The Absurdity of Life Beyond Death

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


The comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schultz follows the adventures of a group of precocious children and a beagle who have this uncanny ability of reflecting deeply on the mysteries of life. I found one that might help us with today’s scripture readings, or at the least, highlight for us the point Jesus was trying to make. It’s only one panel. We can probably figure out what the rest of the strip could have been. Charlie Brown’s sister Sally is taking an algebra test. What she says out loud has never even crossed my mind, and yet, it makes complete sense. She says, “Only in math problems can you buy 60 cantaloupes and no one asks what the heck is wrong with you.”

I have a teaching minor in Math, so I get that word problems attempt to visualize for us how a completely cerebral algebraic equation may find application in real life. The trick is intelligibly translating one language into the other. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be intelligible. The presumption is you are functional enough in both or nothing makes sense. If you speak two languages fluently, you should be able to safely navigate life where those languages are spoken. Sometimes the other language is spoken, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s the official sign language, sometimes it’s whatever hand gestures you find gets your point across. Sometimes the other language is fear or affection or guilt or joy. But regardless of the language, if your audience still fails to catch your drift, it’s just going to be gibberish. They might nod and pretend they get it. But you can’t be sure until they tell you in words what they think you said.

So let’s look at some background on today’s gospel passage. The Sadducees were a segment of Jewish society in Jesus’ time that took pride in their strict interpretation of God’s word. They recognized only the first five books of sacred scripture, presumably written by Moses himself, not the wisdom books, not the prophetic books, just the first five, Torah or the Law. And in Torah, provision is made for childless widows to marry a male relative of their deceased husband, typically a brother, to legally produce children for the dead man. The thinking was that people lived on beyond this earthly existence through their children and grandchildren. There was no belief in an afterlife, just a place called Sheol where we go when we die, regardless of the moral choices we made in life, where we sit forever in darkness and stillness cut off from life and separated from God. We can all agree, that is terribly bleak. So what would make sense? Eat, drink, and be merry; tomorrow we die. Have children, even with option B, which the Law provides.

Now if our earthly life extends beyond death, so the Sadducees hypothesized, it follows that if a woman marries 7 times, she would have 7 husbands in the resurrection. Clearly, they all had very different ideas of what the resurrection was going to be like. The Sadducees had only the perspective of earthly life by which to evaluate what Jesus was proposing. But to Jesus, the resurrection changes everything. It was an entirely new order which clearly people will not grasp, like some strange foreign language.

And to add further credibility to this new teaching on the resurrection Jesus offered testimony from Moses himself, the only authority the Sadducees recognized. In the passage about the burning bush, Moses addressed as ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. It would be little honor for God to be associated with these ancestors, long dead and gone, roughly 430 years dead and gone, unless they were not in fact dead and gone. If the God of Moses and Israel is God of the living, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and everyone previously considered dead and gone, were in fact alive in a manner our earthly minds could not grasp.

And in an effort to explain such a complicated mystery using experiences and images his earthbound audience could reasonably relate to, Jesus revealed that in the resurrection people “neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, … they are like angels; … they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.”[1]  Is any of this clearer now? What is clear is that there is much about the resurrection and life with God beyond death that our minds will not be able to grasp.

Belief in the resurrection was significantly gaining followers in Israel around the period of the Maccabees, where the first reading is set, roughly 160 years before Jesus. In a passage a few chapters ahead, we read how the leaders of the rebellion collected money to send to the temple in Jerusalem so that sacrifices may be offered for the dead. Although the Law indicated sacrifices may be offered to obtain forgiveness of sins, I could not find any references to the offering of sacrifices for the forgiveness of the sins of those who have died. This indicates a development of belief. And in the time of Jesus, who clearly believed in the resurrection of the dead, there were still ordinary people and politically prominent and powerful religious groups that did not share that belief.

Now we don’t need to hear the rest of the story about the seven brothers and their mother. But they articulated a hope that gave them strength and courage to stand up in the face of religious persecution. The missing verses even include strong words of encouragement from the mother as she witnesses the torture and death of her sons. “I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of. Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.”[2]  The apple didn’t fall too far.

This week, we join three families as they remember and celebrate their loved ones who have gone ahead into the eternal wedding banquet. Grief is not diminished in the least just because we believe in the resurrection. Rather, our faith lightens the grief we bear with the assurance that our loved ones are not lost, that they live on in God. So if our God is not the God of the living, then the finality of death dashes all hope. But Jesus reminds us, “Those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead … no longer die.” As for the rest of the story, we have only what Jesus has told us since he alone has been where we hope to go. “And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”[3]  Some things in this life we will surely carry with us into our new life with God. And some things we must leave behind, including all our toys, all our worldly connections, and all our cantaloupes.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019


[1] Luke 20: 35-36

[2] 2 Maccabees 7: 22-23

[3] Luke 13: 29