RCL Year C, Proper 27
So Jesus is having another argument. Doesn’t it sometimes feel like he’s always arguing? From the time he was twelve in the temple all the way to the end, he keeps getting into these verbal disputes over law and theology with different groups of people. (Some of you might find this a little comforting as you look to family gatherings for the holidays – see, Jesus got into a lot of arguments too.) This one today is happily the last one in Matthew’s gospel – after Jesus finishes his point the scribes come up and congratulate him on his speech, and no one dares after this to ask him another question.
But this argument may seem to us pretty arcane. It’s an argument over a point of theology and ancient customs, and Jesus wins the argument with a bit of verbal rhetoric that leaves me a little cold, I confess – unless it’s just to root again for Jesus’ verbal acuity in debate. Go, Jesus! He won! What’d he win again?
So let’s try to look at it and see if there’s anything it can offer us. The argument is with the Sadducees, defined here simply as those who say there is no resurrection. What they really are is a sect of Judaism that believes God’s revealed truth is found only in the Torah, in the first five books of the Hebrew bible. This sect believes that the prophets and wisdom writings may all be interesting, but they are not scripture – only Torah is. And in Torah, there is no mention of resurrection – so they don’t believe in it. (The Pharisees, however, and of course later the Christians, see the whole of the Hebrew bible as scripture, and there are references to resurrection in those writings which support their belief in it.) At any rate, the Sadducees present a ridiculous situation to Jesus in order to show how absurd they think the idea of resurrection is; Jesus answers back with an appeal to Torah, and the foundational story of Moses and the burning bush. God is the God of the living, not the dead, he says. And the Sadducees are silenced
So that’s the historical fact of the story. Question posed, question answered. Depending on where you are at this point in your life, you might think the answer says a lot, or nothing at all. Then again, you might just be full of more questions.
The question the Sadducees ask Jesus, about a woman who marries seven brothers in succession, is meant to be a ridiculous one. But it is also a revealing one. The practice they are taking about is levirate marriage: a man needs to have offspring in order to continue his name forward, and if he is unable to make that happen with his wife before he dies, his brother must step in to help. The widow has no say in this process of course, because she is the family property and offspring creator at this point, and that is it. Think of being a woman in that culture, a piece of property, and hearing Jesus answer the question this way: in that life there is no marrying or giving in marriage. What an immensely freeing thing to hear Jesus say that none of this will continue after the resurrection – that every human being will be equal before God once freed from the systems of this world. The injustice of this life will not be perpetrated in the next. If you are someone caught in oppression and degradation in this world of whatever kind – because of your gender, or your sexual orientation, or your social class, or the color of your skin – this is a powerful story of hope for the future. A very good answer to the question indeed.
And more than that, Jesus’ answer offers hope for all people, powerful and powerless alike. If this world and this life is all there is, then this is the only sphere where God can act to right wrongs and heal hurts. This stage is all there is to act on. But every day around us we see wrongs going unrighted, terrible crimes and injustices continuing on unpunished and unhealed, people whose lives are suffering from start to finish. If there is no chance of future restoration, it is a depressing prospect indeed – what faith can we have in a God who just seems to leave everything the horrible way it is? But if there is resurrection, if there is a life beyond this one where God can continue to work out God’s purposes, then that opens the door to hope and possibility. God continues to be faithful to us even beyond our death, working on us and in us to redeem us and all creation. Christian hope is grounded in this belief. It’s an answer all of us need to hear.
Then again, maybe none of that speaks to you today particularly. But Jesus’ answer also simply speaks of the hope of resurrection for each one of us, something that touches each person eventually. It gives hope for those of us who have lost someone we love to death and who are grieving their loss, missing them and their presence in our lives. Will I see my loved ones again? Are they gone forever? And it gives hope to any of us who are facing into our own death and mortality, whether that looks close at hand or still far off in the distance. What happens to me after I die? It seems impossible to believe that this is all there is.
Lots of answers to one strange question. But we might have a whole lot of other questions to ask about resurrection besides the one the Sadducees throw out. Jesus doesn’t go into detail about what resurrection looks like, you notice. He doesn’t describe angels and puffy clouds, or streams of light and our loved ones who have gone before, or what happens to our physical bodies, or any of that. Jesus doesn’t answer any of the questions we might want to ask about just how the resurrection of the body works, or whether it’s different for some people or the same for everyone. Instead, Jesus says pretty simply, God is a God of the living, not the dead. God is life itself. To be in God and with God means to be alive – whether we are alive on earth or not. That’s all we’re really offered in this answer.
At diocesan convention yesterday our bishop talked about how the life of faith requires living into the questions. (That’s the theme for our diocesan year, in fact.) Everything’s not all laid out and clear. We don’t have rules to follow and future predictions of where it’s all leading. We don’t have a full and complete description of what will happen at every step along the way. There’s a whole lot we just don’t know – and that could make us pretty anxious if we let it.
But it’s not only questions that we have. We do know some answers, from scripture, from our tradition, from the experience of others and our own lives. We know that God is a God of life and of the living. We know that God is a God of justice. We know that God is a God of love. And we know that God is a God of multiple second chances. Resurrection is an answer to our questions that reflects all of that and more. We embrace it together as a deep and central part of our faith, as little as we may understand of what it is and how it works. Asking further questions, well, I think God absolutely welcomes that. But it may just be that this is enough of an answer to go on for now.
So we live into the questions, and we have faith that God will lead us into deeper truth. May God lead us all into new life, in this world and the next.