Posted on by Ms. Anne Rapkin
Year C - Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
November 10, 2019
Ms. Anne Rapkin
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question: "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry not are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
"And 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."
To be assigned to preach about this morning's Gospel passage seems like a punishment for my sins. Is there anything about this passage that grips the imagination? The argument between Jesus and the Sadducees seems so archaic, so irrelevant. Very little sense can be made of the argument without knowing something about 1st-century Jewish religion in Palestine--not an especially fascinating subject for most people. However, to get at the heart of today's reading, we have to understand its historical religious context. So I'm going to speak to that, and I hope you'll stick with me.
The scene is the Temple, right after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, where he will teach, celebrate Passover with his companions, and die. He spends his days teaching and prophesying in the Temple, as well as verbally sparring with Jewish religious authorities.
The religious authorities in question here are the Sadducees. Who were the Sadducees and why were they talking about a widow with seven husbands?
The Sadducees were one of several Jewish sects or parties. They were members of the extended high-priestly family, and wielded quite a bit of political power. They accepted as authoritative only the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, gave little weight to the biblical Prophets, and entirely repudiated the legal and spiritual traditions that had been transmitted orally over the generations. Those traditions are sometimes referred as the "oral law."
Because the Sadducees accepted only the Torah as authoritative, they rejected the notion of bodily resurrection, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. (I would point out here that hints of resurrection did start appear in the biblical Prophets, which were written after the Torah, particularly in the book of Daniel, and these hints were elaborated in later Jewish apocryphal writings during the two centuries before Jesus.) Resurrection spoke powerfully to the yearning for assurance that God ultimately rewards righteous people who suffered during their earthly lives and punishes the wicked.
While we are talking about Jewish sects during Jesus' time, we must mention the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a lay--a non-priestly--religious party; they accepted both Torah and Prophets as authoritative, and they relied extensively on the oral tradition for interpreting Scripture. They taught the resurrection of the body, which to this day is one of the basic principles of Jewish theology, repeatedly invoked in the liturgy.
Anyway, in today's reading, the Sadducees, those who didn't accept resurrection, relate the story of a woman who was widowed seven times, and ask Jesus which of the seven husbands will be her husband during the resurrection-time. The story draws upon the law of "levirate marriage" established in the Torah. Actually, various forms of levirate marriage were, and continue to be, practiced around the world. Under the Biblical law, if a married man died without a male child, his next oldest brother had to marry the widow; the first male child of their union would be legally deemed the child of the dead husband; in that way the dead husband's name and lineage would be preserved.
The Sadducees put the question to Jesus: to which of the seven brothers will the widow be married during resurrection-time. Now, the Sadduceess, who rejected resurrection, were asking Jesus a trick question, aimed at stumping him, at demonstrating that resurrection is a ridiculous idea.
Ingeniously, Jesus responded to the Sadducees by explaining that people marry only in this age, the age before God has established His kingdom and resurrected the dead. In the age to come, by contrast, people will not marry. Why not? Because, Jesus said, they will be like angels, who are immortal; because they won't die, they won't need to preserve their lineages.
But Jesus was not satisfied to merely refuting the Sadducees; he wanted to make a convincing affirmative case for resurrection in the Torah, which the Sadducees considered binding. So he turned to the 3rd chapter of Exodus, where Moses met God in a burning bush. God announced his identity to Moses by saying: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." "I am" the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- not "I was" the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." At the time Moses encountered God in the bush, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for centuries, yet God spoke of His relationship with them in the present tense, as if they were still alive. This Jesus understood as proof that life continues after death.
Jesus's reasoning seems a bit thin to me here, though it may well have struck his contemporaries as persuasive. But persuasive of what, precisely? Of the certainty of resurrection? I don't think so. If Jesus was right about resurrection, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cannot be alive, for the resurrection hasn't yet occurred. So, logically, Jesus was talking about something different than resurrection. He was suggesting that although the body may be dead, the soul lives on; the soul is immortal. And it is not only in this passage that Jesus suggested the immortality of the soul: look at Jesus's parable about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, where Lazarus died and "was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham"; or Luke's account of the Crucifixion, where Jesus assures the faithful criminal hanging on a cross next to him that "today you will be in Paradise with me."
The idea of spiritual immortality was current among many of Jesus's Jewish contemporaries. Like resurrection, spirituality immortality is not taught in the Torah. The belief in spiritual immortality first arose among the Jews through Greek philosophy, which they encountered in the late 4th century before Jesus, when Alexander the Great conquered the land of Israel. The Greeks viewed the body as inferior to the soul; the body is subject to physical corruption, unlike the soul, which is pure spirit.
Resurrection, not spiritual immortality, remains orthodox Christian doctrine, rooted in the Gospel narratives of Jesus's resurrection. However, the distinction between resurrection and spiritual immortality is rather blurry, even, as today's Gospel reading shows, in the teachings of Jesus. The idea of bodily resurrection is very difficult to get one's mind around; after all, resurrection would require an unfathomable reversal of nature: the re-creation of human flesh after it has dissolved away in the ground. Not only that, but resurrection will occur at an unknown time, possibly millennia in the future; between death and resurrection, what will happen to the dead; will they lie unconscious and uncomforted in their dark graves?
In James Joyce's novel Ulysses, the narrator attends a Catholic burial in a cemetery in Dublin. Surveying the graves, he contemplates the destiny of his friend, Paddy, about to be buried and devoured by worms. His mind wanders to the notion of resurrection, which he finds impossible to accept: "That last day idea," he thinks, "Knocking them all up out their graves, ... Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. Has to find damn all of himself that morning."
In practice, the church sometimes teeters on that blurry line between resurrection and spiritual immortality--not surprising, since both doctrines involve birth, birth into a new and better life. The Burial Rites of the Book of Common Prayer include these words:
God, grant [so-and-so] an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of your saints.
Spiritual immortality is also invoked in these words:
Rest eternal grant to him [or her], O Lord;
And let light perpetual shine upon him.
Among both Jews and the Christians I know, the more common belief as between resurrection and spiritual immortality, is the latter. Jews and Christians alike say the prescribed words declaring faith in bodily resurrection, but as a matter almost of instinct spiritual immortality is assumed. All that stuff about arriving at the Pearly Gates where St. Peter decides whether the deceased may enter -- that's about the fate of the immortal soul, not about what will happen at the resurrection.
My Jewish mother, on the yearly anniversary of her mother's death, used to light a candle and say a prayer in her native language that her mother, my grandmother, intercede with God for our family's welfare; she prayed also that my grandmother have a "Paradise filled with light." Those beautiful words assume that the soul, still conscious and caring, lives on with God.
In the Gospels Jesus didn't give us much information about resurrection, nor about what the immortal soul will experience after its release from the body. Jesus did indicate that life during resurrection-time will be completely different from our earthly life, since then we will be like angels. In Matthew (ch. 8) he prophesied that in the Kingdom of Heaven the righteous "will recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" -- in other words, that at the Messianic banquet the righteous will feast with the Fathers of Israel. From his Sermon on the Mount we learn that in the Kingdom of God there will be no poverty or hunger or sorrow. And in the parable of the poor man Lazarus, Jesus taught that after death our souls will rest in the bosom of Abraham and be comforted.
As for me, I don't feel I have to choose as a doctrinal matter between the resurrection of my body or the immortal life of my soul. I rejoice at the thought of a future like the one Jesus spoke of, whether that future belongs to my soul or to my bodily self. His teachings about both resurrection and spiritual immortality assure me of new life, and because of that assurance, I live differently here and now than I might otherwise live. I live to God, whose presence I yearn for. I am liberated to reject society's values, including its obsession with amassing material things. While it grieves me deeply, and though I try to devote myself to social action, I need not despair because the righteous and innocent suffer and the wicked prosper, for I know that God's justice will prevail, even if not in my lifetime. I am liberated from anxiety about death. I can trust that my beloved dead are safe and that I too am safe, now and in the future. I live with hope, that most precious of all things.
May the place that God has prepared for each of us be eternally filled with light.