Haggai 1:15b-2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Ordinary 32C; Proper 27
Our human focus fixates on matters perhaps inconsequential to God.
This entire scene of religious leaders questioning Jesus reveals the radical disconnect between divine perspectives and human ones. We seek vindication. We want clear evidence of God being on our side. We look to Jesus to affirm our righteousness and rightness. Jesus tells us: You are asking the wrong questions for misguided reasons and unhelpful ends. The set-up to this exchange gives away much about the questioners. They ask Jesus, through this convoluted scenario, to speak to a doctrine they explicitly reject. The Sadducees do not care about whose wife this woman will be in the resurrection because they do not believe in the resurrection in the first place. What, then, is their motivation?
Well, what’s ours when we ask a question that is really posed to reveal our (correct) opinions and our (superior) knowledge? Consider for a minute an occasion – a presbytery meeting or classroom, a dinner table conversation or work discussion – when someone asked a question without even the slightest openness to hearing or being moved by the answer. Often the question and the answer were simply the jumping off point for the one asking to pontificate or prove their own point. Sometimes the question and answer were a litmus test, a way to get another on record as being on one side or the other of a hot button issue. (Anyone else remember those examinations of candidates for ordination on the floor of presbytery meetings?) This last question in this series of questions to Jesus in Luke 20 is yet another challenge to Jesus rather than an opportunity for learning and relationship. And yet, Jesus answers genuinely.
Jesus takes the questioners at their word and answers their question. He gets at the issues behind the issue presented. He gets to the heart of the matter, what truly matters. Jesus tells those with ears to hear that what we obsess over in this age does not take center stage in the age to come. He cites Scripture and he grants hope. Those vulnerable and in need of protection in this age will be like angels, children of God, not dead, but raised and with the God of the living, no less than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God indeed shakes up earthly orders and abides with the poor, hungry and those who weep, the seven-time widow and others for whom questions of daily safety trump queries conjured up with theological word problems.
This story from Luke feels strange to me on so many levels. The levirate law of marriage. Divisions between Sadducees and Pharisees. Debates about resurrection. This age versus the age to come. References to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as evidence that God is the God of the living. Connecting the dots between this ancient exchange and my current reality requires a lot of mental gymnastics, maybe as many as the ones contained in the question posited to Jesus. But here is what I do know from this text: God cares about those tossed back and forth by circumstances beyond their control. Jesus deals in present, painful realities here and now. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob works through complex families and sinful people on earth and not just in heaven. Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. Even when we come to Jesus in an attempt to show off our rightness or righteousness, even to test the Lord or out our fellow human beings on one side or the other of a deeply contested line, Jesus responds, pointing us to what truly matters, revealing the heart of the matter and what matters to God.
In this season of heated debates, closed door or public hearings, call out culture and endless testing of ideological purity, this odd and old exchange between Jesus and those who ask him questions could help us navigate our own tumultuous time. This back and forth might offer us a way to respond to one another when tensions are high and trust low. Imagine if we did not trade in conspiracy theories and instead acknowledged our inability to really know another’s motives. Maybe we, like Jesus in this conversation, could honestly, sincerely respond to each other regardless of how the inquiry is presented to us. What if we humbly attempted to get to the heart of the matter and prayerfully pondered what matters to God? Would it be possible to refrain from taking sides and instead seek to stand with Jesus?
Jesus’ questioners are concerned with hypotheticals and doctrinal purity. Jesus’ answer shows that God is concerned with real people and all their messiness. God is a God of the living, not the dead. Could we embrace that truth and act accordingly? Could we stop obsessing about issues and turn our attention to those impacted by them?
The New York Times recently reported on a project that brought 526 voters representing “all of America” together for a weekend to talk about politics, but in an unusual way. No one knew from the onset where others stood. Buzzwords and common political labels were not used. People met and talked in small groups. They shared their experiences on topics like health care and immigration. The point was not to convince others or change minds. And yet, researchers discovered that people were moved, not radically, but in understanding and empathy. One of the political scientists who designed the study characterized the conversations like this:
“You have to learn to listen to them,” Mr. Fishkin said. “They don’t talk the way policy wonks talk about an issue. They bring their life experience, their observations. But they’re making arguments when they tell a story.”
Those real-life stories, rather than hypothetical talk about issues, made a difference. In talking about the Affordable Health Care Act, one woman told about the impact it made with her father after his cancer diagnosis.
“He would be homeless without it,” she said. “I don’t really know how I feel about it either, but I can tell you from personal experience, it saved one life.”
As the room grew more somber, a man across from her said, “But now I can’t argue because of what your dad dealt with.” Everyone broke into laughter.
Jesus, our Incarnate Savior, is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — real people. God’s Word is a living one, not a hypothetical one. We pray for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, for God to act in this age and the age to come. All of our questions, answers and exchanges ought to reflect this heart of the matter: in life and death we belong to God, not in abstract theory, but in real, lived relationships.
- What questions do you have for Jesus? Are you open to Jesus’ answer?
- What do you think we focus on in the church that perhaps does not really matter to God?
- When have you experienced an exchange like the one in Luke 20, a time when it felt as if the question was a trick one? How did you handle it? Have you ever been the one asking a “gotcha” question?
- What does it mean to you that God is the God of the living and not the dead?
- Do you ever think about “this age” and “the age to come”? What does that language mean to you?
- Compare the account of this story in Luke 20 to the account of this story in Matthew 22:23-33 and Mark 12:18-27. What differences do you notice? Is there any significance to these differences?
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