Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Proper 27, Year C - Sunday November 6, 2016
But this encounter is different. And perhaps the absence of the Pharisees is our big clue... The encounter begins with a question that sounds to us like a trick. After all, the question is primarily focused on life in the resurrection and Luke begins by reminding us that the Sadducees don't believe in resurrection. Obviously they must be up to something...
But keep in mind that the Sadducees (and Pharisees as well) were sincerely faithful people. In my mind they tend to turn into shallow and cynical folks who exist primarily to challenge Jesus – and in the Gospels that is largely their function. I tend to lump them, Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, into a group under the general heading Hypocrites. And when I put them under the heading, then I can more or less ignore them. But lets not ignore them now...
In the Jewish tradition at the time of Jesus there was an evolving understanding of the afterlife. A belief in resurrection was coming into general acceptance, but the Sadducees were, as we might say today, traditionalists. The tradition held that the afterlife was not a different life in a different realm, but rather that a person (and by that, they meant a man) lived on through his children and his children's children, and so on.
In this understanding, a man who dies with no children has no afterlife. So it is important, and even commanded in scripture, that his brother step in and produce children with the dead man's wife. This is the practice of levirate marriage – a term derived from Latin, meaning brother-in-law marriage.
Keep in mind that there was no restriction on the number of wives a man could have, so any good brother-in-law could marry his late brother's wife... Indeed he was required to do so.
But look at the urgency and importance of the Sadducees question. They are trying to understand the notion of afterlife in their changing world. In the traditional understanding this sequence of marriages leaves the man with no afterlife because there are no children. In the new understanding there is the possibility of afterlife for the man – you can see why the question is important.
Still, the Sadducees can't escape their understanding that afterlife is somehow child-dependent. In the resurrection who's wife is this? Who's children can she produce? I think they are truly trying to understand. But they don't know how to ask the question.
Mark tells the same story – but in Mark's memory, Jesus snaps at the Sadducees. He says: "Are you not wrong because you do not know scripture or the power of God?" But in Luke's memory, Jesus is more patient. Those who live in this age get married... but in the age of the resurrection people don't get married. And for those Sadducees worried about eternal life he assures them that in the resurrection, people can not die. Reproduction is no the key to eternal life.
And for those anxious Sadducees still not sure that there is any resurrection, Jesus puts forward the greatest authority they know, the one they started with – Moses. God is God of the living. The Sadducees may question Jesus, but not Moses.
What might this be saying to us?
Well certainly the question of levirate marriage is hardly a burning one today. But we do have lots of questions about marriage... I don't think this story answers too many of them, but that may be an answer we need. What Jesus does say is that marriage is of this world – of this age. In the age of resurrection it is not a thing.
For those who have enjoyed loving and deeply life-giving marriages, Jesus' observation that in heaven there is no marriage may be painful. I know many a widow and widower who in some ways looked toward their own death as a way to be reunited with their loved one. It is a deeply comforting thought. Jesus doesn't say they won't be reunited, but he does make clear that the new life will not be just a continuation of the old.
On the other hand, those who have suffered at the hands of an abusive spouse may well find deep comfort and assurance that in heaven they will not be stuck with the abusive spouse...
What I want, and I think many of us want, is some concrete, clear, airtight assurance of how good the resurrection will be. This is the desire I think that motivates the Sadducees. It motivated the disciples when they were chasing after Jesus imploring him to tell them about heaven – and his cryptic reply... heaven is a very big place with lots of room. Don't worry about it. When we want to be assured that heaven is lovely and that our place is reserved, the answer is don't worry about it.
I'm not about to argue that heaven isn't lovely... nor am I about to argue that some of us are heaven bound while others are surely on their way to hell. What I would argue is that our earthly concepts, our earthly desires, our earthly senses can not tell us about heaven. And our quest for concrete certainty only serves to obscure our vision and diminish our knowledge of heaven, just as it did for the Sadducees.
An odd thing happens right at the end. We've been hearing about Sadducees and Jesus has been talking, presumably, to Sadducees. But the very last interchange is not Sadducees and Jesus, but rather Scribes and Jesus. It is the Scribes who say "Teacher, you have spoken well." And it is the Scribes who dare ask no more questions.This may be of little importance... but I want to read a great deal into it. So bear with me.
Scribes and Pharisees are often a sort of short hand for unfriendly inquisitors - those who try to trip up Jesus with loaded questions. In fact, just before today's reading these folks have been trying to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. You remember the answer: render unto Cesar what is Cesar's... The purpose of that question was to get Jesus in trouble.
The Sadducees are really asking a question and really seeking an answer. They are not trying to topple Jesus. The nature of our questions determines the direction of the answers. Sincere questions move us toward sincerity while trick questions move us toward trickery.
We can not help but wonder about heaven. To say that we won't is a fruitless endeavor. But when we focus our questions on how good we'll have it in the next world, that moves away from involvement in this world.
Karl Marx famously said: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." He wanted to abolish religion because of the false happiness, the opium, it provides. I think Marx understood human nature quite well. I don't think he understood God, or Jesus, or the Gospel.
Dwelling on how marvelous heaven, God's Kingdom, will be is not what Jesus calls us to. Building God's Kingdom here on earth is what Jesus calls us to. We are called to heal the heartless world, not to anesthetize it. God is God of the living and so it is with the living that we must seek to know and to serve God.
I don't hear Marx so much as condemnation, but rather as a warning. If we are honest, there are certainly occasions when people, in the name of religion, have sought to preserve a distinctly unjust status quo with promises of a better life to come – or as one wag put it; There'll be pie in the sky by and by...If there is a problem in the Sadducees' question it is that they are seeking Karl Marx's opium – they want to be assured about eternal life. And Jesus firmly redirects their attention, and our attention to this life... to be faithful to God – the God of the living - here and now.