Tuesday, June 2, 2009

11-11-2007: 32nd Ordinary Time

2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14/Psalm 17/2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5/Luke 20:27-38
John Lennon was no doubt reflecting a sort of Buddhist mantra when he wrote Imagine, as in

Imagine there’s no heaven/ it’s easy if you try
No hell below us/ above us only sky.

But he could easily be also placed in that camp of long-defunct Sadducees who make mockery of any belief in an afterlife when they confront Jesus in today's gospel, about the woman who buried seven husbands, with the question: Which one will she be spending eternity with? (Though there’s the real possibility that a woman who buried seven husbands may not want to spend another day with any of them).

We know so little about the Sadducees, save for the fact that they made up the bulk of the priestly class – an inherited priesthood. The conservative party in the Judaism of Jesus’ time, they sought to preserve the status quo less anyone upset their monopoly on the Temple sacrifice, which made them wealthy and powerful – even in an occupied land like Palestine. Their Bible was limited to the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament. And since there was no mention of heaven in those scriptures, the Sadducees scoffed at the thought of an afterlife. This, in sharp contrast to Jesus and the Pharisees who believed in the unseen world of spirits and preached reward and punishment in a life to come.

Despite John Lennon, imagining there’s no heaven didn’t bring the Sadducees much peace or tranquility, nor did it lead them to transcend their national identity. In fact, the Sadducees embodied Jewish nationalism, especially in the person of the High Priest who wielded more direct power and authority than Emperor or magistrate.

Those with power and wealth, who exercise influence and authority over others, are precisely the ones who don’t need to believe in a heaven, and certainly don’t want to acknowledge a hell. The disenfranchised on the other hand are the ones who need something more than this life to place their hope in. In this sense Karl Marx was on to something when he claimed that religion was the opium of the people, suppressing the need to revolt against the establishment with the promise of heavenly recompense.

This scenario might apply to many in today’s third world, though for us there’s another aspect to heaven besides retribution or recompense - the longing for loved ones we miss, reunions with parents, spouses, and children who have gone before us in death. Heroin might be a more apt metaphor than plain old opium in expressing the power of this promise - it’s just so understandable. It’s what plays out at funerals and when we remember the dead as we do during the month of November. Every culture seems to express this hope, even Buddhists – especially Buddhists – though, according to Hoyle, they shouldn’t be focusing on an afterlife at all.

And for us Christians? Karl Rahner, theologian, suggested that until Christian theology discovers a more meaningful way to talk about the Last Things, few will genuinely believe, though most will give themselves over to fantasy. After all, how does Jesus respond to the Sadducees in today’s gospel? He doesn’t say the woman will be with any of her husbands, but will be like the angels with no need of companionship (that wouldn’t go over big with Islamic suicide bombers seeking to spend eternity with the promised seventy-two virgins). But, then again, Jesus is sparring with his opponents. By answering their sarcastic scenario with recourse to angels – something the Sadducees likewise denied – Jesus was sticking it to them. But perhaps he is doing the same with us, replacing the appeal of a saccharine eternity with a genuine sense of adventure. Imagine all the people/ living for today, à la John Lennon. Or William Blake’s take on seeing a world in a grain of sand/ and a heaven in a wild flower/ hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour. Imagine. Can you?

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