In the Name...
This morning's Gospel reminds me of a scene in the TV series "Keeping Up Appearances." When Hyacinth says to her hen-pecked, long-suffering, husband Richard that she looks forward to spending all eternity with him in heaven, Richard looks upwards in a silent plea that it might not be so.
"Whose wife will the woman be?" Isn't that a great question? It's like those questions with which we used to torment our Sunday School teachers when we were kids - you remember, "Can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?" But, in this context, it’s not meant to be humorous.
Although we don't see much of them in the Gospels, the Sadducees considered themselves the conservative religious group in Jesus' day. They called the Pharisees the liberals and one of their big issues was over the Pharisees' teaching that there would be a personal resurrection after death. The Sadducees considered this heresy; pagan Greek philosophy corrupting the pure word of God. They denied resurrection for several reasons and today's Gospel talks about two of these.
First, they argued that the resurrection was not to be found in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. These were the only books they accepted as Scripture so you might say they were fundamentalists who used an abridged edition of the Bible. And that's why Jesus uses the story about Moses and the burning bush. Jesus insists that story, which is from the Torah, implies the doctrine and reality of resurrection.
But, the other reason, the other argument, is more interesting and relevant to us in our day. The Sadducees said that the resurrection didn't make sense and that's what's behind their example of the one bride for seven brothers. If you can't figure out something as simple as who is married to whom, they're saying, then there must be something wrong with the whole thing.
It's is an interesting argument because we still ask these kind of questions. People have asked me, for example, will babies who died as babies be resurrected as babies, and will those who die elderly and infirm be resurrected elderly and infirm. An interesting question. By the way, it’s nothing new because, in the fourth century, St. Augustine considered this and he came to the conclusion that everyone would be resurrected as they were at age 33 - Jesus' age at his resurrection. Sounds good to me.
The point is there are lots of other questions like this around, and we all have them. And it would be really great to have all the answers.
So, it's important to pay attention to what Jesus says. He says that the woman in the story is not going to be anybody's wife because situations and relationships in the future will be different. The family unit as we understand it, and the whole network of blood ties is no longer going to be what determines who we are. In fact, he says everything will be so different that we will all be like angels.
He doesn't say, of course, that we're going to turn into angels. No, he says we're just going to be living like them in a direct relationship with the Father. Races, nationality, what high school we went to, etc., will all become irrelevant. We will be living in a spiritual state freed from anxieties and concerns about material things.
Of course, this is not the answer the Sadducees want to hear. They want details and Jesus isn't giving details, to them or us, because we need to understand that our belief in the resurrection, our hope in the future, does not come from knowing whose wife the woman will be or what age we're going to come back as. Our hope comes from knowing Jesus. Our hope comes, as it did for Job, in knowing that our Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth and after my skin has been destroyed I shall see God and my eyes shall behold Him who is my friend and not a stranger.
These are the words we read at almost every funeral because these are the words which sum it all up. The only thing we need to know about the future is that there is one, there is a future, and God will see to the details. What we need to concern ourselves with is the present phase of life as a preparation for the next since we're the ones in control of the details here. Our job is today; His is tomorrow.
And that's an answer the Sadducees probably found very disturbing. They believed that when you died you left behind children and memories but, you, yourself, were gone forever. No heaven, no hell. Their gospel was self-help, self-fulfilment, self-reliance. They lived for success, comfort, position. The Sadducee who died with the most toys won. To borrow a line from Mark Twain, they were the self-made men who worshipped their maker.
And that's why they were sad, you see. Sad, you see.
But, honestly, aren't there a lot of Sadducees in the world today? People who believe in living a good life, but not for any reason other than getting along in the present. People who consider the accumulation of stuff and status as a goal. People whose values are totally focused on the here and now. People who are indeed sad, who feel they have no identity beyond what they do; no value beyond what they possess.
It's amazing how time flies. In just a couple of weeks we're going to find ourselves in the hardest time of year for the modern Sadducee, the secular pre-Christmas season. You notice I didn't say “Advent.” Advent is a church season, a religious season with a spiritual emphasis. The secular pre-Christmas season is something very different. Its emphasis is on creating a false happiness to get people to spend money. It's contrived, artificial, and, for many, brings a sense of isolation, depression, and burden because secular Christmas has no inherent meaning.
Celebration requires context and without a Christ who comes to earth to die and rise, who comes to bring eternal life, who comes to lead us to heaven and save us from hell, then Christmas has no context beyond an excuse to celebrate ourselves.
The modern Sadducee goes through the seasonal motions with an inner emptiness, failing to find meaning in sentimental evocations of childhood or ritualized gift-giving. And small wonder. Christmas isn't about the past, it's about the future and that will always be something that Sadducees have trouble understanding.
Maybe we are given no specifics, no concrete answers about life after death. We still don't know whose wife the woman will be, or how old we will be, or anything like that. But, what we do know is that when we die, and when those we love die, God's love for us does not die and that trust - that hope - is greater than all our questions.
For we know that our Redeemer lives. Today and every day.
In the Name...