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THE THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – November 10, 2013

 

The second Book of Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14

St. Paul’s second Letter to the Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

The holy Gospel according to Luke 20:27-35

 

We near the end of another Church Year.  That makes the major themes of the readings this week and next all the more fitting.  The Liturgy of the Word challenges us to consider what we believe about the end of life.  What happens when we take our last breath in this world?  Peggy Lee’s song asked plaintively; Is that all there is?  Is there something more?  What about resurrection?

You might be surprised to read that belief in resurrection and life after death came late in the Hebrew tradition.  By our Lord’s time, a minority believed, but many, like the Sadducees we will meet in the Gospel, did not.

This Sunday marks the only time in the three-year cycle of Readings that we hear from the Book of the Maccabees.  What a powerful reading it is.  If we listen vulnerably, that is, able to be pierced by the Word, our lives could change.  There is no doubt that the seven Maccabean brothers and their mother believed that death was not an end.  They lived in a time of persecution.  Jews were being tortured and forced to violate God’s Law by eating pork.  The heroism of the mother and her sons attests to profound faith in the One God and to their commitment to live by God’s commandments.  They would rather die than to compromise their belief.  The scene is horrifying for the graphic detail put before the reader regarding the methods of torture.  (Apparently we have not come very far as a civilization when it comes to inflicting torture on the enemy.  Waterboarding.  Holding in isolation.  Starving.  And then there is the whole issue of bullying. )  All the more astounding is the voiced confidence that strengthens them.  The mother is there witnessing as one by one her son’s are tortured and slaughtered.  All the more amazing is the strength of her faith.  Should one of the sons exhibit the slightest hesitation, she supports him and urges him on, reminding him of the reward that awaits him.  Our reading concludes with the death of the fourth son.  Read the surrounding verses in the Book and you will hear of the death of the remaining three.  Finally, the mother, too, will lay down her own life.

Some are surprised to learn that among the Jewish people, belief in life after death did not go all the way back to Moses’s encounter with God in the Burning Bush.  Only two centuries before Christ did faith in heaven begin to emerge.  That was not long before the time of the Maccabees.  Look at the depth of their faith as evidenced in the two quotes from them cited in the text.  You accursed fiend (the torturer), you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.  It is for his laws that we are dying. 

And, as his tongue and his hands are being sliced from his body, the third brother says: It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of (God’s) laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.  These quotes speak not so much of a sophisticated understanding of heaven, but of a profoundly committed belief in its reality whatever that might mean.

It is also clear that by the time of the Maccabees, the belief in God as a just God introduced the idea of rewards and punishments in the after life, resulting from how one had lived his/her life.  Remember the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a few weeks ago?  The Rich Man wound up in torment, not because he was particularly evil, but because he ignored the plight of the poor man at his gate.  Hear the power of conviction about justice in the quote from the fourth won: It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by God; but for you (the persecutor), there will be no resurrection to life.

If you read the lives of the saints, especially the lives of the martyrs, you must stand in awe of them and of the witness to the dying and rising of Jesus their lives and deaths proclaim.  Final declarations of faith, deathbed confessions, as it were, put the seal of conviction on the lives that are concluding.  That proclamation is all the more compelling when it follows from one who is facing the executioner.

I have spoken before of the Ugandan Martyrs.  The majority of the 23 young men were catechumens, that is, on their way to Baptism.  To a man, each one showed confidence and determination as, one by one, they were led to the place of execution.  How do you explain other than by tremendous faith and an infusion of grace by the Holy Spirit, that each of them, in the midst of his excruciating suffering, i.e., being slowly burned to death, was heard singing and praising Jesus, voicing assurance that he would see the Lord soon?

Damien of Molokai technically is not a martyr; but he witnessed to his belief that there would be life after this life when he rejoiced at his own leprosy because it linked him to those for whom he poured out his life in ministry.

Astounding stories of heroic actions taken by many of those caught up in the horrors of 9/11 stunned most of those who heard them.  Person after person made self-sacrificing decisions to support others that for one reason or another were unable to negotiate stairways or find ways of escape.  Those who wrested control of the airplane from the terrorists and forced the crash-landing in a field rather than have the plane explode into a metropolitan center lay down their lives for others.  Those heroic actions speak, in the main, of a conviction that this life is not all there is.

Witness the faith of the parents of the children and their teachers shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or the parents and relatives of those killed in Colorado, or Tucson, Arizona, or at the Naval Base in Washington, D.C.  The ability of the survivors to stand tall and even, in some cases, to speak of forgiving the killers, attests to their belief in something more even as they speak of seeing their beloved ones again.

The age of martyrs is not over yet.  Our brothers and sisters in the faith daily lay down their lives for the Gospel.  They live lives of service among those they serve in South America, Africa, and other places where people struggle to survive.  Some of the witnesses become such thorns in the sides of today’s oppressors that they are slaughtered in order to silence them and end their witnessing against unjust systems that enslave the poor and deprive them of the basic essentials for a dignified lifestyle.

Strange this is, as has always been the case with the martyrs’ deaths, the witness becomes all the louder and clearer once the blood is shed.  (Think of Archbishop Oscar Romero whose voice is heard to this day in the city where he was slaughtered all those years ago.) There is some reason why ages of persecution are times in which converts come to the faith and the church thrives – not necessarily monetarily, but certainly spiritually.  (Pope Francis’s words about a poorer church serving the needs of the poor apply.  It isn’t the bejeweled miters or the flowing robes that attract.  It is the blood spilled and the life poured out.)

We come to Luke’s Gospel reading for this Sunday.  Don’t miss what the Sadducees are trying to do as they put their question before Jesus.  This is an attempt to ridicule Jesus and thereby discredit him and his message.   Even in Jesus’ time, not all of the Jews believed in life after death, or resurrection from the dead, as we call it.  How snide was their tone as they proposed the tale of the woman married and widowed time after time until she had been wife to seven brothers.  There was a commandment given by Moses that said: If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.  When the Sadducees ask Jesus whose wife will the woman be in heaven, it was not to challenge Moses’s Law.  For them, the Law was sacred, to be kept in its minutiae, whether or not there was heaven.  In their mind there was no life after death.  Wouldn’t it be ridiculous to think that in the resurrection, the woman would be wife to all seven?

The Sadducees laugh at a concept of heaven held by some of their contemporaries, a concept that continues in some fundamentalist sects to this day.  There are those who imagine a heaven that is a continuation of life, as we know it here, only in a better place.  The rewards of heaven?  For some that will mean many wives and lots of money, a life of luxury.  Apparently, women will keep their subservient role even in heaven.

Jesus makes it very clear that the Sadducees do not understand what resurrection from the dead means.  What is certain is that there is more to resurrection than a resuscitation of the body.  (That was another weakness in the movie, The Passion of the Christ.)  There will be no marriage in heaven.  There won’t be any more dying.  Those in heaven are spiritual beings, the children of God who will rise from the dead.  Beyond that, no one knows what heaven will be like, only that those who die will be with God.  St. Paul’s words to the Colossians are apt here: Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, it has not entered into the human heart what God has prepared for those who love God.  That means heaven is beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.

Jesus doesn’t let the Sadducees off the hook on which they have tried to ensnare him.  Turn about is his.  He challenges their faith and their reading of the Scriptures.  The Lord that Moses served is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  That is what the Scripture says.  (I’ve always thought it was too bad that Jesus didn’t ask the Sadducees if they believed what Moses proclaimed.  They would have been in trouble had they said “no.”  But if they had said “yes,” then all the more powerful would have been his tag line.)  Jesus said, Remember, God is not God of the dead, but of the living.  To God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive!  So are all those who have died.  Wow.

Each Sunday as we sit beneath the readings and the words wash over us, we have the opportunity to be renewed in faith.  In these difficult times faith can be challenged.  Some will say that they find it impossible to believe in God in the face of calamities, be they natural disasters, like earthquakes, storms and floods, or the result of terrible human acts.  After the Holocaust many stopped believing because no god that they could believe in would have allowed such horrors to happen.

For some time now, in Luke’s Gospel, we have been on this journey with Jesus.  Remember where he is going.  Up to Jerusalem, where he will be rejected.  There he will suffer and die, but on the third day he will rise again.  He will face the ultimate horror and the void will threaten to envelop him.  But like the Prodigal Son and Lazarus, he will cry out in the midst of the darkness, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  That’s still ahead of us in this Gospel.  And we won’t even talk about Easter yet.

So, once again we will gather and listen to the Word.  We will ponder and be challenged by it.  Jesus asks us Sunday after Sunday with each proclamation of the Scriptures: Do you believe this?  There may be many times when we say, Yes, but want to add immediately, please help my unbelief.  Faith does not mean that the believer has no doubts.  Doubt and faith coexist.  But the believer, following Jesus’ example, will leap into the void that is doubt, and with hope in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God Jesus proclaims and in whose name he comes, the God of our ancestors in the faith, the believer will say: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

We move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  We move with doubts and fears and, with the help of grace and the Holy Spirit, with our growing confidence, we celebrate Eucharist and so renew the Lord’s dying and rising.  On our way to the Table in the Communion Procession, the words proclaimed following the Institution Narrative in the Eucharistic Prayer ought to echo in our hearts: Dying you destroyed our death.  Rising, you restored our life.  Lord Jesus come in glory – now and at the hour of our death.  Only then will we begin to be fully alive knowing that we will be raised in Christ on the last day.

Do you believe this?

Sincerely,

Didymus    

THE THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – November 03, 2012

 The Book of Wisdom 11:22-12:2

St. Paul’s second Letter to the Thessalonians 1:11-2:2

The holy Gospel according to Luke 19:1-10

Conversion stories are touching even as they are difficult to believe.  The sinner’s conversion is the hardest for believers and non-believers alike to accept.  Deathbed conversions, death row conversions, known wicked people’s sudden changes of heart, all such stories are met with something akin to I bet from those who hear about them.  Could that be because the scoffer has not had a conversion experience of his/her own?  Believers tend not to remember how they came to faith and have forgotten that faith is a gift of the Spirit.  No one can say, Jesus is Lord, except in the Holy Spirit.  Paul, himself a convert, said that.  Non-believers probably can’t imagine believing.

Jesus came out of his desert experience and began to announce the Good News of Gods mercy that we believe is promised in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom: You rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord.

How much rebuking, much less reminding of sins, was part of Jesus’ mission and ministry?  The despised, those judged to be sinners, enjoyed his company and shared his table.  I doubt that would have been the case had the principal topics of conversation at table been their sins and the magnitude of their wickedness.  It is hard to imagine breaking bread and sharing a cup with sinners while rebuking them.  Had that been the case, it seems unlike that there would have been so many of these encounters to become the condemning cause for his crucifixion: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

At the heart of the Good News is the proclamation that God loves universally and unconditionally.  That does not mean that God loves the sin.  But it does mean that God loves the sinner who seems to be lost on his way, steeped in sin, if you will, even unaware of his sinfulness.  The image that comes to mind is of one wandering in the darkness until the light dawns.  Conversion just might be the result of the sinner’s feeling accepted by Jesus as they listened to his stories and found themselves in them.  Think of the Prodigal Son.  The hardened heart thawed as it occurred to the one deemed to be a sinner that Jesus was telling him he is a beloved of God.

In this week’s Gospel, it is obvious that Jesus’ reputation had reached Zacchaeus before they met.  Either someone told him about Jesus or he had overheard others talking about him, so that there was a burning curiosity in him, burning enough to put himself in the ridiculous situation of climbing a tree and perching on a limb to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passed by.  Small in stature, the people who despised him so would have derided him even as they spat at the base of his tree.

A crowd blocked Zacchaeus’s view of the parade, hence his climb.  The crowd might have been shouting to gain Jesus’ recognition with the hope that he would stop and speak to them, even touch them.  But Jesus saw Zacchaeus.  Their eyes might have locked in a prolonged moment, long enough for the crowd to notice, before Jesus called out to Zacchaeus and invited himself to the tax collector’s home.  The horror of what Jesus did sent shock waves of revulsion through the crowd who would be quick to enunciate Zacchaeus’s sins, perhaps having consigned him to hell’s fire already.  I must stay at your house.  The text seems to hint at Jesus’ dwelling with Zacchaeus and his family indefinitely.  Remember that in these post-Resurrection days, Jesus lives in his disciples and accompanies them on The Way.

Zacchaeus’s conversion is remarkable.  Half my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.  This is not in the text, but we are free to wonder from where Zacchaeus’s wealth had come.  The tax collectors were hated because they were allied with the Roman authority and made their living by adding to the tax bills for their profit.  If Zacchaeus paid it all back, what would be left for himself and his family?

Zacchaeus is the prime example of the price paid by those who became the first disciples and then had to leave everything familiar behind, everything they could no longer do or share in if they went through the dying and rising of Baptism.  Being a tax collector may have been all Zacchaeus knew.  His days of wealth could be over as salvation came to this descendant of Abraham.  In Zacchaeus Jesus found what had been lost.

Sometimes I wish I could hear this story as if for the first time.  With familiarity almost everything loses impact.  To hear it that way, my heart would melt and any temptation to hopelessness or despair would vanish, especially if I thought that what Jesus said to Zacchaeus he might say to me.  How about you?  Chew on that for a while, take it in and digest the substance to make it your own.  And believe.

Ah, but there is another point we are to take from this pericope.  It’s one thing for the hearer to recognize that commonality with Zacchaeus and then to repent.  It is another for the hearer to recognize the challenge to have that attitude that Jesus had and to have it toward today’s Zachaeuses, toward those who are despised and outcast, those who are deemed to be the sinners.  It is sad to think about this, but I am afraid that forgiveness and reconciliation are not always the hallmarks of segments of the church.  Rather the message of judgmentalism and excommunication rings loudly.  That’s not formal excommunication probably, but technically that is what is happening when one is denied access to the Table and Eucharist.  What would segments of today’s church do with an Augustine?  Or with Simon Peter who cursed and swore that he didn’t even know Jesus?

The work of the faith community that gathers for the Liturgy of the word is to yield to the Spirit and be converted by the Word, transformed by the Word.  This is the community that moves from the Table of the Word to the Table where, united in Jesus, they share the Bread and the Cup to be more firmly committed to being the Body of Christ.  Is the message clear from this Sunday’s readings, as Paul urges the Thessalonians, that the Assembly must love the unlovable?  The outcasts must be embraced and told that God loves them and Jesus wants to dwell with them.  They must hear that they are the ones for whom Jesus came.

That’s the message.  That’s what Jesus wants me, wants us, wants the church to believe and live.

Dare we think about those, whom we have consigned to the dark places, those we have judged to be sinners beyond forgiveness and outside the pale of redemption?  Dare we imagine forgiving and loving them?  You will be amazed at how liberating that is.  You will be more able to accept that you are forgiven, that you are the beloved of God.  You might weep.  But they will be tears of joy and renewed peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus