Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
“Indeed they cannot die anymore… being children of the resurrection.”
It is these words of Jesus that cause my soul to catch; these my worn heart snags on.
In the gospel text this week, the Sadducees come with a theoretical question concerning a resurrection they don’t believe in. Jesus knows their unbelief. Perhaps he knows he also won’t convince them, even appealing to the Torah, as he does. But he still answers the question.
They’ve come up with the perfect quandary for Jesus. A woman marries seven brothers, gives not one of them a child to carry his name and tether her to him. In the resurrection, whose will she be?
It occurs to me that because of their denial of the resurrection they’re asking about, they mean their question to be purely a matter of theory. It does seem a little absurd, this poor woman meeting the same tragedy seven times.
But in reading their question, I feel like I know her. She has a name and a story. After all, in the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well, he draws it out of her that she has no husband, and then reveals further that she’s had five husbands, and the man she’s with now she isn’t married to. In our culture where levirate marriage is something of the past, she’s often painted as scandalous. But it seems that perhaps, she’s only deeply unfortunate. Perhaps her husbands were all brothers, and the man she’s with when Jesus finds her is the only way for her to go on living provided for. She’s a woman existing emptily, seemingly barren-souled because of what tragedy has carved out of her.
Beyond the biblical account, I still feel like I know her. Life is often tragic, all around us. Sometimes our own lives are tragic, and we feel how every day brings us closer to our end, hollowing us out bit by bit. We can be owned by choices or circumstances outside of our control, or feel so depleted as to say we are barren.
The question the Sadducees pose has a deeper element than that of the mere existence of a resurrection. Whether they see it or not, embedded in their words is a question also about the character of the resurrection and the location of hope. For their theoretical woman’s entire life, she has suffered being a burden on those who have dutifully provided for her, and in her barrenness, she has nothing to offer in return. If the life to come is only a parallel to or continuation of the life that is now, why would she want to be resurrected? Could more of this present life possibly be hope?
It is that question that I see as the reason Jesus entertains their absurdities. She is a fiction they have created, but while her life doesn’t factually exist, it exists in truth in the lives of so many others. Human life isn’t immune to suffering and despair. The question he answers is one that most who honestly wrestle with the gospel at some point encounter: how is this message hope? Jesus says in so many words that the resurrection isn’t just more of this life, but rather takes on the qualities implicit to shalom, for God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Indeed, they cannot die anymore.
Those words sound radical, almost too good to be true. They encompass more than a physical death, but perhaps aim at the littler (but not little at all) deaths which come to mark our existence. If Paul Tillich was right, that death isn’t a moment, but a process we are living every day fulfilled finally in one moment, what does it mean for us to be progressing in death while simultaneously progressing in life? Just as physical death is the culmination of the slow dying that is life lived, is the resurrection of the body also the culmination of the slow living that is death dying away?
In Li-Young Lee’s poem entitled “From Blossoms,” these words snag me in similar ways to how those of Jesus do:
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background, from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Isn’t that the Eucharist, taking what we love inside, and carrying within us the orchard?
Isn’t the resurrection that sweet impossible blossom we live toward?
Last night, for the first time ever I presided at the table. I think I expected many expressions or postures as one after one my brothers and sisters processed to receive Jesus, the died and resurrected one into themselves. What I didn’t know to expect was the joy that took the form of glow on their faces, and glistening eyes. They came with smiles and wonder, openness and hands ready to receive. Each of them was so beautiful. There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background. Last night at the table was like that.
In our gathering together with one another in communion, we feel the shape of hope. We pass peace, and shalom takes the shape of embrace and presence, the felt knowledge that we are not alone. We hold bread, we dip in the wine, these symbols that somehow represent the polar opposites of life and death in bodied form, telling the truth we live. We together, one body, body forth the shape of resurrection, as we are moving toward that culminating day on which our bodies will raise.
In our practices together as one body gathered, may we learn ever more to be children of the resurrection, moving in the space that is free from death, for Jesus has defeated it, and progress from joy to sweet impossible blossom. Amen.