Today’s gospel reading may seem arcane at best and ludicrous at worst. Yet it is serious and raises a crucial question for both the Jews and Christians: “What happens to the good person after death?”
The Sadducees did not believe in immortality in the Greek sense of the word. The Greek belief that a purely spiritual soul was separated from the person at death to exist independently for all eternity was incomprehensible. Like the Pharisees they thought that humanity required having a body. Unlike the Pharisees the Sadducees did not believe that our body was resurrected, which our first reading showed meant restored and returned to the person at “the end of the world”, but held that the person lived on in their families. That is why a brother had to marry a deceased brother’s wife if she was childless. The deceased brother could live on only in his children. We laugh as one brother after another married this unfortunate woman but for them it was not a laughing matter at all. They may have desired to put Jesus on the spot but it was not done frivolously.
If people of our time were to object to a rather literal understanding of the resurrection of the Body, we would mostly ask where would all the people be put. They would take up too much space. That was not a pressing issue for the Sadducees. They were more concerned about community. The legitimacy that marriage provided for lineage was the most important issue. When Jesus says that in the coming age people neither marry nor are given in marriage he is challenging their beliefs to their core. Why should they believe him, indeed why should we?
St Luke’s answer is fascinating and beautifully crafted.
After Jesus’ execution, Mary Magdalene and the other women go to the tomb and discover that it is empty. Two men in dazzling garments tell them that He is risen as hH said. What this means is revealed to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They meet Jesus and do not in any way think He is a ghost or spirit. He reveals himself to them and then disappears. He reappears seemingly out of nowhere as they were telling their story to the apostles in the upper room. He is not a ghost nor is he a zombie: He has a real body, He is risen.
It could seem as this is a nice way for Jesus to tell us that He has won and that we should follow him here so that we can also be risen and to go to heaven. True enough, but insufficient and no Jew would have made that mistake. That Jesus has been risen NOW means that the new world he promised has begun NOW. There are consequences not only in how we are to act, but why.
Matthew and Mark as well as Luke tell us that Jesus has come to bring the Kingdom. The Kingdom is harmony between god and humankind, among all people and with nature. It begins with his resurrection. It will not be completed on earth but it is our task to make it as present as we can here and now. The Kingdom is not made real by our eloquence but by our actions.
We have a perfect example of this with the recently concluded synod on the Amazon. The church called Bishops but also lay leaders to Rome to discuss the needs of this important region. Disharmony reigns on every level. The Amazon is the lungs of the world and is being destroyed by carelessness and greed. This is maintained by an unjust use of power that has reduced many indigenous people to virtual slavery. The church is the only institution capable of combating it but because of lack of access to the Eucharist, antiquated notions of leadership and a failure to use the actual cultural expressions of the people, the church discovered that she too needs reform. The demands of the kingdom are immediate because Christ IS risen here and now and here and now we are called to manifest our rebirth.
Too often envisioning the afterlife can become a parlor game. This is pointless and unscriptural: St Paul tells us:
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9)
Paul also tells us: ”But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 15:20)
We must then ask if we have been raised with him what fruits of the Kingdom have been born through us.