November 10, 2019 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 27C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Today’s gospel lesson revolves around a parable, but what makes this one different is the fact that Jesus isn’t the one who tells it. Instead, it’s some Sadducees who come to Jesus and tell him a story:
A man dies leaving behind a wife but no children, so his brother does his religious duty and marries the widow in order that she might be cared for. Then that brother dies, too, so the next brother in line takes on that responsibility and marries the widow. Before long, however, that brother also dies, so a fourth and then a fifth and then a sixth and finally a seventh brother all marry the widow in turn. Eventually, the last brother and the widow also die. So, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?Their story comes with some patriarchal cultural baggage, but they make a good point. Haven’t you ever wondered about that? When your mom remarries after your dad dies, don’t you wonder how God will sort that out when everyone gets to heaven? At which dinner table will she sit? Who will sleep in the bed next to her? I know that when people get married they make their vows “until we are parted by death,” but I’ve really never liked that part. I understand that people get lonely and want to remarry after their spouses die, but can’t we get back together with our true love when we get to heaven? It would be a shame to spend so much of this life figuring out how to live with someone only to spend eternity without the benefit of that perfected relationship.
But that’s not the point, and it’s also not what the Sadducees are asking. They don’t really care about marriage. They aren’t actually curious how marital relationships get sorted out in the ultimate reign of God because they don’t believe in the resurrection. They think the whole thing is as silly as you wondering which husband your mother will be married to when she gets to the pearly gates. The Sadducees tell Jesus their story as an intellectual trap—a way of proving what they already know: that those sects of Judaism that believe in the resurrection have got it all wrong, that they are perverting the word of God by adopting unfounded, frivolous, modern cultural adaptations like the resurrection of the dead. It doesn’t matter what the Greeks or Romans think. Nowhere in the Torah—the Books of Moses—do the scriptures mention anything about heaven or being raised from the dead.
The Sadducees are right about that—the only references to heaven or hell in the Hebrew scriptures are oblique examples that are given by the latter prophets, most notably a second-century addition to the Book of Daniel that reflects pagan influences on Judaism. Even though they might be right about that, they couldn’t be more wrong because, as Jesus shows us, their minds are stuck in an earthly perspective.
“The people of this age marry and are given in marriage,” Jesus says, “but those who are worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Why? Because that’s not how heaven works. Marriage is an important institution in this life, but it has no place—it makes no sense—in that age where all relationships are perfected. The intimacy I share with my spouse and children in this world is a mere shadow of the union we all have with God in God’s reign. Here on earth, marriage is a sign that provides us a glimpse of what divine love is like, but in heaven that love fills everything and everyone. You don’t need a ring on your finger or vows that define your relationship in order to experience true fidelity. Jesus shows the Sadducees that their mistake isn’t trying to understand how marriage works in the kingdom of God but failing to grasp what the kingdom of God really is. You can’t understand who God is or what God is doing by trying to squeeze the limitless love of God into rigid human constructs. You can only understand by allowing the Holy Spirit bring your heart and mind and soul even into God’s own heart and mind.
To make that point, Jesus takes their argument and turns it on its head not by explaining the nature of heaven but by pointing to the nature of God: “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.” That’s a generous reading of Exodus 3 that you can’t get to using human logic. Instead, Jesus shows us that we have to read the Bible by allowing the Holy Spirit to bring us into the living mind of God. If God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he tells us, then the patriarchs must be alive to God. Why? Because we know that God is a God of the living. Just as the Sadducees could not understand how heaven works because their minds were stuck in an earthly mentality, we, too, will never grasp the generous truth of God until our minds inhabit it.
In Jesus’ day, the big theological debate was over the resurrection. The Bible didn’t say it. Purists wouldn’t have it. Logic couldn’t understand it. But many had come to believe that the promises of God must be fulfilled not only in this life but also beyond this life. They knew and believed in a generous God. Everything they had ever known and experienced about God encouraged them to let their minds be stretched by their faith. And that faith led them to a hope that is bigger than the words on a scroll and bigger than the traditions of the elders. It brought them to grasp an even bigger truth about God than the world had yet known.
I don’t know what the next really big theological dilemma will be. We have had our own struggles over marriage, and it doesn’t seem like the Body of Christ is finished wrangling over it yet. Passages like this one, with its roots in patriarchy and misogyny, reflect an understanding of gender and authority that aren’t locked in the past. They’re still alive and well not only in ultra-conservative churches but even in congregations like ours, where women may not be required to cover their heads and remain silent in church but routinely are told how pretty they look before they are complimented on how smart they are. That inherited behavior may come from good intentions, but it makes it harder for us to take women’s contribution to the leadership of this church seriously.
We are still a long way from valuing every human being regardless of their gender identity, and undoing generations of using the Bible and religion to bind women and non-binary individuals in lesser roles requires changing the way we talk about God and changing which sacred texts we prioritize as well as how we incorporate them into our faith. Similarly, we’ve used the Bible and our doctrines to speak of people of color as less than human for far longer than we’ve spoken of equality, and reversing millennia of religious tradition requires people who have benefitted from doing things the way they’ve always been done to see something new. And we cannot see something new until our minds are lifted beyond the scope of our experience and understanding and brought into the generous mind of God.
Our God is always more generous than we imagine God to be. Our God is always more loving than we expect God to be. But believing that does not mean leaving behind the faith of our ancestors. On the contrary, it means carrying that faith with us into whatever new understanding the Holy Spirit is leading us. It means trusting that our generous and gracious God may still have things to show us.