2 MACCABEES 7:1-2, 9-14 | 2 THESSALONIANS 2:16-3:5 | LUKE 20:27-28, 34-38
In all honesty, I completely understand if you think that this is a “who cares” gospel passage. Jesus and the Sadducees (whoever they are) are arguing with Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus finds a way to shut them up, and this makes the scribes (whoever they are) happy. Basta! Let’s move on to the next chapter. But I see an opportunity here to learn more about the world Jesus lived in and had to negotiate.
Also, what Jesus is teaching is pertinent today. I know quite a few Catholics who don’t believe in an afterlife. Think of the Catholic cultures that carry out lifelong mourning customs. A good example is the millions of widows who wear black for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t give testimony to a joyful afterlife with God. Let’s find out who the players are in this scene. Who are the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes?
The Pharisees weren’t a political party. They were content with any government that allowed them to carry on with their religious observances. When it came to doctrine, the Pharisees accepted all the scriptures, the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, and the writings of the prophets. They also accepted as doctrine the thousands of regulations and rules that had been passed on orally over the centuries. They held on dearly to the ceremonial laws such as the sabbath regulations and hand washings. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels and spirits. They hoped for the coming of a messiah who would begin a golden age for Israel.
The Sadducees were the rich aristocrats of the Jewish world. Many of them were also priests. To maintain their wealth and social status they collaborated with the Roman occupation. They rejected the thought of a coming Messiah because it would certainly have overturned their privileged life style. Religiously, they accepted as doctrine only the Law of Moses, not the prophets. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, no spirits and no angels.
The scribes were the professional lawyers. It was their
duty to know the scriptures – every chapter and verse, and memorized the oral tradition. They drafted legal documents such a marriage contracts, divorce decrees, loans, inheritances, mortgages and the sale of property. They literally copied the law, and during the time of the prophets also served as personal secretaries. If anyone had a question about the law, they asked a scribe for an answer. Philosophically, they tended to link themselves with the Pharisees.
In today’s gospel passage we see the Sadducees ganging up on Jesus, the latest messianic figure to appear in Israel. They brought up an outdated, and no longer practiced law, Deuteronomy 25: 5-6. “When brothers live together, and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family; but her husband’s brother shall go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, that his name not be blotted out from Israel.”
They contrived a situation in which seven brothers were forced to marry their deceased brother’s widow, but each of them died before providing the widow with a son. Their question, attacking the notion of an afterlife, asked which of all these brothers would be the widow’s official husband in heaven. The question was meant to be a mockery of the thought of afterlife, but Jesus decided to answer them. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but 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.” He then backed up what he said with a reference to the book of Exodus (Ex 3:6) in which God identified himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for in him all are alive.” I hope that my short explanation of the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes will be helpful when you read the New Testament. It’s important to understand the religious and political tensions that surrounded Jesus. It helps us achieve a deeper insight into his teachings. Also, I encourage you to think about Jesus’ message to the Sadducees. What’s your understanding and beliefs regarding resurrection and afterlife? As we move through Fall, the Sunday liturgies give us many Gospel passages that encourage our reflection on death and afterlife. In today’s passage, Jesus said that we become children of God when we pass over. He also said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” But what do teachings like these mean to you, personally?
WISDOM 11:22-12-:2 | 2 THESSALONIANS 1:11-2:2 | LUKE 19:1-10
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the people of Jericho, and the many traders and merchants who pass through with their goods, because he’s the city’s tax collector. We’re told that he’s “a wealthy man,” which is a nice way of saying he’s an extortionist. Being a tax collector under the Roman occupation, he’s labeled a traitor and a thief, and is shunned by the city’s population.
Before we go on with the story, let’s get a better picture of this important town. Jericho lies about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It’s an ancient city going back as far as 9,000 BC. It’s an oasis and enjoys the title, “the city of palms.” Because of its mild weather and beautiful springs, it attracts the rich and powerful. Herod has a summer palace there, and many wealthy people from Jerusalem have villas there. It’s also important because the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jordan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the empire.
Because Jericho is home to the rich and famous, celebrity seekers and the curious tend to mill along the roads entering and leaving the city. Beggars line the roads, too. Jesus, on his approach to Jericho that day, met a blind man who begged him to restore his sight. “Jesus told him, ‘Have sight; your faith has saved you.’ He immediately received his sight and followed Jesus, giving glory to God.” This new follower is among the crowd when Jesus enters the city and meets up with Zacchaeus.
Here’s the picture. Jesus of Nazareth, a well know personality in the Jewish world, has just entered the city after curing a blind man. There’s a noisy and sizable crowd following him. Zacchaeus sees the crowd approaching, and wants to get a glimpse of Jesus. But being too short to see over the crowd, and probably being elbowed by people who wanted to keep him away, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to get a good view of the healer from Nazareth. Lo and behold, when Jesus comes to the sycamore he stops. He looks up. Seeing little Zacchaeus hanging on to the branches, he says the most remarkable thing:
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay in your home.”
People hate Zacchaeus. He’s lived a life of corruption. He’s wealthy, but so what. He’s an outcast to his own people. Only his fellow outcasts, sinners and tax collectors, socialize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to go to his home! From this moment on, Zacchaeus’ life will never be the same.
Immediately, the crowd begins to grumble because Jesus has invited himself to a sinner’s home, but little Zacchaeus stands up to them. Climbing down from the tree, he makes a public confession by announcing the amends he will make for his sins. “Behold, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I will repay it four-times over.” Without any hesitation Jesus gives him absolution. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” He then reasserts Zacchaeus into the community. He tells the crowd, “This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus follows this up with an important universal teaching. He announces to the crowd that, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
We mustn’t forget this teaching. Each of us, at one time or another, will find ourselves up a tree, in spiritual crisis. We might feel that we’re trapped in a life with no direction, no future. Asking God for help isn’t enough to change things. Sometimes we have to claim our part in creating the crisis, and we have to take aggressive steps to change. It’s never easy.
The blind man on the road to Jericho shouted out into the darkness that he wanted to see. Jesus heard him, recognized the depth of his faith, and announced his cure. Zacchaeus had extorted the merchants, and betrayed his people. The day Jesus came to town, his faith gave him the courage to publically confess his sins, and make amends to the community. By getting out on a limb, he was finally able to see Jesus. He took a chance, and Jesus entered his life that day.
The message for us is quite simple. Take a chance. Go out on a limb. It’s an important part of our spiritual lives. It can bring us healing. It can bring us a new life.
SIRACH 35:12-14, 16-18 | 2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8, 16-18 | LUKE 18:9-14
We’re continuing our reflection on prayer this week. Last week’s gospel passage was a teaching about the efficacy of stamina in prayer – never give up. In this week’s passage, Jesus spun another parable exposing a serious blockage to prayer’s efficacy. It’s about two men praying in the temple.
One was an ultra-orthodox Pharisee. The literal meaning of the word Pharisee is: “one who is separated.” The members of this religious sect saw themselves as separate from the rest of humanity because of the depth of their commitment to the minutiae of the law. This Pharisee’s commitment was impressive. He fasted twice a week. Jewish law prescribed only one obligatory fast day, Yom Kippur. He gave tithes on everything he owned. The law prescribed tithing only produce. The Pharisee’s prayer that day consisted of reminding God how he stood apart from the rest of humanity. He even looked with disgust at the tax collector who was praying near him. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”
The tax collector’s prayer was very different. He “would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner.’” In fact, a more accurate translation of the tax collector’s prayer would be: “O God, be merciful to me THE sinner.”
The Pharisee’s prayer boasted of his elevated status among other Jews because he fasted more often and more intensely, and because he tithed more lavishly than the ordinary people. The Pharisee wore his religion on his sleeve, and he was damn proud of himself! He wasn’t praying. He was boasting.
In the eyes of his fellow Jews, the tax collector was judged as a national traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. He most likely, as was all too common in Jesus’ day, extorted more than enough money to cover the tax to Rome. The extra money went into his pocket. Rome didn’t care as long as the taxes kept flowing in. His prayer came from a heart full of sorrow and contrition. He stood alone and naked before God – he was THE sinner. He gave no excuses. He simply stood before God in humility and sorrow.
The parable told us that the tax collector was justified; the Pharisee was not. In other words, the tax collector was healed – his spirit was redirected toward the divine life. The Pharisee left the temple bloated by his own self-importance and spiritual narcissism.
Jesus was teaching us that fruitful prayer must be honest prayer. We can not, and should not, ever compare our spiritual lives to others. When we pray, we need not hide anything from ourselves or God. When we pray openly and honestly, we expose our weaknesses, our strengths, our joys, our sorrows, our successes and our failures.
An open heart is the path to God, and God’s path to us. That’s what it means to be justified to take the life-long journey of spiritual healing.
EXODUS 17:8-13 | 2 TIMOTHY 3:14-4:2. | LUKE 18:1-8
We have another parable for our reflection today. Right up front, we’re given an interpretation. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” We then go on to hear of a widow who’s nagging a corrupt judge to render a just decision regarding her case. We have to remember that in Jesus’ day the Roman judges in Palestine were generally corrupt. Being a poor widow, she wouldn’t have the money to pay him off, so she nagged him so much, and with such intensity that, fearing for his safety, he rendered a just decision for her.
OK. When you’re praying FOR something, never give up. The parable is teaching us that God WILL answer your prayer. But don’t you find it strange how Jesus concluded this teaching? “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I thought about this a lot. A memory came to me that I’d like to share with you.
My uncle never married and lived with his mother his entire life. He was alcoholic. My grandmother prayed for him every day. I know she did because she asked me to pray for him, too. She had tremendous faith. She went to Mass every day and often brought me to rosary and benediction in the afternoon. God was her rock, the solid foundation she stood on. Two weeks after she died at the age of 78, her son died. Did God answer her prayers?
I look at it this way. My grandmother was a pillar of strength. She prayed. She wept. She never gave up on God. Her faith in God kept her going and kept her strong. She was the pillar her son clung to for many years of his life though he would never had admitted it. She died a valiant woman. My uncle died a son who never lost his mother’s love. My uncle died healed and redeemed by that love.
God’s love is a mystery. When our faith compels us to pray for one another, to pray for peace, to pray for healing, we dip our hands into that mystery. We sign ourselves with it. That’s the faith the son of Man will search out. That’s the faith that redeems the world.