God will stand by those firm in faith

  • October 28, 2010
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Nov. 7 (2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 7, 9-14; Psalm 17; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38)

How much are we willing to suffer for our faith and our cherished beliefs? Brave talk is easy but it is not until faced with some fearsome choices that we discover what is inside of us.

The Book of Maccabees was written during the second century BC at the time of the Jewish revolt against the oppression of the Antiochus Epiphanes, who was one of the Greek successors to Alexander the Great. This tyrant attempted to wipe out Jewish culture and religion replacing it with Greek culture. Jewish religious practices were forbidden and refusal to comply was punished by death.  

The idealized nature of the story — disdain for pain and death, and inspiring theological speeches — are all characteristic of a martyrology or hagiography. This and the stereotypical number seven should alert us to the fact that the story is a fine blend of historical events and inspirational fiction. The intention is to encourage and inspire believers to stand fast in the face of persecution despite the threat of torture and death. It is here that the first outlines of a belief in resurrection and judgment make their appearance. If the just and innocent suffer and the wicked thrive, then both the living and the dead must appear before the judgment of a just and faithful God. Courage in the face of oppression and a willingness to die for one’s beliefs can be a fine thing. On the other hand, one must be wary of fanaticism and provocative and foolhardy behaviour. There must be a simultaneous commitment to life, compassion and reconciliation. But God will indeed stand by those who stand firm in their faith and principles.

The author of 2 Thessalonians also insists that God is faithful, always providing hope, comfort, grace and strength. Faith is not a magic amulet or a free pass to escape suffering and evil. We live in a difficult and at times dangerous world. Our only guarantee is that we will never have to face anything alone or more than we can bear. Grace and strength will always be given.

There are times when the question that someone asks reveals a significant lack of basic understanding and cannot be answered in a direct “yes” or “no” manner. The Sadducees who pose the trick question to Jesus do not believe in the resurrection and they hope to trap Jesus into showing how ridiculous the belief is. They pose the question of a woman married sequentially to seven brothers (note the number seven) to fulfill the Leverite law dealing with men who die without offspring. She dies childless — so at the resurrection of the dead, whose wife will she be? And they do have a point — taken literally, the doctrine of the resurrection suffers from some absurd contradictions. For instance, a more modern question to pose might be, “At the resurrection, to whom do transplanted organs belong?”

Jesus refuses to be pulled into their line of reasoning. Instead, in the Gospel of Mark He criticizes them sharply for constricted thinking. They show by their limited thinking and silly line of inquiry that they do not understand Scripture or the power of God. Here in Luke He is demonstrably more gentle and polite but the point is the same. Marriage and childbearing are earthly activities that reflect our reality in this world. Death is a passage to life at a different and higher plane so we should not project our earthly life into the hereafter but allow God to challenge and surprise us. The resurrected life should not be understood in biological or human terms. The resurrection is a demonstration not only of God’s power but the continual transformation we will experience on our journey to God.

Death is nothing to fear; when the time comes it can even be embraced. Literalism and rigidity are not signs of faith or orthodoxy — they are reactions of fear and should be understood as such. Jesus encourages us be more flexible and to allow our minds and hearts to be stretched. Openness and trust in the guiding spirit of God is the key to spiritual understanding.

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