Saturday, 5 November 2016

Sunday sermon: Seven weddings and a funeral. Luke 20.27-38

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.”


Whenever I read the Gospel stories I’m regularly amazed – although I shouldn’t be, I suppose – by how many times Jesus is approached by smart-arses. One of the dangers we fall into is assuming that the Jews of Jesus’ time had a common set of beliefs. They didn’t. We hear a lot about the Pharisees, now we have the Sadducees: they were a Jewish sect who denied the resurrection of the dead. They put stock only in the first five books of the Old Testament. If it wasn’t clearly stated in the Pentateuch, they didn’t accept it. As far as they were concerned, there was no mention of the resurrection of the dead anywhere in what were called “The Books of Moses.”  If it didn’t say it in the Pentateuch, the first five books of their Bible, they just didn’t believe it. In fact, the first five books of the Old Testament were the only Bible they had.

That is the backdrop to this confrontation between the Sadducees and Jesus. And since Jesus is the new prophet in town – and most of his time so far has been spent skirmishing with the Pharisees and/or the scribes – it is now the Sadducees’ turn to take him on. They are determined to see what this upstart Galilean is made of. So, they have come to him with their clever little riddle. They want to embarrass him theologically in front of his growing group of followers and seekers, thinking that perhaps they can get Jesus to deny the authority of God’s Word: There was a woman who had no children and was married seven times to seven brothers. Each died and then the woman died. And the question was, “At the resurrection who is she married to?” Come on, Jesus, see how ridiculous this resurrection thing actually is.

Have you ever had anybody do that to you? Get you into an argument over your beliefs?  It doesn’t happen to me as often as you might think, but it has happened and how I respond is largely based on what I think is the motive of the person who is doing the asking. Is he asking a serious question, or is he trying to get me to validate an attitude he’s had for a long time and has no intention of changing? It’s very often the latter, and I suspect that’s the way it was for Jesus when he was confronted by the religious leadership in Jerusalem.

I have this mental image today of the spokesman for the Sadducees, having delivered what he presumably believed was his oh-so-innocent killer question, looking round at his fellow Sadducees with a knowing wink as if to say, “That’s got him! Aren’t I clever?”

There’s a wonderful picture of Jesus cleansing the temple which does the rounds on Facebook from time to time. Someone’s added the caption, “I wish to make it clear that an explosion of temper remains an option. Here’s my role model.” I identify with that sentiment regularly but at the same time I do wonder how Jesus kept his cool when faced with people whose primary motive seemed to be to attempt to make him look foolish while making themselves look clever.

Nevertheless he begins to expose them.  There’s no evidence that Jesus changed their minds, but then their minds weren’t open to changing, so what he said was more for the benefit of the wider audience, particularly given that Luke has established Jesus as a Torah-observant Jew, concerned for the traditions of the ancestors. First, He points out the fact that in the age to come there is no marriage because there is no death.  Part of the purpose for marriage is to bring two people together in love and to begin a home that glorifies God.  Marriage is God’s institution, his idea for the good of everyone involved.  It is, however, only for this present age.  The glorious age to come is nothing like this present age. Jesus is saying that the reality of the resurrection is so different from this reality that the subject of marriage isn’t relevant.  They are thinking of the next reality in terms of this reality and because they aren’t willing to think outside the box they aren’t going to grasp the greater implications of the resurrection.  They are questioning Jesus on the basis of this world, the world that they know and so can’t make sense of what Jesus is saying. The age of the resurrection is not like this one, the one with all of these unfair social arrangements that we have made and the everyday cruelties and injustices we tend to see as part of our norm.  It will be the world as God intended it to be. Effectively Jesus is saying to these men, “You are looking at the right topic, the resurrection, but you are asking the wrong question. Your view, your understanding is too narrow.”

So Jesus brushes off the Sadducees with a theological shrug that simply rejects the premise of their case, and they vanish. In the next scene, some scribes appear and warmly approve of Jesus’ debating style, and with that, all questioning ends. It must have felt a strange theological victory for Jesus, and slightly discomforting, when the Scribes were on his side given the disputes he regularly had with them, but then religious discussion often finds strange allies.

The age to come is something we struggle to comprehend because when we think of our future, we tend to think on the basis of our past. What happened yesterday will pretty much happen tomorrow.  But God's world is something completely different. This passage gives few specific details about the nature of the resurrection, though it does stress that we should not limit our imagination - let alone God's design - for life after death by our own experiences. Eternal life will be qualitatively different from what we know in our current existence. Time itself - and with time death - will have ceased. For this reason, there’s no point speculating too much about the exact nature of the resurrection but while we don’t know what relationships will be like, we know that we will be related to each other in and through our relationship with God. Our funeral liturgy reflects this - and the Sadducees would have had apoplexy reading it. It talks of a new Heaven and a New Earth, quoting the book of Revelation; it talks of a world with no pain and no sadness, where God will wipe away every tear; a place of joy and reconciliation in the eternal presence of God. I don’t know about you, but that’ll do for me because if that’s so then everything else will fall into place.

To conclude, discussion on the question of resurrected life can consume our energies and sometimes lead us nowhere. It is, after all, a matter of faith and in the end, a mystery. Christians really do not have to spend much time arguing about it one way or another. If we live now as those who have already entered the journey of eternal life, facing into deathly issues and struggles in the here and now as though we do not fear death, then we will convince more people than in any attempt at proving things about life after death.

And so when good things happen to us in this life, we should rejoice, and thank God for those good things while remembering that better things are coming. And when bad things happen to us in this life, it's natural to feel disappointed, and maybe even a little depressed. But let’s remember that there is a new life coming. We have something wonderful waiting for us in our future and it doesn't matter that we don't know the exact details.


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