A meditation on Luke 20: 27 – 38
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church November 10, 2019
This past week a friend was helping me clean out my backyard storage shed. In addition to the mysteriously missing tools (which had been hidden in front of my face for months), I also discovered a bit of a natural history museum. We saved an elaborate wren’s nest. I’d watched her slip in through an opening near the shed’s roof line last spring, but I hadn’t wanted to stop her. I thought she was rather clever to find such a protected space for her young. One of my husband’s fly rod cases held the small carcass of a dead mouse. It had prepared for itself quite a soft bed in which to leave this world.
The items were sorted: an antique rocker, minus the woven seat, partially used cans of paint. You know the drill. The piles were made: keep, toss, donate. Then the question becomes, what do you do with the growing trash pile? Seemed a little tacky to expect the neighbors to have to look at it for a week, so I wondered about bringing it to the church. After all, we still had an extra dumpster left from the work day the week before…Don’t worry, Bill, I didn’t do it…but it did remind me of a story.
Back in Nashville, our church was undergoing a major reconstruction, and Mike, the chair of our Property Committee at that time, was coming to church almost every day to meet with one sub-contractor or another. One morning I ran into Mike in the parking lot as he was throwing bags of trash into the church dumpster. I didn’t really think much of it, but I guess he thought he needed to offer an explanation. He lived outside of Davidson County, and if you lived outside of Davidson County, you had to hire a company to come and pick up your trash. Now he lived in a very nice house, in a very nice community but he was extremely offended that sanitation services were not provided and he wasn’t going to pay extra for them. So, once or twice a week, he threw his trash bags in his lovely car and dropped them off in the church dumpster.
What a fascinating metaphor for one aspect of our relationship with church. What if church were the place where we could, at least once a week, dump our garbage. Not the real thing, of course, because Bill Shoemaker would come unglued, and the dumpster would overflow, and the mice would proliferate more than they already are, etc. etc. No, not the tangible garbage, but the theological garbage. The bad theology we have been taught as children, or picked up along the way. The bad theology that casts a shadow over God that God does not deserve. All that junk. And maybe, together, it is possible to not just dump the garbage, but go the extra step of sorting through the pieces, and pulling out what needs to be recycled and renewed through fresh understandings. What if we could dump the theological garbage?
I believe this is what happens in today’s encounter between the Sadducees and Jesus. They bring him some theological garbage and dump it at his feet. He kicks at it with the toe of his sandaled foot, finds the pieces that need to be recycled in new ways and carries the rest away to the dump at the edge of town, where it can be burned. Burned, so they won’t go back and try to pull it out and take it back home with them to rot. Burned, so they can move on, without the stink of bad theology lingering in their nostrils.
In order to understand this encounter between the Sadducees and Jesus, we need some context. Who were the Sadducees? They were a group of Jews, typically of the upper social and economic rank, who held to a distinctive set of beliefs. They only recognized the Torah (what we refer to as the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), as Holy Scripture. They were prominent members of society, holding various leadership roles, one of which was maintaining the Temple in Jerusalem. Because they held strictly to Torah, they did not believe the soul to be immortal, nor did they believe in a bodily resurrection. They saw no evidence in Torah to support these concepts. Another belief which distinguished them from the Pharisees was that they did not believe in angels. That, as much as anything, makes me a little sad for them.
With that knowledge in hand we meet the Sadducees at the temple as they approach Jesus. In this chapter of Luke various people are standing in line to try to trick or test Jesus. The chapter opens with the scribes and Pharisees asking him to justify himself and his teachings, and he has just responded to the question of whether or not to pay taxes to the emperor (vs. 20 – 26). All in all, it must have been both an entertaining and exhausting day for Jesus.
The Sadducees present Jesus, who does believe in the immortal soul and in resurrection, and in angels, (which is handy when it comes to birth and resurrection stories) with what they believe to be a truly mind blowing conundrum. We can just imagine them huddled in a corner of the temple, crafting the perfect brain teaser.
Jesus, suppose a family has seven brothers. The first one marries, but dies before having any children. According to the law, his brother must marry her, and he does, but he dies, too. And without children. On and on it goes until all the brothers have married her and died without having children. Then the woman dies. Which brother will be her husband in the resurrection??
The Sadducees are basing this premise on an ancient law: levirate marriage. Their scenario follows the letter of that law, but it is critical to state that this law was no longer in practice in Jesus’ day. They have dug up an ancient law upon which to build their case. To be fair, the law did offer some protection to widows and orphans. Since women were not understood to be equal citizens with men, and since children had little value in society, the law might provide protections for these vulnerable people. If you are familiar with the story of Ruth and Naomi, then you may remember this particular practice.
To our modern ears it is offensive in so many ways. That a woman could be passed among seven brothers, solely as a means of securing an heir is heinous. Woman as property. Woman as voiceless, powerless, without agency. Woman whose sole purpose is procreation. A woman who has no say in whether or not she marries or whom she marries. Even within the context of Jesus’ culture, he recognizes all of this as injustice. He hears the callousness of the scenario which they describe. The most disturbing aspect of their story is that they cannot see that they have turned a human being into an object to be owned. If we can be so unaware in our hypotheticals, we can pretty easily slide into offensive practices. You still hear these kinds of things today when someone talks about the “girl” who works in their office. We would never say “the boy” who answers the phones unless we were speaking of someone under the age of 12. Devaluing is an age old practice, and not one that honors the God of all creation.
Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is that they are asking the wrong question. The question they need to ask is “why should we believe in the resurrection?” And the companion piece is “what would it mean to have an immortal soul?”
Jesus first clarifies the worth of the hypothetical woman because that is the most crucial piece of theology to correct. “She won’t belong to anyone in the resurrection. She belongs only and always to God.” The mistake the Sadducees make is in assuming that the realm of God is a mirror image of this world, when in truth it is the beautiful perfection of this world. In God’s world, no one is property, no one’s body is used for the good of another. Being a wife is a great thing if that’s something you want to be and have a healthy marriage, but that’s not what the Sadducees have described here. Jesus takes this garbage concept of a woman as property and reinvents it. In the life after this life, she will be known as a child of God, a child of the resurrection; to be “like an angel.” And maybe they begin to entertain the idea of a life beyond this one.
And so it goes, as Jesus sorts out the trash they have dumped at his feet. The theology of levirate marriage had passed its “use by” date long ago. And even though they were simply using it as a context to engage him in theological debate, he won’t fall for it. He separates the bad theology concerning a wife, from the deeper questions that need to be reformulated and renewed, recycled in a fresh way. Jesus responds, not about marriage, but about life and death and the power of God. So what about resurrection?
Jesus approaches this by doing what he does best. He meets them where they are. They study the Torah so he meets them in the Torah. It’s kind of funny really. He says to them, “you know that story about the bush?” He doesn’t even need to say “burning bush,” because they all know what bush he is talking about. Do you remember what God says about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? [i]God says “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” God doesn’t say I was their God, God says I am their God. God is the God of the living, not of the dead. They had never considered that story in this way. They had never heard it as a testimony to eternal life, but Jesus offers fresh understandings. The God of life exists beyond any earthly boundaries that death creates.
Wake Forest Divinity School professor John Senior writes:
profoundly more to life than just the human experience of it, even if that
means we cannot wrap our heads around it. Death is not an ultimate condition
for Christians, and it does not permanently bind the experience of life and its
“Abundant life,” Senior continues, “explodes the boundaries we try to draw around it, which permit access for some and deny it to others.”[ii]
That is the real theological garbage: imagining that we have the power to include or exclude anyone with regard to the wideness of God’s mercy and love. It is painful and difficult theology, but it is truth. I urge you to leave behind the garbage that tells you that you are anything but a child of God, a child of resurrection, and that in indeed, you will be as an angel. But at the same time I urge you leave behind as garbage the right to deny those same names to anyone, as difficult as that may be.
your garbage, let us work through it together. It is work we will never finish,
but the work we are called to do as co-creators with God, of the world which
God imagines for us all. Amen and amen.
[i] For some reason, Luke puts these words in Moses’ mouth, but it is actually God speaking these words in Exodus 3:6.
[ii] Cynthia Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke. John Senior, p. 210.