Todays readings for: Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost Year C 2016 Haggai 1:15b-2:9 Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 2 Thessalonians 20:27-40 Luke 20:27-40
So today we are with Jesus in the temple. The context is important to understanding what this is all about so let’s examine if for a moment.
This incident, with the others close by in the end of Luke’s gospel, all occur after the
“Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. Jesus has ridden in on the donkey, crowds have yelled out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and Jesus has been into the temple to turn over the tables of the moneylenders. Then during that week that follows Jesus goes to the temple and teaches. What he teaches is provocative but the strong sects don’t know quite how to handle it. First we have a record of the chief priests, scribes and elders, who are all the really important people of the temple who come and ask him by whose authority he is, “doing these things”. Jesus asks a question in return about the authority of John the Baptiser and when they choose not to answer that he refuses to answer their question. Then he tells a very provocative parable and about a vineyard, which is always the symbol for Israel itself, which has been in the hands of tenants who ultimately kill the owner’s son- not much doubt about what Jesus means, at least for us with hindsight!
So next they ask him a question to try to trap him about the relationship between God and state essentially- you remember the question- about paying taxes to the emperor and Jesus replies by showing them a coin and saying, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s”. You can imagine the frustration of the temple leaders, can’t you?
Next the Sadducees have a go. They were an interesting sect, tied very closely with the temple worship. They were from wealthy, important families that considered themselves the elite and many of them were among those priests in the temple. The thing that distinguished them from the Pharisees, at least as far as we know, was that they refused to accept anything in the Hebrew scriptures apart from the first five books, the Pentateuch or Torah. Now we also know, because Luke tells us here, that they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. We don’t know what they thought happened after death and as they were completely destroyed at the fall of the temple in 70 AD there is no way of knowing. Most of the texts that deal with Resurrection are in other bits of the Hebrew Bible, Job and the Psalms and other texts not in the Pentateuch, but Jesus chooses to use the Pentateuch to beat them at their own game.
The question they are asking is not in any way genuine, they are not interested in the laws governing Levirate marriage or anything like that- they just want to trap Jesus. This is hard for us because we believe in resurrection and the question worries us. It is the kind of thing that concerns people who have been married multiple times, who should they buried next to, or who will greet them when they get to heaven, their adored first husband who died young or their equally loved second husband that shared all their latter years? In that sense this question is a real red herring. The agenda of those who asked- who of course didn’t even believe that there would be a resurrection, is to trap Jesus into saying the wrong thing.
Jesus answers them skillfully and manages, despite the poor question, to say a couple of very important things. Using Moses he proves to them that firstly there is a resurrection, and secondly explains that marriage, which is a purely human system, has no relevance to the resurrection. In the resurrection he says we will be LIKE angels (not, please note, that we will be angels), and that the important relationship that will endure is the one with God, our Father, whose precious children we will continue to be. Jesus isn’t, I don’t think, saying that the human relationships are unimportant but that they are things that pertain to our earthly existence not to an eternal life, whatever that may look like. I think that the things that we humans value so much, love between husband and wife, and parents and children, will be absorbed into the relationship and love that we have for and with God. I think also that the systems that are necessary for regulating human life will no longer have to apply in eternity. The fundamental relationship, that of creator and created, lover and beloved, will fill all the space.
So what does this mean for us, right now? Well, it is an interesting passage in the light of the current debates in our society about the nature of marriage and whether or not gay people should be given the right to legal marriage. What this says to me is that the giving in marriage, with all its legal implications around property, which of course is what our legal system is chiefly regulating, is completely unimportant in God’s economy. Jesus in his other comment about marriage, which is when he is being asked about divorce, seems to be concerned for the interests of the weaker parties. He says that God has given us marriage and that the only ground for breaking that relationship is unchastity. Now this is quite clearly the behaviour of the wife, to which he refers and he is seeking to protect her. Men in the ancient world, as in the modern one, frequently married women to attain power, money or status. These having been so acquired they were in the habit of quietly divorcing their wives and frequently marrying a new one. The only thing that has really changed is that now women are equally capable of such behaviour, since the law changed and they were firstly allowed to have rights in their own property and then finally rights in the joint income of the partnership. Jesus is not concerned to protect the status quo, but to improve the rights of the underdogs.
I have to say that in the current debate about same sex marriage I tend to think that Jesus would be on the side of gay couples who want the same rights as others. We tend to think that marriage is all about sex, but indeed it is, and always has been, far more about property! The only reason that chastity was important for a woman was to ensure that any progeny who inherited were the children of the right father. Jesus seems to me to be saying that it is the quality of relationship that is the important thing in marriage, not to whom we are married.
The second really important thing that we need to take away from this passage is that resurrection is real and part of God’s plan. We have many different ideas about life after death, I talked about this the other night and I am not going to repeat myself, but let me say that we have no real way of knowing anything about how it works, or why it works, the only certainty that we have is that of who. In Jesus comes the resurrection of the dead for us. It is with God that we will continue to be in relationship. God will be our father, Jesus says, when we are the children of the resurrection. The trinity exists as a relationship, in the great perichoretic dance that keeps the creation in existence, and we do and will join in that relationship. We are part of the resurrection now even though we are still alive in our earthly bodies. We have no way of knowing what it means in a material sense, or even if it means anything in a material sense, but we can be sure of our relationship with the great creator God, through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus and the continuing life giving action of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the resurrection at work in us now!
So what does this mean for us, here and now? Well it strikes me that in all of this the really important thing is not in trying to prove Jesus wrong, or for that matter, right about resurrection, or even about marriage, but to live in relationship with him and with the others in the body of Christ. Our human relationships of marriage and parenthood, siblings and other family members are not eternally important but the relationship that we have in the eternal body of Christ, with God and with each other, is. Of course those earthly relationships are subsumed in the eternal ones anyway. So my prayer for us as the part of the body of Christ that meets together here is that we might deepen our relationship with God our Father, and with each other. I pray that we might treat each other with the care that we would have God show to us. I pray that those around us might see that we are Christians by our love and be drawn into deeper relationship with God now rather than waiting until after they die.