32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Things of This World and the Next

SCRIPTURES & ART: Today’s readings affirm two major truths: that there is life after death and there is a resurrection of the dead

Antonio Ciseri, “The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees,” 1863
Antonio Ciseri, “The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees,” 1863 (photo: Public Domain)

As we enter the final weeks of ordinary time, the focus of the Church’s liturgical readings turns to eschatology — the Last Things (death, judgment, heaven and hell). The Church’s tradition observes November as a month of special prayer for the faithful departed, and just last week we marked the Commemoration of All Souls.

To understand the Bible, we need to realize that the Christian notion of an afterlife, heaven and hell, took a long time to develop. For most of the Old Testament, the dead — all the dead — ended in Sheol, a kind of murky, post-mortem existence that was often simply called “the netherworld.” (Remember the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? It speaks of the Rich Man as being in “the netherworld,” adding in his case “in a place of torment.”)

Only about the time of Jesus did a clearer notion of the afterlife emerge, and even that not without resistance. That’s why today’s Gospel opens with the observation, “Some Sadducees, those who deny there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus …” 

Today’s readings affirm two major eschatological truths: that there is life after death and there is a resurrection of the dead.

The first reading, from Second Maccabees, focuses on the first truth. 

The events detailed in the reading happened about 165 BC. Israel had fallen under Hellenic cultural domination, and the ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes sought to force the Jews to assimilate to pagan cultural norms. One immediate sign of such assimilation was eating pork, a commonplace meat that Jews did not consume because it was not kosher. (Circumcision was also a telltale sign.)

As the biblical author tells us, each son was taken successively, starting with the eldest, and told to eat pork. Each refused, appealing to the Law of God and to the resurrection to justice on the Last Day. This is one of the earliest Old Testament teachings of a clear notion of a final Resurrection (which will obviously presuppose Christ’s Resurrection to be possible).

The excerpt we read today in the first reading is truncated, ending with the death of the fourth son. I urge you to read the account in its entirety here because, particularly in the post-Roe environment, the mother’s words to her youngest son are a telling response to the “ethic of choice”: 

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 Maccabees 7:22-23).

The same theme of the final Resurrection is taken up in the Gospel where the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, press Jesus with a legal question.

Old Testament Law made a provision for “levirate marriage” (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Because marriage was a uniting not just of two people but of families and clans, the life of the new community was expected to continue even if a woman was prematurely widowed. Under levirate marriage, if a man died his brother was encouraged to marry the widow and have a child with her. This institution, which existed in the Old Testament, also was found in other parts of the world as well. 

The legal question put to Jesus is this. If seven brothers each successively married a widow without raising up progeny, “at the resurrection whose wife will the woman be?”

As usual, Jesus does not answer the question on the terms his interlocutor frame it, but instead recasts the question. 

The Resurrection of the Dead on the Last Day is a qualitatively different and unique moment in history. To imagine that everyone rises and then just picks up where they left off is to misunderstand profoundly the eschatological import of that moment. It’s not like humanity gets off one horse and rides another. Life just doesn’t go on, with people “marrying or given in marriage.” This is the conclusion of history. This is where creation has been leading all along.

Jesus’ teaching obviously was given before his own passion, death and resurrection, which empowers and makes possible the resurrection of the dead on the last day as the fruit and fulfillment of Easter. Human history had a beginning. It will have an end. 

The “resurrection of the body,” a truth we say we believe every Sunday at Mass, is a necessary corollary of Jesus’ redemptive work. Jesus came to save the whole person, body and soul. That’s why he healed people, to demonstrate his mission to redeem the whole person. The whole person — body and soul — is involved in making me the good or evil person I am. The whole person — body and soul — in justice should share that eternal reward or eternal punishment. Anything less would be unjust, and God is not unjust.

Today’s first reading is depicted in a painting by Italian Swiss artist, Antonio Ciseri (1821-1891). We met him last year with one of his most famous paintings, “Ecce homo.” Ciseri, who divided his time between the Ticino region of southeast Switzerland and Florence, painted “Das Martyrium der sieben Makkabäer” (The Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees) in 1863.

Although the martyrdom of the Maccabees occurred in Israel, the painting is set in a Greek-looking setting, because Antiochus IV Epiphanes did his best to Hellenize the Jews. The dissemination of Greek culture around the Mediterranean was in vogue, in some sense ever since Alexander the Great, and the Jews proved particularly resistant to assimilation. That is why we have a Greek looking temple in the background. The persecutors are arrayed above and around her, Antiochus in red. Her boys lie dead, slaughtered at her feet. She turns her eyes and hands towards heaven, in an orans posture, pleading for justice. Although today’s abridged first reading does not say it, soon she also will be dead. 

She almost looks like Medea in classical Greek drama, the big difference being — of course — that Medea murdered her own children.

Such persecution is what fueled the Maccabean Revolt against Hellenized rule. Today’s Jews will soon remember the Maccabean Revolt when they celebrate Hanukkah on Dec. 18-26, because that feast marks the recapture and purification of the Temple by the Maccabees.

Every Sunday, I declare that “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Do I? Do I believe that my life does not end with my final earthly breath? Do I believe that my life is destined to go on, forever? Do I believe that I will have to give an account of my life at that time, before God at my particular judgment, before the universe on the last day at the resurrection of the dead? Does how I live my life correspond to what I say I believe?