Proper 27C Sermon (2001)

Proper 27 (November 6-12)
Texts: Luke 20:27-38;
Job 19:23-27a; 2 Th. 2


“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38)

This is one of those verses in the Bible that can be easy to underestimate. It can fly by us without our realizing how important it is. One clue is its place in the Gospel story: it unfolds during Holy Week events, one of the last interactions that Jesus has in public before his Passion.

Perhaps even more important is that it gives us direct information about how Jesus perceived God. If we say that Jesus came to reveal God to us in fullness, then the corollary to that is that Jesus also came to cure us of our idolatries, of the wrong ways in which we perceive God. It shows us a God who is completely about life. On this Stewardship Sunday we have the opportunity to arrive at something more than our usual focus on stewardship of “time, talent, and treasure.” We are invited, I think, to know a God of life who calls us to be nothing less than Stewards of Life.

Let’s look first at how we are wrong about life and death and about the false ideas of God we so often have that link God with death. (1) The Sadducees can represent us in these views. They really have a nice little argument to bring to Jesus. Who were the Sadducees? We’re not as used to seeing them in the Gospels as we are the Pharisees. That’s because Jesus spent most of ministry in Galilee and other outlying places; and the Pharisees were more like local officials, the mayors and city councilmen in those outlying places. The Sadducees were the ‘Washington politicians,’ so to speak, the establishment figures in the capital city of Jerusalem, where Jesus is about to be executed. They focused only on the five books of Moses, and didn’t believe in the resurrection. And, by the way, it was popular for Jews to believe in the resurrection at that time, but the Sadducees were the hardened realists who scoffed at such things.

Their argument to Jesus goes back to a law from Deuteronomy with which they will try to catch Jesus on his view of the resurrection. In that law, if a married man died without children, then it fell to his brother to take that man’s widow as his wife so as to beget a child for his late brother, and thus assure him posterity. At first sight this seems to be a piece of matrimonial law; however, the Sadducees understood their own Scriptures rather better than that: this law existed exactly because the only way of bluffing past the universal reign of death was by having children. It was because of this that the man who died without children needed his brother to get for him the share in posterity that he couldn’t get for himself. The Sadducees were right, in a certain sense: the existence of the Levirate law is good evidence that nobody at the time Deuteronomy was written imagined the existence of the resurrection, since, if they had, the Levirate law would have smelled bad to them. If it was not considered stinky, it was because there was no such resurrection. It’s not a bad argument against the resurrection.

Furthermore, they added an ingenious little touch to it, by producing the spectacle of seven brothers who died before having children, passing the wife on like a used car. Jewish listeners at the time would probably have thought immediately of a story from much later in their history which had helped to produce the popular view of a resurrection of the righteous, the view the Sadducees were trying to knock down. It’s the story of the seven Maccabee boys who came a thousand years after Moses in Jewish history and had become heroes in their own right, standing up against a terrible dictator in Judah. The seven Maccabee boys had been executed for their refusal to abandon the Law were considered immortal. In fact the passage from the book of Maccabees which describes their death is one of the earliest passages in Scripture to attest to the existence of the resurrection of the dead, precisely as a prize for God’s martyrs. So it’s as if the Sadducees were saying: “The Levirate law undercuts all arguments for the resurrection of the dead, even if you use as an example the Maccabee boys.”

Jesus is not impressed by this really rather splendid rabbinical argument. In fact, his reply is rather discourteous. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus begins his reply by telling them flat out that they are greatly mistaken, really wrong. And then his argument against them is virtually the same in Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

“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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:34-36)

This means that marrying and giving in marriage are realities proper to a world of death. For those for whom death is not a reality, marriage has less motivation to it. The impetus for procreation is the overcoming of death, and those who have nothing to do with death have no special motive for having children. God can create more beings in the same way as he creates angels: without any need for human reproduction. This is Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees’ conundrum: having children is a necessity only for those who are dominated by death. For those who are not, it loses its usual sense of urgency. St. Paul is already an example of this in 1 Cor. 7; he no longer sensed an urgency to marry and have children.

Let’s pause here to go back a moment to last week (All Saints C). We marveled at a number of things in the readings from Scripture last Sunday. It began with St. Paul’s outrageous description of Christ’s power as “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” His waxing poetic about that power recalls the greatest conquerors of all time, people like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. So why is St. Paul’s description so outrageous? Because he’s making this claim of ultimate power for a poor carpenter’s son who was ignominiously executed on the Cross in shame and powerlessness. And so we said that, either this is absolutely daft and crazy nonsense, or else God is trying to show us that what counts for power to God is completely different than what counts for power to us. And we went on to notice the difference in power illustrated in the Gospel Lesson, Jesus’ Beatitudes, his proclaiming of blessings on the poor and powerless, and woes on those who are wealthy and powerful by this world’s standard.

Finally, I want to recall what we concluded about this difference in power between God and us: what counts for power and life in this world is actually an evasion of death. We make power-moves that puts death off onto other people. Jesus announcing woes to this world’s powerful, in other words, to those who are wealthy enough, well-fed enough, and sufficiently entertained enough to think that they are putting off death. If we’re a powerful commander we may send someone else off to death. Or if we’re wealthy, some poor person over there may die of starvation, but that won’t be our problem. Being powerful in our usual everyday world means not having to face death today, even if it is all around us.

I recap these things from last week because I think we’ve come to an identical place this week, haven’t we? The Sadducees were powerful, influential people of their day who thought that they stood for power and life, but Jesus shows them to have a thinking based in that same evasion of death. Marriage and children, for us who are oriented toward not dying, becomes a strategy to put off death and have a piece of immortality through our descendants. I don’t think Jesus is saying that marriage and family are wrong ideas in themselves, mind you. He’s simply showing us how in our hands — creatures who live in fear of death — these blessings of sharing God’s power of life with others are turned by us into a strategy for forestalling the reality of death. Our spouse and children are thereby not good in themselves but largely as ends to our personal projects of softening the blow of death.

Jesus concludes his response to the Sadducees, then, with precisely the point that we have emphasized the past couple weeks: how completely different God’s power of life is from our powers of trying to evade death. Jesus evokes the story of Moses at the burning bush, where God tells him repeatedly, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Luke 20:37 quoting Exodus 3:6, 15, 16) The reply has no apparent bearing on the resurrection of the dead, but rather is about who God is. God has nothing to do with death nor with the dead, but instead declares to Moses that he is the God of three people who were apparently dead at the time.

Now we begin to understand what God’s power might consist in. Jesus isn’t talking so much about some special power to do something miraculous, like raising someone from the dead. Rather he’s giving an indication of the quality of who God is. This “power,” this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and, for that reason, facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this one more way: for us “being alive” basically means “not being dead”; it’s an experience of life lived in fear of its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death.

This is Stewardship Sunday, and I think we’ve come to the point at which we can briefly conclude with a tie-in to the commitments of giving we make here today. A theme we have raised this fall is that of Affluenza. Basically, what we are saying about Affluenza is similar to what Jesus is saying this morning about marriage and family: our wealth, our material blessings — instead of being gifts of the power of life from our God, who calls us to share them with others — our wealth becomes a strategy for us to avoid death. We hold onto it, we collect it, we consume it, in order to keep feeling alive. They are signs to us that we aren’t going to die today. We can say to ourselves, “I’m comfortable enough, I’m well-fed enough, I’m sufficiently entertained to think that I’m not going to die today — or at least that I can somehow feel so alive that I forget about death.”

But it doesn’t work. That’s what the awareness of Affluenza is trying to teach us. Our strategies of consuming the resources of God’s creation end in death, not life. This is true of each one of us, even if we are “successful” in the eyes of this world in accumulating things. It becomes even more obvious that it leads to death when we become aware of the two thirds of this world that live on the edge of death because we have so much more than our fair share of Creation’s resources.

So what can we do? Re-prioritize? This is certainly part of what we need to do. It is the guidance that the secular PBS show offers us: re-prioritize and live simpler lives, focusing more on relationships and less on consuming things. Isn’t this what many people have been jolted into seeing since September 11, too? Many folks are stepping back since that terrible tragedy, and asking what’s really important in life. They are re-prioritizing towards people instead of things, and they are beginning to share more with those in need.

But I want to lift up this morning that, as people of faith in Jesus Christ, we are called to do more than simply re-prioritize. We are called to be nothing less than stewards of God’s power of life! This isn’t simply another strategy to avoid death. It’s a call to more fully open ourselves in faith to God’s abundant power of life, a power which knows not death. Our Lord Jesus Christ could go to the cross trusting in this power of life. He could give himself wholly, in faith that his heavenly Father is an eternal source of life. And so he calls us to follow in sharing so completely of our blessings with others, trusting in a never-ending source of life. We share with others as stewards with God of the whole creation, knowing that the end is completely about life, that God’s promise to us is for a time when all of creation will know no death.

How does this come about in a world that still cowers under so much death? It begins with faith in that power of life, the kind of faith that took Jesus to the cross and raised him as the first fruits of life. It is a faith that shows itself in a willingness to spend our lives on behalf of others, unafraid that life might somehow run out in the end. We share the bounties of our lives that more and more of this creation will meet the never-ending power of life.

One last point: you may be wondering if all of this has anything to do with the simple act of making a pledge to church today. Just in case the connection is not yet clear, let me simply conclude with the passage that concludes this part of Luke’s Gospel. Once again, it’s the last week of Jesus’ life, and he’s in the temple being embroiled in controversies by this group and that. The controversies come to a close with Jesus clearly prevailing, and he begins to leave the temple. And this is what we read:

Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)

Let us be disciples of Jesus and of this woman who gave everything they have. We give of ourselves on behalf of our spouse, our children, our friends, our ministry in Christ. We give that we might answer the call to be Stewards of Life. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, November 11, 2001

1. I owe the primary insights into this passage, and even some of the specific language in fleshing it out, to James Alison’s work on this passage, especially as found in Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1995), pp. 35-41.

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