The Twenty Second Sunday After Pentecost
Job 19:23-27a; Ps 17:1-9; 2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Today’s collect reminds us that all scriptures were written for our learning, but some are more fun to preach than others. Today’s Gospel passage would not be one of them. Each time I encounter it, I have one primary reaction: “What a stupid question!” I mean, really: you have one chance to interact with the Savior of the world, and this is what you pick?! The Sadducees, of course, are playing a game: taking one provision of the law — in this case, something called levirate marriage — and pushing it to the max to see what becomes clear and what breaks. Lawyers play this game today, too. When my father was in law school, he and his classmates had to argue a mock case in which a chunk of land broke off a farm in New York, drifted down the Hudson, and attached itself to a farm in New Jersey. Who rightfully owned the land?
In this particular case, the Sadducees are using levirate marriage to argue that Resurrection is not possible: human relationships are so sticky and complicated that they cannot possibly exist for eternity. And while we no longer practice this custom, almost all of us can name someone who had a great marriage which ended with the death of spouse, and then formed a second great marriage. In the Resurrection, the Sadducees ask, how would this work out? We may wonder the same thing. Jesus’ answer is simple: resurrected life is not like life now. They need to expand their imaginations.
But, expand them how? This is where the stupid question becomes interesting. Because if we press past the scholarly jockeying, we find ourselves in a pretty terrible story. At the heart of it is a woman — a widow — who is being passed around from brother to brother like some kind of unwanted baggage. Oh, the first brother may have wanted her, or may have wanted the land or sheep that came with her, and she may even have grown to love him, but he’s out of the picture pretty quickly. The second brother may have done his duty without too much complaining, but by the time we get to the third, the writing would be on the wall. The woman is no longer young; it’s pretty clear she’s not going to be able to produce a child. She might be a hard worker, but basically, she’s a burden: one more mouth to feed at a tough time, one more person for that brother’s chosen wife to resent. And the question the Sadducees ask is, essentially, “Whose property will she be in the Resurrection?” Who will own her?
And Jesus’ response is radical: No one. In the Resurrection, for the first time, this widow will get to be her own person, a person defined not by her appearance or husband or her childbearing or her lack of it: a person beloved simply because she is. Do you see how radical that is? How it overturns all our expectations? We talk a good line about unconditional love, but the truth is that almost all our relationships are contingent. Drug abuse strains and breaks marriages, as does longterm financial insecurity. Parents impose expectations on children which are often unrealistic and damaging. Friendships — even good friendships — end. Oh, a few, a very few, manage to transcend this pattern: I think of the woman in one of my parishes who boarded a bus every month to travel twelve hours in darkness so she could spend visit her son in prison, the prison he would never leave — but she was one among so many.
Perhaps that’s a mark of privilege. Those who have it can afford to leave broken relationships, while those who do not may, like the imaginary widow, have to stay. Those who have it — like the Sadducees, like the rich man in Dives and Lazarus, like so many people I’ve heard fantasize about the Great Golf Course in the Sky — can afford to imagine a resurrection in which not much has changed. But Jesus teaches differently. Perhaps that’s why the poor loved him: because he dared to teach of a social order which was fundamentally different. He dared to believe in the God who promised, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev 21:5) This is eternal life reimagined as a place of ultimate belonging, a place where each person is treasured simply for who they are.
As we are being reminded by news around the world right now, that vision is deeply threatening to those who are accustomed to having power over others: to being able to buy and sell their neighbors, if not literally, then at least metaphorically, buying their labor cheap, limiting their access to medical care, dominating them through violence or the threat of violence, and the ever-present danger of having no job at all. And so Jesus’ response — no one will own her — presents us with a question: Do we want to be part of what Jesus came to offer?
That, I think, is where Job comes in. Job’s gotten a reputation for patience, which is a bit unfair, since he had so little of it. What Job had was not patience, but tenacity: specifically, he refused to abandon his claim that God was ultimately just. He refused to abandon it when he was fabulously rich, using his money to clothe the poor, to feed the widow, to raise the orphan, to atone for the possible the sins of those around him. And he refused to abandon it when everything and everyone he had around him was suddenly destroyed: Job sat in the dust with a clenched fist, demanding to see God and make his case that this was unjust. And when his friends and wife urged him to lie — to grovel in the dirt and pretend that he deserved this, to appease a god who must be angry with Job — Job refused. He knew his worth, and he knew God’s justice. And so he makes his stand, saying, “I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth and that after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side.” (Job 19: 25-27) Pushed to and beyond the limits of human endurance, Job hangs all his hope on his belief that the God who has inexplicably caused him to suffer utter devastation is still, nevertheless, his friend.
Imagine a man in Pakistan, watching his farm destroyed in the floods, clinging to his belief that God still loves him. Imagine a woman in Ukraine, lying over her children to shelter them from the falling bombs, daring to say that God is on her side. Imagine the refugees, born in a camp, clinging to the hope of freedom, or the child, somewhere in Montreal, hiding under a bed to escape her father’s anger. If our vision of resurrection is not a liberation for them, then we, like the Sadducees, have it all wrong. And if our vision of resurrection does involve true healing for them, then we have to ask ourselves: why not start that healing today?
That brings us to the other thing about the Sadducees: they’d rather question Jesus than follow him. And let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with questioning Jesus! We all have questions for Jesus, at least if we’re not living with our eyes closed. But our questions need to be real questions; we may wrestle with Jesus as Jacob wrestled with the angel, but like Jacob, we need to have skin in the game. The Sadducees, like so many people we know, especially among the educated, use their questions as shields against commitment: they embrace the game rather than seeking the truth. But Jesus’ truth is experiential: only those who try to follow him will find it unfolding within and around them.
At the end of our gospel, Jesus invokes the moment when Moses encounters God in the blazing bush: out of the fire, God names himself as “the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3: 15) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were, above all, people who followed God: followed him into a strange land, journeying toward a new home, just as Moses himself would lead the people of Israel to follow God out of bondage into an unknown and as-yet-untasted freedom.
Garret Keizer writes of teaching, “when all you are is right, what you really are is in trouble.” (Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher). What he means, I think, is that when you focus only on what is right or wrong, you are missing a much bigger question: the human one. Jesus never lost sight of that one. We may spend our time focusing on questions like “Is the Resurrection real?,” but Jesus kept his eyes on those who need it to be real. The widow of Nain, walking beside her dead son. Mary and Martha, mourning for their dead brother. In the end, even himself. Jesus needed resurrection to be real. Once he’d been passed like unwanted baggage from his friends to his enemies, from the hall of judgment to the agony of the cross, he needed resurrection to be real.
So do we all. Perhaps that’s what we’re trying to hold at bay with all our clever constructions and defensive questions and systems of hierarchy and status: that at the end, they won’t matter. That at the end, we, like Job, like Jesus, will lose everything. Even our breath. And so, when Jesus says, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living,” he is speaking to us. Urging us to live, now, so that we can live, then. Welcoming our neighbors now, so that we can greet them without shame, then. Seeing the widow, rather than closing our eyes. Carrying out a lovers’ quarrel with God, on behalf of the world. Practicing resurrection now, in this world, as if it were already the world to come. Because, by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, resurrection is real for us, too. In the end, when we lose everything, we will be found.