The Rev Cynthia KR Banks;The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 27—Year C; Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22; II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
We’ve got an interesting exchange this morning in Luke’s gospel. But before we get to the Sadducees and Jesus, we need to set the stage. This is the last week of Jesus’ life. Palm Sunday with its grand procession into Jerusalem with everyone hailing Jesus as their king has already happened. Jesus has wept over the city, driven out those selling things in the temple, and is drawing huge crowds who are spellbound by what they hear from him. The religious leaders are starting to get nervous. So, when you want to silence someone, what do you do? Well, if you’re smart, you try some subtle ways first. How might you do that?
A good place to begin is to try to undermine the person’s authority to say and teach the things they do. So, the chief priests, scribes, and elders point blank ask Jesus by what authority he does the things he does and they ask him, “Just who gave you this authority?” Jesus is wise, so wise, and he turns the question back on them in a way that leaves them scratching their heads.
He then tells a story that the chief priests and scribes rightly understand is against them. They wanted to get their hands on them, but they feared the people. So, they sent spies to try to trap him by what he said, and since they wanted to get the civil authority involved, they went for a question on the legality of paying taxes. Again, Jesus slipped through their fingers by refusing to get trapped in an either/or answer, and giving a third way answer instead.
The chief priests, elders, and scribes weren’t getting anywhere, so what do you do when you can’t figure something out? You go get help; you call in the second string. Enter the Sadducees.
“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. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
And you can just see the smug smile on their faces; you can just feel that sense of “We’ve got him!” [And can we just bracket here an acknowledgment of the poor woman who has to marry seven men whom she may or may not love? The woman is no more than a vehicle to bear children so as to ensure the line of inheritance in the family. Can we take just a moment to stand in her shoes and feel this scenario from her standpoint?] But back to the Sadducees. In the art of debate, in the art form of trying to trap your opponent rhetorically, they think they have won, and they are feeling pretty pleased with themselves.
And you can just feel Jesus going, “Really? Really, guys? You want to talk about this? We could be talking about 5,000 people who were by a seashore and needed to be fed. We could be talking about the droves of people who have followed me all over this country who need to be healed. We could talk about the Roman occupation and what that is doing to people’s dignity. We could talk about all the people who feel like outcasts, and in fact, are treated like outcasts because of a disease they have, or their ethnic background, or their gender, or their job, or some other fact of life beyond their control. We could talk about the temple economy and how it is crushing the poor. We could talk about all those people who just feel lost. We could talk about what it means to pray and what it means to take action. We could talk about what it means to sit down and break bread together. We could talk about what it means to love God and your neighbor, and we could talk about who your neighbor is. We could talk about how we are to treat “the other,” the one who is in some way “foreign” to us. We could talk about grace and law. We could talk about all these things, and you want to talk about THIS? Really?”
The Sadducees question feels like some intricate 5th grade math problem, some if/then equation that I just can’t figure out. This is the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin question. This feels like the conversations that we would have late at night in seminary arguing about the finer points of eschatology and how that impacted your doctrine of atonement and did that line up with your doctrine of creation and what did that then say about your belief in the incarnation, and if you don’t know what half of those words mean, you are in great company—most of us in seminary didn’t know what they meant either, but we sure acted like we did. And we would look for holes in the other’s arguments, just waiting to trip them up. We were good Sadducees in training.
“In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” What the Sadducees put forward feels like some trick EOG question. And it is a trick question. Anybody know why? The Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection. The Sadducees say there is no resurrection. The Sadducees ask a question about something they don’t even believe in. This is about winning, not earnestly seeking the truth from a place of curiosity and wonder.
So, again, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. He doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t get caught in theological minutia or gamesmanship. Jesus doesn’t figure out the silly scenario. Jesus speaks to the heart of their disbelief. Jesus talks about resurrection. Whatever we think matters now, it just doesn’t matter then. In whatever lies beyond the veil, it is not like it is here. Whatever has constrained us here in the brokenness of our hearts or minds or souls or bodies, it’s all made whole there. Whatever has kept us apart, it is in perfect union there. And there may not be a physical place, at least not with lots of gold and ethereal white boulevards, but it is an objectively real place. It is a place where the dead are alive, and quite possibly are more alive than they ever were in this life because whatever was in their way is done away with. Moses knew that when he spoke about the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For Moses, all of those patriarchs were living, breathing, guiding forces still. We believe it, too when, just before the Sanctus in worship, we pray with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We profess it when we talk about the communion of saints. And these aren’t just beautiful, pretty words; this it isn’t just a hoped for possibility; no, it is a lived reality. I know it’s a lived reality because I have experienced it in my lived reality, and I have heard you tell stories about how you have experienced in your lived reality. Jesus goes for the heart of the matter, “Oh, Sadducees, you want to talk about inane, pointless, meaningless scenarios; I want to talk about what is infinitely alive!”
But lest we are too hard on the Sadducees, could we do a little log check in our own eye before trying to take out the speck in their eye? As words fly around our TV screens and electronic devices and kitchen tables and coffee break conversations, are we talking about things that matter? Or, are we trying to trap our imagined opponents with their own words? Are we playing round after round in an eternal game of gotcha by painting the other in a corner with trick questions? Are we doing everything we can to undermine the other’s authority to speak and say as they do? Are we putting our desire to win above an earnest desire to seek the truth? Are we distracting ourselves from the deeper reality of resurrection? Because quite frankly it’s harder to live from a place of resurrection life and power than it is to engage in all these games.
For some reason, the world is drawn to cynical patterns of death, ways of being that say, “Winning can make you feel alive.” Or, “Keep the game going because you can’t really change anything that matters—the forces at play are just too big to shift. It’s all futile in the end.” And that would be true if we weren’t in communion with a God who is infinitely alive; that would be true if we weren’t woven into this great communion of saints whose collective power to guide us and sustain us and fuel us with hope and courage and strength is far beyond our imagining. The Sadducees might get Jesus; in fact, by the end of this week of Jesus’ life, they will do just that—he will die on a cross. But they can’t stop the power of his life; they can’t stop the power of resurrection to breathe life into that which is dead. They can think they have buried that love and power deep in the ground and sealed it up tight, but they can’t stop a God who wants to roll that stone away; they can’t stop a God whose deepest desire is for communion with all of creation; and within that communion, all the old rules and equations and divisions are rendered null and void. Perfect love flowing in, flowing out, flowing among; perfect love perfectly given, perfect love perfectly received—that’s the new equation—there’s no trick to it, no gotcha quality, just love and light and life.
We have a choice. We can keep playing our Sadducee games. We can stay totally distracted arguing about things that don’t amount to a hill of beans. We can give our energy to these patterns of death. Or, we can throw our energy toward resurrection. We can direct our energy to resurrection realities. We can draw strength from the great communion of saints that surrounds us. We can feel their guidance, celebrate their wholeness, and find healing for ourselves and the world in the process. We can refuse to stay stuck in either/or patterns that demand winners and losers. We can follow Jesus and seek a third way always.
The Sadducees saw life, and they saw death, but they couldn’t see resurrection—they couldn’t see the kind of life that lives on the other side of death. For us to see this life will demand that we die to a whole lot, but the life that awaits us is so real and beautiful and deep and rich. Resurrection isn’t just resuscitated life; it’s life of a whole different order. It is not to be found in books or equations or gotcha games; it is only discovered in the lived experience of dying and rising again.
The way of the Sadducees is so tempting because it looks like winning, but don’t take the bait. Resurrection isn’t about winning; it’s about living. It’s about truly living now and trusting in the web of communion that surrounds us and holds us and permeates every level of existence, always.
Everything is alive to God. We can live in a world of Sadducaic hypothethicals, or we can go to the heart of the matter and throw our lot in with resurrection. The choice is yours. Where will you choose to live? Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
November 10, 2013