The Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:16––4:3; Galatians 3:1-14; Matthew 14:13-21
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn. 20:25). There’s theological integrity here, securing Thomas’ place as the spiritual, if not biological, descendant of the teacher in our first reading, an integrity particularly on display in this reading.
“I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.” If “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (v.1); surely that must include judgment. But as the teacher repeatedly observes (e.g., 7:15; 8:14) judgment is not visible in this life. Judgment is part of the tradition the teacher’s received, and the teacher’s too aware of the limitations of his knowledge to toss it prematurely. What about the life to come as the setting for judgment?
A bit of background: until well into the time under Persian and later Greek domination, most Jews believed that at death everyone descended to Sheol, where there was neither reward nor punishment, simply disconnection from the living and from God. In part to answer the question of where God’s justice happens, some Jews variously reconceptualize the afterlife. It’s one of the issues that splits the Pharisees, who affirm the resurrection and Sadducees, who deny it. In today’s text the teacher responds to this emerging argument: “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?”
Integrity. Opting for the human spirit going upward would have answered many of the teacher’s questions. But, lacking evidence, “who knows?” Nor does the teacher discard “God will judge the righteous and the wicked.” The teacher preserves the tension. Complains about it. Repeatedly. And that’s perhaps as close as the teacher comes to praying in the book.
Postscript: Pulling back the camera to include today’s other readings, while the New Testament retains divine judgment (e.g., Matt. 25:31-45), it stresses more the need we all have for divine mercy.