Adventures in Missing the Point, Luke 20:27-38
First United Methodist Church, November 10, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
Questions are asked for all kinds of reasons. We might ask a question because we’re curious, we’d like more information, we’d like to get to know someone a little better. Sometimes questions are asked to clarify, to make sure the other person has received the information we’re trying to share, to be sure they understand what we’re saying—like the questions a teacher will ask students in a classroom or on an exam. There are lots of good intentions behind question asking.
But sometimes questions are asked for less helpful/less positive reasons: to trigger a debate, to spark an argument, to expose the other person’s weakness or lack of knowledge in front of others, to prove the person can’t be trusted, isn’t knowledgeable, or worth listening to.
We read in scripture many sincere questions asked of Jesus, as his listeners sought to know God and to understand what it meant to be a disciple. He would teach them, and sometimes the answers he gave were hard for them to hear, like it can be for us. God’s ways aren’t always our ways, and people then and now are challenged to live in a new way. But there were other questions asked of Jesus for different reasons. There would be an agenda behind the questions of the religious leaders, who were less interested in learning more about God, and more interested in entrapping this rabbi who had attracted so much attention. Of course, they already knew everything they needed to know! It was written right there in the Law! All one had to do was follow it! But this rabbi was challenging those practices right and left. And so in their encounters with Jesus, they weren’t listening, but were instead, engaged in an adventure of completely missing the point.
In this morning’s text, we see that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and he’s teaching in the temple. He’s been responding to questions and he answers them, often indirectly, and sometimes responding to the questions he’s asked with his own questions, causing the chief priests and scribes to scratch their heads, uncertain of how to answer back. They’ve been listening, watching, for the purpose of determining how to shut him down.
Before this interchange we’re talking about this morning, we’re told that spies are sent to Jesus, who pretend to ask sincere questions, but whose underlying purpose is to use his answers against him. They ask him, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Jesus, who wasn’t born yesterday, sees what they’re up to and asks one of them to show him a coin. He then asks, “whose head and whose title are on that coin?”
“Caesar’s,” they reply.
So, Jesus tells them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
They have already revealed their bias. Caesar was considered divine, a god by some folks, and because of that, the coin shouldn’t have been inside the temple. But the spies carry Caesar’s coins and take their orders from the temple leaders who help collect Caesar’s taxes. Oops, they realize what they’ve done and they’re impressed. They had hoped to sway the popular vote, to create controversy, but it doesn’t work.
They step back while the Sadducees step forward. Someone else’s turn to go after Jesus.
The Sadducees were an elite group of 1st century intellectuals, who came primarily from the upper classes and the priesthood. The scripture they followed was limited to the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament, and they didn’t believe in the idea of life after death. According to them, everything comes to an end with death; therefore, life should be lived as fully as possible within the boundaries of earthly time. The scenario they create and the question they ask Jesus is presented to set an intellectual trap. They expect his answer will reveal the ridiculousness of his teaching about the resurrection of the dead and turn his followers away from him.
They are about to embark on their own adventure of missing the point.
Here’s what they say: Imagine the case of seven brothers who marry their brother’s widow according to the Law. If there is eternal life, they ask Jesus, after the men all die and then the woman dies, too, (of a broken heart or just plain bad luck), who will be her husband?
A little background information to consider as we witness their adventure: Though men might have multiple wives in those early days (remember Abraham, Jacob and Esau—as well as the man blessed with probably the most wives, King Solomon, who had “had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines” according to 1 Kings 11:3 [how could he not be blessed to have all those wives?]), women were limited to one husband. If that husband died childless, the law stated that his wife was to become the “secondary” wife of one of her deceased husband’s brothers. His task, then, would be to produce an heir in the dead man’s name so his brother wouldn’t be forgotten. Having a child would also assure the woman’s future. Her husband’s property could then be inherited by her deceased husband’s child (follow that?), so she won’t be turned out into the street. It was the social order of the day, an ancient system of welfare, that basically considered a woman to be property, passed on from one man to another, beginning with the dowry paid to her father [remember the 7 years of labor Jacob was tricked into paying for Leah, along with another 7 years for her sister, his beloved Rachel), and then from brother to brother if her husband happened to die without producing an heir.
So, the story is pretty sad, no matter how you look at it, and pretty far-fetched, as well. It is most likely an edited version of a couple of other somewhat similar stories the listeners would have been familiar with. They are a part of the apocrypha, which are stories/texts that were pretty well known at the time but were not included in the canon of the Old Testament.
But the story shows they’ve completely missed the point. They’ve woven it to make fun of Jesus, but rather than taking their bait, he responds to them very seriously. He teaches them, honoring their tradition, referring to Moses and pointing toward the resurrection, telling them that eternal life isn’t simply the continuation of mortal life beyond death. He tells them that in the age of resurrection we won’t marry or be given in marriage. Those who receive eternal life, who are resurrected in Christ will die no more, because they are like angels—they are God’s children. The dead are raised, he says, and as he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, he proclaims that God isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him we are all alive, even those who have died and passed from our sight. They have not been forgotten.
The Sadducees listen and don’t know what to say. Some of the legal experts who are listening do know what to say: Teacher, you have answered well. But before too long, he’ll have a challenging word for them, as well…
As Christians, we believe in the resurrection, we believe in eternal life. But it’s so hard for us to understand. We do our best to envision God through our eyes and experience because that’s what we know. It isn’t a bad thing.
I know there’s a lot of silly stuff on Facebook, but I read this little story this week, and it touched me. I shared it on Facebook so it’s on my feed, so maybe you’ve already read it, but just in case you didn’t, I thought it was a timely reflection on our questions about eternal life.
It’s a story about two babies in a mother’s womb. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense,” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover, if there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery, there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”
The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her, this world would not and could not exist.”
Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
The Sadducees believed the resurrection to be ridiculous. But Jesus teaches otherwise. On Easter morning, he proved otherwise. I really don’t know about streets of gold, I really don’t know how to envision heaven. I accept that I don’t have the experience or the creativity to come up with the reality of what God has to offer in the resurrection life that is to come. But I have perceived through scripture that it is a new way in a new world. It’s a time where the bondage and slavery of human life won’t have its hold…where persons suffering oppression and who are victims of the dehumanizing systems of racism, sexism, classism and any other “isms” you can think of, are done. It’s a time and place where problems like unjust social arrangements—where (as in this story) women who have no hope, no standing and no safety net unless they’re married —will pass away. Where a man without an heir won’t be forgotten. Because the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob isn’t the God of the dead, but is God of the living: to him they are all alive.
Somehow, you and I are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, who continue to speak, who continue to be in communion with us, who somehow, through the power of the Holy Spirit fill us, move us, inspire us to be our best selves in Jesus name. Those who came before us may be gone from our sight, but they are not gone from our midst. They continue to be a part of us as they are alive in Christ.
Heaven isn’t a place where we’ll finish off what we’re doing now, where we’ll perfect what we’re doing now. It’s a new way in a new world. But our job until our time comes to join that great cloud of witnesses, is to give our best, to do our best, to be our best to bring about peace and justice, to proclaim and live out Christ’s message of grace and love. To be a part of the revelation of God’s kingdom on earth…that God’s will may be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus came to turn the world upside down, or perhaps we should say, to turn it right side up. And the very cool thing is that we can be a part of that, right here, right now. That’s our invitation as followers of Jesus Christ. That’s the point. That’s the adventure worth having. The one for us to keep in focus.
Today, we give thanks and celebrate the church. We give thanks for all who came before us, who paved the way for us, who shared the message of Jesus Christ with us. We give thanks for role models and teachers who by faith taught us the way to go. And though we may be uncertain of what lies ahead when it comes to bricks and mortar, we are God’s people, we have work to do and the Gospel to share.
May we proclaim it with confidence as a resurrection people. Amen.