Luke 20:27-38 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “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. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 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. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
There was a movie that came out a couple of years ago called First Reformed. It’s about a pastor of a little 250 year old church who starts meeting with this climate activist from his community. The young man, who is terrified because his partner is pregnant, came to him asking, “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to the earth?” The pastor is deeply affected by this; it’s an important question and it sets him searching his own soul. At the same time, his own church is funded by a local megachurch, and as he starts doing research he realizes that the head of a major energy corporation, one of the world’s worst polluters, is a member and major donor at the church. And so as he becomes more and more outspoken that the church could be leading on climate change, inviting people to care for God’s good creation, he comes into conflict with this rich man. At one point, the leader of the megachurch invites the protagonist into his office and pleads with him to stop taking things so seriously and at one point the megachurch leader says “You don’t live in the real world…Do you have any idea what it takes to do God’s work,” to take care of a staff and a building and a thousands of members? “You’ve got to live in the real world.” He’s saying you need people with money and power to do what you want to do as a church—that’s what’s real.
The “Real” World
That’s some good old American pragmatism. Big ideas are for when you’re young and you don’t know any better, but eventually you learn how to compromise. The world’s not black and white, it’s grey (have you ever noticed how this is always the case for the rich: like, their whole lives are grey--well their company uses slave labor in third world countries, but they also donated new chairs to the local hospital so who’s to judge?). We’re not supposed to be idealistic or utopian or zealous, otherwise we’ll be dismissed as immature fanatics. We’re really not supposed to have any convictions which we don’t hold in some degree of ironic contempt (the world might be really messed up but all we can do is make the “Jim face” from The Office). Being a climate activist or a socialist or, ya know, a Christian who wants to take the words of Jesus seriously is fine, those things might make you interesting or thoughtful, but just don’t forget that you’re not supposed to take those things so seriously that they actually become disruptive for other people. You can believe whatever you want to believe but at the end of the day you have to live in the real world. (Which is a really convenient way to get people to go along with things they suspect are deeply wrong.)
In our Gospel passage this morning, Jesus is facing a similar charge, that his ministry must compromise to deal with the real world. The scene takes place on the grounds of the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s just in the previous chapter that Jesus has kicked out the moneychangers—he shows that he is zealous for God’s house, nevermind that the moneychanger’s presence was important to the Temple economy, Jesus doesn’t care about that. It’s not a very practical move, it ends up getting him killed (You’re not gonna find a lot of pastoral theology built around the cleansing of the Temple). But for now he’s teaching in the Temple and various groups are coming and testing his teaching to see if it’s true or if it fits with their views.
So this is the context when a group called the Sadducees come to him. There were a variety of Jewish groups in the ancient near east, and there is overlap among them, but generally speaking their theology and politics were all over the map; they were all trying to reconcile the contradictions of living as God’s chosen people who are occupied by a ruthless Empire. So there was a group called the Zealots, who said that God alone was king of the world: so the Zealots hid out in the wilderness and rallied militias and fought guerrilla battles against the Roman legions in the hopes that one day God would grant them victory and establish the age to come. There was another group called the Pharisees who taught that at the end of all things, there would be a general resurrection, where God raises the dead and judges the living and the dead based on their faithfulness; so for the Pharisees, you play the long the game—you show faithfulness to the law, you refuse idolatry whenever the Empire asks it of you because ultimately God will liberate the faithful; politically, the faithful bear witness. Then there were the Sadducees. There’s not a lot of historical record of the Sadducees but they seem to have been known for a couple of things: they had endeared themselves to the elite in the city, and they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. All those other groups might have their hopes or their piety, but the Sadducees, they live in the real world.
They go to Jesus and they ask him a question about the resurrection. They imagine this woman whose husband dies. So following what the Law calls Leverite marriage, she marries his brother. But then he dies. So she marries his next brother. And imagine this happens seven times with seven brothers. The Sadducees want to know, in the resurrection, who is she married to? Obviously, it’s a rhetorical question. They mean to say that the situation is so absurd, it shows that the very idea of resurrection is absurd. The reason that the book of Deuteronomy gives for Leverite marriage is so that the husband’s name will live on, and the Sadducees seems to take death as a given. Resurrection, heaven, the world to come, these are just metaphors, maybe spiritual truths that give us comfort but they don’t say anything true about the real world. They’re saying “Jesus, you have to be more practical than this. You can’t go throwing tables around and whipping bankers. Maybe those fanatics out in the desert act that way but what have they ever accomplished? Real change only comes from working inside the system, which means we need the system because this is how the world works. If you get killed, you’re not coming back. If you want people to take you seriously, you need to tone all this down.”
The Age to Come
But Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 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. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” They cannot die anymore because they are not of this age. The Sadducees take death as a given and therefore they see resurrection as a problem. They take the moneychangers and the elites and and the wealthy as necessary and therefore they see Jesus’ ministry among and with the poor as a problem. But when they say to Jesus, “You have to live in the real world,” Jesus basically answers, “Oh I do, we just mean something very different by what’s real.”
With Jesus, resurrection is not the problem, death is and all the regimes that work our deaths. Jesus doesn’t look at the grim facts of the status quo and then measure the possibility of something new against what he sees. He starts from the End, he asks us to imagine the age to come, a whole New Creation. Jesus promises that a day is coming when we will live in a land overflowing with milk and honey, where there is a table that is already set for everyone, when every every tear will be wiped away, and all the peoples of the earth will join together in song basking in the beauty of God’s radiance. Jesus isn’t afraid of fantasy, of ideals, of utopian desires, of heaven. He doesn’t cower before the pragmatism of those whose first response is always “How will that work?” Jesus says that when we are faced with the contradictions of sin and death and their regimes here on earth that we can look to a deeper, a more comprehensive a more fundamental reality than all that. The patterns of this world that push us toward death will not magically give us life; what we need is a whole new arrangement, a new creation where those contradictions don’t even make sense anymore, and Jesus promises that day is coming.
The Age to Come in the Present
But it’s not just that it’s coming. I now many of us have been in churches where hope for tomorrow becomes justification for our misery today, which is really just another kind of resignation to the way things are. But with Jesus, the age to come is already here. Jesus’ life gives us a picture of our end, our goal, everything we desire. The Powers of this world—bosses and CEOs and politicians—tell us that their world is just the way things are, that you’re only be practical and responsible if you do things they way they say you’re supposed to and they can even punish those who step out of line and try to say otherwise; but Jesus comes to show a different way, and when the Powers killed him for it, he got up anyway to show that they don’t determine what is real. The resurrection is not just a metaphor or a spiritual maxim; the resurrection is what we mean when we talk about what’s real and what’s possible.
And the Resurrection is the first fruits of New Creation, the beginning of a different kind of world already flowering and going to work in the world we know. As Christ’s Body, we’re called to tend new life as it grows, knowing that it hasn’t arrived in fulness but never letting that be an excuse to settle for less; against all the grim and gritty supposed realism of our times, church should be a utopian project. Every where else in your life you might hear “you can’t do that” or “that’s just the way things are” but if the church is going to be a place where we say that God took on a body, died, and rose again, if we’re really going to believe that, then the least we can do is be maybe the one place in your life where you hear, “No, it doesn’t have to be like this. You’re not crazy for wanting a better world. In fact, you’re right.”
I know that each and every day you hear messages, explicit and implicit, external and internal, about what’s real, what’s necessary, what’s just not changing even if it’s not right. There’s a lot that seems to be unchanging in our world: the climate is rising, the border is militarized, billionaires are sucking up even more power and influence every day, and it’s quite easy to be resigned to those features of our world. But these forces of despair are not the end God has for us. Jesus shows us our end, and so we can be a people who cast the moneychangers from the Temple, who organize with the least of these in our community, who are wild and profligate in our desire to love as if a different world is possible. Let us be zealous, let us be idealistic, let utopian desires overflow like milk and honey because we serve a God who rises, who is always rising, who invites us to rise up, too. Amen.