Thursday, November 4, 2010

Striving after Life after Death

Homily on the 32nd Sunday of Year
(Luke 20:27-38)
November 7, 2010

As a consequence of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States when three hijacked commercial planes toppled the twin-towers in Manhattan and wrecked havoc on the Pentagon, the only Superpower in the world launched large-scale operations against Osama bin Laden, his al Qaida organization, and the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, who were being blamed for the suicide attacks. The US campaign was ostensibly directed toward destroying international terrorism, but from another point of view, the campaign could also be seen as aimed at the survival of America as a nation. Survival, after all, is one of the basic instincts of women, men, peoples and nations.

Indeed, that we do everything within our possibilities to assure that our health does not fail, that we normally look at suicide with repulsion and not, despite the enormous problems we face, as a good exit (except for a few who some would judge as not in their normal state of mind)—that merely indicates that we all love life, however miserable it might be, and we wish to survive. In fact, many of us cling to life so much that, even in the face of the inevitability of death, we devise means by which to prolong it: operation, transplant, expensive medicine, to mention a few. It may be noticed, too, that we construct monuments, sire children and create masterpieces in the hope that, consciously or not, our name and honor will live on long after we have expired. Our human desire to live on and be remembered by perpetually is probably inseparable from our belief that there should be life after death. The pyramids of Egypt, judged from their structure, function and content, testify to that belief in survival after death. In some countries in Africa, time was when the wives, slaves and servants of kings were buried alive with them in the belief that they would still serve them in the next life; hence, the grave of kings were provided with rooms. Of course, in our time, there may be some people who do not believe that one survives after physical death, but one can be sure that even they devise means to perpetuate their memory. They will not want to die like dogs.

That there are individuals who deny that there is life after death—this is nothing new under the sun, of course. In Israel at the time of Jesus, the Sadducees, a religio-political “party” largely drawn from the priestly class of the Jewish society, but which included many lay aristocrats, were such. They did not accept teachings not found in the five books of Moses, like the resurrection of the dead, which represents a later development in the Jewish faith. They rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, which included that belief. For them, if God rewards a human person, he does so in the present life, and they felt that they were blessed by God, what with their position of power and privilege in economy and in social life. There can be no reward after death since there is, they claimed, no after life. In today’s Gospel (Luke 20:27-38), Luke mentions them for the first and the last time. He portrays them as coming to Jesus with a mocking question with the intention of ridiculing the teaching of the resurrection, which Jesus shared with the Pharisees.

To demonstrate how absurd that very belief was, some Sadducees cited a hypothetical story that reflected the practice of the time—the story of a woman who was able to marry seven brothers in succession, since, according to the stipulation of the levirate law (Deut 25:5-10), if a husband died childless, his brother would have to marry his wife. For the Sadducees, the levirate law made the belief in the resurrection ridiculous, for it assumes that there would be a fight in heaven over women to whom brothers have been given in marriage. To stress their point, they asked Jesus whose wife the woman would be in the resurrection (Luke 20:28-33). In response to their question, Jesus used two arguments—and a third may be added--that would have been convincing to the Jews. The first one was drawn from the nature of resurrection life. He distinguished two modes of human life—earthly existence and resurrection life. In the former, it is essential that men and women marry to assure perpetuation of species in face of the inevitability of death. In the latter, procreation is no longer appropriate because all will live like angels, and the problem of successive marital relationships is thus rendered irrelevant.

The second argument was taken from a passage of a book that was acceptable to the Sadducees, because it was part of the Pentateuch. After all, it was from the Pentateuch that they tried to justify their case. According to Moses, whose authority the Sadducees accepted, God is a God of the living, not of the dead (Exod 3:6), and if the Pentateuch calls God the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it follows that the threesome are alive, not dead. But as the three have died long ago, God must have resurrected them, if Moses’ claim, which the Sadducees submitted to, is true. The 1st Reading (2 Macc 7:1-2.9-14) puts forward another argument for resurrection. It raises the question of justice. When Antiochus Epiphanes systematically persecuted the Jews, introducing Hellenistic beliefs and practices in the process, many Jews were martyred for their opposition to his program of Hellenization. The death of these martyrs, however, gave rise to the question of how God could give justice to their lives, as they were murdered for their faith in Yahweh. The answer found in the belief that God would vindicate them in the resurrection of the just. Thus, the fourth of the seven brothers who were tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope of being restored to life by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life” (2 Macc 7:14b).

For Christians, of course, such arguments may not be very necessary. The evidence—and our assurance—that there is life after death is the resurrection of Jesus himself. That Christ is alive—this is the source of our hope, for in Christ all will be made alive: “Christ is now raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Death came through a man; hence, the resurrection of the dead comes through a man also. Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again, but each one in proper order: Christ is the first fruits and then, at his coming, all those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:20-22). Our resurrection is thus linked with the resurrection of Jesus: “If we have been united with him through the likeness of his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection” (Rom 6:5). In view of this, we can state that to raise monuments, raise children and leave a memorial behind may be important to remember us by, but what is decisive is to live, after our sojourn on earth, forever with Christ. Consequently, it is really out of character of the Christian hope to engage in large-scale operations and kill many people in the process with the end in view of surviving on this earth. Under the species of eternity, our earthly survival is very short. Rather, what we should work for with more intensity and strive after is our life after death—compared with which our survival on earth is but a moment.*

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