“Let us put it very simply: Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.” That statement by Pope Benedict XVI, made in his 2007 encyclical, Spe Salvi (“Saved In Hope”), serves well as a prologue to today’s readings. Each has something to say about the virtue of hope, which is, the pope notes, closely intertwined with the virtue of faith.
Both 1 and 2 Maccabees describe the Jewish struggle against political domination and religious suppression. The story from 2 Maccabees of the seven brothers took place sometime in the early to mid-second century B.C. The story demonstrates, rather dramatically, that some just Israelites would rather die than renounce or “transgress the laws of our ancestors.” This resolve was based in their belief that “the King of the world” — that is, God — “will raise us up to live again forever.” One of the brothers spoke directly and passionately about his hope of “being raised up by him,” while flatly declaring that his oppressors would not experience resurrection from death to life.
The passage’s description of martyrdom and the Jewish belief in a future resurrection of God’s faithful ones provides helpful context for Jesus’ teachings about the afterlife. The Sadducees were an influential group that arose within Palestinian Judaism around the time recorded in 2 Maccabees. They were distinguished by a staunch adherence to the laws of Moses alone; they believed the Torah did not allow for or teach the resurrection from the dead, a belief held by the Pharisees.
The Sadducees presented a dilemma to Jesus based on the levirate law (see Dt 25:5), which stated that if a married man died childless, his brother was obligated to marry his widow. Jesus pointed out there is no marriage in the afterlife because there is no death or procreation in that state. He then went to the heart of the matter, which had to do with God’s nature. Having called out to Moses from the burning bush, God declared: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He pointed out that those men “all are alive” to God, for he is the source and realization of an eternal hope.
The Bible is the story of God calling man out of sin and to his eternal home. Throughout the Old Testament there is a growing awareness of a hope for the kingdom of God and an eternal, perfect covenant to be established by the Messiah. While always rooted in dependence upon God and his promises, that hope often focused on material prosperity and freedom from oppression. This hope was strongly connected to wisdom, which is a trusting knowledge of God’s goodness and faithfulness. There was a gradual realization of an afterlife beyond the earthly realm. “Hope in the bodily resurrection of the dead established itself as a consequence intrinsic to faith in God as creator of the whole man, soul and body” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 992).
Hope is central to the Christian life. It is also distinctive, a mark of the uniqueness of the Christian view of life, death and history. The Church has always taught that if death was not and cannot be conquered, there is no hope. And if there is no hope beyond this temporal realm, there is no meaningful life in this world. Any vision of life that ignores the reality of mortality cannot be a source of authentic hope, for such hope is a grace and a source of everlasting encouragement.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.