The Martyrdom of the Maccabees stained glass window from St. Etheldreda's Catholic Church, London, UK.

God's Word on Sunday: Knowing God makes us truly alive

  • November 3, 2019

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Nov. 10 (Year C) 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 7, 9-14; Psalm 17; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

What are we willing to suffer for our faith or for a matter of principle and conscience? 

In most areas of the world (not all), one would not suffer as dramatic an end as the brothers in the story from Maccabees. What we might suffer is usually more subtle — ridicule, ostracism, maybe the loss of a job or promotion. No blood necessary — these things work quite well most of the time. 

During the revolt of the Maccabees in the second century B.C., it was a different story. The persecutors were the Greek kings of Syria led by Antioches Epiphanes, and he was playing hardball. In his attempt to impose Greek culture and destroy Judaism, he forbade all Jewish practices. This included Sabbath observance, circumcision, sacrifice and the dietary laws. Many resisted and many paid with their lives. 

The loyalty test consisted of eating a piece of pork flesh, which no observant Jew would do. Refusal meant death, and some capitulated. What harm is there in just a little taste of pork? This probably went through the minds of many, and their tormentors even tried this argument to reason with them. 

The answer was simple: it was a violation of conscience and one’s covenant with God. This story is an example of a martyrology — fictionalized accounts of the martyrs meant to encourage the faithful and inspire them to do likewise. This is the first place in the Bible that explicitly mentions the Resurrection and it is paralleled by Daniel, which is written around the same time. This new theology answered an important dilemma people faced. Those who were faithful to God’s Law were suffering and dying, while the unfaithful capitulators were prospering. Is God just? Will the wicked be punished and the righteous rewarded? 

If the physical life is all that we have, the answer is no. But if God will raise the dead to life, then it is a different story — everyone will get what is coming to them. Being faithful and righteous counts, always, regardless of the immediate consequences. 

As 2 Thessalonians assures us, God is faithful; God is just. We never need to fear about doing the right thing. Those are the occasions that form who and what we will be for eternity. We need but focus our hearts on the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.

Spiritual things cannot be understood with earthbound and materialist ways of thinking, but many people try just the same. The Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection since it was not taught in Scripture. 

A group of them tried to use the Resurrection as a way of making a fool of Jesus. They posed a seemingly impossible question: A woman was married consecutively to seven brothers, each of whom died childless. This was in keeping with the law that stated if a man died childless, it was the duty of his brother to father children by his widow so that his name would live on. That was the only afterlife possible. 

At the resurrection of the dead, whose wife will she be? After all, she was married to all seven. From a human point of view, there is no answer to this question. 

Jesus brushed the question aside, insisting that marriage is an earthly and human institution and is not part of the resurrected life. Those who are raised up live on a much higher spiritual plane — they are like angels and are immortal.

Mark’s version of this story is far more severe: Jesus accuses them of being ignorant of both Scripture and the power of God. Jesus challenged them to rethink their notion of the Resurrection. It is not mere reanimation of a corpse, but a complete transformation and elevation to a new way of being. 

And death itself is not the end. God is the God of the living, not the dead. The dead are those who do not know God; those who are in Christ are truly alive. 

Once again, we need not allow the fear of physical death to control our thoughts and actions — we are free in Christ. Only spiritual thinking will open the Scriptures and the ways of God to us.