The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27C)
A sermon preached at St. James Church, Florence
November 10, 2019
2 Thessalonians 2.1-5
Psalm 145.1-5, 18-22
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Depending on how one reads the Jesus story, on one’s sensitivity to the sublime and the ironic, when we reach the point that we have in our liturgical year, with Jesus now having taken up teaching residence in the Temple, you have to be ready for a bit of the ridiculous. As Luke pitches the story, Jesus has laid down all his cards—he’s made it clear that the Jerusalem intelligentsia has completely missed the point of all God’s been doing—and his opponents, beyond violence, have nothing in the way of an answer or a strategy. Jesus dodged the potentially dangerous question about paying taxes to Caesar, and so along come some members of the Sadducees, whose plan, if you can call it that, is to spin a sort of reductio ad absurdum argument to demonstrate that belief in the resurrection is a nonsense.
This is one of those stories that belongs to the “triple tradition,” those episodes that happen to occur in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The repetition allows us to observe how the Gospel writer, in our case, Luke, shaped the story for his own audience. Jesus is presented with the hypothetical story of a wife whose husband has died without leaving her a child, and the Mosaic legislation that directs the husband’s brother to marry the woman and raise up a child in the dead brother’s place, a story which is really memorable because of its ridiculous complications. It’s hard to know whose luck is worse, the widow’s whose husbands continue to die with alarming regularity; or this batch of brothers, seven in all, plagued by some relentless genetic death wish. Of course, as the Sadducees see things, the climax of their logic, the trap they’ve set for Jesus, is the rather banal question of whose wife the woman will be “in the resurrection.” Well, anyway, to get back to the business of the “triple tradition,” when we compare the three Gospel writers on this story, there is isn’t a great deal of difference. In each case, the story unfolds similarly: the silly situation is spun out; Jesus exposes a fundamental failure to distinguish the ages and to understand what is appropriate to “this age” and “that” age to come, finally taking them back to the seminal moment of the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Matthew and Mark do, however, remember that Jesus prefaced his answer with a biting criticism: “you know neither the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” In other words, to update the language, Jesus looked at them and said, “You’re a bunch of idiots.”
Now, I have to say, I find Luke’s presentation, with its deft omission of this critical comment, to be somehow more haunting, probing. In my mind’s eye, I can see Jesus sitting in the Temple, as teaching rabbis would do. And I can see him look up as these Sadducees approach. And I can see a smile, the wry sort that signals he knows these clowns have something ridiculous up their sleeves. He listens patiently as the spokesman begins with Moses’s teaching, usually a sure bet. But at some point, as the brothers begin to die one after the other, I can see Jesus’ eyes begin to roll. But his restraint in holding back any overt criticism, instead rather distinguishing the present age from the age to come, and going from there back to the founding moment of the burning bush, pushed my own thinking about resurrection to another place.
For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the patriarchs and Moses were memories, important memories, but memories, signposts in the distant past that marked a trail that connected the past to the present. When Jesus takes up the name of Moses and those patriarchs, they are not memories, they are lives, personal packages of human existence. And when Jesus repeats the very first words spoken by God to Moses—and remembering doesn’t quite work here because Jesus stays in the present tense—he speaks God and the patriarchs freshly into the present, in the hearing of the Sadducees and his audience. There may be for the Sadducees, even in Luke’s slightly gentler rendition of the story, an implicit correction, criticism, and rebuke. But what seems more apparent to me is the encouragement, also unspoken, to think all of this through again—life and death—and to choose life instead of death. But what does life, true life, resurrection life, look like? How will we know it when we see it? And, indeed, how will we live it?
In my haste to construct a homily, and within the limits afforded by the lectionary, I was about to second-guess Luke’s narrative strategy. For in the flustered confusion of the scribes that immediately follows this vignette with the Sadducees, there seems to be a teaching moment about to be wasted. I am missing one of Jesus’ perfect human illustrations that brings his celestial truth right down into our messy world for all to see. But it’s there after all, and not far off. As he sat teaching in the temple, he looked up and saw some rich people lining up to put their impressive offerings into the treasury box. But Jesus’ gaze was fixed on someone else, someone who had to wait at the back of the line for the chance to make an offering—a poor widow. These two words each on their own, in that culture and many today as well, spell “death.” And together they make “death times two.” Poverty, loneliness, vulnerability. And her gift, in material terms, and in comparison to the rich ahead of her in the line, less than a pittance, two pennies. An embarrassment, really. Why even bother? Why? Because she was alive; she had chosen life, resurrection life, and she moved in tune with this life. She gave away (for the needs of others) all she had for life. For the essence of the life of the God in the Burning Bush, its very secret, is this: the life that cannot die, true life, is the life that is, at least in part, lived for, spent on, others—which mysteriously deepens and grows in value with each expenditure.
Resurrection is not just a doctrine of our final rescue, a last hope to which we cling. It is a perspective and a potency that is fully present, vital and enlivening. We discover something fresh about our identities as we breathe life and hope into the situations of others, in the form of comfort, assistance, and practical help. The Son of Man defined this life as coming into this world not to be served but to serve, and to give his life that others might live. May God grant to us, in small ways and big, to align ourselves with this resurrection life, and in the Holy Spirit to find life ourselves in giving life to others. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
St. James Church
© 2019 Philip H. Towner