A Life We Can Never Imagine

eternal-bliss

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


With the 2016 presidential election cycle coming to a head this week, the candidates and their surrogates have been yelling louder and more insistently pressing their case before large crowds all across the nation. And many of us are just thankful that it will all be over soon. (1 day, 20 hours, 10 minutes, 44 seconds.) Patience, patience. We are eager for our lives to return to normal—meaning we get to complain about other things; eager for friends and family on opposite ends of the political spectrum to turn their minds to other concerns and peacefully coexist once again on Facebook and in real life; eager for unsettling things to finally go away—political ads, election coverage on TV and radio, and those lawn signs that our more confident neighbors shamefully display; eager for those we elect to humbly acknowledge the grave responsibility with which they are entrusted, and not disappoint us in the years ahead; and for their unsuccessful rivals to cordially concede and quietly fade from public view; eager for the dreadful evil that is hyper-partisan politics to crawl back into the dark pit from which it came, giving us some needed relief as we anticipate the horrifying sequel that will inevitably begin much sooner than we want or will ever be ready for.

But just as we are most eager to close the books on this unprecedented election cycle, we probably have not given much serious thought to what happens from here on, as in how the next election cycle will probably just pick up where this one left off, meaning we’re likely to see an escalation in everything unconventional and outrageous we never ever thought could happen. Remember, you heard it here first. But folks, we are dealing with human nature. We can only grasp what is within the realm of our knowledge and understanding. And we know ourselves all too well. We can force ourselves to imagine the next election cycle will be more restrained, more civil, more conventional. But who are we kidding? Even if it were possible, we know our political process has stumbled into turbulent and unchartered waters. From this point on, all bets are off. The only way we will avert the inevitable is if God intervenes with a miracle, or something breaks. And who wants to guess which it will likely be?

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When the Sadducees sparred with Jesus over his teaching on the resurrection, they could only argue as they reasonably knew how. They imagined life beyond this earthly existence but within limits they were already familiar with. So they reasonably argued, if the dead were raised up, they will have to contend with the same limitations that marked their earthly condition. As they understood it, physical resurrection would only alter physical death. All else would have to be the same. Men in this life would necessarily be men in the next, with all their corresponding attributes. Women in this life would be women in the next. So it follows, those who are married in this life would be married in the next. But since the Law of Moses allowed a dead man to acquire an heir through a younger brother marrying his widow, a legal provision that addressed a grave concern in that particular time and place, the “resurrection” only complicated an already complicated situation. And we see the absurdity of their argument.

But Jesus would not be deterred. He spoke as though he knew a place none of his audience had ever visited. If you ever meet people who have never traveled outside the county, you might find yourself describing buildings higher than 5 stories, or traffic jams involving more than 10 cars, or exotic foods and delicacies from foreign countries. More and more such things don’t sound so strange to anyone’s ears. But when the day arrives and we successfully build cities in outer space or distant planets, anyone born there would never automatically know life on earth as we know it. It isn’t difficult to imagine, but some things will likely be the same–such as human flaws and proclivities, and patterns of speech and behavior. But some things might be completely different, like how we communicate, and career choices available to young people.

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But what Jesus was proposing to his listeners was still way beyond their grasp. “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.” We have to remember that the Sadducees did not believe in angels either. So Jesus’ mentioning angels may not have helped them understand his meaning any better. If those who rise from the dead neither marry or are given in marriage, then life could be quite confusing and disorganized, and lots of people would be unhappy and frustrated. And add to that, that they will never ever die, then their misery could also never end.

“[God] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” And if our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are indeed alive, and along with them all the women and men who have gone before us, it makes sense that we strive to live with a view to enjoying eternal life with them. If eternal glory awaits the just in the life to come, and the unjust are punished, then we should strive to live faithfully, and compassionately, and obedient to God’s will.

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The tragic account of the woman and her seven sons in the second book of Maccabees is extreme evidence of the persecution that Israel experienced constantly throughout her history. But it is probably also meant to encourage those who struggle to be faithful to God’s law. Clearly, the 7 young men submitted to brutal torture for a greater good than earthly life. They welcomed physical death “with the hope that God has power to raise up” those who held fast to the observance to the Law. Later on in the chapter, their mother would express great pride and joy at how her sons faced death. But the story did not address what becomes of those who turn their backs on the law. It seems that was not the sacred writer’s focus. But with the new order Jesus established, we are no longer subject to the Law of Moses. Instead Jesus commands us to love God with our whole heart, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. So it seems the goalposts have moved quite a bit. But God’s demands remain—faithfulness to his will. I bet Christians from the 1st century would have trouble grasping the way we practice our faith in the 21st century. But our objective is the same as theirs—the attainment of God’s life which God shares with those who fulfill his will.

Evil and error will relentlessly strive to lure us away with earthly enticements and fading glory. But St. Paul encourages us to be strong in every good deed and word, to long for that life beyond this life, where there is no death, where we will be like the angels. And for as long as we are in this life, we will never truly grasp the mystery of God’s life. It could be like this life in many ways, but infinitely better. For starters (and I can say this with some confidence), in the life to come there will be no elections.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2016