God of the Living
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
November 11, 2007
Scripture: 2Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
“Now He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live in Him.” — Luke 20:38
By means of these stories, which Luke selected from a storehouse of many remembered stories, he invites us to consider the things that were important to him and his community, and on which he had heard a word from Jesus. Given that these wonderful stories we have been thinking on all summer are a selection, they can be read as a guide to what Luke and his people found important. Many commentators have remarked that from the stories Luke chose it appears that he has a special interest in the lost, the rejected and the poor. The present story, however, is from the heart of the tradition (it is also at Mark 12:18-27 and Matthew 22:23-33) and represents not a special interest of Luke but a pivotal interest of the whole Jesus tradition, namely the question of life and death. Jesus addressed the question of life and death early, often and decisively.
The matter of life and death is self-evidently the overriding issue for human beings. Look at the content of drama and fiction; the dominating interest is how we come into being (sex) and how we pass out of being (death, usually violent). Sex and violence turn the carousels that spin us round and around through the giddy space of divertissement, and the record shows that this has always been so, now and in the remotest past. No wonder that the question whether we survive physical death by virtue of an immortal soul or the constant call of the creative Word of God, is top of the religious agenda. Jesus answers this question in today’s lesson with a resounding “Yes,” saying that we all live in God forever because God is not God of the dead but of the living, and “…we all live in him (vs. 38).”
We might go so far as to say that for Jesus the word “God” means “life,” eternal, indefeasible life. In our passages he says of us “…they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection (vs.36).” For Jesus, God is first the fons et origo of my life and the lives of those I love, who brought us into being, and holds us in being forever. This is the emphatic point of the teaching that our present story brings, and if we are to understand the story and believe its teaching we must be aware of this single purpose from the start.
So let us look at the story of the wife who had seven husbands and no children; clearly some good reproductive medicine might have saved everyone involved a lot of futile effort, and might even have led to the abolition of an ill-advised law. The group that comes to Jesus is called “Sadducees” and we are told immediately that their sect does not believe in resurrection (vs.27). Apparently they maintained the antique notion common to the Hebrews and the Greeks of what the former called “Sheol” and the latter “Hades”. On that doctrine a person was to receive everything of good and ill in this world and after physical death eked out an ever weaker existence in some shadowy place of varying situation, sometimes in the far west, sometimes under the earth, sometimes just “over there in the dark forest where it is especially scary.” (See the recently issued hyped version of the movie Beowulf). The other principal religious sect at that time was the Pharisees, who had been influenced by a mass sojourn in Babylon and Persia and had picked up the Zoroastrian teaching of a resurrection from the dead to a fiery judgment.
The history of these two doctrines is interesting, but the sociology is perhaps even more interesting. The Sadducees were the hereditary aristocrats with landed wealth and secure status in the priestly lineages. The Pharisees for the most part were what we would call middle class, often engaged in trade and thus exposed to the vicissitudes of business and the temptation of that arena; This means that they as a class might have been acutely aware of moral transgressions and feel the need for cleansing by divine judgment before it was possible to enter into the peace of the divine presence.
Be that as it may, we have one sect that effectively denies the life hereafter- Sheol is no life – and another that affirms it; representatives of the former use a reductio ad absurdum to imply that the belief Is incoherent and to find out where Jesus stands on this matter, and they find that he stands against them and with the Pharisees.
So much for the historical context of this exchange, let us now return to the substantive point Jesus is making, that life is eternal, that we are all sons and daughters of the resurrection, and therefore that we should look forward to judgment and to life of heaven. Jesus does not just say, “The Pharisees win and the Sadducees lose,” he goes way beyond the purely necessary to lavish attention on the life of the resurrection. He could have said the story is absurd and the Pharisees win, but rather he tells us that marriage is passé in heaven, and gives an enigmatic reason, “…they neither marry nor are given in marriage for they cannot die any more…for they are sons of the resurrection.”
I do not think we should take stories like this, which are intended to make a specific point, as general descriptions of the circumstances of heaven; our story wants to make only one point, that is, to assure us that heaven really and in fact is there, and that we all live in God forever, – which life is the essence of hell for the defiantly wicked, because it is to live without love in the heart of love forever. Nevertheless, we might find it of interest that the children of the resurrection do not marry because they do not die, which hints that marriage and childbearing belongs together with death in the cycle of perishing which is the life of this world; but we shall not pursue this further lest we end up in a Mormon temple where eternal marriages take place.
Let us simply end with gratitude for the fact that we are “children of the resurrection, who live in God forever,” and that Jesus tells us this, in so many words; and that because we of course believe him, no matter how unlikely this may seem at times, we enjoy the peace that passes understanding and the joy that never ends. Unlikely to us or not, it is the Gospel truth and you can rely on it, forever.