Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Mrs. Obrien: I just want to die, to be with him.
Preacher: He’s in God’s hands now.
Mrs. Obrien: He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?
– From Tree of Life by Terrence Malick
As the liturgical year draws to its close, the lectionary readings make an eschatological turn, looking ahead to our own end and of things as we know them. It’s a shift in tone that flows seamlessly into Advent, where the church learns once again how to live as Jews, suspended between a ruin and a hope. Signs of ruin are everywhere: a planet we’re quickly making uninhabitable, collapsing world order, a country too divided by corrosive political rhetoric to reckon with pressing fundamentals, churches reeling from self-inflicted humiliations. Amid the rubble of a world plundered and a church betrayed from within, hope can grow hollow and brittle, like dry stems in autumn. What’s to become of our planet, our country, our church, ourselves?
In the fall, the season sharing its name with humanity’s turning away from God, such thoughts may arise simply from observing the natural world’s dying back in anticipation of winter. Sometimes we require some rather more direct reminder. During the now abandoned coronation ceremony for newly elected popes, the master of ceremonies would stop the procession three times to set alight a strip of flax. As the fabric burned into smoke and nothingness, he would address the new pope in a loud voice, saying, “Sic transit Gloria mundi,” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”), reminding him of his mortality and the evanescence of earthly power.
It’s easy to snicker at the thought of Alexander VI or Leo X taking this in even as they plot out which enemies to punish and what luxuries to indulge in. The snickering might stop when we consider our own attachment to control and consumption. It’s not that we shouldn’t enjoy God’s good creation. The problem lies in our deformed and destructive habits. Today’s readings don’t include the Letter of James, but it speaks directly to this, pulling no punches:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
In today’s gospel reading, some Sadducees try to engage Jesus in their dispute over the resurrection with the rival Pharisees. Aligning themselves with the priestly elite, the Sadducees opposed the Pharisees and their rabbis. Shocking as it sounds, there’s good – if inconclusive – evidence in the New Testament to suggest Jesus identified with or at least sympathized with the Pharisees. (There may also be some textual confusion over the historical Sadducees’ actual position here, but I leave that matter to scholars.)
That the Sadducees use a bizarre hypothetical involving a most unfortunate serial widow and her seven short-lived husbands – a reductio ad absurdum intended to mock the very notion of physical resurrection– might remind us of what now passes for political discourse and online decorum. The Sadducees’ question drips with all the smugness and derision of a cable news “gotcha” interview.
Luke’s Jesus sees through this, of course, and responds with a thoroughly Pharisaic answer. The life to come promises not shadows and oblivion, but bodily resurrection. This shouldn’t be confused with an afterlife of resuscitated corpses or disembodied souls. Jesus says the resurrected “cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and children of God, being children of the resurrection.” In this context, most scripture scholars interpret that bit about being like angels as meaning the resurrected will no longer have need of human procreation, not that we’ll shed our earthly bodies, or – as in the modern cartoon cliché – grow wings and learn to play a harp.
Of all this, the scribes wholeheartedly approve. What we don’t read in this Sunday’s passage is Jesus warning to also “beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplace, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets.” (Luke 20:46) Human pretense and love of luxury respect neither parties nor persons.
This again may remind us of ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as sensible and theologically “woke,” even when we’re not. Perhaps you’re better than this than I, but for all my consciousness of personal mortality, I still find it hard to imagine the world going on just fine without me in it. Everything I’ve come to know of this beautiful and mutilated world has been mediated through the embodied creature that is me. I have an intellectual understanding of my own death similar to my awareness that Ulaanbaatar is the capital of Mongolia, though I’ve never been there to confirm its existence. When we talk about the experience of death, one thing’s for sure: those who speak don’t know and those who know don’t speak.
Even when Jesus refuted the Sadducees, he wasn’t yet speaking from personal experience. That would come later. At the time, his human understanding of death and its aftermath, like my understanding now, was based on scripture, tradition, and faith. What we as Christians inherit from these sources involves a body transformed in ways for which we have no direct experience, a body fit to endure the unmediated presence of – some would say incorporation into – the living God.
How much of what I now think of as my identity will continue in that transformed body isn’t available this side of the grave. Even if I had the confidence of Job, who knows his redeemer lives (go’el , the Hebrew word rendered here as “redeemer” means a relative who restores one’s rights and avenges injustice) and that he will see God in the flesh, I still couldn’t claim to truly know.
When it comes to the traditional four last things – death, judgment, heaven, and hell – we, like all who’ve come before us (with the possible exception of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and a few others), walk by faith and not by sight, forever in the arms of the Living God. Not that there’s anything new here. We’ve been walking that way all our lives, even when we’ve grown so used to the plodding pace of life that we think it will go on forever. As Scott Cairns puts it in his poem, “Imperative”:
The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.
Or the woman you love
could decide you’re ugly.
Maybe she’ll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as
you watch television. All I’m saying
is that there are no sure things here.
I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,
and she’ll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she’ll be glad your teeth
are so clean. The morning might be
full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don’t go thinking
you deserve any of it.
The point of all this isn’t to give up on God’s good creation or our wounded human institutions and look solely to the life to come. The point is to love the good of this fragile world as gratuitously as God loves it, for everything we know is, in fact, gratuitous, arising and abiding by grace. Each day we awaken is unmerited, pure gift. Whatever is to come will, in that sense, be no different. There is much now that’s uncertain, sad, even menacing, but as Wendell Berry writes, one of our tasks is to “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts.” Death and the mystery to follow will come in time. Live now as God calls you to live, and let it come.