Sunday, November 07, 2010

Proper 27

Luke 20
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but 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. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

In heaven, you can eat all the Philadelphia cream cheese you desire, surrounded by muscular but seemingly dim-witted men.

In heaven, St. Joseph and the angels endlessly debate wing acquisition, and seem to favour credit unions over banks.

In heaven, a mistake like premature soul retrieval will never get in the way of Warren Beatty winning the Superbowl.

In heaven, there is a good bet you will find yourself in a line behind a minister, a priest and a rabbi.

But the Sadducees, they don’t believe in heaven. That’s why they’re “sad, you see.” (groan)

There is no trope like a heavenly trope, no familiar set-up like a heavenly set-up, with halos, wings, pearly gates and the ever-present St. Peter. Insert any of these elements, and like a well-worn pair of slippers we put on the heavenly trope and know precisely where we stand.

And this is far from new, for as long as creature has stepped out of cave to look up at the heavens, there has been a heavenly vision. So, what is heaven like? I used to think that heaven was a vast storehouse of knowledge where all would be revealed and every question answered. Then came Wikipedia. So much for heavenly longing. I could switch to Philly, or chocolate cake, but I’ll settle for resting in the bosom of Abraham, unless he should decide I’m too wealthy for such a reward. Stay tuned.

Heaven is the best known of the least known things on earth. It is hotly debated, and remains the best test to discern what style of faith you possess. Just last week, my neighbour brought me a chicken pot pie (We live in a rowhouse, we seem to share food for some reason) and said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, ‘do you believe in heaven and hell.’” After giving her an hour of my best guess, we agreed that the chicken pot pie was heavenly and left it at that.

So heaven is a familiar trope, an endless debate, and a staple of dinner conversation everywhere. It has always been so. This week we listen in on just such a debate, as Jesus is tested once more. He takes on a familiar debating team and wins, and just like another time of testing, he uses scripture to defeat scripture like any good rabbi would.

The Sadducees, beyond the bad pun, were one of two main rival groups among the priestly class. The other was the Pharisees, and together they provide much of the context needed for Jesus to present his own view of religious life. He clashed with both, but there were moments when he was simply caught between them. And like any good scholarly debate, both the Pharisees and the Sadducess try to enlist Jesus to their cause, or at least determine to what extend he was a fellow traveller.

Once again, Luke defines the debate from the beginning: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” The question, it would seem, was one of those wildly hypothetical questions that come up in debate, best summarized as “seven brothers for one bride.” A man dies. Following the Levirate marriage law from Deuteronomy 25:5, he is required to marry his late brothers widow, to ensure that his name and line continue. He dies. Marriage three, more death, as so on, and so on, down to the unfortunate brother number seven. So when do you call the RCMP here? Just a thought.

The obvious question (for a Sadducee) is how does this mess get untangled in the life to come, if you believe in such a thing? They have used the classic bafflement argument here, suggesting that heaven is false simply because human life is too messy to allow for an orderly place like heaven to exist. You have to admit they make a pretty good case. But before we explore Jesus’ answer and the equally obvious truth that one should never argue with the Son of God, I want to take a detour through the number seven.

The Sabbath is the 7th day of the week.
The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches.
There are 7 holidays in the Jewish year: Rosh Hashana, Yom
Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot.
There are 7 Noachide Laws pertaining to all humanity.
The first verse in the Torah contains 7 words (and 28
Moses was the 7th generation after Abraham.
Each plague in Egypt lasted 7 days.
In Pharaoh's dreams there were 7 cows and 7 stalks of
grain. (Genesis 41)
Joshua led the Jewish People around the walls of Jericho 7
times before the walls fell. (Joshua 6:15)
Jacob worked for Laban for 7 years (twice) in order to
marry his daughters. (Genesis 29:27)

Rabbi Salomon has 40 more, so I could go on.* Another rabbi, Rabbi Simmons, has a few thoughts about seven and why it figures so prominently in the tradition, and settles on Genesis 1. He argues that every aspect of time that humans measure is rooted in the natural world, mostly in the stars and the moon. Days, months and years pass, written in the sky above, but the week has no basis in the natural world: it was invented by God. Therefore, he argues, the week is a sacred measure, seven days of creation—and always ends in rest. Seven, then, is the number of completion, that number that God commends to us as both commandment and gift.

So the Sadducees seem to choose seven because it means completion, the end their scenario and the fullness of a really good argument. But there seems to be more, something else missing here, and I think we can blame the British and Foreign Bible Society. You see, way back in 1826, they decided to omit the Apocrypha from the newest version of the Bible, and in doing so created another gulf between Catholic and Protestant that continues to this day.

In a tale almost worthy of Dan Brown, the British and Foreign Bible Society decided that books such as Tobit, Judith, and 1st and 2nd Maccabees had no place in the newest version of the King James Bible. Until 1826 it was included, in a separate section call the Apocrypha, in a kind of biblical “no man’s land” between canonical and non-canonical. Then it was gone.

Missing, then is the story of seven martyred brothers, and “mother courage” who encourages the seven to stay true to their faith rather than turn away. I will let you read it for yourself. There is a good chance the story is the origin of the phrase “from the frying pan into the fire” and that is all I will say. It is rated M for Mature.

I tell you all this because in the Roman Catholic readings for today, the story of the seven martyred brothers from 2 Maccabees 7 is included alongside the Luke passage, and they are allowed to have a conversation, something that is missing from the mainline Protestant lectionary we use. So what is the substance of this conversation?

It is reliably true that the questions we ask may reveal more about the questioner than whatever answers are being sought. In other words, listen to the substance of the question to get a glimpse of what’s happening in the mind of the person asking the question. And for the Sadducees, this meant tension.

It seems to me that they do not ask the question of seven brothers out of idol curiosity or to settle some abstract debate, but rather to answer the nagging question of what happens to those who die a martyr’s death, those who die as a result of their convictions. Pharisee, Sadducee, Zealot, disciple of Jesus: everyone engaged in the religious debates of the day was taking a big risk, the risk the occupying power might construe belief as a threat to Rome. And a threat to Rome, however vague or firmly grounded was treason, punishable by death. So we look in on a debate and see a bit of an abstraction, but both Jesus and the Sadducees knew that Mother Courage and her seven sons were real, as real as sword, and fire and the cross itself.

And isn’t it just as real a question in Kandahar today, and on a beach in Normandy, and in a trench near the Somme? One by one the seven Maccabean brothers were asked to renounce firmly held conviction, to set aside belief and tradition, to betray the very thing they were fighting for, and they would not. And it falls to the fourth brother to speak most eloquently for them all:

When he was near death, he said,
"It is my choice to die at the hands of men
with the hope God gives of being raised up by God alone.”

Jesus said that the age to come will be different than the age we know, and “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age…cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God.” They (and we) are children of the resurrection, and those who find sleep peacefully and those who suffer for belief will all find a place in the age to come.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the seven martyrs, and the honoured dead we lift up today, all walk together with the God of the living. And I am certain that even the Sadducees themselves, so convinced of heaven’s absence, will be there among the faithful, because the mercy of God is always infinite and wonderfully ironic. This is Good News for today, thanks be to God, Amen.


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