jesus looks at their scriptures to prove to them that it exists. On Mt. Sinai, when God revealed his name to Moses, he refers to himself as the “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And, since God is not God of the dead but of the living, they must be living in God’s eyes and, therefore, there must be an afterlife.
Now, we may look at this argument and say that it’s pretty weak. But, keep in mind he’s talking to Jewish Rabbis! This would have been an incredibly strong argument in their eyes since he used the scriptures they think of as holy to prove it.
In the end, part of what is making Jesus’ response seem anemic is that we cannot fully understand what it means to be in heaven. And there is so much mystery, confusion, and fear surrounding death because of this. On the one hand, our faith tells us that we should be confident that those who have died in faith will rise on the last day. But, on the other hand, it’s not like we have incontrovertible evidence that heaven exists. Who will get to go to heaven? What will heaven be like? Are there really gates surrounding heaven? Did St. Paul really make it to Spain before he died or is that just a legend? Who killed John F. Kennedy? Will I wear clothes in heaven? These are the questions that just pop into my mind when I think about eternal life. The toughest part about heaven is that we won’t know much about it until we actually get there. In some ways, heaven is like a gift, a present. We don’t know what’s inside it but we know it’s going to be incredible!