Scripture in Depth
Reading I: 2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14
This reading is part of the story of the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother during the persecution of the Jews who remained faithful to the law under Antiochus Epiphanes. The resistance was later organized into a successful revolt against the Syrian occupying power under the leadership of the Maccabees.
This passage provides evidence for the later development in Judaism of the hope for the resurrection from the dead: “The King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life. ... One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him” (cf. Dan 12:2).
This later Jewish hope was not merely for the resuscitation of the earthly body and a prolongation of this present earthly existence, but of translation into an entirely new mode of existence (note particularly the words “renewal of life”).
This existence so transcends this present life that it can only be spoken of by means of inadequate symbols (white robes, shining like stars, being like angels) or, in Paul, as existence in a “spiritual body.”
Responsorial Psalm: 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
This psalm, like so many in the psalter, is a personal lament. The psalmist is in distress; he cries out for vindication and ends on a note of confidence: “When I awake, I shall be satisfied.”
It is doubtful that this psalmist was thinking of the resurrection when he spoke of “awaking.” He probably meant no more than the confidence that he would come through his present distress.
But when juxtaposed with the first reading, the psalm acquires a greater depth of meaning. The earlier part becomes the prayer of the martyrs for vindication, and the confident ending an expression of resurrection hope.
Reading II: 2 Thessalonians 2:6-3:5
This selection straddles the two major parts of 2 Thessalonians. The first part, coming after the opening thanksgiving, wrestles with the doctrinal problem of the delay in the second coming, and concludes with a thanksgiving and exhortation.
Verses 16-18, the first two verses of the reading, form a concluding benediction to this section. Chapter 3 then begins a second major section, consisting of ethical exhortations (see the following Sunday).
This hortatory section is introduced with the Apostle’s appeal for the prayers of the congregation (2 Thes 3:1-2) and an expression of confidence that God will enable the Thessalonians to grow in grace (2 Thes 3:3-5). These verses form the second part of the reading.
Gospel: Luke 20:27-38
This pericope is known as the “Sadducees’ question.” The long form of the gospel reading spells out the question in full. It is framed in terms of the Jewish law, and was an attempt by the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, to reduce that hope to an absurdity by a fictitious and improbable case arising from the so-called levirate law (Deut 25:5 cf. Gen 38:8). Since that law is no longer relevant in the Christian Church, the option is given of omitting the question.
Jesus’ answer makes two points about the resurrection. First (see our comments on the first reading), resurrection is not a prolongation of our present earthly life but an entirely new mode of existence, in which marriage and giving in marriage are unknown. Since in the new life there is no more death, there is no need for provision to perpetuate the human race (this explanation is peculiar to Luke).
The second point in Jesus’ answer is that the Pentateuch, far from rendering the resurrection an absurdity, has an understanding of God that is fully consistent with such a hope.
This conclusion is reached by an argument which would be convincing to Jesus’ contemporaries but which seems artificial to us. The Bible goes on talking about God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even after their death—therefore they must still be alive.
The alert reader will note that the first answer deals with the problem of resurrection, a Palestinian-Jewish problem, whereas the second part really answers an entirely different question, namely, one about immortality, a more Hellenistic concept.
One suspects that two different traditions have been combined somewhere along the line. The essential point—that of the second part of Jesus’ answer—is that the Christian future hope depends, not upon wishful thinking, but upon the very nature of the God we believe in.
God has revealed himself in biblical experience as essentially the God of the living. In biblical history, in both the Old and New Testaments, he enters into a personal relationship with human beings, and that relationship—God being the kind of God that he is, in fact being God and not anything else—cannot be destroyed, even by death.
“Neither death nor life …will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University