Sunday, November 11, 2007

We have no idea

The readings for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • 2nd Maccabees 7:1-2 9-14
  • Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8+15
  • 2nd Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
  • Luke 20:27-38
At the very end of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a passage that rings true to me. Gandalf and Frodo have left the Grey Havens on an elven ship to the Undying Lands:
And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
I surmise that most of us have some idea of what we think the next world may be like, and this hits the closest for me

A set package of images and ideas has developed pop culture about the next life. They usually involve people in white robes with wings and harps, standing around on clouds. Then, of course, there is St. Peter and the gates. There have been all sorts of variations on this, Defending Your Life being one of my favorites. These often blend into simplistic ideas of judgement and reincarnation.

As a Catholic Christian, the depictions I have found most influential come from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a recurring theme in Lewis' writings, breaking through in Narnia, Perelandra, and most specifically in The Great Divorce. Tolkien's most detailed takes were in the Silmarillion his depiction of the creation of the universe, and the Undying Lands, Aman.

I love these images, but one thing worries me. I do find Lewis' and Tolkien's ideas easier to accept than harps and fluffy clouds. When I think of those I have loved who are now dead, I have no problem believing that my own beloved dead are there. My problem is that I have not been able to see myself there -- it simply has not been real to me. Today's Gospel may explain why, and perhaps why I should not worry.

The Question

The Gospel lesson is sometimes referred to as "the Sadducee question". The Sadducee party were traditionalists often identified with the priestly Temple leadership, and held that only the written law (primarily the Torah) was binding, and rejected the tradition of oral law, precepts and interpretations passed down from one generation of teachers to another. Their interpretations of the law were often quite rigid and harsh, and were resented by many of the people, who generally preferred the teachings of the Pharisees. These two factions often argued, often about whether the dead are resurrected. Traditional Jewish belief only admitted the existence of Sheol, a shadowy place, and many in Israel felt that they would live on more in their children rather than in some next life.

The intent here is to trap or embarass Jesus with a trick question. The Torah requried that if a widow had no children, then the brother of her late husband must marry her (known as levirate marriage from a word for brother), to provide children to carry on the dead man's name and provide for the widow. And while Jewish law at that time could contemplate a man having more than one wife, a wife with more than one husband was impossible. If Jesus taught that the dead rise, his teaching would violate one law, or the other.

Jesus Responds

Now Jesus could simply denounce his questioners as hypocrites, as Sadducees only accepted levirate marriage under very unusual circumstances, and the practice was almost unheard of. But He chooses to first point out that the rules that they want to snare him with are rooted in our earthly experience and needs, and would not apply in a different situation, mooting their example. Then he turns the tables on them by placing them in a dilemma. The Torah itself refers to the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" in present tense, and Israel's God is God of the living and not the dead. If the Sadducees want to reject resurrection, they will have to reject the Torah as well.

This response leads us away from a mistaken view of the resurrection -- that trying to project onto that life our understanding of this life will only lead to absurdity. I should not worry about not being able to visualize a situation that is entirely beyond my understanding. But then, why should I believe in a next life at all, something completely outside my knowledge or experience? Why should I believe in the Gospel at all?

I believe because I have learned to trust Jesus in my life. This trust was not a sudden thing, nor is it really complete. But I can try to believe in the big ressurection because I have seen it happen in smaller, more personal ways -- in healing and redemption in this world that transcend my limited understanding and ability. By seeing lives made new again, including my own, I can trust in something I cannot see or understand, because of someone I know. I can hope.

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