Sunday, November 6, 2016
Sermon: Trick Questions
James Sledge November 6, 2016
When I was 13, my brother and I discovered the comedian, George Carlin. We laughed at his seven words you couldn't say on television, when our parents weren’t around to hear. But I was also intrigued by his take on growing up Catholic. I knew nothing about Catholics or Catholic schools, but Carlin's stories about questioning and challenging the teachings of the church resonated with my own, early teenage questions and doubts.
Carlin told of creating elaborate scenarios to trip up the priests and make them look foolish. One story involved the requirement that Catholics receive communion at least once between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost. Not doing your “Easter duty” was a mortal sin.
“Father, suppose that you didn’t make your Easter duty, and it’s Pentecost Sunday, the last day. And you’re on a ship at sea, and the chaplain goes into a coma. But you wanted to receive. And then it’s Monday, too late. But then you cross the International Date Line.” No doubt the priests loved it when little George Carlin raised his hand in class.
The Sadducees in today’s gospel engage in something similar, though the stakes are a lot higher. They devise an elaborate scenario to trip up Jesus and make him look foolish, but this isn't a game. They see Jesus as a threat, and they desperately want to discredit him.
The Sadducees were a small, wealthy, conservative faction of Judaism. To them only Torah the Books of Moses – the first five books of our Bible – were scripture, and they found no evidence for resurrection there. By contrast, the Pharisees and Jesus considered most of what we call the Old Testament scripture, and they found support for resurrection in the prophets and other writings. However, this resurrection wasn’t about going to heaven. It was a hope for a new age when all would be made new, and the dead raised.
These Sadducees have watched as Jesus evades the traps set for him by other opponents, but now they take their turn. No doubt they are a little surprised that this country rabbi, an uneducated rube from the backwoods of Nazareth, has successfully matched wits with religious experts. But they have Moses on their side. They have Torah. I imagine that they are snickering a bit as they lay out a George Carlin like scenario.
"Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died.”
This scenario involves an obscure practice called levirate marriage which the Sadducees explain before asking their question. Maybe they doubt Jesus knows about it. The practice may have fallen into disuse by Jesus' day. Its origins reflect a more rural time when a childless widow could quickly have found herself in mortal jeopardy. The rule sought to provide the deceased an heir so that his lineage would continue, but it also meant that childless widows would have a home and be provided for. It's a little hard to imagine that the wealthy Sadducees had to worry about such things, but the rule was right there in the Books of Moses, amongst rules that prohibited getting tattoos, plowing with and ox and a donkey together, or making cloth out of two different kinds of thread.
“So, Jesus, whose wife will she be?” And the Sadducees sit back and wait. Let's see him get out of this. Surely he wouldn't dare go against what Moses says.
Jesus' response covers two different issues. The first is the nature of resurrection itself. The Sadducees don't believe in it, but their question supposes an understanding not unlike one I often hear from Christians. Resurrection simply shifts everything to a new venue. We just pick up where we left off but in heaven, Paradise, or somewhere.
But Jesus insists that resurrection belongs to an entirely different age and involves a complete transformation. Things that belonged to being human, like marriage, no longer apply. Jesus doesn't give much detail, and neither does the rest of the Bible. The age to come is so different that the best explanation Jesus can give is that we will be like angels, children of God, children of the resurrection. Perhaps it’s simply beyond our imaginations.
Then Jesus addresses the Sadducees on their home turf, the words of Moses. They've quoted an obscure rule, but Jesus recalls the well-known story of Moses meeting God at the burning bush. There God greets Moses with, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Jesus insists that the verb tense matters. God does not say, “I knew Abraham and Isaac and Jacob back in the day, and we did great stuff together.” But rather, “I am their God, even now, long after they have died.”
Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us how the Sadducees reacted. I doubt that they were convinced by Jesus’ fancy interpretive move. Yes, he knew his scripture, knew Torah. Yes, he was a creative, imaginative preacher and teacher. But that’s hardly proof of resurrection.
I have to agree. I’m happy Jesus corrects those who think their interpretation of scripture the only one, that he offers creative new ways to listen to scripture. But just look around us; look at the world, all the pain, the children dying in Aleppo. Look at all the hate and division as we head to the polls this week. How can verb tense make me believe in the grandiose sort of resurrection Jesus talks about, a new age, a new heaven and earth? I see little evidence for that. How can I believe that God will transform creation, and that even those who’ve died will be part of it?
Of course, I don’t think Jesus is trying to convince anyone about resurrection here. He is simply showing that it isn’t incompatible with Torah, with Moses. The actual proof of resurrection is that Jesus has been raised. And knowing that isn’t a matter of finely honed arguments, well-designed doctrines, encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, or impeccable theology. Knowing the truth of resurrection is about being joined to the risen Christ, about experiencing his presence through the Spirit dwelling in you.
This sort of knowledge is not much valued in our world. We tend to prefer things we can figure out, or at least explain. We prefer things that are logical, that conform to our expectations of reality, that we can manage and control. But the Spirit is none of those things, and the Spirit is the author of faith. The Spirit is what allows us to glimpse hope in the midst of hopelessness, to know that God is still God to all those we have lost, to know that no matter what happens in the world, no matter who wins an election, the world still belongs to God.
I won’t try to convince you of this. It doesn’t work that way. But I will encourage you to take a chance, to open yourself to the presence of Christ that is already within you, waiting for you to let go, to give up control and allow the Divine life and love to fill you and raise you to new life.