The Second Book of Maccabees makes a rare appearance in the Lectionary today—it occurs only once in the three-year Sunday cycle and twice more (November 19th and 20th this year) on weekdays. Along with the Book of Wisdom which we heard from last Sunday, First and Second Maccabees are among the latest books of the Old Testament to be written, probably taking their final form within a century of the birth of Christ. The message of today’s passage recounting frightening persecution is that with faith in the resurrection—revealed inchoately in the pages of the Old Testament and brought to reality through Christ—one can overcome even the most awful torments. We hear one of the seven Maccabee brothers witness to this in saying: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life” (2 Macc 7:14).
The New Testament reading is drawn from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians and it, too, is concerned with the resurrection and the timing of the eventual return of the Lord, as we can see from the opening of the chapter from which today’s reading is taken: “We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed” (2 Thess 2:1-2). Both First and Second Thessalonians reflect the deep anxiety in the early Church over what would happen at the time of the resurrection and what the fate of Christians who died before the coming of Christ would be.
The Gospel addresses Christian belief in the resurrection directly, with Jesus himself being confronted with what his opponents, the Sadducees, think is a perfect trick question making light of the idea that the dead would rise. They pose to Jesus a scenario in which a woman has been married to a sequence of seven brothers, with each respective brother being married to the woman upon the death of his older sibling. This seems bizarre to most folks today, but such situations were not uncommon in ancient times, and it was even required in certain cases by the Torah, as the Sadducees themselves note in their question (see Deut 25:5-6).
Two key lessons which give us a better understanding of the resurrection and the Kingdom of God can be taken from our Lord’s reply to the Sadducees. The first involves the way people in ancient cultures thought about others—especially women and servants—as “belonging” to their husbands, fathers, etc. While today such talk of “possessing” other people is abhorrent to us, we nonetheless might unconsciously fall prey to thinking in this manner ourselves, even when it comes to those who are closest to us. Through his reply to the Sadducees Jesus makes it clear that in the Kingdom of God which “is in your midst” (Luke 17:21; cf. 11:20) as in heaven, no one “belongs” or “is given” to anyone else; rather, all “are children of God.”
Even more importantly, Jesus foils the attempt of the Sadducees to mock the resurrection by reminding them: “That the dead will rise even Moses made known…when he called ‘Lord,’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:37-38). We share with Jesus in the sufferings of life, let our hope of sharing in his resurrection strengthen us that we might overcome any obstacle to being his faithful disciples, even ridicule, persecution—and death itself.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Artwork: Resurrection, Jacek Malczewski.