Sermon for November 10, 2019
Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
It is the tenth of November and thus in two weeks we will come to the end of this liturgical year and our reading, singing, and study of Luke’s gospel. Indeed, today’s reading from the 20th chapter should alert us to this: that as Jesus’ reputation grows, so too does the voice of his critics, now that he is in the city of Jerusalem where his life will end and then be raised into you and me.
Here we find Jesus being questioned by a number of Sadducees, one of the religious groups in first century Judaism, a group that held to this belief: there is nothing that follows after death. If anything, the Sadducees claimed, one lives on only through one’s children and the good deeds one does for the benefit of future generations. For the Sadducees, then, there was no belief in an afterlife. Why? They argued that they could find nothing in the Torah – the biblical Law of Moses – that would support such a belief. Death has the final word over life.
On the other hand, the Pharisees, another religious group in Israel, accepted not only the Hebrew Bible as an authority for their lives but also a tradition of oral interpretation of the Scriptures and thus they, the Pharisees, believed in the resurrection of the dead. They, the Pharisees, might point to Job’s claim – that after my skin has been destroyed by death, I shall yet see God – as a text concerning the resurrection of the dead.
What we encounter in this gospel reading is actually a conflict between Sadducees – no to resurrection – and Pharisees – yes to resurrection. What we encounter is a skeptical question, asked by a Sadducee: if a husband dies, the Law of God says that in order to protect the widow from homelessness or prostitution, she should be married to her brother-in-law. But what happens if all the brothers who married this one widow died in succession? And here’s the tricky part: how will she manage seven husbands at the same time if – if – there is a resurrection of the dead? I mean he might as well have asked: Henry the Eighth, how will you engage with six wives? Elizabeth Taylor, how will you relate to eight husbands at the same time? Lucky for Larry King with eight wives: he is of the Sadducee school and death has the final word; no need to worry about answering to some fairly angry ex-spouses. In other words, the questioner of Jesus has asked him to take sides: either with the Sadducees or with the Pharisees.
Now if you read the gospels carefully, it becomes clear that Jesus is not a polite debater. Frequently when faced with a critic, especially stupid critics, he responds with an insult intended to take his opponent of base. And he does that here. He insults his questioners as he offers these supposedly mature men a lesson in sexual relations: only earthly beings reproduce, he notes; immortal beings have no need for such mundane activity. But the most telling insult he keeps for last as he quotes the Law of Moses against the Sadducees who were so committed to a literal interpretation of scripture. He argues that Moses himself would support the Pharisees in their belief in a resurrection of the dead. After all, he says, didn’t Moses describe the God of Israel as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now you and I might think, what’s the point? Who would ever quibble with this way of describing God? But here’s the cleverness in Jesus’ claim: the God of Israel is the God of the living. From God’s perspective, Jesus seems to argue, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, all dead from a human perspective, are alive to God. While humans, with limited vision might see the dead as nothing more than dead, from God’s viewpoint, they are alive for God is the God of the living and the “living” includes all those – all those – who will be raised by God on the last day when all of God’s efforts and those of God’s friends to pursue love and forgiveness, justice and peace will fully flower. What did Jesus say? Now our God is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to this One all of them are alive.”
As the casket holding our beloved mother was lowered into the grave this past July, the many gathered around her gently shoveled soil over the casket as the minister read these words from the liturgy: We commend her body to the earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life. Did you hear in that commendation from The Book of Common Prayer, the two things held in tension: the terrible reality of death set next to the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead? And there is this reality, too: you and I shall inevitably be forgotten in the years and centuries to come, regardless of the size of the memorial stone, our mistakes, and our achievements. We shall join that vast and immeasurable number of humans and many other creatures whose names, whose lives, are not remembered, well, except for this: that One who brought us to life in our mothers’ wombs, and walked with us through our earthly sojourn, has not and will not ever forget us. After all, we gather every Sunday – not to recall the resurrection as if it were a significant event in the past – but to encounter the One who says, eat and drink in memory of me; eat and drink my living presence; eat and drink my risen life that is yours now. For he is not a God of the dead but of the living: for to him all things are alive. Indeed, we may see death and the grave and the soil but to this One all things are alive. And for this, I say, we can all give thanks.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”