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Sunday, November 10, 2019 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied; it is to be lived.
Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
Because we have been in a sermon series over these past six weeks, please allow me to frame where we are today in the Gospel of Luke. As Tom Long has written, we are in the middle of Jesus’ final exam. In other words, by this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has already wept over Jerusalem and ridden into the city on the back of the colt as a counter-protest to Caesar’s parade. Putting it mildly, by this twentieth chapter in Luke, Jesus has already caused a bit of a stir.
And his purposeful provocations got the attention of those who were in charge of the religious house, as well as those who were in charge of the state house. As Luke wrote at the end of chapter 19, “The leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.”
So instead of taking Jesus by force without cause, those leaders sought to build a case against him in order to entrap him, thereby giving them a reason to arrest Jesus and crucify him.
After all, given their investment in the institutions of their day, Jesus posed a threat to all of them. Thus, his final exam began. Exam question number one: where did he get the authority to do what he’s doing. Jesus, though, chose not to answer that question and instead told them a parable about rebellious slaves in a vineyard who killed those sent by the vineyard owner. The leaders who heard the parable assumed Jesus was drawing a parallel between the murderers and them, but though his story made their blood boil, because of the public opinion polls they restrained themselves from acting.
The threatened leaders then followed that first exam question by asking a second one—one about income taxes and whether it was faithful to pay them. But again, their tactic did not work. Jesus managed to answer in a way that was truthful and faithful yet also full of enough ambiguity that they could not ensnare him.
So they moved on to a third question, which is where we are today. And here is when the Sadducees enter the story. It is the first time we have met them in Luke. As Luke writes, 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.
Our friend 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.”
Their “this-world only” orientation is why they asked the third question the way they did. To be clear, on the surface, it seems they are asking Jesus about the institution of marriage. Yet it was not really a serious question about marriage. Rather, it was a ridiculous question framed around marriage in order to squelch all this talk about resurrection. After all, keepers of the status quo want nothing to do with resurrection and new possibilities.
A friend of mine, Joe Clifford, once told me that the Sadducees’ question to Jesus was like some of the questions posed to candidates for ordination at Presbytery examinations in the 1950s and 1960s. “Why do you think God made red birds and blue birds?” the question went. But those asking the questions weren’t one bit interested in a biological analysis of the evolution of species into various colored birds. Rather, they didn’t want pro-integration pastors in their presbyteries. So it is with the Sadducees’ question to Jesus. What they are asking is only loosely related to their actual agenda.
Now, let me push pause for just a minute, because we do have to briefly address the way the religious leaders framed the question. They were talking about a Deuteronomy-informed ancient marriage practice called Levirate marriage. This practice mandated that if a husband died and left his wife childless, then his brother had to marry her and give her a child. While it sounds awkward to our ears, to say the least, one of its purposes was actually to provide protection for the woman. In that time and day she was considered property, thereby completely dependent upon either her husband taking care of her, providing food and shelter, or, upon his death, her children, sons primarily, taking care of her, providing food and shelter. Without one or the other, the widow was left completely and utterly vulnerable. The second purpose of the practice was to ensure the family lineage. At that time the only way a man’s name, business, and life could live on was through the birth of a son. So having a child, a son in particular, was critical for the entire household.
Now, by the time of this conflict between the Sadducees and Jesus, this practice of Levirate marriage had pretty much fallen out of favor with most people in the Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, this was the framing for the Sadducees’ question for Jesus. Why? Based on the Sadducees’ “this world only” view, the agenda behind the question was to force Jesus to proclaim he had been lying about the resurrection and that his ministry was nothing but a sham.
Here is how they thought it would work: If Jesus said that the woman was the property of only one of the men in the age of resurrection, he would be incorrect because each marriage was considered valid. And yet, the Sadducees assumed, Jesus also could not say that she belonged to all of the husbands in the age of resurrection. That, too, made no sense. Therefore, the Sadducees determined, by asking him that third exam question they were forcing Jesus’ hand, and he would have to admit he had made the whole resurrection thing up.
But Jesus did not take the bait. As he had done with the prior two questions, so he did with this one. He refused to stay in their categories. He refused to get caught up in their power games. He refused to limit his God-given vision of what “was and would be” by their limited human vision of what “was and would not change.” So he pointed out they were asking about an institution of this age, and yet the institutions of this age are not going to be what call the shots in that age, in God’s age. Their question was ridiculous, Jesus inferred. It was based upon a false premise. He would not even deign to entertain it.
Yet I think Jesus’ response goes even deeper than Jesus’ announcement that the institutions of this age do not define what will be in that age, for Jesus’ non-answer did make one thing quite clear: in God’s reign, the age of the resurrection, the age that God was already bringing into being even right then and there through Jesus, this woman who had been given to seven different men, who had been known primarily as barren, who had no name in this story nor any voice—once she began to live fully in God’s reign, none of those things defined her anymore.
Rather, in that age, in God’s reign, instead of only being known by her relationships to everyone else, she would only be known by her relationship to God. And “child of God” would be her name, and freedom, her life for then and for forever. Jesus’ non-answer proclaimed that as God began the work of bringing that age into this age, a work God still continues here in and with us, that daughter of God would no longer be seen only through the categories we humans define and determine.
After all, as Jesus points out, the age of resurrection, what God is already doing in Jesus called God’s reign, is not this world without end. It is not limited by the possibilities we can define or imagine. It is not held captive to our categories or to our institutions. As I have said before, 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. And isn’t that good news?
I think so. And I imagine many of the veterans and their families whose service we honored today think so too. From what I have been told, no one who has been through a war ever wants to see another one break out. Many of the veterans I know, especially people of faith, are some of the most committed to working for peace and for reconciliation here and now.
So the promise heard in this text that the age of resurrection, what God is already beginning to reveal even among us called God’s reign, is not going to just be this very broken and sinful system of power and dominance, violence and retribution from now and for forever—that promise is critical to their sense of hope. That promise is critical for their own stamina in healing from the wounds of war they already carry.
I imagine it is also good news for all of the parents whose children we are baptizing today too. The promise heard in this text that all of the ways we try to define people, categorize people, tell them who they are and what they are capable of doing according to our rules, according to our institutions—the promise that all of those limits are not God’s limits, that is very good news for parents these days, for by making the baptismal promises on behalf of their little ones, these parents are proclaiming they are determined to raise their children to be people of faith, people who learn to see themselves and others not just with their own eyes but with God’s eyes.
These parents are promising that they will do their best, with our help and by God’s grace, to raise their children in such a way that when they look in the mirror their children will learn to trust they have been created in God’s beautiful image, just as they are. And all of our prayers will be that on most days they will be able to remember that the truest truth about who they are is that they are some of God’s beloved ones.
And we pray that they will cling to that truth known most fully in God’s reign regardless of any other messages from this age that they might receive growing up, regardless of whatever categories of this age the world tries to force them into, regardless how other people try to define them. Like that unnamed woman in the Sadducees’ question, from God’s perspective of that age, their primary name is “God’s child.” And their lives, like all of our lives, are meant to be lives of wholeness, lives in which they, themselves, can live and act in ways that help bring about this transformation into God’s full reign, into that age. For the promise of the gospel is that what is now will not always be. Jesus is telling us, even in his non-answer, that we can raise these children with that kind of vision and that we, ourselves, can recommit to having that kind of vision. And that is extremely good news.
It is interesting to note that after Jesus gave this response to the Sadducees on that day, Luke tells us they decided not to ask him any more questions. I don’t blame them, for if all of that grace and mercy and resurrection possibility can be unleashed into the world merely through one of Jesus’ non-answers, who knows what might happen if he ever chose to answer one of their exam questions directly. At least on that day, the Sadducees did not want to wait around and find out. Amen.