The New Jerusalem, The Apocalypse Tapestry 1380, Château d’Angers, Angers, France.
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus….. Luke 20:27.
A strange gospel today, posing a weird question to Jesus about the afterlife. The first reading also alludes to the afterlife, “the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying……” and again there is an allusion to the afterlife in the second reading, “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself……..encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.” when it is clear that Jesus had been crucified and had died, yet lives to enable us to be encouraged and strengthened. And so what is the Sadducees’ question about, with multiple marriages in heaven and who would that woman actually be married to? So perhaps a little sitz im leben, as the scripture scholars say, would be useful (meaning what was this all about back then in that time and place?). First, it is important to know that the concept of afterlife was a major controversy at the time of Jesus. The prevailing wisdom for centuries had been that after death all life went to Sheol. All good people, all bad people, all animals, everything that had died, ended up in that silent, grey semi-existence from which there was no escape. That accounts, among other things, for the ancient Jewish belief that success and wealth in this life was the reward for goodness, and sickness or poverty, for example, the punishment. It is also the explanation of the Apostles’ Creed statement that Jesus “descended into hell”; it was to Sheol he went, to break down its walls and release the righteous. The gradual dawning of a new concept, heaven and hell, took a very long time to establish itself. Our first reading, from the second Book of Maccabees (a terrible time in Jewish history when the Jews fought for independence), describes events which took place over 100 years before the birth of Jesus, and which contains the afterlife hope expressed in today’s reading. So the Sadducees clearly represented the conservative point of view, defending the Sheol concept against the new teaching. Jesus was clearly a radical, therefore, dismissing such a concept as antithetical to his teaching. Hence his dismissal of their question as irrelevant to the joy of heaven which surpasses even the joy and happiness of the best marriage union imaginable. After all (though he does not say this) procreation in heaven is redundant!
Christianity, therefore, clearly began with the new teaching, that life here on earth would foreshadow life after death, be it good (heaven) or bad (hell). All of Jesus’ teachings focus on that hope of heaven, and how to attain it. Indeed, without that belief, everything he taught could be dismissed as nonsense, as we were all doomed to Sheol no matter what, so make the most of life here and now to attain wealth and happiness. Jesus’ teachings are so much broader than that, where a righteous life, even if poor and seemingly useless (witness the story of the widow’s mite) could easily foreshadow the reward and the eternal bliss of heaven, as it now depends on our own will to live as a righteous child of God. Or not.
Having said that, it seems that the concept of Sheol, or more likely death being final and absolute, is not exactly unknown today. A film such as Wolf of Wall Street shows that life lived for success, wealth, power in the here and now, no matter what, and damn the consequences, is still very much with us. The TV show The Night Manager has an even more chilling example of a man on the make, prepared even to sacrifice human life in the pursuit of money. Life lived without the goal of goodness and right behavior can degenerate into the most devastatingly evil depths of depravity as there is no fear of the consequences. Of course, if you get caught, then there are, but one does wonder how many do not get caught. However we, who try to be good, trust in a God of justice, in front of whom these evil people will stand, for whom even Sheol would not be a punishment fitting for such behavior. That’s why there is a hell for such behavior. And each of us can create our own idea of that.
So today’s readings are a call back to basics. We are invited to refocus our own goals in light of heaven and hell, to evaluate our own behavior in that light and consider the consequences towards which we are heading. One final word about a very Catholic belief, that of Purgatory (coming from the idea of purgation). That concept in not to be found in Scripture, and is therefore dismissed by Protestant teaching. But it came as the result of thinking of the pure goodness and perfection of heaven and the pure evil of hell. What if we die in between them – not good enough for heaven and not bad enough for hell? Well, the best defense of the teaching I’ve heard came from a Jesuit priest who had converted from a strict Protestant upbringing. He had to reconcile his Protestant rejection of Purgatory and the Catholic belief in it. He said this. At the moment of our death, God shows us our own life from birth. It is mapped out, with the road showing right-living from birth to death as a straight line through it all leading directly to heaven. Every evil act we have committed deviates from that path. The further the deviation, the further away we went from the road to heaven, and consequently the greater remorse we suffer. Those who have deviated far enough and lost the way and have done nothing to regain the right path, they go to the other place towards which they have been deliberately walking. Those who have not suffer a greater or lesser pain of remorse, depending on the extent of the deviation, but at least have tried to regain the right path. Remorse is the pain of Purgatory, cleansing us of the filth and stain of evil committed, and enabling us at last to attain heaven itself. That makes a great deal of sense to me. Remorse can be a terrible thing, and the thought of being overwhelmed by it is awful. It is a suitable purgatorial punishment however. Let us all try and minimize that possibility by right-living in the here and now, with the goal, the destination, always being heaven and the glory of God.
Purgatory, Carracci 1610, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City State.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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