The Sadducees who figure so prominently in this Sunday’s Gospel reading were one of the many factions within Judaism during Jesus’ lifetime. They were religious conservatives, but social pragmatists. The conflict they tried to incite with Jesus was based on the fact that they rejected all religious developments after the Babylonian Exile. The Pharisees, on the other hand, accepted many of the beliefs that developed after the Exile.
One of those contested beliefs was regarding resurrection. Today’s first reading recounts an event that occurred approximately one hundred and sixty years before Jesus’ birth. The seven brothers who were martyred for their faith were willing to accept the physical death of martyrdom rather than the spiritual death of apostasy. (2 Maccabees 7:9) Their hope rested on the belief that, at the end of time, God would raise up the just to a life of eternal reward.
Today, the Sadducees’ rejection of belief in resurrection makes little sense to most people. Oddly, we live in a culture that puts little value on organized religion, but believes strongly in spirits, angels and the immortality of the soul. Today, the most common challenge to belief in resurrection is as materialistic as the culture that poses it, “If resurrection is possible, how will there be room on earth for all the people who will be raised up?” It’s a very practical question, but also a rather unsophisticated one.
I’d like to propose a response to the contemporary lack of belief about the resurrection of the just. Every one of us has an indefatigable desire to hold onto what we prize in life. I’ve said before that I’ve never seen a U-Haul in a funeral cortege. Everyone recognizes the truth of this remark, but all of us continue to hold vigorously onto our possessions and accomplishments.
It has been suggested that we do, indeed, get to take something with us when we die – just one thing: the thing we love most. This idea suggests that in death those who cling to their fears, resentments and lack of forgiveness will be burdened with them forever. Likewise, those who value love or generosity or peace during this life will keep those possessions forever.
This is a very sentimental, but very compelling notion: that we get to keep in death what we love most in life, whether it be for good or for ill. Speaking personally, I would like very much to keep forever what I love most in this life. If this is true, I would find it very reassuring that the love relationships I cherish in this life would endure forever. However, this suggestion is not really different from the other popular cultural notions of the afterlife. Both this suggestion, and ideas like reincarnation, rest on a conviction about human nature’s power to endure the dissolution that is death.
I’d like to propose a different way of viewing the issue. The Biblical teaching about resurrection isn’t a belief in the immortality of the soul or reincarnation or the existence of ghosts or the validity of near-death experiences. All of these cultural beliefs are strictly about human self-concern; the Biblical belief in resurrection is entirely about a covenant relationship with God.
In the first reading, the fourth brother’s profession of faith provides a very precise definition of resurrection. He said to those torturing him, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life.” Biblical resurrection is God’s work that is received passively by the righteous. Our work (of faith), occurs in this present life; the next life is God’s work.
Rather than understanding eternity in human terms, I would suggest that we try to understand eternity in eternal terms. Rather than the idea that, by virtue of our personal attachments, we get to keep what we love most in this life, I would propose that in the next life God keeps what God loves most: the righteous.
Salvation is God’s act on behalf of the God’s faithful people. We look forward to the resurrection of the just as the culmination and divine approval of our faithfulness to the Baptismal covenant. Resurrection is not a natural consequence of anything in this life; neither is it guaranteed to anyone. The resurrection of the just is a reflection of Jesus’ Resurrection: because he was faithful to the end, he was vindicated by God; we hope for, and trust in, the same divine vindication.
The resurrection of the righteous is God’s promise that what God loves most will endure forever. Rather than trying desperately to hold onto what we love most in this life, our life’s goal is to be held onto by God. Until the Day of Resurrection, it is our task to hold firmly to Jesus’ teaching, and by doing so to be found worthy of divine vindication.