32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc MIKI Yoshihito
My dear friends, do you know the difference between a century sprint and a marathon run? They are both foot races, of course. But with one very importance difference: the distance. A century sprint, as you know, is run over 100 metres. And it usually lasts no more than 10-20 seconds. But a marathon spans over 42 kilometres. And it typically goes on for hours. A vast difference in the distance covered, as well as the time taken.
But that’s not all. This difference in distance means that runners must approach each of these races in a very different way. As you know, sprinters need to give it all they’ve got right from the very beginning. Anything less and they lose the race. Marathoners, on the other hand, have to be careful to pace themselves. To conserve their energy. Otherwise they won’t be able to complete the distance. Let alone win the race. Which makes it very important for a runner to know what kind of race he or she is running. For the distance to be covered determines the way in which a race is run. Imagine how disastrous it would be for someone to run a marathon as though it were a century sprint. The runner would be tired out in no time at all.
But if this is true of foot races, can we not say the same about the spiritual life as well? Could the way in which we run the race also depend very much upon the distance we need to cover? If so, then it’s important for us to determine what kind of race we are entering. And this is precisely the question that our Mass readings present for our reflection today. This is the deeper significance of the apparently abstract problem that the Sadducees pose to Jesus in the gospel.
The question is whether or not there is life after death. Whether the race we are running ends at the point of our departure from this earth. Or whether it somehow continues even beyond. The Sadducees try to show the absurdity of the resurrection by a rather far-fetched example of a woman who marries several brothers, one after the other. If there is indeed life after death, they argue, then won’t she become a polygamist in the next life? To which Jesus responds by saying that the next life is different from the current one. Those who are judged worthy of a place in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels…
This argument is actually not too difficult for us to understand. And yet, it is possible to follow the Lord’s argument and still lose sight of its deeper significance. For, if there is such a thing as a resurrection from the dead. If the race that is human life actually continues even beyond death. Then surely this should somehow affect the way we live. Could it be that just as a marathon needs to be run differently from a sprint, so too does eternal life need to be lived differently from a merely temporal existence? So that whether or not we believe in the resurrection of the dead has important consequences for our daily living.
We see these consequences strikingly illustrated in the first reading. Here a Greek king forces a family of Jews to break the the Jewish Law, by tasting pig’s flesh. Eat pork or suffer cruel torture and agonising death. This is the terrible choice presented to each of the seven brothers and their poor mother. Quite amazingly, one after the other, they somehow find the courage to defy the king. They insist on keeping the Law even at the cost of their lives. And what helps them to do this is their unshakeable confidence in the resurrection. Their belief that, provided they remain faithful, even if they have to lose their earthly lives, God will preserve them for eternal life. Ours is the better choice, declares the fourth brother. To meet death at men’s hands, yet relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him.
Although life on this earth may often seem to many like nothing more than a brief sprint. Over and done with in a few relatively short moments. For these brothers, life in God lasts for all eternity. It is more like a marathon than a sprint. And, as such, it needs to be run differently. Except that, in the spiritual life, the approach is the exact opposite of ordinary races. As we said, in foot races, sprinters typically go all out right from the start. They expend all their energy in order to win the race. In contrast, many of those who think that human life is nothing more than a sprint, that it ends at death, often go to great lengths not to spend themselves but to preserve their lives at all cost. And even to feed their many and varied appetites. Their constant craving for money and comfort. For success and popularity and power. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Cor 15:32).
On the other hand, while marathoners usually take care to pace themselves. To conserve their energy. Christians who believe in the resurrection are called to act in the opposite way. To live life as though it were a long distance race, continuing far beyond life on this earth, is to do what those brothers in the first reading did. To go all out and spend oneself in the service of God and of neighbour. To be willing even to lay down one’s earthly life in the cause of justice and right.
But surely this approach makes no sense at all, does it? How can someone reasonably be expected to run a marathon as though it were a sprint? By going all out right from the beginning? By expending all of one’s energy from start to finish?
The answer lies in the second reading. Where we find another important difference between the spiritual life and an ordinary foot race. A foot race, as we all know, involves great expense of energy. Even though a marathoner may have the opportunity to take some nourishment along the way, this energy is very quickly burned off as the race progresses. But the spiritual life is quite different. Here the energy being expended does not come from the runner. It comes instead from another Source. The same divine Source to whom St. Paul addresses his prayer in the second reading. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father who has given us his love and… such inexhaustible comfort and such sure hope, comfort you and strengthen you in everything good that you do or say.
To believe in the resurrection, to run the race of the spiritual life as though it were a marathon, and not a sprint, is not simply to exert ourselves to the point of burn-out. It is rather to choose to continually tap into the inexhaustible energy of God’s infinite love for us all. And this is precisely the choice that you our new Catechumens are making today. This is the deeper significance of the ritual that we celebrated just now. The signing of your whole body with the Cross of Christ. The sign of our belief in the resurrection. The sign of our commitment to live life as though it were truly a marathon powered by the love and mercy of God. A race in which we are called to continually spend ourselves in the cause of justice and right. For the greater glory of God and the common good.
My dear sisters and brothers, Catechumens and baptised Christians alike, what must we do, you and I, to continue running this race in the way it is meant to be run today?