Year C, Proper 27
November 10, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
God’s relationship to time. Resurrection. The nature of death… some pretty heady stuff can result out of a kind of snarky argument with a few Sadducees.
Before we get into that, though, let’s look at a little history. Anyone know who the Sadducees were? _____ They were a Jewish sect that arose in the Maccabeean revolt of the second century BCE and lasted through the destruction of the Second temple in 70 CE. They were not the 1%, but they hailed from the upper echelons of the economic, social and religious spheres of Jewish society. They managed the tax collection infrastructure for the Romans, made up an important part of the Sanhedrin, the governing council, had an important hand in military affairs, and most importantly, particularly as it comes to Jesus and our story, they administered the Temple in Jerusalem. They had the keys to the Temple. Very important. Traditionally they are associated with the House of Zadok, the progenitor of the hereditary line of High Priests that began in the first Temple constructed by Solomon sometime in the 10th or 9th century BCE, though of course no archeological or extra-scriptural evidence of the first Temple exists. In any case, the Sadducees were an extremely important and powerful factor in the life of Israel in the time of Jesus.
Being significant power-holders, the Sadducees had conflicts with other significant power-holders, namely the Pharisees. Theirs was a theological conflict, largely about the authority of the written Torah, and the passed down oral tradition of Torah. The Torah is the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Sadducees held that the only Torah is the written word, while the Pharisees embraced the Torah, oral traditions that expanded and deepened the Torah, most notably reflected in the Pharisaic embrace of the Psalms and of Prophetic literature that they held to be holy scripture.
So our little story for today is about the notion of resurrection and the nature of God in relation to the dead very precisely because of where these two Jewish sects came down on what was authoritative scripture and what was not. You see, in the Pentateuch, the original written Torah, there is no reference to resurrection, so it was not in the religious landscape of Sadducean Judaism. The Pharisees had a very different idea about all of this. They embraced much later prophetic writing as authoritative, the book of Daniel in particular. In the prophet Daniel’s apocalypse are direct references to the archangel Gabriel and Michael, clear references to resurrection, and an indication that there is to be a final judgment and resulting everlasting life or eternal damnation, depending.
It is an odd little story. Some Sadduccees approach Jesus with a pretty silly, legalistic kind of question… according to the law of Moses, if a woman is widowed with no children, her husband’s brother should marry her. It was a pretty primitive form of social security for widows, but it was something, and this religious law was social custom. As distinct non-believers in the doctrine of resurrection that Jesus and the early Christian Church as well as the Pharisees held, the Sadducees sought to trip Jesus with an outlandish hypothetical story, so they posited the long line of dead brothers with the question, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?
Jesus is a wise teacher. He doesn’t wade into the minutiae of the Sadducee’s argument, which is a limiting argument. It sets an earthly trap for a heavenly God. Jesus rather, unshackles God from the constraints of time. Our God is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob just as much now as God ever was. This all manifests in the idea of kairos, God’s time, as opposed to chronos, temporal or chronological time. In God’s time all are alive, there is no past or future, there is not even a present, there is just God in right relationship across what we understand to be time. This is not in conflict with the idea of the sacrament of the present moment, the notion that we as finite, time bound creatures can only encounter the Living God in the present moment. No, we can only encounter God right now. What that now looks like from a God’s eye view? Well, now that is an unanswerable question that isn’t even very worth asking.
But that is not what this is all about, an esoteric doctrine of the nature of time, or the relationship God has with the dead. Jesus does not spend much time on such things. (He leaves most of that to us to figure out). But why does Luke have Jesus engaged with a debate with the Sadducees to begin with? It is a little odd, Jesus arguing the Pharisaic line (remember, they argued for the doctrine of resurrection, of angels and an afterlife), because the Pharisees were the primary competition of the early church. It is odd, for it would seem that some of these ontological doctrines, the nature of existence and God kind of questions, are sourced from the Pharisees. Why or maybe the answerable question is how did we inherit that theological legacy? _______
In a word: Paul. Why? Remember, that Saul, not Paul, but Saul was a Pharisee. On that road to Damascus when he was struck down blind and became Paul the Apostle, he was converted to the Way, the Way of Christ. And he brought with him the way he knew how to understand the world, which was rooted in Pharisaic Judaism, with notions of resurrection, and angels and eternal life. And St. Luke the Evangelist is at least legendarily remembered as a disciple of Paul so it stands to reason that the theological roots of Paul, sourced from his upbringing within the sect of Pharisees would find their way into our Gospels, and into our hearts.
Now as I usually ask, particularly when our scripture leads us to places where the day-to-day life applications are difficult to discern, what does this have to do with us? Why does it matter how Jesus argued against a Jewish sect that met its demise as the stewards of the Temple cult when the Temple met its demise under the boots of the Roman Empire in 70?
First off, Scripture matters. And not just as the revealed word of God, which it does contain, not exclusively, God’s word is revealed in all sorts of writing, art, scholarship, music and flowers, the third testament is the creation itself where God’s word sings from sea to shining sea. But our holy scripture contained within the Bible is important because it carries the narrative trajectory of our faith, the stories and back stories, the history of our spiritual forbearers, the struggle of a specific people to understand and make meaning of existence. Within that trajectory, within that narrative of that struggle, the truth of God has been revealed to generations and generations of the faithful. Scripture is a lived experience.
Scripture matters too, in that it provides a consistent vocabulary of faith. The words and images that connect the dots for us, that allow us to communicate about somewhat incommunicable concepts, ideas and feelings, this is incredibly important. “Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world…” is a deep sentence and a deep sentiment that the Word of God carries in unique ways.
This odd little story itself matters, too. Not in that it tells us much about the afterlife, if there is such a thing. The history of the idea of an afterlife shows that no miraculous or unique revelation came to St. Luke, that this doctrine has an identifiable, historical source, but it demonstrates what Jesus and the foundling church St. Luke was writing for understood God to be, wanted to communicate what God was. And that is timeless, all loving, a God that holds the living and the dead, the past and the present, as alive, as vital, as animated and precious. It matters what we believe. If we believe that God is a light that shines in the darkness, in the darkest of darks, in the inky depths of slavery and war, in poverty and abuse, in sickness, in grief, loss and disappointment, in death itself… if we believe that God is always with us, always shining that light in the darkness, always reaching a divine hand out to us, were are going to be better. Believing in a God such as that can make us better. More forgiving. More loving. More kind. More present. More able to carry the pain we have been given to bear and more able to spread the joy we also have been given to bear. More able to be the people formed in the loving image of God that we all are. All that from this odd little story. Read your Bibles. Its good for you. AMEN