He is God of the living

December 13, 2012

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 22:23-33.

On that day Sadducees approached him, saying that there is no resurrection. They put this question to him, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. Finally the woman died. Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they had all been married to her.” Jesus said to them in reply, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

The Sadducees were the priestly class in Israel and accepted only the Pentateuch, the Torah, as God’s revealed truth and, thus, the foundation of their belief system, unlike the Pharisees who had developed an extensive texts of interpretations and regulations by which to live them out. The idea of the resurrection was a relatively new concept for the Jews. It was the Pharisees who believed in the resurrection of the body while the Greeks (Gentiles) believed in the immortality of the soul. The New American Bible notes refer to the Book of Daniel as its source: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” The Book of Daniel is part of the apocalyptic literature, written after the prophetic books and drawing from those teachings. Daniel was written during the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes around 167-164 B.C.E. to comfort the Jews during this time of adversity by assuring them that God would ultimately rescue His people. It is in Daniel that the vision of the Son of Man is described, which Jesus uses as a title for himself. The Jews of Jesus’ time would have identified closely with Daniel as they, too, lived in a time of adversity and subjugation.

In his reply Jesus referenced the episode in Exodus when Moses approached the burning bush and God told him to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. God told Moses that He was the God of the patriarchs long dead. Though dead, Jesus told the Sadducees that they lived on in God; they are spirit. The resurrected are not bodily; they have no sexual desire; they are not bound in marriage or probably any other relationships. They are like the angels who serve God. However, according to the Catholic Dictionary, the Sadducees did not believe in angels.

Jesus had the habit of telling all the religious authorities — the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes, the elders, the chief priest — that they were misled. They neither fully comprehended the scriptures nor did they wholly acknowledge the power of God. That is equally true of us today; we are no more understanding because the mind and power of God are beyond us.

This idea, indeed promise, of the resurrection is perplexing. Both the Hebrew and the Greek Bibles are ambiguous about the nature of the resurrection. So it was surprising to me to learn that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 C.E. concluded, “All will rise with their own proper bodies which they now bear.” According to the Catholic Dictionary, Thomas Aquinas went so far as to say, “It is heretical to deny the numerical [meaning similar or identical] identity of the body which dies and rises again.”

I like the way A New Catechism explains our resurrection, “Our Lord means that there is something of man, that which is most properly himself, which can be saved after death. This ‘something’ is not the body which is left behind….This body of the resurrection is not molecules which are buried and scattered in the earth…Man begins to awake as a new man….The ‘how’ is unknown….And it is just as well that we cannot express precisely the greatness of God’s promise.” I like it because it seems honest to me. We don’t know because the scriptures don’t tell us specifically. Like much of our faith, it is a mystery.

In discussing resurrection on the last day it goes on to state, “All men will then rise again like our Lord. The new birth will be completed. The Bible speaks, in splendid imagery, of the dead coming up out of the earth. This does not mean that the molecules of which our body was once formed will be reorganized as at the hour of our death. It is not a matter of reconstituting our earthly body….What takes place is the perfecting of our spiritual body, of which Paul speaks ardently and at great length in 1Corinthians 15:31-50, showing that we must not think of the resurrection as a return to the flesh and blood of our mortal frame. Our present body is only a prefiguration of the great reality: ‘What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.’ We are not to think so much of the biological body as of the body which has the life of the new creation. The biblical phrase ‘coming out of the grave’ means that we shall be our own selves — the same as before, but with a difference, just as Jesus after his resurrection was the same, but also different, so that his Apostles knew that it was the Lord, but did not recognize him at first.”

Lastly, we are not to be so concerned about the future, about our resurrection in whatever form and manner that may be. “Paul reminds us that we already begin to be one with Christ, the risen Lord, through our baptism, and that we are therefore already dead and risen in a certain sense. ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is his with Christ in God’ Colossians 3:2-3. There is a profound consolation in the truth that the new life begins in us because we have died with Christ. It is a life stronger than death. It is a life which proceeds from death. Hence it is also relevant to the ‘dying a little’ which constantly happens us in the midst of this life — in disappointments, misfortunes, illnesses, losses and farewells. It means that this daily dying, accepted in the spirit of Christ, is also full of hope. Through God’s power, each of our losses enshrines the beginning of resurrection, a hidden fruitfulness for ourselves and others.”

So, as Jesus tells us, our God is God of the living, not the dead. Life in the here and now and life everlasting in His kingdom.




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