November 10, 2013 – Pentecost 25

Luke 20:27-40

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 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.”  Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

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Pentecost 25  Exodus 3:1-6,* Acts 23:6-11,* Luke 20:27-40    God of the Living

(* for these readings see below)

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So is Jesus really telling us – ‘sorry folks – no marriage in heaven’? I sure hope not – since I’m happily married, and forever, I hope – and because if he’s saying that, I’m afraid some might even start thinking about not wanting to go to heaven…

But before we go there and get our minds made up (or mixed up further) as to what Jesus is really saying – maybe we need to look deeper at the context of today’s discussion – starting with, who are these guys Jesus is arguing with about the afterlife (or the lack thereof)?

Meet the Sadducees. Maybe you’ve heard the one-liner – these guys are called “sad-you-see” – because they don’t believe in resurrection. Though in reality, just as likely, they’re angry, more than sad. Angry with Jesus in particular. Mad at anyone, probably, who tries to shake up life as they’ve known it. Historians tell us they were the religious and political establishment of Jerusalem – the elite group from whose ranks the high priests of the temple were most often selected. Sadducees are said to have been mostly wealthy aristocrats, who collaborated with the Roman empire, and had Rome’s support most of the time in return.

Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection, and deny existence of an afterlife. Probably at least partly because they’ve  got power, money, and privilege. So who needs an afterlife – which might be worse than what we’ve got now?

But maybe we need to back up and review where we’ve been, and where we are now in the story…

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Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem from way back in Luke chapter 9, on through chapter 19, when he enters the capitol city on a donkey on Palm Sunday, with his followers proclaiming him Lord and shouting loud hosannas. Jesus drives money-changers out of the temple, sets up shop in the temple courtyards, teaching large crowds of people who come to hear him daily.

Temple scribes, priests, and Sadducees who are used to controlling things in the vicinity of the temple, ask Jesus a series of pointed questions, all designed to catch him saying something that can be used against him or could alienate him from the crowds, making it possible to have him arrested and executed as a heretic, thus keeping the capitol safe for life-as-we-know-it.

But Jesus answers every question, the Sadducees’ being the last, turning each question back on the questioners.

Jesus has been arguing with religious authorities all along. Up to chapter 18 in Luke he argues most often with Pharisees, the zealous Torah-revivalist group. But after chapter 18, the Pharisees go off-screen and we don’t see them again till we pick up in Luke’s volume two, the book of Acts – where now some prominent Pharisees actually join the Jesus movement (most famously St Paul). And as we see in today’s reading from Acts, even Pharisees who often disagree with Jesus, do agree with him on the reality of resurrection life – while the Sadducees become in Acts now the most aggressive opponents of the Christian movement.

Meanwhile, back in today’s episode, Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus with a question designed to make a mockery of the afterlife. They query Jesus about an imaginary situation, linking this with a few verses from Deuteronomy (25:5-6) that say when a married man dies without children, the brother of the man must marry the brother’s widow, and have children through her to carry on the name of the dead brother. The Sadducee’s question suggests immortality’s strictly about having male children to carry on a man’s name. And by implication– ‘if  your crazy idea of resurrection was true – how would anyone ever sort out problems like seven brothers with one wife, in the afterlife?’ (Some people do like to stay up late at night thinking of interesting hypothetical problems…)

The so-called Levirate marriage (levir meaning brother in Latin) that Deuteronomy describes was partly about patrimony and patrilineage – but it was also about providing a social safety net for widows, who could otherwise be impoverished. (This is how Levirate marriage works in the book of Ruth.) But in the Sadducee’s one-sided interpretation, all the emphasis is just on continuing the name and legacy of the dead man through children. (The imagined wife in the story, who marries all the imagined brothers in the story, doesn’t actually seem to have any real part in the story, as the Sadducees tell it.) And if there were any women actually on the scene, maybe they’d have asked the Sadducees a question along the lines of, “So how many of these husbands could the wife theoretically keep – if she were to choose to keep even one?”

We do need to keep in mind – these Sadducees are doing their level best to try to make the concept of resurrection seem as ridiculous as they possibly can. And the question they’re asking reminds me of the old riddle – As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives – and every wife had seven sacks, and every sack had seven cats – and every cat had seven kittens – Kits, cats, sacks and wives – how many were going to St Ives?

The answer depends, of course, on which direction all the travelers are going. A lot of theoretical answers are theoretically possible. But the traditional answer still works – only one was going to St Ives most likely – since all the rest, met along the way, were probably going the other direction. And Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees is designed to let them know – they may or may not be heading for St Ives – but they sure as hey are not heading for the kingdom of heaven.

Lame questions make for lame answers. Good questions make for good answers. (At least get us heading in the direction of better answers). The Sadducees aren’t looking for good answers. They’re looking to make Jesus look bad in the public eye – to make it easier to pry away the protection of the crowds following him, and turn him over to Rome for execution. Luke the gospel writer tells us this more than once. So we need to hear what Jesus says to the Sadducees in this context.

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So can this rather peculiar story speak a word of grace to us today? Our context seems at first glance rather different.

Though, looking for broad-brush similarities, we may notice – some religious leaders who vocally doubt the resurrection are still with us. Some doubts about resurrection among some religious people today can be traced to genuine perplexity regarding the claims of science and the claims of scripture and theology. Of course we should also be aware that quite a few noted scientists including Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and National Institute of Health, can and do manage to hold to evangelical Christian faith and advanced scientific theories at the same time…

And we can also observe some pastors, evangelists, and others who market heaven, God, and the church as if they were commercial products that we can pick and choose, according to our self-defined sense of needs. So we see theological marketing of heaven – as in – We’re the church that can get you to heaven fastest, safest, most enjoyably… Sit back, enjoy your flight, and we’ll get you to heaven on time…. our staff will be around shortly with complimentary beverages…

Any form of marketing of heaven that contradicts or subverts what Jesus actually says and does in the gospels is actually, as theologian Karl Barth has eloquently said, a form of (quote)  ‘practical atheism’ – atheism that admits the existence of God, while going about life as if everything Jesus says, is entirely optional. “The atheists of the other kind live on the fact that we are not better Christians,” Barth concludes.

And I’m still contemplating how– Jesus says next to nothing about what heaven’s like. At least not directly.

What Jesus does tell us about heaven is mostly in the form of  parables. The kingdom of heaven is like seed that falls on rocky ground, or thorny soil, or in good dirt. The kingdom of heaven is like wheat growing amidst weeds. The kingdom of heaven’s like a mustard seed that grows into a large tree… The kingdom of God’s like yeast a woman mixes in with a lot of flour, till it all starts to rise…and spread… Jesus also tells a parable about Abraham, alive in heaven, with poor Lazarus who can’t afford even the cheapest-seats-ticket-to-ride, sitting there by his side.

Jesus is always pointing to heaven as our  destination and illustrating his parables with revelatory actions. Himself on the mount of transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah of old, alive! – and a voice from heaven saying this is my beloved Son. Jesus on the cross, promising a crucified thief a place in paradise with him…

But Jesus tells us almost nothing specific about what to expect in the kingdom of heaven. Except this is one very big party… you don’t want to miss. The price of admission is faith working through love…

So I’m  not worried about what Jesus says about marriage in heaven. I’m remembering how he says elsewhere – we become one flesh in marriage, and what God’s brought together, let no one separate. And I’m trusting Jesus to work out all the what-if-this and what-about-that questions, all in their proper time. Most of all, I’m trusting Jesus when he says his kingdom of heaven is much better than we can imagine. So keep our eyes on the prize…

And the one thing I hear Jesus saying loud and clear today, not just for those who don’t believe, but for all of us all the time – is that God’s Not God of the dead – but God of the living. Resurrection life is about being truly alive – more alive than ever – And if we want to live forever with God in the bye and bye – I hear Jesus saying – be alive for God in the here and now. Because– He’s God of the living. And we’re all called to be like him, alive forever, through Jesus our Lord.

Good News! (If we can hear it – maybe we can say –) Amen.

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Exodus 3:1-6

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Acts 23:6-11

When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks. That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”