I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD!
2Mac 7:1-2, 9-14; 2Thess 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38
As we draw near to the end of the Church’s liturgical year, the readings become more eschatological, that is, having to do with the end times. A case in point is the first reading. Written about the first century before Christ, it shows us the gradual development in the Hebrew Scriptures of a hope for an afterlife. In the gospel, Jesus talks about the resurrection of the dead or a life in heaven after death. He says that we will become like angels who will live forever and will not die, spiritual beings, in complete happiness with God. He, further, reminds us in a very subtle way, actually without saying it, that the ways of God are not human ways. He hints that we should not place human understandings on the divine.
- BELIEF IN LIFE AFTER DEATH IN SOME WORLD RELIGIONS
The ancient Egyptians have a highly developed doctrine of the future life. The elaborate pyramids of the Pharaohs show us that they prepared meticulously for their time after this earthly existence. The Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs also believe that we are immortal. They hold that we will be reborn or reincarnated as another being in a life to come. The ancient Jews, however, initially did not believe in any form of life beyond death. They believed that we go to a place deep within the earth called SHEOL, which was a vague sort of experience of no life and no activity, a sort of suspended animation.
And then, about 200 years before the birth of Jesus, Jews began to articulate a faith in a life after death. We see this expression in today’s First Reading from the 2nd Book of Maccabees. A mother and her sons choose torture and death rather than violate God’s laws. We see that they have this strength and willingness because they believe that the “king of the world will raise us up to live again forever.” In sharp contrast to this belief, some of the Jews of Jesus’ time still did not accept this belief in the resurrection after death. It is because of this that these folks, who are called the SADDUCEES, asked him the question about a woman who is widowed and childless and then marries the six brothers of her first husband. The law of Moses prescribes this as a way to have a child because this is the only way that the deceased husband could live on after death—through progeny. So the Sadducees sarcastically ask Jesus who will be this woman’s husband in his so-called “Resurrection”.
- WHO ARE THE SADDUCEES?
Information about the Sadducees is quite scarce in the gospels unlike the Pharisees. They are totally absent in the gospel of John. Even in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Luke and Mark), they were only prominent in Matthew, appearing once in Luke 20:27 (in our gospel text of today) and Mark 12:18. However, they were in the forefront of attack against the disciples of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles, showing that they have been there all along. In connection with this, Acts 23:6-7 says: “But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided.” Again, Acts 23:8 gives more information about the belief of the Sadducees in these words: “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.”
Historically, the Sadducees were considered to be the descendants of Zadok, the priest. For this reason, they were a priestly group, associated with the control and leadership of the Temple in Jerusalem. They represented the aristocratic group. In a sense, they could be called the ruling oligarchy of the time. They believed that man determines his own destiny. They were not really eager for a Messiah because he would disrupt the status quo given they were generally wealthy and had great power. They did not believe in a Day of Judgment. And it is clear that the Sadducees do not like Jesus.
- JESUS’ ANSWER TO THE SADDUCEES
In today’s gospel, the Sadducees present a case to Jesus not because they want an honest answer, but because they scheme to put Jesus in a tight spot. But as Jesus often does, he turns an insincere query into an occasion for genuine teaching. First, he draws a sharp distinction between “this age” (our earthly life) and “that age” (life at the resurrection or life after death). He makes it clear that the resurrection is not simply a continuation of earthly life. He speaks of resurrection not of everyone but only of “those judged worthy of a place in the age to come.”
Furthermore, at the resurrection, although we still have a body, it is a glorified body—totally different from that of our earthly body. The resurrection is a different mode of existence altogether. Those worthy of the resurrection do not have to marry to ensure the continuity of the human race. That is why Jesus says: “The children of this age marry and remarry, but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels,” (Lk 20:24-26). Therefore, those who are worthy in the age to come, they are like angels and spirits and are not liable to death.
Notice that the problem of the Sadducees has to do with how things are in the resurrection life, whereas Jesus’ response has to do with the why of the resurrection. There is a resurrection because God is God of the living. God has created us for life and not for ultimate extinction. God does not blow us into life like bubbles, here today, gone tomorrow. No, God endows us with life even after this earthly existence is over.
- SOME COMMON TRENDS ABOUT LIFE AFTER DEATH
In every age, there are people who think that nothing follows this temporal life and that everything ends when we die. Unfortunately, even some Christians limit religion to social and philanthropic work, or put all the emphasis on the temporal action of the Church, disregarding the eternal life which Christ came to give us. There are also Christians who concentrate all their efforts on the promotion of social action, but who do not worry of the salvation of their soul, thinking that Heaven has already been guaranteed to them and that, in any case, there will be nobody in hell. We can see; this is true! Every age has its Sadducees! There were Sadducees in the time of our Lord, and there are some today, too!
Our life as human beings is shaped by our belief or unbelief in the RESURRECTION after life. We all believe in death, but as to what happens after death, people’s beliefs very. However, in this matter, there are only two ways: either we believe or we do not believe in the life after death. Whichever way, this belief has much to do with the way we conduct our lives.
To most of those who do not believe, their unbelief acts as spur to unbridled self-indulgence and an uninhibited pursuit of wealth and pleasure. For instance, among the ancient Romans, a human skeleton was frequently exhibited among the celebrants at festive parties with the exhortation: “Let us enjoy life while we may.” The prophet Isaiah sums up the slogan of those to whom the unbelief in a life after death is a stimulant to unrestrained quest for earthly pleasure in these words: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Is 22:13). A Cameroonian pop song summarizes it all, “After life, na die”. This approach to life testifies to a failure of nerve and leads to moral bankruptcy. It is a philosophy of despair which does not only fail to bring satisfaction but also overlooks the many sources of real joy that life generously affords. It simply summarizes life into a “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
There are others who believe in a life after death. To them, the existence of a resurrection is an incentive to live more nobly, more generously, more creatively. They recognize that while we shall one day die, that cannot be the end of life. Instead, they take life’s brevity as an opportunity to heighten the intensity of life. As it were, they contemplate with the Psalmist on the passing nature of life and they pray: “So, Lord, teach us the shortness of our days that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
- THE RESURRECTION IS REAL
We, Catholic Christians, believe in the resurrection of the dead. We say so twice in the profession of faith. Speaking of Christ, we say: “The third day He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures.” And the last sentence of the Creed is: “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” This belief is, indeed, the basis of Our Faith! Why would we believe in Christ the Saviour if we did not need salvation? If we cry out to the Saviour to come and save us, it is because we need to be saved from an immense danger: the danger of eternal death, that of being sentenced, without appeal, to an eternal hell! If we believe in Christ Jesus, it is because, through him and in him, salvation is offered to us for eternal life!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, says “Who will rise? All the dead will rise, ‘those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation, (John 5:29)’” (CCC no. 998). Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says: “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” (1Cor 15:12-14).
That everybody will be resurrected at the end of our lives on this earth, that is why we are here attending this Mass! If there is no hope for resurrection, there is no need for us to do good towards our neighbour, to love and to serve them. If there is no hope for resurrection, there is no need for us to sacrifice and offer our lives for the sake of other people. If there is no resurrection, then there is no need for us to pray, to go to Mass on Sundays, to work for peace and justice, to join in all religious activities of our church, to receive sacraments and many more! If there is no after-life, a young person becoming a priest or religious is worthless and meaningless! But, we do believe in the after-life or in the resurrection of the dead!
If there is one belief that the men and women of our world need today, it is the belief in the resurrection. Why? Because it is the effective remedy to the infectious disease of materialism—the insatiable search for power, wealth, property, fame, etc. The story is told of an American tourist who paid a visit to the 19th century Polish Rabbi, called Hofetz Chaim. Astonished to see that the rabbi’s home was only a simple room filled with books, a table and a bench, the tourist asked, “Rabbi, where is your furniture?” “Where is yours?” replied the rabbi. “Mine?” asked the puzzled tourist. “But I’m only a visitor here. I’m only passing through.” “So am I,” said Hofetz Chaim. We are all in transit in this world. This constitutes the title of the famous song of Jim Reeves: “This world is not my home; I’m just pass through…”
Let us thank God today for revealing to us the mystery of the resurrection. Let us reaffirm our belief in the life of the world to come, since this is the most effective means to escape the stranglehold of materialism in our lives here on earth. Do we understand exactly how it will be in the life of the resurrection? Certainly, not! For we are talking about “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Yet, we believe in the resurrection!