What’s $20 worth? In these days of inflation and economic woes, you might have to reconsider your answer on a daily basis. $20 used to almost fill my car with gas, now maybe a third of a tank. But two stories that got a lot of attention this past week talked about $20 and the buying power of that in terms of, of all things, a person’s identity.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 30, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim
The first was from Elon Musk. The new owner of the social-media company Twitter floated the idea of charging users who had the “blue checkmark” next to their names on that platform $20 a month if they wanted that to continue. Of the millions of users on Twitter, that check mark was given to about half a million which indicated that you are one of a small percentage who had been verified by the company. It had been introduced 13 years ago initially as a way of separating public officials, celebrities, professional athletes, and other notable individuals in society from people setting up fake accounts and pretending to be one of those people. What made it controversial was when Twitter started to decide who they would officially verify and who they wouldn’t (especially when it came to political figures). Then Twitter started to punish some of their verified users if they said or did something that Twitter deemed controversial. They would remove that blue check mark and make public pronouncements of that “stripping” as a way of publicly shaming. Someone somewhere could be doing a whole study on how a virtual blue checkmark on a screen became a status symbol that some people actively desired and sought and became very possessive over. Which was demonstrated by how some were reacting to this news this past week.
The other story was far more serious and disturbing, ironically only coming to light because of Twitter. Videos and stories shared how there were individuals lining up at a Pagan Festival in Texas to a booth being sponsored by a Satanic temple for an “un-baptism” event. For $20 people would be directed to make these renunciation statements, have an upside-down cross traced on their heads, chant something that I refuse to repeat, and then received a certificate of unbaptism. The organizers being interviewed claim that they don’t actually believe Satan exists (which, the great Christian author C.S. Lewis pointed out is one of the greatest tricks the devil can ever pull off to make people think he doesn’t exist), they were just doing this as a way to sever ties to Christianity. Despite that claim, others talked about how they were doing it “to bother Christians,” and were dressed in ways that demonstrated that, ways were offensive and were meant to publicly mock those who are Christian. Probably can’t take a group that labels themselves as Satanic as being honest and upfront about well anything.
That a virtual check-mark randomly given to someone on a screen could be seen as a status symbol that made them feel they were one of the elite, recognized, and important. That someone would take part in an “unbaptism” out of some brokenness, confusion or desperate need for attention is at best stupid and inflammatory and at worst and more importantly endangering to their souls. But both examples to various degrees seem striking and demonstrate the extremes of how unserious people take their identities (for a mere $20)
Which is such a contrast from what we just heard in our scriptures today. At the heart of these readings, we are meant to consider what shapes our identities. How that perspective affects everything – from how we live to how we die, is all centered on our belief in the resurrection of the dead.
This first reading from the Second Book of Maccabees is just so awesome. This story and book of scripture is a rare and beautiful gift that we don’t get to hear often at Mass. It took place about a couple of centuries before the arrival of Jesus Christ. It recounts the stories of the Jewish people living in a world that has no use for the Lord God. (Wonder if we can relate?) In fact, the leaders were trying to eradicate any belief in Him and force the remnant of faithful believers to abandon their ties to their religious beliefs. (Again….) But this wasn’t being done simply with peer pressure, public scorn, or mockery. It became a matter of life and death. Which is what we heard about today.
If this family of a mother and her seven sons wanted to live, all they had to do was eat some pork. Which was a violation of the kosher laws that these faithful Jews were following. Think about how some may have made justifications in their minds and hearts – this is unjust, these people are demonic, they are crazy, they are insane. Let me just eat this pork – I don’t mean to do it, I simply want to save my life from these tyrants. Moral theologians would probably debate how culpable could they have been. How it would be different from those who had simply accepted this mandate to eat the pork without the threat of death – who maybe did so just to fit in? But the seven brothers and their mother who we hear about today, suffer horrific barbaric death because they wouldn’t even consider being unfaithful. In fact, this courageous mother insists that the only thing that matters is their eternal identity. A few verses later, scripture captures her saying to her sons this breathtakingly beautiful reflection of a courageous woman about the wonder of motherhood and her sons: I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. But as she is in awe and wonder at the gift of her sons, as much as they in fact gave her this identity of being a Mother which was something she treasures, she doesn’t lose sight of what’s even greater than Motherhood, as she continues… the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in His mercy give life and breath back to you again since you now forget yourselves for the sake of His laws.
That last line just stayed with me, – “Forget yourselves for the sake of His laws.” Despite being surrounded by luke-warm fellow Jews who had already capitulated, despite not just the threats but the reality of violence and death, this family is so single-minded in belief, so steadfast in faith in God and trust in His promises in the life to come, they’re able to endure all of this. Their identity as God’s people was of that importance.
The Gospel is even more striking. We see an example of “religious” people who had basically capitulated to the secular culture confronting Jesus. The Sadducees you could almost categorize them as “cultural Jews.” Despite the fact that the Jews had lost their promised land, lost their freedom, the Romans allowed them to cling to their religious beliefs – as long as they kept them private. (It’s like when a politician today would say well personally I believe – but I don’t think I can allow that to affect how I vote or legislate) The Sadducees had accepted that – and that helped to make them the elite of their day. They had positions of authority over the Temple and local government. So the Romans relied on them to keep the people under control. So it’s not hard to imagine how those things crept in and changed their identity and undermined their beliefs in God. Because if you believe in the Resurrection of the Dead – in a life to come – that there’s a God who is in authority over all of those things, well that shapes everything. These guys as “religious” as they claimed to be – heck they are in charge of the temple – are dismissive of that essential belief. They are content with celebrating the feasts and following traditions as long as people didn’t take it too seriously. It’s kind of like when people will spend three months watching Hallmark Christmas movies and start shopping for presents but aren’t sure they’re going even to be able to make it to Mass.
The Sadducees demonstrate that by trying to embarrass Jesus and anyone who taught or held in a life to come with this example of the woman who married 7 brothers. To our ears, it’s a bizarre story. Kind of the worst soap opera plotline we can imagine. Even on Days of our Lives you’d think that by brother number 4 they’d think maybe this isn’t going to end well for me. But getting back to the Sadducees they only believed in the first five books of the Old Testament. In those times of salvation history when they were being led from Egyptian slavery to the promised land, there was an urgent need for the people not just to survive, but to grow and flourish. So that’s where the tradition of a younger brother marrying his deceased brother’s wife who had been childless.
But they take that temporal reality or custom out of context and use it to justify their own lack of belief. Drawing the incorrect conclusion that if Moses did that, it’s because even Moses knew there was only this life. Jesus smacks them down gently but devastatingly, not by arguing how wrong they are for not accepting the rest of the Old Testament but using their own argument against them. They want to use Moses and appeal to him as their authority. Jesus is fine with that as he points out that Moses called out to the Lord, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. All men who had died earthly deaths. If this was all there was… if this life was all there was… then the promises made to those men, to Moses which were not fulfilled in their lifetimes here would’ve been meaningless. A living God, an all-powerful creator would not be identified by a relationship with dead people.
This is the ultimate good news. You would think that as narrow a focus that the Sadducees had with their approach to scripture and God, this would be received with joy. But for some, or many, that wouldn’t be the case. Because if you acknowledge, if you believe, if you live recognizing a life to come, that has to change your perspective now, what you will believe here and now, how you live now. That will get them in trouble with the Romans when they had to obey God’s law rather than Roman law. That would mean they have to make choices against their human wants and desires by putting His wants and needs first and foremost.
That not only remains the case for us here and now, but if anything the stakes have been raised considerably. This is hard to believe in a world where those most in the spotlight are continuing to tweet about their blue check marks, where extensive coverage of renouncing the free gift of eternal life given in baptism is being covered and treated as an example of “freedom of religion” rather than mocking of it. But our eternal lives, and our identities have been purchased for us. Far more than $20, but with the blood of Jesus Christ poured out on the cross for each and every one of us. How does the way we live proclaim that identity, and reveal that truth to the world?