Grace Presbyterian Church
November 10, 2019, Pentecost 22C
That’s Not How This Works
A few years ago, an insurance company ran a commercial set among a group of women who, we might say, would fit comfortably into the general age demographic of this congregation. One of the women was boasting about how, instead of mailing pictures of her vacation photos to all her friends, had saved herself time by posting them on her wall. Of course, a first thought to the social media-savvy might suggest she had posted them on social media of some sort, possibly Facebook or Instagram. Instead, the camera pans slightly and you see that the pictures are, literally, taped to the wall of her living room. One of the other women pipes up that she likes one in particular, but the third, one presumably more knowledgeable about such things, looks back and forth between the two incredulously. When the first woman boasts about having an insurance-related achievement in fifteen minutes, this third one retorts that she only needed half that time, to which the first responds, with a dramatic gesture, “I unfriend you.” Finally the third can’t take it anymore and, gesturing around the room, exclaims, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!”
It would not at all have been out of line for Jesus to respond in exactly that same way to the question put to him by the Sadducees in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke.
The setting here is in Jerusalem, as we approach the climax of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry. It’s the type of scriptural text that the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary like to slip in toward the end of the liturgical year, a text that at least in some way looks forward to the life not of this earth but of eternity, or heaven or however one frames it.
In this case that particular framing comes from a faction in the religious society in which Jesus lived that didn’t even believe in such a thing. The Sadducees, a competing group to the Pharisees about whom we hear so much, are lingering on the edge of a conversation in which Jesus has just smacked down a group of scribes, or their lackeys as verse 20 suggests, with the response famous in its old King James rendering as “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” That group has beaten its hasty retreat, to the hooting and derision of the crowd, and this group of Sadducees steps up for its at-bat.
As verse 27 informs us straightaway, the Sadducees “say there is no resurrection.” This puts them at odds with the Pharisees, and is a product of their particular interpretation of what constituted “scripture.” While the Pharisees, for example, took the prophets and the Psalms as authoritative, the Sadducees only read the books of the Torah that way. The prophets and Psalms speak in at least some degree of resurrection, the Torah does not; therefore the Sadducees and Pharisees disagree. While Jesus butted heads with Pharisees often, on this point they were in agreement.
The Sadducees’ question is admittedly an absurd one, which relies on a particular allowance of Mosaic or Torah law. If a man died childless, his wife was expected to be married off to the next available younger brother, in theory as a means to provide for the widow, but frankly mostly so that the brother might produce a son to ensure the first brother’s legacy. In this trap question, the poor woman was put through seven brothers, each of whom failed to produce a son; when the hypothetical woman died, the Sadducees ostensibly wanted to know, whose wife would she be in the resurrection?
One could point out a lot of things about the beliefs inherent in such a question. One thing that cannot be overlooked is that it’s pretty clear that to these questioners a woman in such a situation is little more than a piece of property, more a subjected and captive character from The Handmaid’s Tale than a living, breathing human being and child of God and daughter of Abraham. The only thing that matters about her is whose possession is she for all eternity.
This all has to be qualified with words like “hypothetical” and “ostensibly” because in fact this batch of Sadducees weren’t really all that concerned with the answer. At the risk of including a second social media reference in the same sermon, they are trolling Jesus. The very asking of the question was its own end, namely mocking not even Jesus necessarily, but their Pharisee rivals and their oh-so-ridiculous beliefs about life after death.
The trouble is that these Sadducees, unlike modern social media trolls who can disappear in an instant and not be held accountable for the evil that they do, could not get away fast enough. In the end, they were just as humiliated as the scribes who got tripped up on the tax question. In the world of social media, one of the most common and usually best pieces of advice is “don’t feed the trolls,” or in other words don’t give anyone who is clearly engaging in bad faith attacks a forum for their lies. Jesus isn’t most people, of course, and he is quite well-equipped to drive these trolls back under the bridge.
First comes the harder lesson, one that we modern Christians might well have trouble with. This is where the potential “that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works” response comes in.
To sum up as best as possible, marriage is a mortal concern. People marry because for most folks, going through life with a partner is easier and more pleasant than going through life alone. That’s a pretty succinct nutshell argument for why marriage is a thing at all in the eyes of God, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden and God’s remark that it wasn’t a good thing for Adam to be alone. This matters because, to put it in as stark a term as possible, we’re going to die, all of us at some point, and such time as we have to endure on this earth go better if we can endure it with someone we love.
Those who share in the resurrection, on the other hand, are never going to die. Life is eternal in the presence of the Eternal One. The concerns of that old past mortality, worries about property and legacy and all that implied in the question, simply don’t matter. In that life the hypothetical woman is in fact a child of God and a daughter of Abraham, subject to no one else.
As much as we might not want to admit this, we don’t like the sound of this, not one bit.
Think about it. What kind of songs, for example, do we sing about Heaven? One example I can’t get out of my head is an old gospel number called “Mansion Over the Hilltop.” Perhaps you remember this one, maybe from Elvis’s version?
I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver, and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined
I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold
The second verse goes on to talk about wanting “a mansion, a harp, and a crown”. The question of what to do with a harp for all eternity aside, cue the lady from the commercial: That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
The song does get one thing right; in that bright land we really will never grow old. Otherwise, the metaphor Jesus uses in John 14 (another King James concoction, the one about “In my father’s house are many mansions”), the one meant to communicate how the disciples do not have to worry about life after resurrection because all is provided and there’s room for everyone, gets hardened and fixed into a dogma that we can all pre-order our gold mansions for all eternity. I wish I were exaggerating more than I am, but I’ve seen it up close too many times.
All such things miss the point. Whether the Sadducees intended it or not, this encounter really is about the resurrection, and the resurrection is about God, and being in communion with God and with all who are in communion with God. The resurrection is not merely an extension of this life with better building materials; it is about being in resurrection with the God who has loved us and redeemed us in Christ. This is illustrated by the second part of Jesus’s response to the Pharisees, the one in which he uses their beloved Torah against them by citing the words of Exodus 3:6, right out of the Torah that the Sadducees cited as the only true scripture. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, God doesn’t say “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob back when they were alive”; God puts it all in present tense. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Am. Present tense. Jesus elaborates that God is “God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” If God is their God, then they aren’t dead. Their lives are held in God, thus they live and shall live, and somehow that will hold true for us too.
How does that work? Beats me. Paul expended a lot of time and energy in his epistles trying to reassure the Thessalonians and the Corinthians about what resurrection meant and how it related to earthly life, which was to say not much. We get phrases like these from 1 Corinthians 15: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable”; or from “we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed”; or “for this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” How? Paul doesn’t even go there, nor does Luke, and I’m not going to either. But this is the work of God in us, redeeming us in Christ and preparing us through the Holy Spirit that when our time comes, when death comes upon us, it will not be the final word. What is mortal puts on immortality, and lives in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, really forever and for all time.
We human beings are wildly insecure. We have a terrible habit of substituting rigid belief for life-giving faith. We demand to know how it all works – witness all those preachers and pseudo-Bible scholars who insist on trying to calculate the date of the Rapture when even Jesus says he doesn’t know the day nor the hour. We don’t trust at all, when you get down to the heart of us. Are we ready to take Jesus seriously, and be “the living” that Jesus calls us to be now – to do Christ’s work in God’s world – and trust that our resurrection life is secured in God? Can we do that?
We are mortal creatures, subject to all the finitude and brokenness and decline that is the lot of all mortal creatures. But that is not our final fate, no matter whether we know how it works or not.
For the God of the living, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #353 My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less; #371, New Songs of Celebration Render (Psalm 98); #822, When We Are Living; #840, When Peace Like a River