32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
In this Sunday's gospel (Lk 20:27-38), the Sadducees try to catch Jesus in a trick question. They present a hypothetical situation of a woman who married and was subsequently widowed by each of seven brothers. Whose wife will she be after the resurrection?
It's a trick question. We know it's a trick question, because the Sadducees don't believe in the resurrection at all. They are trying to trip up Jesus, who preached the resurrection of the dead.
The resurrection of the dead is one of the central tenants of the Christian faith. Jesus rose from the dead as the first fruits of the new creation, and we believe that all the faithful departed will one day share in the glory of His resurrection. It is so central to our faith that it is easy for us to forget that it was not shared by all the Jews of Jesus' day.
The Jewish people in the first century did not practice one united faith. There were several different sects of Judaism, with somewhat different beliefs. One of the distinctive beliefs of the Sadducees is that they didn't believe in a life after death. This seems odd to us because the whole idea of an afterlife, with judgment and retribution, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, is so central to the Judeo-Christian mindset. Why would the Sadducees deny this?
It had to do with what scriptures they recognized as canonical. Just as there was no unified Jewish religion, there was also no universally recognized canon of Hebrew scriptures. The different sects recognized different books, and the Sadducees recognized the fewest of all. They only followed the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (also called the Pentateuch). And nowhere in the Torah does it explicitly mention life after death.
The most explicit reference to the resurrection in the Hebrew scriptures is found in 2 Maccabees. In the episode recounted in the first reading this Sunday, the seven brothers attest to their faith in the resurrection in plain language. "The King of the world will raise us up to live again forever" (2 Mc 7:9), and, "It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him" (2 Mc 7:14).
2 Maccabees is the same book where we find it said that "it is a good and wholesome thought" to pray for the dead (2 Mc 12:46). The practice of praying for the dead is strong evidence of a belief in purgatory. The souls in hell cannot be helped by our prayers, for hell is a place without hope. The souls in heaven don't need our prayers as they are already united with God. Praying for the dead implies some state after death where our prayers may be of some benefit to these souls. That is purgatory; a state after death where the souls of the faithful are made pure before they enter into heaven.
Jesus could easily have quoted 2 Maccabees or other places in the Hebrew scriptures as evidence of the resurrection, but it would have done no good. The Sadducees don't recognize those books, and so would have rejected His claims. Instead, Jesus meets the Sadducees at their level.
The Sadducees only believe in the Torah, and so Jesus speaks to them from the Torah. He cites Exodus, where God identifies Himself to Moses as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob" (Ex 3:15). Even though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived generations before Moses, Jesus points out that God "is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive" (Lk 20:38).
The last two verses of this chapter in Luke recount the scribes reaction to Jesus' teaching. They said, "'Teacher, you have answered well,' and they no longer dared to ask Him anything" (Lk 20:39-40).
The scribes couldn't argue with Jesus on this point, and neither should we. God is not God of the dead, but of the living. Elsewhere in the Old Testament we are told that the dead do not praise God nor give Him thanks, but only the living (Is 38:18-19). The very purpose of our being, as taught in the Catechism, is to live with God forever, giving thanks and praise to Him for all eternity.
A wise saint said once that the souls in hell glorify God in His justice, while the souls in heaven glorify God in His mercy. Either way you will give glory to God for all eternity. It's just a matter of which bit of real estate you want to inhabit.
Jesus offers us not only a share in His resurrection, but a share in His Kingdom. Let us pray that we may be found worthy on that day to reign with Him forever; and let us remember especially to pray for the souls of the faithful departed, that they may also be welcomed into that Kingdom prepared for them from all eternity.