Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our lectionary readings for this week take us to the heart of our anxiety for control, power, and security. From Haggai’s assurances that the glory of Israel was never in the accomplishments of her rulers but in the LORD and his inscrutable ways, to Paul’s comforting words to the people of Thessalonica, to Jesus’s re-orientation of the Sadducees’ question about marriage in the resurrection—these passages simultaneously challenge and assure the Christian, especially the Christian in the midst of personal, social, and/or political turmoil.
Above all, in these passages, we are challenged to become a people of Life, of the Living God. We are assured, having become a people so conformed to the exuberant and abounding Life of the Lord, that we will not only share in that Life in the resurrection, but that even our present works bear the marks of that Life. With this in mind I will focus my reflection on Jesus’ emerging theology of resurrection in chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel.
Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.
This chapter documents the progressive attempts to stop Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem. Resistance is strong from the cultural elite and those that control the bureaucracy of theocratic power in Jerusalem. The Pharisees attack Jesus first by trying to prohibit Jesus’ followers from calling him the King who comes in the name of the LORD (19.38-40). Then they demand to know who gives him the authority to teach and act in the way that he does (20:2). Their attempts to rhetorically derail Jesus having failed, the Pharisees become much more covert: spying, subterfuge, and so forth.
At this point, the Sadducees step in with their own brand of theological sophistry, asking Jesus the first century equivalent of “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” As the sect of Judaism that rejected what is ostensibly speculative theology— the Sadducees objected to any theory of resurrection or spirit that survives the death of body— their question to Jesus has no other purpose than to confuse Jesus.
If Jesus answers that the widow will be married to her first husband, then the value of her later marriages is diminished. Likewise, if she will remain married to her last husband, then the legitimacy of her previous marriages is questioned. No matter how he answers this question, Jesus’s teaching on the resurrection is neutralized. The Sadducees encourage a simpler approach: the letter of the law does not support belief in the resurrection.
The Sadducees, it seems, did not expect Jesus to offer a far more coherent, substantial, and compelling account of the resurrection. In fact, what Jesus offers is not only more satisfactory than their own flat-footed rejection of the resurrection, Jesus’ teaching doubles down on the Torah’s testimony of a life-giving and living LORD.
Jesus appeals to Exodus as evidence of the resurrection: God is not the God of dead patriarchs, but rather patriarchs who live even now in Him. He says
…the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive (20.37–38).
But Jesus also offers something else that might assist us in our current condition. Marriage, he says, is part of this present order. The resurrection, however, is a sign and reality of a coming order, the Kingdom of Heaven. Now, Jesus’ teaching here is one of several sources of controversy about the value Christianity places on material and social conditions. We don’t have time to get too deep into this controversy, but I want to reframe Jesus’ words about the impermanency of marriage in light of his teaching about resurrection.
So, the overall character of this passage and its context is clear: Jesus is King of Heaven and his reign is descending to Earth. His authority is not unworldly or out-of-this-world, but super-worldly. He is in this world in order to transform it into the Kingdom of Heaven. The cleansing of the Temple’s financial and sacrificial practices in 19.45-48 is just a beginning. Jesus will not be confused or distracted by casuistic debates about marriage in the afterlife. Instead, he is focused on, and calls us to focus on the real source of power and life: his Father.
What kind of comfort, if any, does Jesus message offers to those who are anxious about the outcome of national and local elections next week? As Christians, no matter our political allegiances – or lack thereof – we are called to remain firmly rooted in the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven that begins with the Incarnation.
In Luke, Jesus reminds us that glory comes from him alone, but that he offers it liberally to his followers, “children of the resurrection.” An important outcome and obligation of being a child of the resurrection is that Christians minister that Kingdom through their works, works which originate, as Paul tells the Thessalonians, in the conviction of the already-not yet presence of the resurrection in our world.
Too much anxiety about worldly political machinations threatens to distract us from the fact that Christ is at work, and that he works through us, his disciples. Small comfort, perhaps, to those misanthropes and skeptics among us, but it may be quite a comfort to those who feel alienated, marginalized, and vulnerable to know that Christ invites them to join Him not only as citizens of his Kingdom, but as ministers to others who are similarly broken, bereaved, lamenting, and dying. Christ offers all of us who are dead new life and the chance to minister new life.
All of Christ’s followers are people repurposed. We are, as Rowan Williams has said (echoing Hauerwas and Willimon), “resident aliens.” This is not because we seek to distance ourselves from the troubles of this world. We who have been made anew in Christ acknowledge a different authority. We look for real change from a different source. We offer good news that is strange. We seek our glory elsewhere. “For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Thess. 2.14).
Images: Georges Rouault, “The Holy Face,” 1946, and”Celui qui croit en moi, fût-il mort, vivra” / “He that beleveth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” [John 11: 25], 1923.