Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019
Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s talk about death in the Bible. Here’s something that most people don’t realize: the concept of resurrection in the Bible is almost completely absent from the Old Testament. The last few books of the Old Testament to be written have a few vague references to it, most notably Daniel; many other books have passages that we can insert the resurrection into. But God’s people didn’t even start talking about the possibility of the dead being raised until a few centuries before Jesus was born.
Up until then, the standard Jewish belief was that you were born, you lived, and you died. And that was the end. There was no heaven, no hell, only Sheol, where all the dead went, a place of nothingness. If God wanted to reward you, God did it during your lifetime. They looked forward to a day when God would come and set to right all the things that were wrong with the world and make creation perfect again, and if you were a good person living at that time things would be awesome for you, but if you died before that point you would just miss out on it. As things got worse and worse for the Jewish people, as they got conquered and enslaved and sent into exile and returned from exile and got conquered again and again, this belief got less and less satisfying. If you didn’t get rewarded for being a good follower in life, then you had to get rewarded in some other way. Since they didn’t believe in a separation between body and soul, that meant that you had to come bodily back to life. That’s what resurrection is. It’s not about disembodied souls floating on clouds somewhere, it’s about the whole person, body and soul together, coming back to life in the most physical way possible.
In Jesus’ day, the idea of resurrection was highly controversial. The Saducees, who were the high-level priests who controlled the Temple and had awesome lives, thought the whole idea was absolutely absurd. And why shouldn’t they? They had lots of money and power and influence, and their lives were pretty good. Ordinary Jewish people from the Pharisees on down, on the other hand, loved the idea of Resurrection. Because their lives were terrible. They were horribly oppressed by the Romans, and the idea of a resurrection into a new life (one that the pagan Romans couldn’t share) sounded pretty good to them.
So when Jesus came to Jerusalem, preaching about a coming resurrection, the Saducees wanted to discredit both him and the idea of the resurrection. To show just how absolutely absurd the whole concept was, they asked a question designed to stump him, about a woman who’d married a series of brothers. Now, we think it’s an odd scenario, but it was actually fairly common back in those days. Women had very few rights and very little ability to support themselves. For protection and to make sure they didn’t starve, women needed to have either husbands or sons, preferably both. And women who weren’t under the control of a man were seen as an unstable force, a threat to society. So a woman whose husband died without sons was expected to marry his brother and have kids with him. That way she’d be taken care of, and she would be kept out of trouble. It was the law. This happening seven times in a row was a bit unlikely, but hey, why let probability get in the way of a good straw-man argument. So the Pharisees tell this story about a woman who married a series of seven brothers, all of whom died on her, and then they turn to Jesus, sure they’ve got the example that will point out just how absurd this whole idea of life after death is. She’s got to belong to a man, and she can’t belong to more than one. That’s how patriarchy works. So which one is she going to belong to?
Of course, as Jesus points out, the problem is that they’re expecting life after resurrection to be just like life before resurrection. And what would be the point of that? If resurrection exists because there is terrible injustice in the world and people suffer, being resurrected to a life with just as much injustice and suffering would be nothing more than an invitation to more suffering. The whole point of the resurrection is that God will fix things. God will heal people. God will make things better. All the injustice and sin and evil in the world—and in all of us—will be gone. Things will be made new.
As for marriage, well, we’re still going to have loving and life-giving relationships. In fact, we’ll have better relationships because all the sin and brokenness that distort us and our friends and family will have been healed. What we won’t have is all the legal and social frameworks based on economics and power and prejudice. The Saducees asked the question assuming that a woman had to belong to a man, and that was the basis of marriage, so the question was which man she was going to belong to in the Resurrection. But God didn’t institute marriage for economic reasons or as a way of controlling people. God gave us marriage because it’s not good for human beings to be alone. Because we need companionship and affection and mutual respect and support. That’s what God has always wanted marriage to look like, and that’s what relationships of all kinds are going to look like after the resurrection. Which man is she going to belong to? Nobody’s going to belong to anybody in that way. Nobody’s going to be a piece of property to be handed around as convenient for society. She’s not going to belong to anyone but herself and God. If she wants to form a relationship of mutual love and respect, that’s great, but it won’t be anything like the Saducees thought marriage should be.
The Saducees couldn’t imagine a life different from the one they were living. So when they imagined a resurrection, they imagined it looking just like the life they already knew. We have the opposite problem; we tend to think of the resurrection as not being anything like the life we already know. Ask someone what heaven looks like and they imagine people in white robes sitting on clouds and strumming harps. The thing is, both ideas are wrong. The resurrection will be something like the life we know because it is life. Soul and body together, filled with eating and drinking and enjoying God’s good creation and loving God and one another. But at the same time, the resurrection is utterly different from this life because we and all of creation will be saved and forgiven and healed and made new. All the things that hurt people will be gone. All the things that distort or corrupt our hearts and minds and bodies and souls will be gone. All the things that bring fear or pain or jealousy or worry or anger will be gone. And all those emotions shape us and our society in this life so much that we can’t even begin to imagine what life would be life without them.
God is god not of the dead, but of the living. The life we will have in the resurrection is the life that God wants all people and all of creation to have, the life that was the plan from the very beginning and was only prevented by human sinfulness. God isn’t waiting to destroy this world and all but a few people in it, God is working to make this world into the world to come. We can’t construct God’s kingdom on earth in the here and now, but we can look to that world as the guide for what God wants life to be like. The point of being a faithful Christian is not to escape this life and try to make it into the next one, but to try and live our lives now in the light of that life to come.