Over many years of teaching Scripture, I've found that when people actually read the sacred text, they make a fascinating discovery: The bible authors say very little about life after physical death.

As a child, like most Christians, I was taught that the only thing we should worry about in this life is eventually getting into heaven. Few of my teachers realized that more than 90 percent of the Hebrew Scriptures was composed by people of faith who knew nothing about a heaven or hell.

The idea of afterlife, as we know it today, doesn't become part of Jewish faith until a century before Jesus' birth. Yet, even though Jesus believed a new, unique life awaits us after death, He didn't say nearly as much about it as we, without reading the Gospels, presume He did.

Because He was a good Jew, Jesus primarily conveyed a message that helped His followers live their natural lives in the most fulfilling and psychologically rewarding way possible.

Peace promised

Zechariah, ministering without a belief in an afterlife, zeroes in on that message in the first reading (Zech 9: 9-10): "He (Yahweh) shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem." Since both chariots and horses are weapons of war, the prophet proclaims that Yahweh will bring peace to Israel.

But, he then goes beyond guaranteeing security just to Jews: "The warrior's bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth."

Like all biblical authors, Zechariah believes no life is worth living if it can't be experienced in a peaceful environment.

Jesus agreed. But, in Sunday's Gospel (Mt 11: 25-30), He shows His amazement that very few people buy into His plan to bring about such peace and that those who do so aren't individuals whom the world regards to be wise and sophisticated. His well-known words echo in our ears: "I give praise to you, Father Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, you have revealed them to little ones."

Yet, before we jump to the conclusion that "these things" are just intellectual concepts, Jesus quickly adds, "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

Life to come

As consoling as those words are, we frequently overlook the fact that Jesus still expects us to shoulder His yoke and carry the burden of dying along with Him, so that we can also experience the life He experienced.

This is precisely the issue Paul addresses in the second reading (Rom 8: 9, 11-13). The Apostle presumes we who "are in the Spirit" are constantly struggling with "the flesh:" the earthly part of our existence. Only when we accept the burden and yoke of living our daily lives as the Spirit guides us, do we achieve real life right here and now.

As Paul puts it, "If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through His Spirit that dwells in you."

Paul certainly believes the Spirit-driven life we achieve now will continue into eternity. But, he's convinced it must begin long before we step into eternity: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."

(6/30/05)