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Jesus is having an argument.
It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, for in matters of faith we seem to need to know who is right…and perhaps more importantly, who is wrong. This is a particularly wonky argument, too – it’s all about resurrection and afterlife, with a complicated riddle thrown in about whose marriage to whom really counts.
– SIDE NOTE – it really should be mentioned, since it might be glossed over from LOTS of pulpits speaking to this passage, that here’s a great example of Biblical marriage rules. Please notice that the religious authorities bring up what is called the “levirate marriage law.” It states that if a couple marries and the husband dies before they have children, then his brother is obligated to not only marry his sister-in-law, but also to impregnate her – the children then belonging to his brother’s line of inheritance. So, think about that when someone claims they want Biblical family values!!
OK, back to the main point – we have a theological debate here, and a scriptural one, too. I think it’s equally interesting for us to know that within this question from the accusers trying to “catch” Jesus are a lot of assumptions that we don’t necessarily get. Assumption one – what constitutes scripture? The Sadducees believe that the Torah, what we’d call the first five books of our Bible, is the only scriptural authority. For the Pharisees and for Jesus, that authority is expanded. Jesus seems to favor Isaiah as very authoritative, something that the Sadducees see as very suspect. So, even then, there were arguments about the authority of written words.
Assumption two – God is still speaking. We say this as a slogan in the United Church of Christ, one that has been seen as controversial at times. But here we are in one of the gospels with Jesus making the same claim to a group that believes all God needs to say is trapped in 5 books written hundreds of years ago. And Jesus is disputing that claim.
Assumption three – there is life beyond this life. That one may not seem so controversial, though there are those today who say we are born, we live and then we die and that’s it. The Sadducees do not profess anything like heaven or an afterlife, they say that we live on in our family lines, in the identities we create here in this world…which is why you have to have a law like levirate marriage. If you die and have no heirs, then you are really dead. If you have someone to carry on your name, then you’re only mostly dead. And, as Miracle Max has taught us, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Life is that which defines meaning to us, and outside of that framework we don’t have much on which to hang our hats. Some sense of life – even life beyond life – helps to soften that existential angst with which we all live.
See, this is more than just a gotcha moment where religious authorities are trying to catch Jesus in a theological mistake. This is actually a serious debate on the reality of life and the tension of our mortality. And Jesus doesn’t want to steal the Sadducees sense of peace, nor ours for that matter, he wants to expand it.
On Friday three churches gathered together – All Souls, Morningstar Baptist and Fellowship – for a profoundly meaningful ceremony collecting sacred ground to be sanctified in memory of a victim of racial justice. We dug in soil that was in the general vicinity of the home that a Mrs. Rosa Morrison resided in with her husband and 12 year-old son, until she was murdered in the 1921 attack on Greenwood. For some gathered it was an abstract, symbolic moment, but for others it was visceral and tangible, a very real part of their lives, even today. It was a claim on life as well. We stood there in a small circle and sang “Amazing Grace” and remembered a life, which is one way that Mrs. Morrison has not just ceased to exist. And there are other ways, for the undercurrent of our gathering was that this life is not the final answer. Mrs. Morrison did not know justice in this world, and maybe that’s not possible anymore. But I don’t know what comes next, and neither do you. And I think that we choose to trust that there is something larger than what we experience in this life – peace and equity and justice live somewhere, and maybe we will, too, someday.
At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is spending ample time arguing with different religious authorities that they are getting the Kingdom of the world confused with the Kin-dom of God. While they quibble over who will be married to whom in some complicated scheme, he is talking about things of ultimate importance and trying to lay a moral foundation for his followers that will be resilient and vibrant. And he is doing this a couple of weeks before resurrection will be more than a theological debate.
Soon the disciples will be faced with this question head-on…and they are unprepared. It will knock them off all their moorings and set them adrift in a sea of chaos and confusion. And they will have to contend with the fact that Jesus is gone…and the fact that he isn’t. It will no longer be theoretical, it will be tangible, visceral and real…and it will be confusing and disorienting…for this life matters, and life beyond this life matters, too. Our bodies matter, our names matter, our histories matter. That’s why we lift those names up, especially when they have been brushed under the carpet of history, forgotten or ignored. This question of who we are – of our identity in the biggest sense of that word – is one of profound importance. Particularly in the face of death it becomes even more profound.
AND – more than our bodies must matter, for we are not only this stuff. Part of our faithful affirmation is that God is the God of more than our limitations, more than our fragile bodies and our finite understanding, for God exists beyond such things, and sometimes it is in that beyond where we will find our justice, our healing, our wholeness.
I know that there are many of us who are going to fight like hell for the memory of people like Mrs. Morrison. We’re going to fight systems of injustice and racism, we’re going to work for reparations and restoration, we’re going to seek justice in as many ways as it can be sought. AND, ultimately, I don’t know if we will see that justice in this world, in our time.
What I trust is that there is another existence, the one that Jesus lifts up, where our relationships are different, where love that we have fostered and nurtured and maintained doesn’t fade but is strengthened by a more complete Love. That’s what I think resurrection is all about. It is about wholeness, something more than just the immortality of a “soul,” which we all probably confess think possesses our best traits and highest ideals, but isn’t all of us. It’s our soul, after all, not our fractured bones and broken hearts, right? Not the worst thing that has ever happened to us, or our wounds and scars, our too high blood sugar, our depression and our most secret anxieties are left behind – the soul is just the good stuff, right?
But that’s not wholeness. At some point we are all reconciled to God – ALL of us, like every single one of us and the totality of who we each are, warts and all. That’s why resurrection is so important to me. It ultimately is not a discussion about what happens to us after we die, or whether heaven exists, or if the streets are gold or platinum there…it’s a matter of the ultimate justice of the world. If you believe that this world is all there is, that any justice you receive will have to be in the here and now, you might be pretty bleak. After all, injustice surrounds us, it absolutely saturates our world. It takes some serious theological gymnastics to maintain hope in such circumstances, for death seems to be ever present, and it seems like its winning.
So that’s when I remember this complicated answer from Jesus about angels and marriage and worthiness and resurrection, which is all just a set-up in my opinion so he can say, “God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” He tells them that their question involves people who “belong to this age.” That word being translated here as “age”, is more often translated as “world” in the New Testament. It is “aeon” and it does mean a period of time, not this big, blue marble we call earth. So, Jesus is setting up a struggle of values here – the values of his place and time and the values of the Kin-dom.
The Sadducees’ question involves the complexities of levirate marriage, which is a patriarchal institution seeking to masquerade as justice. It protected women by passing them from male to male, making their ability to reproduce their only value. And Jesus says that in the aeon to come, the whole institution of marriage will be unnecessary, which isn’t a dig against marriage, it’s a pushback against this “solution” to the vulnerability of women. The values of the resurrection life don’t pass women along as property, they don’t even create the scenario in the first place that would ask for such a “solution” to present itself. There is something better.
What if I told you that the best love you know, the most perfect relationship you have, is not all there is? What if I said that whatever justice we can know in this life is partial, and true justice only fully materializes in a life to come? Would those be comforting statements to you? Would it be inspiring or deflating to know that we see now through a glass, but dimly, as the Apostle Paul once wrote, but in the age to come, in the eternal life of God’s presence, all of that which we have felt most peaceful, most nurturing, most protective, most loving…all of that will be supplanted by something even more complete, more whole, more holy?
The promise of resurrection tells us this – death isn’t a thing. Of course we know that it is, we feel it and know it, more poignantly here with the loss of two special members of our own community in recent days. But the faithful promise remains – just as elusive and amazing as the days in which the disciples experienced Jesus again – death is not the final answer, nor is limitation, or injustice or pain. For our God is not the God of the dead…to God nothing is truly dead. To God ALL are alive!
Thanks be to God.