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Friday, November 8, 2019

"Not the God of the dead" - 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
"Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone's brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.

Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless.
Finally the woman also died.
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her."
Jesus said to them,
"The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out 'Lord,'
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive."


Since chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been travelling toward Jerusalem in order to die. Over the last several weeks, our readings have recounted his stops along the way and the parables he offers to those journeying with him. In chapter 19 ― just before this week’s reading ― Jesus arrives at the “Mount of Olives” which offers a spectacular view of Jerusalem below. Jesus’ emotion at the view is astonishing: “When he drew near and saw the city he wept over it.” Imagine the Son of God kneeling in the dirt weeping. Jesus suddenly addresses Jerusalem directly: “Would that … you knew the things that make for peace!” (Lk 19:41).

Jesus’ raises a difficult question here. What are “the things that make for peace”? Oddly enough, when Jesus enters Jerusalem moments later, his initial preoccupation is to teach people about true peace. His central point is that true peace cannot be given by this world. Indeed, he exposes the political motivations of the chief priests (Lk 20:1-8). He disputes with the scribes about what belongs to Caesar and to God (Lk 20:19-26). And then, though it might not seem like it, Jesus’ interaction this week with the Sadducees brings this lesson about true peace to a head. How so?

We must see, first, that Sadducees are similar to Pharisees. They represent a school of thought within Judaism. One thing that makes them unique is that they “deny that there is a resurrection.” Though they believe in God, they don’t believe in an afterlife. Jesus actually responds directly to this position. He asks the Sadducees to recall an important passage from the Old Testament when God identified himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6). His point is this: when God said this, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all dead. How could God still, at that moment, have been the God of these three dead men if human beings ceased to exist upon dying? “He is not the God of the dead,” Jesus insists, “but of the living.” These men must somehow have been living even after their deaths. There must be an afterlife.

This is more than theological squabbling. This is actually the heart of what Jesus was weeping about above Jerusalem: “would that you knew the things that make for peace!” If the Sadducees are right ― if there is no afterlife ― then people will limit their search for peace to the things of this world. How quickly we’ll place our hopes in political gain like the chief priests or give ourselves up to financial concerns like the scribes. If you don’t believe in the next world, it’s much easier to live by the logic of this broken world. But these things cannot bring lasting peace. Indeed, even the good in this world cannot give us the truest peace. This world is filled with sunsets, and smiling children, and the joy of loving and of being loved. But is there anything more devastating than the idea of never getting to meet God? 

The Gospels record just two moments when Jesus shed tears. The first is when he learned his friend Lazarus had died (Jn 11:35). And then there is this time, the time he looked over Jerusalem while journeying there to die himself. On both occasions, he wept over the same thing: humanity’s distance from God. “If you had been here,” Lazarus’ sister tells Jesus, “my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:32). Jesus wept because his friend was dead, because there was now a distance between him and Lazarus. It is the same as he looks down upon Jerusalem from the mountain. The people he sees are living as if their peace comes from the accomplishments of this world, as if they will never meet God, as if the distance is permanent. This is why Jesus weeps. This is why Jesus disputes with the Sadducees ― to insist that death does not mean distance from God, but being placed in his arms forever. Above all, this is why Jesus journeys to Jerusalem and to his own death ― so that, by redeeming us, there may never be a distance between us and him again.