Some parts of the Bible are not for the faint-hearted or squeamish. They defy our canons of good taste. Take this Sunday's first reading from 2 Maccabees, its macabre tale of the torture and execution of seven brothers immediately followed by the killing of their mother.
The lectionary shields us from the worst, excising six verses from the middle of the tale, but a glimpse at the full text reveals how the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes, and his henchmen, literally butcher their victims, as though preparing them for the table, or for smoking altars, and then cook them in large pans and cauldrons. One-by-one the brothers are fried alive.
Such gruesome violence is not gratuitous; it does not aim to entertain the reader. No, this violence has a terrible, iconic, status. It echoes scenes of domestic cookery and religious sacrifice, so that persecution takes on the same idolatrous form as the practices it seeks to enforce. Perhaps we should say that the same violence finds expression, or sanction, in religious cult and power politics.
Yet, against this background, it is the prayers of the dying Jews that are heard by God. Theirs is the true sacrifice, or self-sacrifice, giving up their lives in obedience to the Law, giving eloquent testimony to the sovereignty of God. Their prayers are heard within the narrative of 2 Maccabees as Antiochus soon faces revolt and defeat in battle, but this immediate victory is meant to confirm that God has also heard their pleas to be rescued from death in the final resurrection of the body.
However far Antiochus goes in dismembering his victims, the power of evil to destroy is as nothing compared with the goodness of God who makes all things out of nothing, who can even raise the dead to life. Persecution leads not to despair, but gives rise to a new hope. If 2 Maccabees was given no place in the Hebrew Bible, it was readily accepted by Christians for whom this hope has found its conclusive realisation in the resurrection of Christ himself, in whose Passion the prayers of all victims have been re-capitulated, re-echoed and summed up.
What, then, are we to make of today's Gospel? If the Maccabean martyrs look to the resurrection to sustain their defence of the Mosaic law, the Sadducees saw such hope as incompatible with that same law. If the Torah enjoins a man to marry his brother's childless widow, would not the resurrection lead to incest, a fatal breakdown of the relations which bind the Chosen people together precisely as a holy people, an image of God's own sanctity? For marriage here is not understood as a romantic friendship or union of hearts; it is the means to continuing the tribes of Israel, the institution through which God's providence preserves the nation.
Jesus's answer cuts the ground from under the Sadducees by revealing that the risen life beyond the grave, the identity of God's people, is a matter of being God's children, not of being any one's husband or wife. It will indeed be given by our being sisters and brothers in Christ, and thus adopted sons and daughters of the Father. And we become such sisters and brothers, partakers in God's eternal life, by standing with Christ in his death.
Where, though, does this leave marriage? Need people grieve, for example, or be anxious, at the prospect of no longer being in death what they once were for their spouse? It is a genuine anxiety, but the love and friendship that informed their marriage does not dissolve at death, is not replaced by some anodyne or impersonal benevolence. Love remains intensely personal, the love of someone who has been a spouse, with whom a particular history and life has been shared.
On the other hand, early Christians also saw that what Jesus says here about the life of heaven may warrant for some the decision not to marry, but to live out even in this world an identity which is not given by bloodline or family bonds. Hence the rise within the Church of consecrated virgins and monks, seen by early Christians as a powerful sign of God's grace even now breaking into our fallen world and restructuring communities divided by wealth, social class, civic strife and sexual predation.
If marriage is a sacrament of Christ's indissoluble union with his Church, and a sign of its fecundity, religious life remains an enduring image of the kingdom into which we are brought by this union, a peaceable kingdom in which wealth and power are shared and lust has given way to mutual respect and friendship.