You’re asking the wrong question | a sermon

You’re asking the wrong question | a sermon

A sermon on Luke 20:27-38 from November 6, 2016 by Rachel Twigg Boyce

 

Before we begin to look at tonight’s gospel text, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that a little over two months ago, Kalyn Falk and I stood right here at the front of the church and this community blessed us as we stepped into new roles as lay pastors to this community for a six month term.

Since that time many of you have been praying for us, have offered us words of encouragement, and have offered to help in any way possible as we dove into this new work.  Your support has been so wonderful and Kalyn and I want you all to know how much we appreciate being held and supported by our community in this new season of ministry.

Thank you all so very much.

Let’s pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight oh Lord, for you are our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

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Tonight’s reading is taken from the end of chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel, a chapter the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has helpfully titled, “The Authority of Jesus is Questioned.”  Tonight’s reading describes the last in a series of questions posed to Jesus by various groups who are seeking to challenge his authority and it begins like this: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question.”

As soon as I began reading today’s gospel in order to prepare to preach this evening, I was reminded that I am not, in fact, doing very well in my life long quest to be like Jesus because I would have approached this situation very differently than Jesus does.

One group of people asking me questions I could handle, two I might be able to deal with if I really stretched, but a third group? No way. By the time the Sadducees arrived on the scene I would either have had a meltdown, or left, or both.

But not Jesus, Jesus sticks around to listen to, and answer, the Sadducees’ question. Which is this:

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally, the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

A few things to note about this question before we go any further. First, the Sadducees are describing a hypothetical situation.  There is no actual woman who has recently died who they are concerned about.  They’ve made her up to prove a point.

This was an important thing for me to keep in mind as I have been chewing on this passage over this past week because it is easy for me to get fixated on this fictional woman and her fictional life.  Because, while this story may be based on a fictional family the situation described is also based on an actual practice known as “levirate marriage,” which is described in the book of Deuteronomy.  (Deut. 25:5-6)

If a woman’s husband died and she didn’t have any children, she was in serious trouble. There is a reason that the Bible regularly calls us to care for widows and orphans – these were the most vulnerable people, the ones most in need of care.

On a good day, I would describe levirate marriage as a way of protecting this woman.  This is a provision that ensures that someone – namely the dead man’s brother – is responsible to provide for her.  This is a law that could literally save her life.

On a bad day, I might point out that it’s also a system that treats women like property and ensures that property stays in a particular family – the woman, her land, and all the dead man’s possessions are simply goods to be transferred from the brother who has died to the living brother. It’s a simple and efficient system for transferring property – unless, of course, you happen to be that property.

I have a lot of questions about this system. And I am so very grateful to live in a day and age where our beliefs about marriage, while far from perfect, have evolved to the point where if I imagined the death of my spouse, my worst fear would be missing him, not fearing that now that I was destitute I would slowly starve to death. I am grateful to live in a time where no one would ever even suggest that I am my spouse’s property… at least not if they know what is good for them.

But Jesus doesn’t address these issues because Jesus knows both that this is a hypothetical family and that the Sadducees aren’t looking for a discussion on laws concerning marriage.

So remember, the people in the Sadducees’ story do not exist – there aren’t seven men in heaven wondering whose wife this poor, tired woman will be, and don’t forget that we’ve been told right at the beginning of the passage that the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection.  They are asking a question about what happens to made up people in a place they also believe is made up.

So why are the Sadducees asking this question?  Let’s think about that for a little bit…

Actually, we don’t need to think about it for very long, this is baiting pure and simple.

This woman doesn’t exist. The Sadducees don’t believe heaven exists and lest anyone doubt what they are trying to do, they create a ridiculous story to prove their point.  They could have asked the exact same question by using a hypothetical story of a woman who had been married twice. It makes the same point, she’s had two husbands, who will be her husband in the life to come?  But they add not one, not two, but five extra husbands for a total of seven – seven husbands -to the story in an attempt to show how ridiculous the notion of life after death is.

They are using a ridiculous example because they believe the idea of resurrection is ridiculous and they expect that Jesus will be unable to give a reasonable answer thus showing that both resurrection and taking Jesus seriously are ridiculous.

And I believe Jesus knows this and he could have just said, “stop being ridiculous!”

But he doesn’t.

Jesus responds to the question rather than the attitude prompting the question.  In other words, even though he knows this is a question meant to trap him he treats it seriously and says,

“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

None of these men would be the woman’s husband, because marriage does not exist in the age to come.

And that’s good news.

In other words, Jesus is saying your question is based on the assumption that the expectations and practices that apply in this life will apply in the next, and that’s false.  Resurrected life, in fact, transcends this life.  Just because something exists here, doesn’t mean it will exist in the age to come.

So there will not be marriage in the age to come, but there IS an age to come, despite what the Sadducees believe.

The next thing Jesus does is construct a clever argument using the Sadducees own scriptures to prove that there is actually a life after this one.  If you enjoy an academically inclined theological argument, you’ll probably love going through this one in great detail, but here are the basics:

Jesus knows that the Sadducees are playing a game and he has several options in how to respond.  He can complain that the rules of the game are unfair, he can flip over the board, walk away and refuse to play, or he can beat them at their own game.

I would probably choose option 1, Jesus chooses option 3.

The Sadducees believed that only the Pentateuch, the first five books of our modern day Bible, were authoritative.  So, using only examples from those five books, Jesus shows that it is possible to conclude that there is a life after this one. (Them: Deut 25:5-18, JC: Ext. 3:6)

Jesus’ argument is impeccable.  Remember that this interaction is part of a larger story where Jesus is being questioned by various groups of people on a variety of theological subjects, but his answer to the Sadducees’ question ends the interrogation.  In verses 39-40 we read, “Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher you have spoken well. For they no longer dared to ask him another question.”

If he’d been holding a mic and was so inclined, Jesus could have dropped it. Jesus has silenced all of his critics.

But Jesus isn’t looking to drop a microphone and strut away victoriously.  That sort of behavior seeks to set one person over and against another, it seeks to exclude, and Jesus consistently seeks to include.

I would LOVE to believe that, in similar circumstances, I would have behaved like Jesus does. That I would be able to see past the motives of the Sadducees and respond with a graceful, articulate answer. That I would not feel the need to complain about the unfair rules, or toss over the game board, or prove I was better than they were. I want to believe I would value a potential relationship over a right answer.

Except… and now it’s time for another confession.

Sometimes, when I meet someone for the first time, I engage in a little stalking – nothing too intense or worthy of jail time, I just check out their Facebook profile.

And I begin to form an opinion of that person based on what I find slowly, and subconsciously categorizing the information into “pass” and “fail.”

  • Likes Buffy the vampire slayer – pass.
  • Posts a lot of photos of cats – fail.
  • Seems to share my stance on key political or theological issues – pass
  • Really likes Tim Horton’s?

Unfriend. This is never going to work out.

We all have certain questions we use to judge others.  Does this person have good taste in music? Do we have similar theological beliefs? Are they safe? Can I share openly with them about my struggles? My sexual identity? My hopes for the future? My doubts?  If I am honest about who I am, will they reject me?

We all do this, sometimes consciously, often subconsciously and on the basis of people’s answers we choose to either dismiss or include them.  We choose to let them into our lives, or we wall ourselves off.

Sometimes we have good reasons for doing this. Some of us have been deeply wounded by other people and so we engage in a constant process of monitoring who is safe, and who isn’t.

And sometimes we have less than honorable reasons for doing so – we are looking not to understand or include, we are looking for reasons to reject anyone who disagrees with us. We are looking to enjoy the brief and fleeing rush of feeling superior.

And this is what the Sadducees are doing. They have already decided Jesus is profoundly unsafe because he doesn’t share their views, and they are looking to publicly shame him and call him out.

They want to use a ridiculous hypothetical story and their debate skills to show everyone present that Jesus is someone they should all dismiss.

But they lose. Jesus can’t be so easily dismissed.

The Sadducees are trying to say that anyone who disagrees with them can be dismissed, but Jesus says the opposite. Jesus calls us into this mysterious process of trying to live life with the very people we would most like to reject.  Jesus calls us to include, not exclude.

This is what is so mysterious and radical to me about Christ’s table – everyone is included.

Later in our service, Allison is going to invite us all to the table, and the words she uses will make it clear that everyone is invited. EVERYONE. We don’t have a say in the guest list.

Because this isn’t our table, it’s Jesus’, and Jesus says everyone is welcome.

Which means that I can’t choose to exclude any of you because you drink Tim Hortons’ coffee, vote for a different political party than I do, hold theological views I disagree with or just because I’m in a bad mood and don’t like the look of you.

And it means you don’t get to exclude me either.

Jesus looks at all of us with love and says, “come, you are welcome at my table. Come.”

Which can be scary, and more than a little uncomfortable, but I think it’s also what makes the table good news, what makes it the gospel, and it’s why I keep coming back to the table, again, and again, and again.

Amen.

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