November 10, 2019
Scripture: Luke 20:27-38
How well have we loved? We each have but one life in which to love…one life to learn and to practice the art of truly loving another as Jesus instructed…one life, to spend more time getting this one thing right, than not…for it is in loving in this way, that we truly live, that we truly move, and that we have our truest being.
At first glance, our reading from Luke’s gospel for today seems to be a simple teaching on ‘eternal’ matters, as well as on the foolishness of trying to trip up Jesus with word games or simple logical arguments. However, I think that a closer reading reveals that there is much more under the surface…much more to ponder in between the lines.
Aside from the obvious questions regarding marriage, this scripture also gives us cause to reflect seriously on matters of life and death. To consider anew what it is that really goes on after our physical death, as well as what I feel is the oft misunderstood nature of God’s ‘judgment’. And finally, it invites us again to ponder what ‘eternal life’ for our soul, might actually be like.
The Sadducees were a subset of Judaism, a group of believers holding a particular set of beliefs and understandings, some of which differed from those of other groups regarding particular areas of question. Not so unlike various denominations within our faith tradition today. The Sadducees did hold many beliefs in common with other groups within the Jewish faith, but disagreed on certain interpretations of the Law of Moses and its teachings. In particular they disagreed strongly with another group, the Pharisees, on the idea of a resurrection to life after death. The Sadducees did not believe that individuals were raised back to life after death, and instead held that one lived on solely in the memory’s others held of them, as well as in the lives of their descendants.
As a result of this belief the Sadducees adhered to the tradition of levirate marriage, a term based on the Latin ‘levir’, which means brother-in-law. In levirate marriage, 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. Coincidently, it was also a way to ensure 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 limits, hoping that Jesus would side with them in this ongoing debate with the Pharisees. Jesus saw through their intent however, and he was not about to be taken advantage of in this way, instead showing them that their views were quite incomplete and in need of deeper understanding regarding the nature and ways of God, and the whole notion of life after death.
In spite of this explanation, the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary points out that, ‘This passage is still one that causes question in the minds of some who may be uncomfortable with Jesus’ response. Jesus seems to be saying that marriage does not carry over into the life eternal, 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, as disturbing as this passage may be to some of us, I am not sure that Jesus was actually addressing this particular question as we hear it. For he was not saying anything about the eternal qualities of love but rather was specifically addressing the legal and social obligations of marriage held in his day. Women on the whole in Jesus’ day were viewed not as separate and individual persons in their own right, but rather as property to be owned and possessed by a man. And as such, according to the tradition of levirate marriage women were bound by law to marry their brother-in-law if they were widowed.
Jesus was not saying that good and holy relationships in any way discontinue after physical death, but rather that the Sadducees were asking the wrong question in their quest to prove to the Pharisees 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 it may be like, and how it is one might find themselves there.
In his response to the Sadducees, Jesus said that there is life after this life…that there is a life with God both on this side of the Creative moment when we are first given life and by grace filled with the Holy Spirit…and there is also life in the eternal and loving presence of God once we cross over beyond that thinnest of veils that separates physical from spiritual life.
As many of you know I have a real passion for speaking of the coming Day of our Lord which I believe to be a ‘day’ to be found very much here on earth, and very much looking like the best heaven we are able to imagine. So, it may seem a bit curious to consider a similar and seemingly separate reality of heaven that is there only for those who have lived on past the time of their physical existence.
But I do not think the two understandings are necessarily 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 a day when we, as the whole of the human family all learn that loving ways, loving words, and loving behaviors are far superior to unloving ones, and fully necessary for the continuation of life on earth as we know it.
The Day of the Lord, is a day when the Spirit of God within each one of us recognizes the same in each other and acts to celebrate and to magnify that love over onto all that surrounds our earthly existence. It is a day of great joy, a day of abiding peace, a day filled with creative abandon, and a day of sure and genuine freedom and justice for all, with sufficient, even abundant provision for every single one of God’s children, every single individual created in the image of our God. This is the promised day that is within the reach of our willingness to bring it into being. It is the same day that Paul says in Romans 8:19, ‘All creation waits with eager longing for…’.
But this is not the same as the ‘resurrection’ Jesus is addressing in our passage; it is not the ‘day’ the Sadducees were asking about and trying so hard to disprove. 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…a day and a time which Jesus repeatedly said was, ‘already upon us’.
The resurrection unto eternal life referred to in our passage by the Sadducees, is just as much ‘God’s heaven’ as the first, however it is a spiritual and not a physical reality, where we are in fact in the spiritual presence of Godself. That time beyond time, when we are all together for eternity in the all-surrounding, all-embracing presence of our Trinity of holy and loving relationship.
And to speak of that ‘resurrection’, I think we need to address how well we have ‘loved’ here on earth while we lived out our physical, earthly lives, how well we lived the one life we had to love one another. 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 take a look at more closely in order to understand the relationship between this life in God and the spiritual and eternal life one day to come.
For years, all of us were 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 what was deemed ‘good’ behavior. We were, and in many respects still are, held captive to the mindset that the most important thing we can do regarding God, and in particular with respect to attaining any sort of entrance to ‘heaven’, is to strictly toe the line regarding how we behave relative to the prevailing social definition of whatever ‘sin’ is, at any given time. We are taught a very definite view of a God who seems to be first of all an accountant, who keeps a record of our every miss-step, and secondly, of a judge who at some point puts our whole life on a balance scale, to determine if the ‘good’ we’ve done, outweighs a lifetime of mistakes and wrongdoing. This analysis, is followed of course by a decision to send us one of two ways for the rest of eternity.
And while this view of faith, God, and the reality of eternal matters is quite easily understood, sort of, and helpful in keeping religious adherents in line or under control, I personally think it is a totally false and critically misleading understanding of the actual nature of our God and of divine love entirely. And I think Jesus’ words in our reading may support a new understanding of how God in fact sees every one of those created in love for the purpose of living into and sharing that same love.
The author William Paul Young, is a contemporary writer whose works have deeply inspired and informed my faith understanding over the past several decades. His book, titled “The Shack” is a work that I feel has the very handprint of God on virtually every page. I am one who feels that God is still seeking to reveal Godself to humanity and the work of this modern-day ‘prophet/listener’ has spoken deeply not only to my inner soul, but to my greatest hopes as well. Young has presented a picture of our God that just feels right to me, an understanding that seems to go directly into the deepest parts of the soul, as it is being read and absorbed.
In particular, as it relates to today’s passage, The Shack, gave me a fascinating new way of beginning to see how God, love, sin, and judgment could all be part of our faith story in a way that preserved the truth that our God is a God of love, and let go of the need for an alternative negative reality such as our old ideas of Hades or Hell…a way of seeing eternal life as a true and genuine expression of love rather than simply a cold morality-based “Hope you make it, but the odds are not good” type of thing.
Young shares all 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. The relationship, and you know it is all about relationship, between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not only inspiring to take in, but it also gives one 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/hell moral judgment framework it does not necessarily have to be the case as Young shares in his story.
The Shack in a nutshell, tells of a man named Mack who loses his little girl brutally in an abduction and sexually abused murder. It has the expected effect on Mack’s life and relationships with his wife and other children as Mack blames himself and spirals 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 that situation, when considering the man who had taken Mack’s daughter. If ever there was cause for hatred and ‘un-forgiveness’ then this case could not honestly be argued against by anyone…except our Lord, the God of love and unconditional forgiveness.
Young, inspired I believe by our Holy Spirit of holy love, skillfully weaves a tale of beauty and renewal out of what would seem to be an impossible place. And in that process he reveals for us a way to see our Lord in a way that preserves both the deep desire of our Lord that we spend ourselves here on earth only in that which brings about love and goodness, as well as the unfailing and merciful love of 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 alone before our Lord of love in order to be measured for our own particular fit into eternity. And in line with Young’s take, in that moment, all that we did in life that was good and loving, no matter how large or how small…will be contrasted, will be set over against all that we did to thwart the freedom of love’s expression in and through our lives and in the lives of others. And in a flash, all of the latter is forgiven and forgotten within the enormity of God’s love.
Forgiven by this our God who demonstrated the unfathomable depth of his love for us through the resurrection of the highest good that ever graced creation…Jesus, our Lord and Savior, the one sent to teach us of the ways of God’s 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 in 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 during our earthly lives…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 is left behind…is all that remains after God’s forgiveness of us. The good we did, the love we shared is who we are in the promised life to come.
And by the same mercy extended so gently and lovingly by Father, Son, and Spirit, all that was less than a reflection of God’s love in our life…all that selfishly pulled back, each refusal of ours to reach out, each time another fellow traveler was denied the love we were given to extend to him or her, will also be seen and exposed for the disappointment it was. And each and every one of these will be forgiven and tossed into the sea of forgetfulness never to return. Therefore, who you are, the substance of ‘you’ that remains in the resurrection, is the sum of the love, not that you have received, but that which you extended back to others in loving relationship…it is a direct reflection of ‘how well you have loved’.
If your life consisted of very little of this sort of love…if much of your time on earth was devoted solely to selfish interests and the accrual of material goods and pleasures, then it follows that you will be small in eternal stature, loved and forgiven none the less, but small in stature compared to the presence and power you may have commanded while alive on earth.
However, if your life was much spent in seeking the good of others, if you spent all you were, and fully wasted yourself in the attempt and effort to bring God’s goodness and mercy to others, than you probably are one of those who shall be called ‘greatly blessed’. In truth, this is Good News…this is news worth giving our lives for…may we each be so bold in standing against voices and actions meant not for life, but for death…
Listen again to our Lord as we hear Luke relay the words of Jesus to us… “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead… are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. Indeed they cannot die anymore. (Our God, our Triune Lord, our Teacher Father, Brother Son, and joyous Holy Spirit) is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of (us) are alive.”
All praise be 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 finds its final and complete expression in eternal goodness and grace…
…thanks be to our God