Whenever he is asked a controversial question, a colleague of mine responds with, “how much time do you have?” He believes, as I do, that the most important ethical and theological questions in life – abortion, physician-assisted death, the divinity of Jesus, the future of our planet, the problem of evil – cannot be decided with a simple “yes” or “no” response or television sound byte.
These days you hear a lot about “gotcha” questions in the media. Questions intended to put politicians on the spot, forcing them to respond in such a way that any answer they give will create controversy. Sort of like “are you still lying about your age?” or “are you still neglecting your spouse?”
In this case, the Sadducees ask Jesus a question about the afterlife. It’s an important question, but it was intended to trick Jesus. The Sadducees were the guardians of the Temple and administered, under Roman authority, civil affairs in Jerusalem. They also didn’t believe in the afterlife, angels, or the resurrection of the dead. Despite their disbelief in the afterlife, they ask a question about what is called Levirate marriage, in which the brother of a deceased man is required to marry his brother’s widow in order to maintain community purity and family line.
“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. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died.In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
This is a gotcha moment, but Jesus doesn’t fall for their trap. His response is meant to challenge their belief system and label their question irrelevant. “In the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be married, but be like angels, having no need to have intimacy or children.”
At first glance, Jesus’ answer challenges our images of happy reunions in the afterlife and the words of many of my own memorial service sermons in which I speculate on someone’s afterlife journey in companionship with their spouse of decades. But that isn’t the point of Jesus’ response. The punch line has nothing to do with the afterlife but with God’s presence right now: “Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Jesus is saying that God is alive and so are we, and he asking in the spirit of Mary Oliver, “what is that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” He is cautioning as Oliver does in another poem:
When it’s over, I want to say:
all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Now that I am almost 67, I often joke with my friends that I am in
midlife provided I live to be 134. Many of us know first-hand the realities of mortality and it’s sometimes frightening. There will be a time when we will no longer walk this earth and must let go of life, breath, hope, and relationships that are dear to us. We may have to depend on others for what once we did ourselves, and that is sobering, if not frightening. We will have to, in the spirit of the “Old Rugged Cross,” lay down our trophies. Even a billionaire or president will enter the afterlife without his bank account and stock portfolio.
Jesus is saying “this is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” He is affirming that God is doing a new and wondrous thing today, and let’s wake up to it.
Mortality can kill us! It can deaden our spirits and fill us with fear. I admit that I have those 3:00 a.m. feelings and in my profession as a pastor and theologian, I always have death before my eyes. Like the author William Saroyan, I know what it means to say: “One day in the afternoon of the world, glum death will come and sit in you, and when you get up to walk, you will be as glum as death, but if you’re lucky, this will only make the fun better and the love greater.”
Isn’t that the point – one world at a time, as Thoreau said on his death bed – this day lived well, this life lived with grace and generosity of spirit, will give us the confidence that the future is in God’s hands and the God has never lost anyone!
Jesus doesn’t answer the Sadducees’ question because it’s irrelevant. In fact, Jesus never described the afterlife; he simply trusted God with the future in this life and the next. God is the God of this day, of the novelty of a new morning, of the possibility of blessing and being blessed, of doing our part to bring beauty and love to the world. In this moment, this hour, this day, the way of life is before us. We aren’t fully imprisoned by past mistakes or limitations, or old grudges or hurts. In the sacrament of this present moment, we can be God’s companions in loving and being loved, healing and being healed, and take our role as partners in mending the world.
This life is not just “the front porch to eternity.” This life can be eternity right now. If God is present everywhere, this day, this place, this time, is as good as heaven if we open to holy. As William Blake says, “if the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is – infinite.” Or Robert Frost says:
Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Jesus is saying love God and your neighbor today. Do something beautiful for God today. Rejoice with your loved one’s today. Jesus is telling us, “heaven can wait.” A life lived fully now, a fully alive day is divine, and that in taking in part as God’s lovers of this world and healers of the planet, heaven will take care of itself- it’s here right now and because God is here, we can trust that forevermore we will be in God’s hands.