The first (II Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14) and third readings (Luke 20:27-38) this Sunday are united not only by "seven brothers," but also by both authors' belief in an afterlife.

We who believe in a life beyond this one often presume that all the authors of Scripture did also. While the Christian authors did, only a few of the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures did.

Such a concept doesn't enter Jewish thought until a little over 100 years before Jesus' birth.

Evolving idea

Nowhere in the Torah -- the Bible's first five books -- does anyone refer to an afterlife as we know it. That seems to be why some Christian theologians later developed the idea that "the gates of heaven were closed" after Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree.

Not realizing that concepts of heaven evolved only centuries after the two Genesis creation myths were composed, they presumed the Torah writers didn't mention heaven because people couldn't get into heaven.

Even after some Pharisees began to develop the idea that those who formed a relationship with Yahweh in this life would deepen that relationship in the next life, a large number of Jews still maintained this was the only life we'd ever experience. Some of these belonged to a religious faction called Sadducees: arch-conservative Jews rarely mentioned in the Christian Scriptures.

It's significant that the Gospel this week includes an encounter that revolves around the issue of the afterlife. The Sadducees' question is logical: "In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?"

Jesus first responds by assuring them that eternal life won't be an eternal extension of this life. Those who attain that existence "neither marry nor are given in marriage." (What answer would you give an unborn fetus who asks how she can attend college connected to her mother by an umbilical cord? We're dealing with something we've yet to experience in the way we'll experience it.)

Second, knowing that the Sadducees' Bible comprises only the Torah, Jesus argues from one of those five books. Referring to Moses's burning bush encounter with Yahweh, He zeroes in on how God identifies Himself: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob."

Jesus presumes that, if those three patriarchs weren't still alive when Yahweh talked to Moses (more than 500 years after their deaths), Yahweh would say, "I was the God of Abraham" and so on. There must be a heaven if, at the time of Moses, these three pillars of Judaism continue to relate to God.

God of life

Jesus' key argument comes at the end: "God is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive." God's true followers continually grow in their understanding and experience of what it means to be alive in God. Jesus presumes this evolution is an essential part of faith.

Before Maccabees, faithful people limited their idea of the life God offers to this life alone. After that period, they could state, "The king of the world will raise us up to live again forever." Quite a sea change!

But, as we hear in the second reading (II Thessalonians 2:16-3:5), Jesus adds another dimension to our life in God: our dying and rising makes us one with Him not only in heaven, but also now. Jesus is "directing our hearts" in both of these experiences.

Just as we're constantly expected to learn new ways to die with Jesus, we're also expected to constantly surface new ways to live with Jesus.

(11/08/07)