Every Sunday evening these past few weeks, my Twitter feed and facebook page have filled up with messages about a TV show called The Walking Dead. Given that many of those I follow on Twitter are younger and hipper than me, perhaps that’s not surprising. What did surprise me was when an Episcopal bishop I know declared on twitter and facebook that he was settling down this past Sunday night to watch the current episode. In case you don’t know, and I only know thanks to social media, The Walking Dead is something of a cult hit. It’s about a zombie apocalypse. A guy wakes up in his hospital bed and discovers that everyone is either dead or has become a zombie. I watched an episode yesterday so I could talk about it and I’ll admit that I used to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and when I was a teenager I loved the Creature double feature on Saturday late night TV that was hosted by the Ghoul. Our culture, film and tv are awash with tales of the undead, vampires, werewolves, and zombies. We seem to be fascinated by the prospects of life after death, even if we find it hard to believe in it.
Our lessons today raise questions about the resurrection. We claim to believe in it. Each Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each Sunday as we recite the Nicene Creed we affirm our belief in the general resurrection, but my guess is that for most of us, it’s a concept that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. We might be able to get our heads around eternal life, the eternity of the soul, that something about us lives after our physical deaths, but for most of us, the idea that at some point our soul, spirit, whatever we might call it, will be reunited with our physical body, is rather far-fetched. For those of us who struggle with our bodies, aging, weight, illness, the idea of an eternity restored to our body may even seem suffering, not bliss.
Today’s gospel may seem a bit odd. If you’ve been paying attention as we’ve read through the Gospel of Luke this year, you may even be a little confused or disoriented. You may recall that since the early summer, we’ve been following Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Well, today’s gospel takes place in Jerusalem’s temple. We’ve skipped two important sections of Luke’s gospel—the Triumphal Entry, which was read on Palm Sunday last March, and Jesus’ entry into the Temple, his disruption of the money-changers, and the beginning of a series of disputes between Jesus and various groups. After that lengthy section of the journey to Jerusalem where he introduced a great deal of material that doesn’t appear in either Mark or Matthew, now Luke returns to Mark’s chronology and tells a very similar story.
This information may provide some context by which to hear the reading, but it’s likely that the topic of the controversy remains puzzling. We hear of two different topics—the resurrection, and the custom of levirate marriage. The Sadducees come to Jesus and ask him this question. What’s important about this is both who they are and how Luke identifies them. The Sadducees, we think, were closely associated with Jerusalem’s temple. They were priests, aristocratic, powerful, and with a stake in the status quo. Their power and wealth derived from the Temple which was the center of Jewish sacrifice, and a primary node through which Rome sought to exercise its power and influence.
That the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection has nothing to do with any of that. Rather, it’s likely that they were conservative religiously. With hereditary priestly power, they had strong incentive to emphasize the sacrificial system and to reject other ways in which 1st century Jews might practice their religion. Specifically, they seem to have regarded only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as authoritative. Everything else, the prophets, the writings, was not the word of God. And this may be why they rejected the doctrine of the resurrection. In the Hebrew Bible, there are conflicting perspectives on what happens after one dies. The Psalms, for example, speak of Sheol, a place where the dead continue to live in some sense, but… In later texts of the Hebrew Bible, the idea of resurrection seems to become more important. There’s something of that in today’s reading from Job for example in the reference to someone who will stand in vindication on the last day. And we know that by the first century, belief in the resurrection was fairly common among first-century Jews—the Pharisees and Jesus agreed on this.
Why did resurrection matter? Well, for one simple reason because the resurrection of the dead attempts to deal with the question whether the world is just. For the Sadducees, things were quite simple. If you were just and righteous in this life, you would be rewarded with prosperity. If you were evil, you would suffer. That’s easy for us to understand, and we tend to look at the world in a very similar way for the most part. But what happens when things don’t work out that way?
Take the case of Job. He was a righteous man, wealthy, a large family but suddenly everything is taken away from him and not only that, he begins to suffer physically. He ends up sitting in the middle of a dusty road, scratching his itchy boils with a piece of broken pottery. His friends want him to confess his sins but he maintains his righteousness. He demands an accounting from God why he is suffering, and that’s why he appeals to a redeemer, a defender, who will vindicate him on the last day.
The resurrection helps to deal with this issue by suggesting that the righteous will be vindicated, rewarded in the age to come, that whatever they might suffer in this life, in the age to come they will be blessed.
So the Sadducees come to Jesus, one of a series of groups who are trying to get Jesus to say something that might cause a problem for him, something revolutionary, or even blasphemous. They pose this question to him, which on the surface seems to us totally unrelated to belief in life after death. But behind the question lies another question, if there is life after death, what sort of life is it? And that’s a question we can understand.
I’m not going to go into the details of the background for the Sadducees question because Jesus’ answer to them is not an answer to their specific question. It is a reply to that other question, if there is life after death, what sort of life is it? Jesus makes it clear: in the resurrection there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage; they cannot die anymore for they are children of God, children of the resurrection. To put it another way, life in the resurrection is not just like life on earth, but longer, eternal. It is qualitatively different.
We may even cringe at Jesus’ words that in the age to come the relationships we know now will not exist, that there will be no marriage or giving in marriage. If there’s anything we hope for, it’s that one day we will again be with those we love now and see no longer. I suspect there’s something else going on in this passage that has to do with the nature of such relationships. Imagine, if you will, a world in which if you were a woman and your husband died, you were obligated to marry his brother. No choice, no discussion, no alternative. The reason for such customs was in order to ensure the survival of the family name, the idea that even if your husband died, he would live on in the son you bore by his brother. If you were a woman in such a system, what does that say about your value? And while we don’t practice that custom any longer, there are many ways in which marriage in our society reflects profoundly patriarchal and unjust values.
So for Jesus to say that there is no marriage or giving in marriage in the resurrection is to suggest that the quality of relationships in the age to come is completely different than in the present. And that’s where I think we should leave it for now. Do I know what life in the resurrection will be like? Of course not! But our faith proclaims that just as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so too will we one day be raised, to new life, a new plane of existence, as whole persons, living in the presence of God and in the presence of the blessed community. Our faith proclaims that God redeems us as whole person, body and soul with all of our weakness and frailty. Thanks be to God