Seeking courage amidst the trouble

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- This week’s they all seem to be about persecution and suffering, times of stress and trouble, and as such they are very relevant to our present world situation, where we witness thugs like Mr Assad and his allies reducing cities to heaps of ruins, and indiscriminately killing thousands of innocents, let alone all the personal troubles we may have. It is vital however that we understand the texts correctly, for at the same time, they are all about seizing the moment and witnessing to the truth even when under fire, sometimes, quite literally.

In the Early 160’s BC the King of the area we know as Southern Turkey down through Syria and into Palestine, known as Antiochus Epiphanes IV,    and from his title one who believed he knew best, required all his subjects to become pagans. This is the background to the Jewish or Maccabean Revolt (Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14) in which a small number of pious Jews refused to cow-tow and were martyred for their faith. The author of the story, probably a contemporary of the events, deliberately contrasted the power of Epiphanes, in his mind an idolater and a blasphemer by his using of this title, and his own confidence in the God of the Hebrews to whose power he and his brothers commend themselves. “The King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die, to live again for ever.” By this period belief in the resurrection of the human body post mortem was becoming current in Judaism. Here were entire families, prepared to be wiped out for their adherence to their faith, certain that God would redeem them, give them eternal life, and this in a period when leaving mortal and especially male offspring behind as one’s posterity must still have been a powerful and compelling rule. In the end, it is the response of the feisty mother that grabs the headlines, for she knew her paganism and so knew that for Epiphanes death would be the end, quite literally oblivion. She stands in a long line of Jewish people who have sunk all their faith in God.

Which, of course, brings us to Moses and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and our Gospel from Luke (20:27-38). We have to understand the background to this event, for Jesus was by this time in Jerusalem for his passion. He has entered the temple and symbolically reclaimed it for the Father, by throwing out all those who desecrated the Court of the Gentiles by selling sacrificial animals, and he has delivered his final and crushing condemnation of the powers in Jerusalem: the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard, a parable redolent of Isaiah’s condemnation of his nation some 800 years earlier, and equally searing in its attack. Those in authority, especially the High Priestly families and the rest of the Sadducees, had to act; and they began by toying with Jesus, in a question cynically designed to empty him of his power, by presenting him with a problem they believed he would be unable to answer adequately.

We need to be quite clear, the Sadducees did not for an instant believe the preposterous story they were telling. It resounds with notions from Greco-Roman rhetorical exercises with which many, educated in the Roman way, would have had to sharpen their speaking skills and wits. It was not about truth but about clever speaking. Jesus was however well up to dealing with their wiles, but he deals with the question as if it were for real. First of all he dismisses the notion that eternal life with God is just about ‘more of the same’, a continuation of earthly life with all its problems. Heavenly life is different and we live ‘like the angels’. Secondly, he deals with the nub of the question: if Jewish faith is in the God of Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then it cannot be about putting your faith in dead people whom the Sadducees claim are merely dust. It is precisely because Jews believed these holy men ‘lived’ with God, as seen in the faith of Moses, that belief in the resurrection of the dead to eternal life with God is both feasible and in line with age old Jewish tradition, a tradition deliberately rejected by the Sadducees including the High Priests. ‘For, to him all men are alive.’  Jesus not only confounds his enemies, he lays the ground for the Christian belief that in the resurrection of Jesus we too shall all be redeemed. His impeccable reasoning just serves to hammer one more nail in the coffin, as Jesus’ enemies plot his destruction.

Paul’s Second Thessalonian Letter (2:16-3:5) comes from a period of great suffering by Paul and the Christians in Thessalonica. It appears there is danger of persecution from the Roman authorities, and that added to this there is dissension and strife within the community too. The first letter indicates just how fond Paul was of this small Christian community, so that we can better understand how saddened he would have been both by threats to its existence from without and within. Thessalonica was a Roman city in Northern Greece on the great Via Egnatia road which went east-west, from coast to coast enabling rapid communications with Rome and Greece and on to Turkey and the far flung provinces beyond. It would have had a strong military presence too, and we might suspect that some of these elements, including the traders and even the wide variety of religious influences there, may have contributed to the problems facing the Christians. Our portion of Paul’s letter is entirely directed to prayer for the people, and confidence focussed on God the Father and Jesus Christ. For Paul these times of danger, and the possibility of their martyrdom, is a time for total reliance on God and also a time of confidence: confidence that their witness to God will be an opportunity for witnessing, Christ-like to their beliefs. For us in the West, the idea of dying for the faith may seem near unthinkable. For others, like the Dominican sisters in Erbil it is a present reality: “May the Lord turn your hearts towards the love of God and the fortitude of Christ.”