Read Luke 20:20-38
Note: The Jesus of the gospels showed no interest in what happens after death, so the latter part of today’s gospel reading is an aberration, suggesting this passage may not be historical. Jesus’ central theme was the Kingdom of God, but given the degree of congruence between Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom and St. Paul’s understanding of the New Being, it is conceivable Luke has melded these in his understanding of resurrection.
Several times in the Gospels, Jesus uses the phrase, “He who has ears let him hear.” In other words, ‘listen up, folks, because I am about to say something that you may find difficult to grasp.’ Well, be warned, today you should listen up, because your pre-existing understanding of the concept of resurrection may get in the way of understanding Jesus.
The Pharisees apparently believed in resurrection, but the Sadducees did not, so in today’s lesson, they use the question about marriage to ridicule this notion.
The argument of Luke’s Jesus implies the Sadducees don’t know what they are talking about. It also fits with the teaching of Paul in first Corinthians 15. In that chapter Paul is clear that resurrection is not ‘more of the same.’ There is a complete and absolute dying as a prequel to something totally new.
The argument of the Sadducees assumes an understanding of resurrection more like resuscitation than the complete change of existence implied by Jesus and Paul. The way the Sadducees form their argument, the resurrected life goes on essentially the same as one’s life on earth. This is what they are attempting to ridicule, and appropriately so, but they were arguing the wrong opponent.
It reminds me of how Richard Dawkins argues. He is a brilliant scientist, but in his books against Christianity, such as The God Delusion, he chooses to argue against fundamentalist pseudo-Christianity rather than real Christianity, and it makes him look silly. Similarly, the Sadducees make themselves look foolish by arguing against a resurrection that is not really what resurrection is about.
The Sadducees were traditionalists, and the idea of resurrection was not a traditional view in Judaism. They were indeed in the role of the conservative skeptic here, but they were not the enlightened ones in this argument. Jesus was the proponent of a new view, a radical re-understanding of reality, which he called the Kingdom of God, by which notion of resurrection must be defined. In the sense that St. Paul, also a Pharisee, explained it, resurrection was not living after death; that is, resurrection was not a way to get around the reality of death.
I have a strong hunch that many of you will find this concept of resurrection hard to grasp, as have Christians down through the ages, conditioned as we all are by the spectre of death and the desire for resurrection to be its antidote. Many misunderstand resurrection in the same way as the Sadducees.
The people of Jesus age were actually in a better position to grasp the meaning of resurrection than modern folk. They were well aware of death, for it was much closer to them, and they were far less in denial than our society! For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise? argues the Psalmist (6:5.) These people knew and accepted that dead was dead, unlike some modern day funerals, where death seems to have become same kind of translation to the best of all holiday resorts, as in the fanciful Robin Williams film, What Dreams May Come. Our society, with its own version of resurrection, has lost its confidence about death, and is in denial.
Once we get away from the idea of resurrection as some sort of wish-fulfilment about life after death, we may see that it is actually statement of hope in the face of injustice, suffering, and absurdity. The Jews who suffered and saw wholesale slaughter during the Maccabean rebellion some 160 years before Jesus, during the harsh rule of Rome in Jesus time and in many other crises, could not deny death. It was too real. But they were saying, ‘Surely life is not as short and meaningless and absurd as this!’ As a statement of hope in the face of injustice, suffering, and absurdity, resurrection is completely congruent with the notion of the Kingdom of God. In the face of apparent certain defeat and failure, resurrection is saying, ‘No matter.’
Resurrection is not so much a salve to sooth the our anxiety of non-being (the concern that arises from our ability to look ahead to a time when we will no longer exist), but the ability to say ‘No matter’ to suffering and injustice and whatever else may come. It is a statement of hope and trust in God, because it says that despite the absurdity of everything, I will live according to the morés of the kingdom, in the hope of the kingdom. Rather than a denial of death, the doctrine of resurrection is a statement of faith in the love and justice of God in spite of death, an attitude that leads us make our choices for the Way of Christ even in the face of death.
In all of this discussion with the Sadducees, Jesus said nothing about mechanisms. In his teaching, the Kingdom of God simply is. The Sadducees’ attempt to ridicule him assumes a mechanism. They assume how resurrection is supposed to happen. Jesus not only repudiates their mechanism, but does not name a competing mechanism.
Whenever we argue about the mechanisms of resurrection, we are making a category mistake. Essentially, we are trying to hijack a statement of hope and trust in order to make a statement of physics. If we interpret the notion of resurrection to mean ‘life after death,’ we are also making a kind of category mistake. We impoverish the whole notion of resurrection.
A philosopher lecturer suffered from multiple sclerosis. He said of life after death, “Why would I want more of this?” Even blessed with a physically healthy life, l am now old enough to think that the verses added to John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace, might threaten a horrible future:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing his praise than when we first begun.
Boring!! If resurrection is merely life after death, it will be endless torture. There are days I am tired of life after only 73 years, and comparatively good years at that! I do not want more of the same. Yet what is apparent in popular belief is that resurrection is just an increase in quantity and quality of life as we know it, not a transformation into something entirely different. This kind of thinking is essentially a denial of death; just wishful thinking, and quite contrary to that which Jesus taught was the source of life.
You’ve heard the stories at funerals, although never at funerals at which I have presided, like: ‘He’s gone to the great golf course in the sky!’ How boring would that be! It would not be enough. The implications are not thought out. The boredom of heaven follows from a doctrine of heaven that is really essentially only a denial of death.
I emphasise these issues for two reasons.
The first is that I think much of our society uses the idea of life after death, even though we may call it resurrection, as a means of death avoidance. The reasoning goes like this: “If I believe in life after death, I won’t have to worry about death.”
I am going to die. You are going to die. We are not happy about it, and we will avoid it as long as possible, but it will come. Of this there is no doubt, and of the mystery of what, if anything, follows, there is nothing but doubt. The doctrine of resurrection does not save me from this inevitable fate, but it does enable me to thumb my nose at death and injustice and absurdity, by seeking to live a kingdom, resurrection life right now. And if death should turn out to be a complete end of me in every way, I am still one person who has said ‘Anyway! There is more worth than you, Death. You will always be less, always inferior, to what could be. You will kill me, but you will fail to stop me living.’
The second reason is implicit in what I have just said. We are not simply called to be agnostic about the mechanism of resurrection. We are also unable to even imagine a mechanism, and only the fool will try. All life we know, and can conceive of, is dependent on matter. (There was no concept of a disembodied soul in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. This was a Greek notion which found its way into Christianity later.) And we are not able to understand how even this matter-based consciousness works! Our life, and self, is held in the tissue of the body. When the brain begins to decay, we die. There is only hope left; hope without an object. There is no cogent imagining or reasonable hypothesis available to science for any alternative to death.
A doctrine of resurrection that ignores the wishful thinking about ‘life after death,’ then can make sense for a modern mind that has a scientific world view as an inescapable part of its foundations. For those times when our fragile self has no defence against the threat of death and its inevitability, when depression or despair threatens to overwhelm us, resurrection lets us laugh in the face of absurdity. It will say, “No matter! Even if you utterly destroy me, I there is something greater, something much worthier, than you, Death! And I will live for it anyway because it is better.”
There are times when this faith is little more than a grim, almost hopeless and pointless spiting of death’s inevitability. It is one last tiny act of resistance. But sometimes I find (even me, the skeptic) a sense and an assurance and a hope that this is far more than mere words! I am reminded that, though we find ourselves in the now, we are also in the ‘not yet.’
Look at where this week’s reading is situated in the gospel of Luke. It is so much more than an isolated statement. So much more than a story showing Jesus can out argue his opponents. It is a part of Luke’s theology of the Kingdom. It is part of his stand against injustice and empire. In the face of the absurd and the pointless, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom.