The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost E. Bevan Stanley
November 10, 2019
Proper 27, Year C, RCL
Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
OK. So the Gospel reading we just heard has got to be one of the most puzzling ones there is. Let’s take a closer look and see what we can find that’s useful in it.
We will begin with the Sadducees. They are a group within the Judaism of Jesus’ day that focused their attention on the cultic practices of sacrifice in the Temple. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or in an afterlife. They come to Jesus to challenge him and propose a hypothetical case in an attempt to show how silly this idea of resurrection is. There is in the Mosaic Law the requirement that if a man dies without an heir, his brother is to marry the widow and produce heirs for the deceased. This had to do with managing the land allotments assigned to each family and at the same time made provision for the welfare of the widow who would otherwise be destitute. So the Sadducees make up this improbable case of a man with six brothers, who all die in sequence with the widow becoming the wife of each in turn. “So Jesus, in this resurrection you talk about whose wife will she be?” It is not a real question, but a rhetorical one to show that no one can be expected to believe in the resurrection.
Jesus responds in two different ways. First he states that marriage is a phenomenon of this world not the next. In the resurrection no one marries. “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.” Marriage in Jesus’ day and culture was a social construct in which the woman was regarded almost as property. This social construct was designed to make the inheritance of property tidy and orderly. It was not primarily about a live-giving and nurturing personal relationship. When the next world comes, or when we enter the next life, such social constructs will no longer be in effect nor be useful. In fact, since in the resurrection, no one dies, the question of inheritance or of passing on widows to brothers will not arise.
This response offer us a line of thought that can be challenging. If the institution of marriage is not important in the next life, what other institutions, allegiances, and duties may not matter either? What structures that we value for the stability and security they give us will we be asked to let go of in the next life? What Patterns and commitments that undergird our sense of identity will be irrelevant in the next life. In fact, who will I be when I be in that life when my family, career, and nationality no longer matter? Who will I be when I stand before God without all these marks of who I am? Who will I be when I stand before all the other people in the Kingdom, those beloved of me, those known, those unknown?
The second response is more to the point, for now Jesus, having parried the Sadducees attack, now ripostes with his own thrust. He now offers a text to show that the dead are raised. When God identifies Godself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, God is referring to people who are alive, for God is the “God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Now you may find this use of the scriptural proof text a little weak. Still the point Jesus is making is important. The direction of the causality is significant here. We are not in a relationship with God because we are alive, and then if we die, we lose that relationship. Rather, we are alive because we are in a relationship with God, and because that relationship will never fail, death cannot hold us. “For to God all of them are alive.” To God all of us are alive.
So what will take home from these texts today? It is not that somehow we must crank up our conviction that the resurrection is true, that we have to believe a particular clause in the Creed. No. I think what Jesus is implying, is that if we have a vibrant personal relationship with God, then we will simply know that we shall see God, that we shall experience that life that is so rich and deep and full that we call it eternal, that we shall enter that mode of existence in which all artificial structures of relationship will be removed so that we can give and receive love as universally as God does.
Yesterday Alinda and I attended the memorial service of my uncle, Stan Davies. The service consisted mostly of remembrances given by ten of his children and grandchildren. They were all beautifully done and under three minutes. One of them comes to mind in this context. One of the grandsons recalled a time when he was visiting his grandparents in the summer at their farm. As they were sitting on the patio, the young man asked his grandfather what was the secret to a long and happy marriage. The older man did not answer. Then the lad’s grandmother appeared with a tray of iced tea. The grandfather looked up and saw his wife. He smiled and said to his grandson, “Pick the right girl.” So what is the secret to eternal life filled with love and joy? Pick the right God.
As is so often the case in life, it’s not about information, it’s about the relationship.