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How Do We Live with Dying? Job 19:23-27a, II Thess. 2:13-3:5, Luke 20:27-28)

by Joseph M. Mcshane, S.J.

Joseph M. Mcshane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 1, 1989, p. 979. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"Now God is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all are alive to God" (Luke 20:381).

How do we live with dying? What hope does our Christian faith offer for the real anguish of death’? Most of us resent the thinned-out version of Christian hope, "He/she is happy in heaven." That can’t make up for the injustice of death by evildoers. It can’t make up for sudden loss, or for agonizing months of pain. And thin consolations may even eat away at the foundation of our faith. The rituals, prayers and words meant to console and renew faith and hope can weaken it.

All three of the Bible readings for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Job 19: 23-27a, II Thess. 2:13-3:5, Luke 20:27-38) point to ways in which God’s faithfulness reaches beyond the experience of death. In each case, the speaker is on the point of dying: Job suffers from afflictions he cannot understand, Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem just before his passion. Just as the experience of dying is both universal and private, so each of these examples combines the universal paradox of faith in God’s living power with the speaker’s particular situation.

To whom is each speaking? Job’s audience is well-intentioned friends who hope to console him by showing him that God is "right" to let him be afflicted. The trouble is that they can only imagine solutions which make God "right" at the expense of Job’s integrity and innocence. Yet Job has another audience, the God known as the go’el, the "Redeemer," who brings people out of slavery. What is the word Job thinks should be graven in stone? That he will see his integrity vindicated -- but only after he is dead!

Paul’s words are addressed to a community of beloved Christians which he had founded and already seen through persecution. Though Paul hopes he will be delivered from his imprisonment, his anxiety is not personal. Paul’s concern is for those he leaves behind. He will not be able to admonish them to lead lives of holiness or hold fast to the truth of the gospel much longer. What will they have to live by? On the spiritual level, Paul expresses confidence in God’s power to strengthen the community. On a more human level, he stresses the importance of remembering what they have learned from him, both in person and in his letters. Paul himself is about to pass into memory, to become part of "tradition."

Jesus’ audience is hostile. Sadducees rejected the belief that God would raise up the righteous who had died; for them it was an innovation that had no basis in tradition. Appealing to the laws for Levirate marriage, they seek to show that this ‘‘new belief" led to absurd conclusions. As so often happens, Jesus challenges the questioners’ assumption. The Sadducees assume that the same relationships and realities that hold on earth will prevail in the resurrection. Levirate marriage dealt with the human need to provide an heir for the deceased in order to maintain family order and property. Anyone who has ever been the executor of an estate understands the complexity of such relationships and the attendant legal arrangements.

Jesus insists that the resurrection does not restore the social and legal configurations we know on earth. The life which the resurrected lead in God’s presence is like that of angels, who do indeed "see God" as Job hoped he might. Jesus’ secondary response to the Sadduccees’ complaint is an appeal to Scripture. Since God’s self-identification is the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," the ancestors must be living, not dead.

None of these passages denies the painful, disorienting consequences of death. However, they challenge the human responses which block our perception of God’s redemptive power. We cannot deprive the suffering of their integrity by finding a hidden guilt that accounts for their plight. We cannot corrupt the memory of those faithful servants of God like Paul whose suffering is part of a witness to the gospel. We cannot allow laws, social arrangements and psychological adaptations designed for this age to corrupt our vision of the one who is "not God of the dead, but of the living."


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