Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Long Arms of God (32nd Sunday—Cycle C)


2 Maccabees 7: 1–14
2 Thessalonians 2:16–3:5
Luke 20:27–38
Our first reading is about seven sons who die unspeakable deaths. Our third reading is about seven brothers who all have the same wife. Wow! Who says scripture doesn’t make for good reading?
2 Maccabees 7 relates the story of a mother and her seven sons. This book is in the Greek Old Testament for Catholics and Orthodox, what is formally known as the Septuagint, but Protestants in general do not consider it to be scripture because it’s not from the Hebrew canon. That’s a shame because they miss the allusion that the Sadducees make in Luke’s gospel to what would have been a well-known story to many of the Greek-speaking Jews of Jesus’ time—a story about Jewish patriots.
The woman and her seven sons are being impelled to violate the tenets of their faith for no other reason than to allow the King to demonstrate his power. They refuse to acquiesce despite the force of the King’s authority because they follow God’s law, and they willingly accept the consequences because they believe that God will raise them from the dead and reward them. The sixth son, whose words are not part of this reading today, proclaims as his end nears,
“Do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!”
These seven sons and their mother have been celebrated as martyrs for their faith since the early days of the Church.
Their courage contrasts dramatically with my own. Paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor, I’ll just say that I could be a martyr… if they killed me quickly.
Let’s leave aside that we might consider the restriction on eating pork as an unimportant law. The word in Hebrew for such laws is mitzvah for one or mitzvot for more than one. This word means commandment, and the Torah details 613 of them, like the ones we acknowledge in the Decalogue (that’s a fancy word we have for the 10 commandments). To a Jew, holding each of these 613 mitzvot is a way to express gratitude and love to God. They live the law as a way of giving God their assent, their “yes.” By saying “no” to an easy temptation, they were saying “yes” to the God of the universe.
We don’t really think of the moral commands in that way: that saying “no” to sex outside of marriage, to contraception within marriage, to lying, or to any other sin is really a “yes” to God, or that saying “yes” to sin is saying “no” to God. But our bodies and our mouths tell the truth. What we agree to do and what we refuse to do, these choices are our response to God. Virtue is a way of saying “yes” to God. Sin is a way of saying “no” to God. It’s as simple as that.
We do have Divine help in our choices, if we only accept it. The grace we receive in baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist can strengthen us,
if we let it.
Paul tells us in the second letter to the Thessalonians that “the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” We have the grace to rely on God’s strength, but we have to allow it to work in us.
I will be the first to acknowledge that I try to go it alone way too often, and that route so frequently ends in frustration. Have you ever had one of those conversations with God where you are trying to explain your thought process to God…
To God, who knows you better than you know yourself?
And then you catch yourself and have one of those facepalm moments?
I was going to say, “Neither do I,” but I would be fibbing.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is speaking to the Sadducees, the priestly caste of Jerusalem, who were attempting to trap Jesus in this controversy about eternal life. The Sadducees only accepted the five books of the Torah and rejected the other Old Testament texts, including 2 Maccabees, which we read first today. That book and many of the books of the Old Testament indicated that God would raise up the faithful in the last days.
The Sadducees rejected the belief in eternal life,
which made them sad, you see?
I swiped that joke from Jeff Cavins, so I have to give him credit for it.
There are two ironies in this gospel story. First, as Jesus points out, the Sadducees don’t even know their own scripture. Jewish Rabbis were very particular in how they handled every word, every letter of scripture. When Jesus said in Matthew 5 that not a jot or tittle of the Law would pass away, he was emphasizing that every mark, every word, and every letter mattered. So when he says that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the Living because the words from Exodus are in present tense, he is not splitting hairs. He’s arguing the way rabbis always argued about the Word of God. The Sadducees who were very literal in their reading of scripture didn’t understand the obvious implications of the very literal words.
The second irony is that the Sadducees are unknowingly arguing with God. They’re trying to convince God that they’re right about the truth. They’re telling the Word Incarnate what the word of God means. They’re ridiculing the Author of Life while the Author of Life wrote the rules by which the Sadducees claimed to live. Of course, the Sadducees didn’t know who Jesus was, so we have to give them a bit of a break.
But what’s our excuse? How often do we do the very same thing? Argue with God about what’s true? About whether what we’re doing is according to His plan or according to our own?
We tend to read our preferences into scripture, to impose our understanding on the readings from mass, and to split hairs where the Church doesn’t give us much hair to split. But understand that Jesus was not joking when He told Peter and the Apostles that they had the power to bind and loose. Jesus was not misspeaking when He said to the Apostles in the Gospel of John, “He who accepts you, accepts me.” He left us a Church to guide us in our lives, and in our understanding of Scripture and of God’s will, but we too often treat the Church’s teachings as if they are one big “No”—
a “no” to all those things that seem like fun,
a “no” to all those things that our culture tells us to put first,
and a “no” to the so-called good life—living for myself, living the dream, living to find my destiny.
In reality, the Church’s teachings are one big “Yes”—a “yes” to God, a “yes” to abundant life, and a “yes” to life everlasting. Accepting God’s will is accepting to be who God made you to be.
When we choose to live by our own rules rather than God’s plan, things turn out about the way we should expect. I can personally attest to that. We can fight God all we like and protest about our freedom, but God made us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
Our arms are too short to box with God,*
and His arms are long enough to wrap us up and embrace us until we stop fighting Him.

*I've heard this statement from a number of sources, so I'm not sure whom to credit with it. However, apparently it's now the title of a Broadway musical.
 
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