November 10, 2013
Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive. (Luke 20:38)
We say that one of the reasons Jesus came among humans was to reveal God to us in all of God’s fullness. The corollary to that lesson, of course, is that Jesus also came to cure us of our idolatries, of all the wrong ways in which we perceive God. When Jesus reveals who God is and who God isn’t, what we he shows us is a God who is completely about life, life, and more life. It’s a wonderful consolation to us, especially since just last week we recalled all the saints who have died.
In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus doesn’t do anything silly, like pretend grieving and aching for the people who have died is unimportant or doesn’t matter. He simply makes the point that in the eyes of God, there is no question of the dead versus the living, “for to [God],” Jesus says, “all of them are alive.”
So maybe one of the false ideas we have about God that needs to be dispelled is that humans often link God with death. So many people ask, when a loved one dies, “Why did God do this?” or “Where was God when this happened?” And one of the more horrible things people say when they are trying to console one another is, “S/he had to die because God needed another angel,” or something like that. What Jesus tries to point out to the Sadducees in today’s reading from Luke—and to everyone else who is tangled up in the idea that God is finite and reigns as a God of death—is that they couldn’t be more wrong.
It helps us grasp this story and concept, I think, to remember that the scene Luke presents us today happened about a week before Jesus’ crucifixion. Life and death would have been very much on Jesus’ mind. He must have known how troubled the disciples would be by what was coming, for how could they think of death as anything but the end? It also helps if we understand a little bit about who the Sadducees were. We’re not as used to encountering them in the Gospels as we are the Pharisees. That’s because Jesus spent most of ministry in Galilee and other outlying places, where the Pharisees were like local officials, the mayors and city councilmen in those outlying places. The Sadducees were more like the “Washington politicians,” so to speak. They were the establishment religious figures in the capital city of Jerusalem, where Jesus is about to be executed. Their theological focus was entirely on the Torah (also known as the Pentateuch), the five books of Moses in the Scriptures. Since resurrection is never mentioned in these books, the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection.
The Sadducees argument with Jesus comes from a law in Deuteronomy, and their intent is to catch Jesus on his view of the resurrection. The hypothetical situation they pose comes from a law that says if a married man dies without children, then it falls to his brother to take that man’s widow as his wife so they could have a child on behalf of the late brother, assuring him of posterity. It SOUNDS like this is a piece of matrimonial law regarding whose property the wife becomes. The Sadducees, however, are trying to get Jesus to talk about whether or not this law governs God’s conduct. They reason that if the people who wrote Deuteronomy imagined the possibility of resurrection, there would be no need for a law like this one. This law existed solely to provide a way of bluffing past the universal reign of death—by having children. A man who died without children needed his brother to get his share in posterity that he couldn’t get for himself.
To make their argument even more spectacular, their hypothetical situation consists of seven brothers who died before having children, passing the poor wife on like a used car. In addition to adding layers to the question, “Whose wife is she in the afterlife?” they also know that this specific image will remind the Jewish listeners around Jesus of a story that had helped popularize the idea of a resurrection of the righteous.
It’s the story of the seven Maccabee boys who came a thousand years after Moses in Jewish history and became heroes in their own right for standing up against a terrible dictator in Judah. The seven Maccabee brothers were executed for their refusal to abandon God’s Law. The passage from the book of Maccabees describing their death is one of the earliest texts referring to the resurrection of the dead–precisely as a prize for God’s martyrs. By including this indirect reference to them, the Sadducees are saying, “The Levirate law undercuts all arguments for the resurrection of the dead, even if those dead are as precious as the 7 Maccabee boys.”
But Jesus knows the question the religious leaders have posed to him is a political one, wrapped up in theological trappings. Instead of engaging in their little game, he responds to what lies beneath the trappings, exploding some assumptions along the way. He digs deeper than the hypothetical and goes for the truth:
“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but 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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:34-36)
In short, he tells the Sadducees that no matter how smart or powerful they conceive themselves to be, they really don’t understand anything about who God is or how God is at work in and beyond the world. First, Jesus says, you see the world in a very limited way, including the way you understand family relationships. In God’s eyes, that wife did not and will not belong to anyone. In God’s world, she—and each of her husbands—is a whole, beloved, and treasured child of the resurrection, a complete, new, and unfettered being. Each person on earth is precious in their own right, and God’s dream for each one is life, life, and more life.
Then Jesus brings up a story about Moses and the burning bush, which doesn’t appear to have anything to do with either marriage or resurrection. It is, however, conveniently located in the 2nd book of the Torah, so from a source the Sadducees would embrace. Jesus makes this point through the story: our understanding of time and space are not at all like God’s. In Exodus 3, God tells Moses repeatedly, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—three people who were apparently already dead by the time of Moses. That detail didn’t seem relevant to God. God doesn’t say, “I WAS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God says, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
God is not confined by earthly rules or by the trappings humans typically associate with power—wealth or might or political clout. God’s power is not even rooted in authority over death. Instead, it seems that God’s “power” is in being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. It’s not that God even has power over death, so much as it is that there is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and, for that reason, facts which are obvious to us (like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses), simply do not exist for God. We tend to understand “being alive” as basically meaning “not being dead.” But for God, being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death. We see a wall between “alive” and “dead.” Jesus challenges us to break through that wall, to recognize that everything about God is so much bigger and more mysterious than we imagine.
I would like to conclude with a blessing called “God of the Living” from a Methodist pastor named Jan Richardson. May it bring you life, life, and more life.
God of the Living
When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
When it seems
and sharp edges.
When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
all over again.
Then may you be given
of how weak the wall
and how strong what stirs
on the other side,
breathing with you
and blessing you
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.