The God of the Living
Have you ever noticed that the people who are most certain about what happens after death are still alive? I know the Bible makes thousands of statements but knowing which statements are intended as literal truth needs a bit of cautious humility.
I have encountered many people who have favourite Bible passages, yet because the Bible is from its title (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, “the books”) and in reality, is a veritable library of books, the favourite texts chosen can vary widely and usually coincide with individual preferences of the believer. This is not a new phenomenon. For example the Sadducees in Jesus time only recognised the first five books of what we now call the Bible, and derived their teaching and justification from these books. In the same way we encounter Christians today so fixated on end times that they cannot seem to see past the Book of Revelation. This selectivity leaves tremendous blind spots from which no doubt we also are not immune.
I cannot say for example that I have ever encountered a married fundamentalist Church goer who would by preference be found quoting this morning’s text as their favourite – and in particular Luke Ch 20 verses 34 and 35 when Jesus – talking about resurrection for the dead says: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage”, Luke records Jesus as saying, “but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age, and in that resurrection, neither marry nor are given in marriage.” ( In other words to take Jesus literally, if you are married you might as well forget being resurrected!).
Although I am not a Bible literalist, I believe that the gospels are helpful, if we read them remembering the context of each section.
This particular passage of Luke was directed specifically at the Sadducees who were vehemently against any suggestion of resurrection since it was not mentioned in those first five books of scripture. Note then of the Sadducees’ own beliefs, that they were at loggerheads, first with the Pharisees and then with the emerging followers of Christ because according to the historian Josephus, the Sadducees’ beliefs included a total rejection of resurrection of the dead. On this occasion they were trying to trap Jesus into tangling himself with one of their standard arguments, in this case that serial marriages produces real complication for those believing that they are going to be reunited with loved ones after death.
To understand where they were coming from – and I guess to understand why the Sadducees are no longer significant to modern Judaism, you also need to know that the Sadducees were in effect the aristocratic keepers of the faith at the time of the Roman invasion. They safeguarded the Temple, administered the state and from their ranks came the Jewish diplomats. They collected taxes (including taxes from those Jews who were scattered outside Israel). They equipped and led the army, sorted out domestic disputes and regulated relations with the Romans. For what it is worth, I am guessing that their inability to safeguard the Temple and maintain a working relationship with the Romans was instrumental in their loss of authority and status when the Romans destroyed the Temple and drove the Jews from Jerusalem.
So we come to today’s story. As far as the Sadducees were concerned they were being very clever – and what is more by using scriptures in a way the Pharisees would have to accept, but which they thought had a consequence which was laughable, they assumed there was no reply Jesus would be able to find.
Certainly before we get too carried away, there is a problem to admit. The fine detail of this debate is not certain. Honesty should compel us to acknowledge that Luke’s version of the debate varies from that in the gospel of Mark (Ch 12:18-27), and the gospel of Matthew (Ch 22: 23 – 33) because in those two gospels Jesus had been more belligerent and had denounced the beliefs of the Sadducees and their ignorance of scripture. In Luke’s version there was no denunciation and instead Jesus chooses a more subtle approach where he found his argument in the very books the Sadducees accepted.
Unlike Mark, Luke has Jesus talking of a resurrection reserved only for the very few who are entirely faithful, and his rebuttal of the Sadducees is based not on their ignorance, but on stories from the scriptures about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would have known they held dear.
Luke’s retelling of Mark’s account certainly suggests a similar distaste for the Sadducees’ style of argument and in this he had a personal background that gave him good reason. For example in the book of Acts, also written by Luke, in Ch 23 of Acts he refers to the hearing for Paul’s trial after he had been arrested in the Temple for supposedly having insulted the High Priest.
In that instance Paul had started his defence by saying that he was really on trial for his belief in the resurrection of the dead. According to Acts Ch 23 this caused a great uproar since there were both Pharisees and Sadducees present and their personal divisions on the subject actually led to blows. Before we are too hasty to condemn the Pharisees and Sadducees remeber we do go too far back in our religious history to notice it is stained with confrontations between those who were prepared to kill those who differed on what in retrospect now seem small issues of obscure theology.
If we go back to Jesus’ confrontation with the Sadducees, at first glance it appears of little relevance to today’s world. You would be hard put to find Sadducees in our city today, but those who question resurrection for all generally do so nowdays, not because they think it contradicts some obscure point in Old Testament theology, but because modern science has given us new insights into the likely meaning of death.
However, what ultimately makes the argument relevant for us today is the reminder Jesus gives at the end. “(vs 38) Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
In fact it seems to me this implies the foolishness of the Sadducees was not so much that they were wrong to point out logical problems for those who held to a particular view of the afterlife. The foolishness is that focussing on what it means to be in relationship with God after we die is essentially speculation.
To pin too much on pretending the speculation is fact leads to problems. Certainly I have been present at funeral services where preachers or funeral attendees have made firm statements about what the dear departed is probably now enjoying in heaven, but like the myriad of statements about prospects in hell, this can only ever be speculation. Where it becomes something worse is where we use these speculations to separate us from our fellows. The Sadducees had arrived at a different conclusion from the Pharisees and both sides were using the difference to condemn one another. Why else would they have come to blows at Paul’s trial?
Our own speculations about the foolishness of others’ beliefs about the un-testable hereafter are similarly potentially dangerous.
If, on the other hand, we can bring ourselves to see that the God of Love can be at the centre of life (or as Jesus put it: the God of the living – not the dead) then the transformation which is probably at the heart of what Jesus called resurrection can start to awaken.
I am rather hoping the phrase God of the Living should also remind us that what happens in the rarefied (and I would like to suggest artificial) atmosphere of a Church service atmosphere is not all there is to life. As Colin Morris put it in his work, Things Shaken and Things Unshaken, “truth is the capacity to bring one’s thinking and feeling into agreement with the world outside; to value whatever comes our way at its proper worth”.
The alternative of talking of the spiritual world as if it is separate from the outside world is to consign faith to irrelevance. If our Christianity can’t persuade us to live according to values that count in day to day living like honesty, compassion, justice and truth then why would anyone care about what we choose to believe? For example many of those in our local community and certainly those in the unstable parts of the world daily face real life problems like the disparity between the rich and the poor, like decisions based on bioethics, like places where only fair trade and fair food distribution are going to make life worth living. If our beliefs don’t help, then why is our religion relevant?
Speculation about what happens after death takes our attention from the essence of what Jesus taught. Since Love is at the heart of proper relationships, it is in seeking ways to live this love right through our week, not just in the Church for the day of worship, but outside, in the daily choices in the real world, a world with all its everyday problems and possibilities. Surely that is the only way that might bring us into relationship with the God of the Living. If we cannot bring ourselves to face this truth, how then are we going to begin to find meaning in the term resurrection?