Monday, November 12, 2007

Sermon -- 11 November 2007

Proper 27 / 24 Pentecost — 11 November 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 8:00 & 10:15
RCL: Haggai 1:15b-2:9 Ps 145:1-5,18-22 2Thess 2:1-5,13-17 Luke 20:27-38

Those who are considered worthy of a place … in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

“Oh, no!…”

Or, there may be some who, for good reason or bad, would say, “Whew!…”

This is a difficult passage, and I think there are some Christians who are troubled by it; in fact, I know there are some Christians who are troubled by it, because some Christians have come to me and said, “I’m troubled by this passage”! It’s the kind of Sunday Gospel reading that this weekend, I’m quite sure, has caused countless clergy to say, “What’s the Epistle? Maybe I’ll preach on that this Sunday”! [Oh. Second Thessalonians. Mmm.] I, on the other hand, am fearless. That’s one of the advantages of being a supply priest; you can get away with almost anything, and not have to pick up the pieces afterward! So let’s take a look at this admittedly rather peculiar interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees, and try to see what it says; and perhaps also what it doesn’t say.

[The Sadducees were a very conservative sect, holding only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, to be canonical scrip­ture; they rejected the traditions of the Pharisees as modernist, liberal innovations. (One of these newfangled doctrines that they rejected was the resurrection of the dead.) The Sadducees were few in number, but wealthy and powerful; their power base was among the priestly families in Jerusalem. They came to an end as a distinct sect when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. They were rivals and competitors, if not enemies, of the Pharisees; one of the few things they apparently agreed with the Pharisees about was that Jesus of Nazareth was dangerous.]
There’s a species of religious puzzling called “desert island theology”—in which one posits some very extreme situation and tries to draw some principle of religious faith or practice. So called because it often starts out, “Suppose you were stranded on a desert island …” It’s not a very good way to do theology, or legal theory (“Hard cases make bad law”) or much of anything else. But that doesn’t stop the Sadducees, who come to Jesus determined to trip him up with this somewhat far-fetched little hypothetical situation which they apparently think will demonstrate how the Law of Moses reduces to absurdity all this newfangled unbiblical Pharisaic speculation about the resurrection of the dead: This poor woman works her way through seven brothers without having any babies; in the resurrection whose wife is she?

[According to the Law of Moses (in Deuteronomy 25), if a man dies without an heir, his brother is to marry the widow and raise up a son to perpetuate the dead brother’s name. This was an ancient custom, certainly going back at least to the days of the patriarchs; it appears to be an exception, rather than a contradiction, to another Mosaic Law (in Leviticus 18) which forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife (that’s the one King Henry VIII got all tangled up with). But it’s not at all clear that the Jews of Jesus’ time still observed this law or custom of levirate marriage (from the Latin levir,
brother-in-law), as they don’t now (and Christians never have), and so it’s not at all clear that the Sadducees are acting in good faith when they propose this problem of the woman who outlived seven brothers.]
In Mark’s version of this story, which is probably earlier and the source of Luke’s version that we hear today, Jesus begins by turning on the Sadducees: “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” Jesus doesn’t mean, “You don’t know what the text of the scriptures says,” because the Sadducees could quote the Bible as well as anyone in town, and better than most. Jesus means, “You don’t know what the scriptures are about, you don’t have any idea what God is up to or wherein the Reign of God consists; you’re not ignorant (that would be excusable), you’re clueless!”

Jesus then goes on to respond to the challenge. What’s absurd is not the situation of this poor childless woman in the resurrection who now finds herself with seven husbands, but the Sadducees for thinking that the resurrection is simply a return to a life like our present life; that being raised from the dead is like retiring to Florida, only with better weather. What you don’t get, Jesus says, is that the resurrection is a whole new creation, in which the necessities and limitations of this world just don’t apply any more. Specifically, marriage will be no longer necessary, since there will be no more death and thus no need to beget children.

It’s at this point that we in our generation are likely to raise our hands and say, “Ahem, excuse me?” And what concerns us is that this might mean that in the resurrection we shall lose the most precious human relationship we have—for many of us, our relationship with our spouse (which means a lot more to us than just having children), and by extension other deep, loving, fulfilling relationships with family or friends. “You mean we won’t be together in heaven??!!”

Well, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is getting at. I don’t think that’s the issue he’s addressing; and I think we would be repeating the Sadducees’ error of “knowing neither the scriptures nor the power of God” if we were to take Jesus’ words out of their context in a very specific controversy and try to build a systematic theology of the afterlife on them. But before going on to any speculative remarks about the nature of the resurrection, let’s first finish this episode.

Having attacked the Sadducees’ simplistic caricature of the resurrection, Jesus then goes on to affirm that this earthly life is not all there is. The way he does it is a little odd and actually not very convincing to our ears, but for first century and later rabbinic Judaism, it was a fairly standard way of arguing from scripture (this kind of use of the Biblical text shows up elsewhere in the New Testament, in Paul and in the Letter to the Hebrews, for instance): Jesus refers to Exodus 3:6 (but, as you perhaps know, the Biblical text would not be divided into chapters for many centuries yet, nor into verses for even longer than that; so Jesus simply refers to “The Bush”—God’s self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush in the passage we enumerate as the third chapter of Exodus) where God is identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and God is the God of the living, not of the dead; therefore the holy patriarchs (and by extension all of God’s righteous ones) must not be dead, but still living unto God; Q.E.D. Doesn’t measure up to Western standards of logic very well, but in the event it successfully serves to stuff a sock in the Sadducees.

And the fundamental point that Jesus is making is absolutely valid: God is the Lord of life, of the whole of life; and the power of God is such that God’s purpose for humankind is not frustrated by death. In fact, we would want to say (and here we’re moving from explication of the Gospel text into constructive theology) that God’s ultimate purpose for humankind so far transcends life in this world that our physical death is the necessary condition of our transition into that larger purpose, of our resurrection, of our new creation. It is from this perspective that we can perhaps speculate on the state of marriage relationships in the resurrection (remembering, after all, that we never claim that marriage is meant to endure longer than “until we are parted by death”). In that fulfillment of our humanity as the image and likeness of God, as “children of God” as Jesus says today, “like angels” but notice, not “the same as angels,” freed from the ordinary limitations of space and time as we know them in this life (as the Risen Jesus, appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, was evidently not limited in the usual way by space and time) — in that new and risen humanity, total loving intimacy, with God, and in God in community with one another, will not require the mediation of the body of flesh. And further, the kind of total self-giving in love which we in our fallen condition can give only to one other at a time will in the resurrection become the goal of our relationship with each and every one of the whole of redeemed humanity, a community of love of which marriage is but the foretaste. The earthly marriage relationship is thus not something which in the resurrection we lose, but rather something we shall be given to surpass beyond any imagining, in eternal union with the One who is Love’s own very self.

But, as I said, we have moved into constructive, even speculative theology at this point, and away from the text of the Gospel, which recounts a particular debate of more limited scope. Nevertheless, I hope the move is not altogether illegitimate—and at least of some help in our understanding of our journey!

© 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

No comments: