Sermon for 23 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 20:27-38
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
At a seminar for corporate executives, the instructor placed a large sheet of white paper on the wall and then marked a small black spot on it. “Now I want you to describe to me exactly what you see,” he told the students. There was an uneasy silence until one after another of the group raised a hand. They all had the same answer: “I see a small black spot.” “That’s your trouble,” the instructor said. “You all say you see a small black spot, and none of you mentions the large white paper.” 1
In our gospel today, we encounter a group of people, the Sadducees, who were just like the students that could only see a small black spot. Luke uses irony to describe how ridiculous the situation was.
Here we have a group of people asking Jesus a question about the resurrection, which they didn’t believe in. The intention of their question seems to have been to trap Jesus—since, as far as they were concerned, this was all talk about something that did not exist. Even in the way in which they formulated the question tells us how similar they were to the students who could only see the small black spot. This is clear when they ask Jesus, “whose wife will the woman be in the resurrection?” You see, by wording their question like this; the Sadducees thought that if there were a resurrection; life would be the same as it was on earth and people would marry. They were stuck as if were in their particular view of reality. They were so deeply entrenched in their way of thinking and believing; that they could not see or understand the obvious even though it was right there in front of them.
We too can become like the students who only saw the small black spot and the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. We can become so critical and negative in our thinking and believing that we lose sight of the positive and the obvious. Our limited views of reality may very well cause us to block out the large white paper—or to become so sceptical and desperate that we cannot find anything good to say, losing our hope for this life and the next.
The Sadducees, because they didn’t believe in the resurrection; had become so earthly minded that they lost all hope for life beyond this one. They were members of the aristocratic priestly class; therefore they enjoyed much of the power and control of the temple worship in Jerusalem. In terms of their religious outlook, they were conservative. They only accepted the written Torah as scripture. Their interpretation of these scriptures was very narrow and literal. However, in terms of their political outlook, they were very liberal. They were willing to collaborate with the Romans and make all kinds of political compromises; as long as they were free to hang onto their wealth, comforts and social stature. The Sadducees were not very popular among most of the other Jews at the time because of their favourable relations with the Romans.
We too can become like the Sadducees of Jesus’ day. We can become so earthly minded that we lose all hope for life beyond this one. We too can become so cushy and comfortable with the status quo, the powers that be; that we, like the Sadducees, are willing to make all sorts of compromises as long as we’re not threatened. All of this too easily causes people to place their security in this life and the things of this world. Ironically enough, history has taught us that the security of the Sadducees was not long-lived. There is no record of the Sadducees after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
In response to these ancient sceptics who found their security only in this life; Jesus answers their question by telling them that heaven and the resurrection are new, different realities than what we experience in this world now. It will be a whole new reality, which goes above and beyond our present limitations. This new, multidimensional life of resurrection will involve seeing and hearing and experiencing what we’ve never seen, heard, or experienced before.
Jesus, in addition to answering the Sadducees’ question seriously; goes on further to teach them about the resurrection by point out one of their scripture passages, which Jesus interpreted as a reference to the resurrection. When Jesus interprets this passage from Exodus 3:6 as an implied reference to the resurrection, it’s as if he were saying to the Sadducees: “You asked me a ridiculous and tricky question, but I have given you a serious and sound answer about the resurrection, which is supported by the Torah.” Here again the irony of Luke is at work. The Sadducees set out to stump Jesus by their question; yet in the end, they are stumped. The Sadducees claimed to have “the correct and authoritative” interpretation of their scriptures. Jesus comes along and gives them his interpretation of their scriptures—to which the Sadducees give no further reply. Implied in Jesus’ interpretation is that if God is a God of love and wants to be in relationship with God—as were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—then would God be satisfied with ending such relationships with God’s people at death? Jesus basically says, “NO WAY! God keeps and honours such relationships after we die too.
This encounter of Jesus with the Sadducees tells us something else very important about Jesus and his ministry. It tells us that Jesus met people on their own ground, where they were at—in this case, vis-à-vis the written Torah, the accepted scriptures of the Sadducees. Jesus knew the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. They believed that their scriptures did not speak of any resurrection. Jesus with his interpretation of Exodus 3:6 showed them otherwise.
We, like Jesus, are given the challenge to minister to people on their own ground; to meet them where they are at. We, like Jesus, need to take people’s doubts and questions seriously by addressing them honestly, to the best of our abilities. In this way, we, like Jesus, will point people beyond where they are at; into further growth, openness to the truth, and a deeper understanding and maturity. That’s why it’s so important to remind ourselves that we are life-long students; to teach we always need to learn and share our learning with others.
We are a people bearing a message of hope. Our answer to those people who ask us the question: “Is there really life after death? Is there really a resurrection?” is a resounding “YES!” We cannot however, adequately explain it in human terms. Our answer is—and shall always be, until the fullness of time—a faith statement. This means that we cannot give anyone a detailed description or empirical proof of the resurrection and life after death beyond what the scriptures teach and reveal to us. There is still much that remains a mystery to us. But we can point out to people that we live in hope—because of our Lord’s resurrection and his promise to his faithful people that we too share in a resurrection like his, through our baptism into Christ. The final verdict is not despair and death. Rather, it is the hope of an abundant and eternal life with Christ.