The ‘good’ that we do…remains
November 6, 2022
Scripture: Luke 20:27-38
We each have but one life in which to love…only one life to learn and to practice the art of truly loving another…just one life to spend more time getting this right…and it is only in loving this way that we truly live, move, and have our truest being.
While at first blush this reading may seem like a simple teaching on eternal matters and on the foolishness of trying to trip up Jesus with word games, I think a closer inspection may show there is much more under the surface and between the lines. Aside from the obvious questions regarding marriage, this scripture may also give us a chance to reflect seriously on matters of life and death…on what really goes on after our physical death, as well as the actual nature of God’s ‘judgment’, and what ‘eternal life’ might actually be like.
The Sadducees were a subset of Judaism, a group of believers holding a set of understandings which differed from those of other groups (not so unlike various denominations within our own faith tradition). The Sadducees held many beliefs in common with other groups but disagreed on certain interpretations of the Law and its teachings. In particular they disagreed strongly with the Pharisees on the idea of a resurrection to life after death. They did not believe that individuals were brought back to life after death and instead held that one ‘lived on’ solely in the memories others held of them, as well as in the lives of their descendants…a practice that still remains for some today.
Related to this non-belief in an afterlife, the Sadducees adhered to a tradition known as levirate marriage, a custom whereby a woman who was widowed and childless was expected to marry her husband’s brother in order to seek to have children by him, in order that her first husband would thereby have familial descendants. Perhaps coincidently it was also a way to insure that the family wealth would remain solely within the family’s control.
The Sadducees who approached Jesus that day took this custom and pushed it to the farthest limit, hoping that Jesus would side with them in their ongoing debate with the Pharisees. However, Jesus was not about to be taken advantage of in this way and sought to show those there that their views were quite incomplete and in need of deeper understanding regarding the nature and ways of God. In spite of this explanation, the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary points out that this passage is still one that raises questions for some who may be uncomfortable with Jesus’ response. For Jesus seems to be saying that marriage does not carry over into eternal life, but rather that in the life after death there will be no marriage such as we know it on earth. And while this may bring some comfort to those who have suffered through a long abusive relationship, there are also those who are equally hopeful that a cherished and loving relationship here on earth will not just suddenly seem to end as we pass through from life on earth over into eternal life…that somehow the investment over a lifetime in learning to love another might continue on after we have gone on to be with our Lord.
However, I am not sure that Jesus was actually addressing the question as we hear it, for he was not really saying anything about the eternal qualities of love, but rather was specifically addressing the legal and social obligations of marriage held in his day. Back then, women were viewed not as separate and individual persons, but rather as property, and were bound by law to marry their brother-in-law if they were widowed according to the custom of levirate marriage. Jesus was not saying that good and holy relationships in any way discontinue but rather that the Sadducees were asking the wrong questions in their quest to prove that eternal life did not exist. Not only did Jesus affirm that there is life after this life, he also gave to us some fascinating insight into what that may be like, and how it is one might find themselves there. Jesus said that there is life with God both on this side of the Creative moment…when we are first given life and breath by the Holy Spirit…as well as in the eternal and loving presence of God once we cross over beyond that thinnest of veils that separates physical from spiritual reality.
As many of you know I have a real passion for speaking of the incoming ‘Day of our Lord’, a day to be found very much here on earth, and very much capable of looking like the best ‘heaven’ we might imagine. So for me, it seems a bit curious to consider a ‘heaven’ that is there only for those who have lived on past the time of their physical existence. But I don’t think the ‘Day of our Lord’ and a belief in Heaven after death are incompatible, but rather just different manifestations of God’s love and design. The ‘Day of the Lord’, as I hear it spoken of in the scriptures, is that ‘incoming day’ when we as the human family all learn that loving ways are far superior to and fully necessary for the continuation of life on earth as we know it. It is a day when the Spirit of God within each one of us recognizes the same in each other, and acts to celebrate and magnify that love over onto all that surrounds our earthly existence. This is ‘day’ that Jesus said was within reach of our willingness to bring it into being.
But that is not the ‘resurrection’ that Jesus was addressing in our passage; that is not the ‘life after death’ the Sadducees were trying so hard to disprove. The ‘Heaven on earth’ that is the ‘Day of our Lord’, is a time when God is present and seen by all in the eyes, words, and loving actions of one another. The ‘resurrection unto eternal life’ referred to in our passage today, is just as much God’s ‘Heaven’ as the first, however it is a spiritual reality where we are in fact in the spiritual presence of God…a time when we are all together for eternity in the surrounding presence of our Triune God of holy and loving relationship. And to speak more clearly of that ‘resurrection’, we need to address how it is that we have ‘loved’ here on earth while we lived our lives…how well we lived that one life we were given to love.
In verses 35 and 36 of our reading Jesus said a curious thing when he told the Sadducees, ‘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.’ The words, ‘considered worthy’, and ‘children of the resurrection’ seem to be important markers in what Jesus was trying to teach that day…markers we need to look at more closely in order to understand the relationship between this earthly life in God, and the spiritual and eternal life one day to come.
For years we were all taught a very mechanical and rote understanding concerning love, sin, God’s judgment, heaven, and of course, ‘hell’. We were taught a faith view that was heavily weighted, if not totally borne by and supported by a strict code of moral conduct and behavior. We were and in many respects still are within the mindset that the most important thing we can do regarding God, and in particular with respect to attaining any sort of ‘entrance into Heaven’, is to strictly toe the line regarding how we behave relative to the prevailing social definition of sin at any given time. We were taught a very definite view of a God who seemed to be first of all an accountant who kept a record of our every miss-step…and secondly, a judge who at some point would put our whole life on a balance scale to determine if our ‘good’ outweighed a ‘lifetime of mistakes and wrong’. A ‘judgment’ customarily followed by a decision to send us either ‘up’ or ‘down for the rest of eternity.
And while this view of faith, God, and the reality of eternal matters is somewhat easy to understand, and probably helpful in keeping religious adherents in line or under control, I personally think it is a false and critically misleading understanding of the actual nature of our God and of divine love entirely. I think Jesus’ words in our reading today may in fact support a different understanding of how God sees every one of those who were created in love. I believe that Jesus was seeking to convey that humanity was created specifically for the purpose of living into and sharing the love with which they were created.
The author William Paul Young’s book titled ‘The Shack’ is a work that I feel has the very handprint of God on virtually every page. I, for one, believe that God is still seeking to reveal Godself to humanity, and Young’s book spoke deeply not only to my inner needs but to my greatest hopes as well. He presents an understanding of God that just feels right, one that almost seems to flow into one’s innermost soul as it is being read.
In particular, as it relates to today’s passage, this incredible little book gave me a fascinating new way of beginning to see how God, love, sin, and judgment could all be part of our faith story. Part of that story in a way that preserved the truth of our God of love, and let go of the need for an alternative negative reality…a way of seeing eternal life as a true and genuine expression of love, rather than simply a cold morality-based sort of ‘lottery’.
Young shares throughout the story his understanding of the nature of our Trinity…beautifully illustrating the playful, gentle, self-giving and self-emptying goodness that is the innate nature of our three-in-one God. His depiction of the relationshipbetween the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not only inspiring to take in, it also offers a way to relate specifically to each. Young is also careful to preserve that which is critical and bible-based within our faith story, which is what makes it so applicable to our passage today. As I said, Jesus indicated that ‘Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection…’, will in fact enjoy eternal life and live with the Lord. And while this may seem to fall easily and neatly within the old ‘heaven or hell’ moral judgment framework, it does not necessarily have to be the case as Young shares in his story.
In a nutshell ‘The Shack’ tells of a man named Mack who loses his little girl in a brutal abduction and sexually abused murder. It has the expected effect on Mack’s life and on his relationships with his wife and other children as he blames himself, spiraling ever deeper into depression and angry bitterness. If ever there was an argument for the need to ‘have a hell to send someone to’ this is it when considering the man who had taken Mack’s daughter. If ever there was cause for hatred and even ‘unforgive-ness’…then this case could not honestly be argued against…except by our Lord of love and forgiveness.
Young, inspired I believe by our Holy Spirit skillfully weaves a tale of beauty and renewal out of what would seem to be an impossible place. And in the process he reveals a way of seeing our Lord that both preserves the deep desire of our Lord that we spend ourselves only in that which brings about love and goodness, as well as the unfailing love of a God that holds us and never lets go even when we do not live up to that call.
Yes the body does finally wear out and ceases to shelter our soul and spirit, at which point our soul is freed to be fully one with God. But somewhere and somehow there is also a time of looking back. A time after this life when we stand all alone before our Lord of love, in order to be measured for our own particular fit into eternity. And in that moment, all that we did in life that was good and loving, no matter how large or how small, will be contrasted with all we may have done that thwarted the freedom of love’s expression in and through our lives and in the lives of others.
And in a flash, all that was ‘less-than-loving’ is forgiven and forgotten within the enormity of God’s love. Forgiven by the same God who demonstrated the unfathomable depth of his love for us through the resurrection of the highest good that ever graced Creation…the life and person of Jesus our Lord and Savior…the one sent to teach us of love, and of the unending and unconditional love of our Lord which never ceases seeking to bring us into wholeness with God…and with one another.
And through this process of standing before God and being measured, we are at once made whole through the forgiveness and elimination of whatever it may have been that kept God at a distance from us…we are made whole and thereby brought fully into the embrace of our God, and of all God’s children who have gone on before us.
In the life to come there is no need of marriage as well as no loss whatsoever of the deep and abiding relationships we formed while we walked through life…all that was good and holy in our own life and walk, is preserved and celebrated as we join in with our God and with each other in eternal goodness and joyous celebration. That which we did while alive on earth that was good and right, all that played a role in hastening the ‘Day of our Lord’ on earth…is all that remains…after God’s forgiveness…the good we did, the love we shared is who we are in the promised life to come. Who you are, the ‘substance of you that remains’ in the resurrection, is the sum of the love, not that you have received, but which you have given to others.
So yes…there is life after life…as well as a ‘Heavenly reality’ available to each one of us right now, as we seek to share the love with which we have already been so abundantly blessed.
Let us give thanks to this our most loving God who has given us such hope both now and in the age to come…truly the love in and through which we were created, and which we are called to offer in return, finds its final and complete expression in eternal goodness and present grace…