32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection: The promise of eternal life


The interchange between Jesus and the Sadducees in today’s Gospel could set up a great comedy skit.

The backstory for it begins with Deuteronomy 25: 5-6, a legal attempt to assure the continuance of a family name and inheritance. Deuteronomy legislated that if a man died without children, his brother should marry the widow to provide continuity for the family name and inheritance.

Added to that is the Sadducees’ theological rejection of the idea of personal existence after death (an attitude popular among about 17% of the U.S. population). The Sadducees rejected the idea of eternal life on theological grounds. They believed that God’s covenant with Israel assured rewards for the just and punishment for the wicked in this life. To them, hopes for an afterlife expressed a lack of faith in God’s effective presence in history.

Thus, with Ecclesiastes 9:4, they could say, “A living dog is better off than a dead lion … the dead no longer know anything … all memory of them is lost.” Unlike contemporary atheists, their materialism was religious in nature.

Now imagine today’s scene. Contemporary screenwriters could have a picnic with it! (The background music would almost have to be “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am,” by Herman’s Hermits, whose bouncy “dancing” emphasized the ridiculousness of the song.) Allowing Jesus to push his critics a step further, the writers could have him ask the legal experts: “What if she gives birth to a son with the seventh? Is he the son of the first? The second? All of them? How many inheritances does the boy get?”

More seriously, what’s really at play here, as underlined in the story of the indomitable Maccabean martyrs, is the meaning of human life. Is the meaning of our existence, like that of a dead lion, limited to the years we live as historical bodies? Or do our relationships with God and people past and present indicate that we are more than a temporary composition of living, changing cells? This questioned the Maccabees’ belief that remaining true to their faith was not in vain and was more valuable than their earthly life.

In typical fashion, Jesus responded to the Sadducees’ challenge about eternal life with a conundrum rather than a straightforward answer, contrasting the children of this and the coming age. This age, what Paul called the realm of the flesh, is limited to material realities. In the context of today’s Gospel, this age prioritizes the prolongation of family and fortune. Within that narrow worldview, seven brothers could “take” a woman as an instrument of procreation, inherited by one to the next just like the fields or houses that composed their material legacy. Ultimately, the entire process is nothing more than an impotent protest against the inevitability of death.

According to Jesus, people who live in the domain of the age to come are like angels, immortal children of God. Love and relationships in this realm are understood as infinite gifts, unfettered by frantic efforts to possess or perpetuate an existence over which human beings can exercise no control. The fruitfulness of their love will know no limits of family, clan or nation. Karl Rahner takes up this idea and suggests that in the life of the world to come, we will be lovingly related to the entire universe. Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” expresses the same idea by explaining that the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ who draws everything toward the fullness that is our destiny (Laudato Si’, 100).

Today’s readings invite us to journey in reflection from the heroic to the ridiculous to the sublime. After the story of brothers who believed more in God than in death, we hear the Sadducees’ fundamentalist objections to the idea of eternal life. Finally, Jesus invites us to open our imaginations to understand life in terms of where we are headed. Rather than depreciate human love or see it as utilitarian, he invites us to perceive the infinite value of every relationship. Pope Francis elaborates on this, saying, “Life exists where there is bonding, communion, fraternity; and life is stronger than death when it is built on true relationships and bonds of fidelity” (Fratelli Tutti, 87).

The Liturgy of the Word calls us to open our imaginations and dream of all the love we are capable of receiving and giving. No possession or accomplishment can give us genuine meaning, no legacy will insure our future. While appreciating all that life gives us, Christ urges us not to identify with either the lion or the dog, but with the angels whose breadth of vision leads to rapt tenderness and free involvement with everything that exists. That’s how we can rehearse for the life of the age to come.

Reading 1

(2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14)

It happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested
and tortured with whips and scourges by the king,
to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.
One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said:
“What do you expect to achieve by questioning us?
We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
At the point of death he said:
“You accursed fiend, 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.”
After him the third suffered their cruel sport.
He put out his tongue at once when told to do so,
and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words:
“It was from Heaven that I received these;
for the sake of his laws I disdain them;
from him I hope to receive them again.”
Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage,
because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.
After he had died,
they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way.
When he was near death, he said,
“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.”

Responsorial psalm

(Psalm 17: 1, 5-6, 8, 15)

R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.

Hear, O LORD, a just suit;
attend to my outcry;
hearken to my prayer from lips without deceit.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.

My steps have been steadfast in your paths,
my feet have not faltered.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me; hear my word.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.

Keep me as the apple of your eye,
hide me in the shadow of your wings.
But I in justice shall behold your face;
on waking I shall be content in your presence.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.

Reading 2

(2 Thessalonians 2: 16- 3:5)

Brothers and sisters:
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father,
who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement
and good hope through his grace,
encourage your hearts and strengthen
them in every good deed
and word. Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us,
so that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified,
as it did among you,
and that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people,
for not all have faith.
But the Lord is faithful;
he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.
We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you,
you are doing and will continue to do.
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God
and to the endurance of Christ.


(Luke 20: 27-38)

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.
Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless.
Finally the woman also died.
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus said to them,
“The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out ‘Lord, ‘
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”