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The 32rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Heaven and Hell

November 6, 2010

Opening prayer – All good and gracious God, your Son, Jesus Christ, triumphed over the powers of death and prepared a place for us in heaven. Bless us who gather this day to give you thanks for his resurrection and bestow on us the gift that someday we may praise you with all the angels and saints in that glorious place called heaven where Jesus lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

What word or phrase touched you in today’s readings?

What questions does this liturgy raise for you, or what stands out for you?

As the liturgical year draws to a close, the readings invite us to reflect on the transitory nature of human life and the destiny of eternal life that awaits us. We call this concern with the “end times” and life after death “eschatology.” … The first reading was chosen for today’s liturgy less to extol the brothers’ heroic determination to faithfully follow God’s law and more to proclaim the brothers’ belief that they will “live again forever.” That’s what connects this reading to the Gospel. However, the brothers’ conviction that they will live again is demonstrated through their willingness to suffer and die. (LTP)

The two books of Maccabees are in the Catholic Bible, and we regard them as sacred texts. (They were removed from the Protestant Bible by Martin Luther.) The books reference the tumultuous times of the second century before Christ. Following the colonization by the Greeks of the known world surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, the Greek language, religion and culture dominated these regions. The century following the death of Alexander the Great witnessed the division of his empire and a family, Seleucids, ruled the Middle East. About 167 B.C., the Seleucid emperor, Anticohus Epiphanes, in an effort to strengthen his control over the conquered peoples, demanded that everyone adopt the Greek way of life. The story of the seven brothers and their mother enduring torture and scourging and even death demonstrates their great faith. The mother and brothers are examples for all Jews to follow. Their refusing to eat pork symbolizes their refusing to give up their faith. (RCL)

The First Reading – 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14

It happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king, to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law. One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to achieve by questioning us?  We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

At the point of death he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.  It is for his laws that we are dying.”

After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put out his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these;
for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.” Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way. When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”

And the story goes on until the king and his executioners kill the whole family. This family refused to break the laws of their faith, and they know that death in this world is not the end of their existence. They displayed great courage in not giving in to the promises of this world.

What do you think of the courage they displayed?

What does this demonstration tell us about their faith?

In your lives today, what would you be willing to die for?

In what ways have we been tested?

On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), where would we mark the importance of our faith when faced with such a test?

Would our faith be stronger if we knew our choice would lead to immediate death or do we find choosing to be faithful more difficult in the day-to-day living of faith?

What does the example of the seven brothers and their mother teach us?

How are Christians today challenged to not give up their beliefs, and what are the costs of being faithful to the teachings of our faith? (RCL)

The last sentence of today’s reading from 2 Maccabees mentions the “resurrection to life.” We believe in life after death. The body dies and the soul lives on. The question is where will it live, heaven or hell? God promises us heaven if we hold up our end of the bargain; if we follow his law. We can freely choose not to follow his law though, but we won’t receive the promise of heaven then; hell is our final destination. How we live our lives today determines our eternal destiny.

What does it mean to follow God’s law? For the Jews in Maccabees, it was the Mosaic Law, as outlined in the Old Testament. For Christians, it’s Jesus’ commandment to love one another as he loves us. If we have the gift of faith, we need to respond. We need to love God and love our neighbor, which means performing acts of charity and acts of mercy.

In what ways does God’s promise influence our decisions about how we live?

Spend some time in quiet reflecting on the commandment of love that Jesus gave to us. Reflect also on how committed we are to making Christ and his commandment the goal of our lives. (RCL)

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The Responsorial Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15

R. (15b) Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.
Hear, O LORD, a just suit; attend to my outcry;
hearken to my prayer from lips without deceit.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.
My steps have been steadfast in your paths, my feet have not faltered.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my word.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.
Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shadow of your wings.
But I in justice shall behold your face; on waking I shall be content in your presence.
R. Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.

This psalm is the lament of one who is unjustly accused. The excerpts sung in today’s liturgy both celebrate steadfastness in being faithful to the ways of God (such as the first reading illustrated), and express confidence in a future meeting with God. Probably the individual in the psalm expects to “wake” in God’s presence because he has spent the night in the temple awaiting an answer to his prayer for justice, but in the context of today’s liturgy we are plainly intended to read this as an illusion to the resurrection. (RCL)

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Today’s second reading from St. Paul is a peaceful interlude in the liturgy of the Word compared to the first reading and the Gospel.

The Second Reading – 2 Thessalonians 2:16 – 3:5

Brothers and sisters: May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.

(This statement is a genuine request for prayer, not for Paul himself, but for the spread of the Gospel.) Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified, as it did among you, and that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people (those who work against the Gospel), for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.  We are confident of you in the Lord that what we instruct you, you are doing and will continue to do.  May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ.

The Thessalonians had expected Christ’s second coming within their lifetimes. But the Parousia (the second coming) was obviously delayed and so the early Christians had to figure out how to live as Christians until Jesus did return. (LTP) The remainder of the Letter to the Thessalonians helps to show them how to live faithfully in this world, and to give them the confidence that God is always with them.

Today we are offered encouragement that though we will most certainly meet opposition, though people of narrow vision and evil intent will work against us, we need not worry about getting the job done, because the job is really not our doing in the first place. It is the “word of the Lord” that must make progress, not us. Our chief task is to remain faithful, to believe and do what we can, trusting that God will somehow bring about the kingdom despite what we are unable to do. (LTP)

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As Catholics we have faith in the resurrection. What is most significant for us this Sunday in the first reading is the brother’s profession of faith in a resurrection from the dead. This belief in a personal resurrection did not appear in Judaism until about 200 BC. As it is presented here, the wicked will perish, and only the just will be raised. The Gospel is also concerned about death and life. The Sadducees, a conservative group, accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and did not believe in angels or the resurrection of the dead. The question they pose to Jesus is their attempt to discredit him and his teachings. Jesus turns the question from a legal riddle to a question of the identity and works of God himself. This particular episode is one of a series that illustrates how the narrow conceptions of the Sadducees, and their concerns about progeny, clan and inheritance, prove inadequate to receiving the Messiah and his affirmation of life after death. (RCL)

The Gospel – Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman but died childless. Then the second and the third married her, and likewise all the seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.” Jesus said to 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.  That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called out ‘Lord, ‘ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

The religious leaders never tired of setting traps for him and Jesus never failed to elude them. Probably frustrated, they come to try again and if ever their motives are transparent it is here. Whose wife will she be? It’s a good scheme guaranteed to engage the imagination of the crowd and to force Jesus into a corner where he’ll have to offend some faction. But though the story in contrived and farfetched, the leaders are seeking to do more than just entrap and ridicule Jesus. The Sadducees are very interested in their question because they think it illustrates the absurdity of belief in an afterlife. They aren’t being overly sinister here; Jesus’ opponents aren’t caricatures, an important theological question is being debated.  Unlike the Pharisees who believed in the in Resurrection, the Sadducees rejected that notion. They want this obviously fictitious story to sound credible so it will engage Jesus and the crowd. Imagine yourself preparing to debate an issue and designing a fool-proof argument that will annihilate your opponent. That’s what the leaders think they’ve done.  (LTP)

Jesus responds, instructing the crowd as well as the Sadducees. He turns their use of scripture against them by referring to Moses and the bush. If Moses calls the Lord the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” then these patriarchs must somehow be alive. Jesus asserts two teachings: death alters life so radically that old categories no longer apply, and God is Lord of the living, not the dead. His well developed contrasts indicate Jesus’ investment in the debate. (LTP)

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Catholic Teaching

We believe that death is not an end, but a threshold, and it is over this threshold that we pass into a life beyond this earthly existence. Catholic teaching holds that there are three distinct modes of existence in the next life, and we identify the places where these modes are experienced as heaven, purgatory and hell. Today we discuss heaven and hell. (RCL)

Complete the following statements:

The resurrection is….

Heaven is…

Hell is….

What or who has influenced your understanding on these topics?

Have you thought about it much?

Some words that Catholics use to describe heaven are: beatific vision, eternal banquet, paradise, eternal life.

Some words we use to describe hell are: eternal damnation, fires of Gehenna, inferno.

What do these words say about heaven and hell?

Based on the above pictures of heaven and hell, what else would you include? Exclude?

Free Will

Each and every one of us has the free will to either accept God’s loving offer of eternal life (heaven) or to reject his offer (hell). No one is predestined by God to hell. Heaven is the reward of all who are faithful to living a moral life, that is, practicing love of God and love of neighbor as found in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Hell is the punishment of all who willfully choose to completely sever their relationship with God. (RCL)

Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy (from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10198d.htm)

Mercy as it is here contemplated is said to be a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune.

The traditional enumeration of the corporal works of mercy is as follows:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbour the harbourless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

The spiritual works of mercy are:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

God created all things good, as is proclaimed in the Book of Genesis. Sin entered the world through the free choice of Adam and Eve. Jesus Christ redeemed all of us for heaven but each person must freely choose to accept this redemption and to live their lives in accord with the teachings of Christ. (RCL)

Let’s revisit this exercise:

The resurrection is….

Heaven is…

Hell is….

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Putting Faith Into Practice

Recall our first reading today from 2 Maccabees, and ponder the faith of the brothers and their mother and their willingness to die rather than deny their God or the beliefs by which they live. They believed in the promise of everlasting life: heaven. They believed that this life is temporary. They believed that this life is but a threshold to everlasting happiness. (RCL)

Spend some time this week recording your thoughts about your relationship with God, your faith. If put to the test would you be willing to die for it? Ponder also the many ways your faith is put to the test each and every day. In what ways does your belief in heaven and hell make a difference in the moral decision you make? (RCL)

Closing Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, when you climbed the mountain to preach, you turned your disciples from the paths of sin and revealed to them the beatitudes of your kingdom. Help these your servants, who hear the word of the Gospel, and protect them from the spirit of greed, of lust, and of pride. May they find the blessings of your kingdom in poverty and in hunger, in mercy and in purity of heart. May they work for peace and joyfully endure persecution and so come to share your kingdom and experience the mercy you promised. May they finally see God in the joy of heaven where you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

God, creator of all the living, your Son came to live among us to show us a life beyond the cares and burdens of this world. Help us not to become so mired in the day-to-day trials that we lose our way. Make us strong in mind and body to do you work on earth. Keep us focused on the resurrection and life eternal with you. We ask this through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you in union with the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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