Sunday 10 November 2019
(with thanks to Andrew Prior)
Gospel: Luke 20:27-38. 27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man [his brother] shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but 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. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And 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. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
Reflection: We all know the old saying that there are only 2 things we cannot avoid – death and taxes. We all die. But we like to think we can cheat death. It shows up in our sympathy for those who must remain childless - there is special significance and pain where there is no child to continue the family line. Speaking of the world of the Sadducees, James Alison says, "The only way of bluffing past the universal reign of death was by having children... The only way to have a blessing in the land of the living was by having children, descendants." (Raising Abel pp36) We are not much different.
I suspect this is one reason the climate catastrophe is so confronting, as is the fear of nuclear devastation when we remember it: both mean we all come to the end of the line.
When we approach this reading it is not only that we deal with the universal human fear of death. We read as members of a death denying society. Chaplains and clinicians know well the anger which can be expressed when doctors say nothing more can be done; families sometimes insist that brain dead bodies be kept alive. At the same time there is a constantly simmering conversation around the right to die, a notion that would be inconceivable to most people who have ever lived.
The text is also painful for women. The woman is no more than a chattel in this story. She has value only as she provides children for a male. Childlessness is a cause for condemnation and opprobrium. Where a couple decide not to have children, or where the male cannot reproduce, it is still typically the woman who bears the blame. As for the woman herself unable to have children the biblical word "barren" connotes shame and judgement.
All this is to say that the text is more emotionally loaded for us than most texts!
The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. They regarded only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as authoritative. There is no resurrection there. Resurrection begins to take clear shape in the couple of centuries before Jesus.
And so the Sadducees draw on an exaggerated scenario to show that resurrection would be ridiculous. Alison notes that when the Sadducees give Jesus their story of seven brothers who die in an effort to show that resurrection would be ridiculous.
Today, the Sadducees might appeal to biology and make up an example which highlights that there is no mind, and no life in any meaningful form, which is independent of a living body. As a consequence, the notion of resurrection is reduced to being a denial of death.
We need to listen well to this modern Sadducee, for in batting away their objection we all risk the charge of an unconscious denial of death. Within our faith, this is not simply an argument about being right or wrong about reality. Rather, to deny death is to fail to live fully, for it denies the reality of life as a biologically embedded and created being. It is to fail to confront— to be confronted by— death's reality.
And that means that we fail to trust God as fully as we might. We say we are saved; that is, we are healed and made well through faith, and "this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." (Eph 2:8 ) When we too easily make light of death, that denial is likely to close us to the love with which God wishes to bless us.
Perhaps the central point of this reading is simply “God is God of the living” and that for God, all are alive. This is at the heart of the theology of resurrection: all are alive to God, here, and now, and always… all are alive to God.
This is easier to say than it is to believe and to live fully – at least I find it so. So much of what we do is evidence that we don’t really believe this. Perhaps this is especially true in the church where many people experience the absence of the God of the living and suffer under the judgmentalism of an institution which doesn’t always understand the incredible truth of the words: to God we are all alive.
Those churches who genuinely believe that they are the holders of the keys to eternal life – everything has a caveat and is conditional. If you live a conventional life, if you fit with the expected norms, you will receive eternal life. But Luke’s Jesus places no conditions. All are alive to God.
If then God is a “god of the living,” followers of Jesus ought to be on about things that bring life, which seems to emphasize a call for embodied living recalling not just what happens when we die but paying attention to present realities.
It means being attentive to God in everything and at all times, in the usual places, and in the unexpected. It’s about looking at the world with wonder-filled eyes. Howard Thurman says “There is magic all around us— in the rocks, the trees, and the minds of people… There can be no thing that does not have within it the signature of God, the Creator of life, the living substance out of which all particular manifestations arise.”
More than that, “God is not merely the Creator of creatures, of all objects animate and inanimate; but also and more importantly, …God is the creator of life itself. Existence is the creation of God; life is the creation of God.”
There can be no thing that does not have within it, the signature of God.
God is alive in, through, and around life itself. All parts of our life are alive with God. No matter where we find ourselves beyond this service, God is there! We may be experiencing loss, or joy, illness or new life, busy-ness or loneliness – wherever we are - God is there!