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All Saints' Sunday, November 6, 2016 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
This Age and That Age
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses. Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of these your servants, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at the last, with all your saints, we may attain to your eternal joy.
Book of Common Prayer
Preacher Tom Long has called this twentieth chapter in Luke’s Gospel “Jesus’ Final Exam.” It is the series of questions and answers that sets the empire’s death machine in motion. Throughout chapter 20, Jesus is constantly being verbally tested, each question more difficult than the previous one; each question particularly designed to get Jesus into deep trouble—in trouble with the religious authorities, in trouble with the Roman authorities, in trouble with the increasing number of people beginning to follow him.
First, Jesus is asked a question within the religious sphere. It is a question that I, as a clergywoman, am still sometimes asked, albeit usually in more nuanced ways: From whom do you get your pastoral authority. In other words, who said you can be a preacher? These religious leaders had watched Jesus heal people, pronounce forgiveness, teach the scriptures, and preach with conviction, and yet he had not gone through their ordination process. They had not bestowed any authority upon him to do any of those things. “Tell us,” they asked him, “by what authority are you doing these things?”
The religious leaders wanted to prove to the crowd that Jesus was nothing but an untrustworthy renegade. But instead of getting defensive, Jesus asked them a question in response. In this election season, we might say Jesus made a pivot, and his pivot was quick enough to flummox his questioners, so they refused to answer him. Thus, Jesus responded in kind: “If you will not answer my question, I will not answer yours.”
A few verses later, Luke tells us about exam question number 2. Since Jesus had circumvented their religious question, the leaders formed the next one around politics, in particular the issue of taxes. That was always a sticky one. (Some things never change, do they?) The leaders knew if they could get Jesus to say something treasonous against Rome, then the Roman Empire would take him out. They just had to bait him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they asked.
Again, Jesus refused to engage at their level. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” His questioners had hoped for a yes-or-no answer, but Jesus’ response contained enough ambiguity to require deep theological engagement on their behalf, not exactly what they were looking to do. So as it had been with the previous question, their efforts to entrap him fell flat.
That brings us to our text today and question number 3. Since Jesus had dealt decisively with both the religious question and the political question, his opponents reevaluated their strategy. What else, they wondered, was a sensitive enough issue in the public arena to cause controversy for a rabbi-preacher who expressed an opinion: Immigration issues? Gun control? Social Security and Medicare? All those would work, but they settled on marriage and family values.
And here is when the Sadducees enter the story. It is the first time we have met them in Luke. As Luke states, the Sadducees were the religious leaders who, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in the resurrection. They did not believe there was life after death or that eternal life could have already started even for those still living. They believed that what you see is all you get. Walter Brueggemann describes them a bit more colorfully: “The Sadducees are the most threatened and the most frightened. They are the big downtown priests . . . [who] traffic in power. They are the pushers and the movers who have learned to compromise, and they know how to get things done. They realistically live in this world, as this is the only world there is or will be. It is as good as it can [get,] so their job is to keep it [like it is] and maintain it” (Walter Bruggemann, “The Threat of Life: Permitting Its Intrusion,” The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, ed. Chuck Campbell, p. 145).
Hence, according to the Sadducees, this Jesus—with all of his threat of newness and his disregard for carefully managed boundaries—needed to be stopped as quickly as possible. But like the other religious leaders, the Sadducees also knew they could not take Jesus’ life with their own hands. So since the empire was not biting yet, they would get the people to do it. They would turn to that time-tested political strategy with which we are rather familiar: the strategy of stoking fear and anger in order to create a pervasive atmosphere of threat and mistrust. Jesus was unsafe, they would claim. He was an enemy of tradition, an enemy of the people, and an enemy of their God-ordained way of life (Brueggemann, “The Threat of Life,” pp. 145–146). All they had to do was prove to the people that this whole so-called Age of Resurrection, this Reign of God, that Jesus talked about all the time was nothing but emotional manipulation. So the Sadducees asked Jesus a very long and very strange question about one woman and seven brothers. In order for us to understand their question, we need to quickly unpack this biblical model of marriage, found in Deuteronomy.
New Testament scholar Margaret Aymer calls it the defensive model of marriage (Covenant Network lecture by Margaret Aymer). Although it had mostly fallen out of practice by the first century (AJ Levine, Short Stories by Jesus), here is how it went: A man’s life, name, and family business could only live on after his death through the lives of sons. Therefore, a major goal of life was to produce at least one son. A daughter did not count in the same way. Tragically, though, sometimes a man died before a son’s birth occurred. According to this system of marriage, even after his death all was not lost. The man’s brother could do the job for him. Thus, by law, the brother was required to marry the widow and have sons on his deceased brother’s behalf, thereby continuing the family line and the family business. And there you have it: one example of a biblical model of marriage, albeit not one usually acknowledged in political party platforms.
In the hyperbolic scenario cooked up by the Sadducees, this situation did not just occur one time, but seven times, with no “success.” Then, after all of that, even the woman had the nerve to die. Forget about the fact that she lived her whole life as property being passed around in the same family for the sole purpose of procreation. That part of the story’s premise was beside the point for the Sadducees. “Jesus,” they asked, eyebrows raised, “in this so-called age of resurrection, whose wife will she be?”
As far as the Sadducees were concerned, Jesus had two options. Option 1: he could pick one husband out of the seven and proclaim that particular pairing was linked forever. But that answer would be indefensible. You cannot only choose one when all the marriages were considered valid. Therefore, Jesus, they assumed, would be forced to pick Option 2. That option had Jesus acknowledging he had been living a lie, proclaiming an untruth. If the woman could not belong to just one husband in the Age of Resurrection and yet she also could not belong to all the husbands in the Age of Resurrection, the logical conclusion is there is no Age of Resurrection (Thomas Long, “Jesus’ Final Exam,” Sermons from Duke Chapel, ed. William Willimon, pp. 264–269). Once they forced Jesus to admit that, Jesus would be unmasked as a religious charlatan and the people would take matters into their own hands.
But Jesus, being Jesus, did not choose option 1 or 2. Rather, he created Option 3. Instead of answering the question, he chose to challenge it. He challenged their whole assumption that the Age of Resurrection he preached and embodied—the age breaking into the world even right then and there, even here and now—could ever be limited by the categories of this world, their world, our world, in the first place.
For example, the Sadducees had assumed that even if there was an Age of Resurrection, which they did not believe, the woman would still be first and foremost an expression of property, defined primarily by her ability to produce sons, just like she had always been. Those religious leaders assumed all the categories of this age naturally carried into the categories of that age.
Jesus responded to their assumption, “In this age, people marry and are given in marriage. That is the way it works here right now. Marriage is an institutional category of this finite time.” But in the Age of Resurrection, the age that began breaking into our time and our history through Jesus, the age that is also still on the way to being completely fulfilled, what we call “the now and not yet,” in that age things are different.
In this age, Jesus implied in his response, that woman is still defined as her husband’s property; but in that age, in what God is doing in Jesus called God’s Reign, she is defined as child of God. In this age, Jesus implied, death is still very much a player; but in that age, in what God is doing in Jesus called God’s Reign, death is no longer and there is only life, when all creation rests in the presence of God. In this age, as former Republican Senator Richard Lugar said last month, “We Americans have come to view each other as hostile combatants rather than as fellow citizens . . . divorc[ing] ourselves not just from a sense of shared belonging to this nation, but from reality. On numerous issues, we are failing even to have a civil conversation” (“We Need Men Like Richard Lugar,” John Krull, TheStatehouseFile.com, 18 October 2016). I think Senator Lugar was putting it lightly. But in that age, in what God is doing in Jesus called God’s Reign, the only thing that counts is Love, and we are all family whether we like it or not; hostility and rage and suspicion will be no more. In this age, compassion is often seen as naiveté, and showing vulnerability is viewed as being weak. But in that age, in what God is doing in Jesus called God’s Reign, compassion and vulnerability and kindness and mercy are what matter. In this age, especially these days, people hate very loudly. But in that age, in what God is doing in Jesus called God’s Reign, people love even more loudly.
In his response to their question, Jesus points out to those religious leaders—and to all of us—that it would be a grave mistake to assume that the world to come, that the Age of Resurrection, what God is already doing in Jesus called God’s Reign, is simply this world without end. It would be a grave mistake to assume that God’s future can only contain the possibilities that we can define or understand or imagine. It would be a grave mistake to assume that God is or ever has been limited by our categories and our politics, is under our control or captured by our religion, or could ever be contained by any of our institutions. God is not simply a human being writ large, and the Age of Resurrection, what God is still doing in Jesus called God’s Reign, is not simply all this but just forever. No, Jesus did not choose Options 1 or 2.
Rather, what Jesus revealed, constantly proclaimed and embodied, what Jesus asks us to reveal, proclaim, and embody, is the reality of God’s promise that what we know as this age—an age of brokenness and pain, an age of violence and church burnings, an age of division and polarization, an age of the coarsening of discourse and the prizing of mistrust—this age is already passing away while That Age is already breaking forth. For those with eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to embrace, that Age of Resurrection is popping up all around us even today. This is why we spend so much of Sunday morning immersed in scripture—so that when we leave, we will be able to see that age more clearly and trust it more deeply.
Because as those who follow God in the way of Jesus, we are called to actively practice living in That Age. We are called to live every day from its perspective, from the perspective of God’s reign, the Age of Resurrection. As my father used to preach, the body of Christ, the church, is to be an “island of already” in a “sea of not yet.” We are called to let that age, God’s Reign, affect the way we spend our money, the way we speak to each other, the way we vote, the way we love, the way we treat the planet, the way we interact with strangers and friends at our jobs or in our schools. We are called to live every day being an island of already in a sea of not yet, saying no to the power of fear, no to the power of mistrust, no to the powers of hate and division and greed and injustice that constantly try to assert their reign over us. Those are the categories of this world, and we do not belong to this world. It is passing away. Behold, God is already making all things new, and we belong to that world, a world in which no one is passed over or passed around ever again.
And if you find yourself on this day, two days before the election, struggling to believe me, struggling to believe what God can and will do even when it seems absolutely impossible and so much of our human history tells us otherwise, then . . . (the preacher puts on the World Series winner Chicago Cubs hat). And to the One who can do far more than we could ever ask or imagine, to that One be all glory, now and forever. Amen.