Like angels

10 November 2013
Twenty fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 27C (RCL)
Haggai 1:15b – 2:9
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

We are getting close to the end of the liturgical year. Haggai is wrapping prophecies about the restoration of Jerusalem. Now, God is going to shake heaven and earth, and shake all the wealth of the nations (like olives out of a tree) into Jerusalem. 2 Thessalonians takes us into apocalyptic weirdness: the rebellion must come first, and the lawless one must be revealed. To me, this does not sound authentically Pauline (not that that really makes any difference — there it is in the canon). And Luke presents us with the encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees, concerning the resurrection. We are heading toward end times, the lectionary seems to be saying.

The Gospel reading will for many be troubling. Heaven isn’t going to be like here, at least in terms of marriage (what would the Mormons do with this passage?). Many of us think of heaven as a grand family reunion, and Jesus seems to be saying otherwise.

But, I believe the passage is as much about politics (no surprise) as about heaven. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. That required them to be political activists as far as concerned their understanding of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises about the kingdom. The kingdom must be restored in this historical flow of time, and not in some other reality. Consequently, Sadducees cooperated with Rome to preserve as much of the Temple cult as possible (or didn’t, and tried to throw off Roman oppression to reestablish an independent Jerusalem).

Pharisees, on the other hand, did believe in the resurrection, and could afford to be political quietists. Since God would raise the just at the restoration of the kingdom, one need not worry about the political situation, but strive to be among the just who would be raised, in order to see the kingdom. For the Sadducees, securing progeny was much more important than for the Pharisees. The only way one would live to see the kingdom was to have descendants alive when the restoration came. The Pharisees have asked Jesus, just previous to this passage, if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. They hope to trap him into a Sadducean position of political activism, or demonstrate that he is not a good Pharisee because he doesn’t keep himself separate from dirty money. It’s a no-win trap. So he turns the tables. He asks them to show him a coin. One of them happens to have one while in the Temple precincts (ooops!). Jesus points out the image, and suggests that rendering to God the things of God (ourselves, where the image of God) does not stand in opposition to rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

Now the Sadducees want to point out what they believe to be the silliness of the Pharisaic position (presumably they see Jesus as a Pharisee). The scenario they propose would be important in their understanding of things. For seven brothers to die childless would be a catastrophe — seven names would have no representative in the kingdom at the restoration. But to believe in a resurrection of the just (in which life would roll on as before), would be ludicrous. Whose wife would she be. (Notice that her point of view never enters the story — what did she think about being married to seven brothers).

Jesus avoids the trap again, by pointing out that they (and the Pharisees) have misunderstood the resurrection. It is not just a resurrection to a human life as before, with the same sets of relationships as we are in now. Instead, “they” will be like angels, being sons of God and sons of the resurrection (are women included in the resurrection? I believe the NT witness would say yes, but because in Christ there is no male nor female (in Galatians), and two become one (male — in the Gospel of Thomas), Jesus can refer to “them” as masculine). And God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is the God of the living — therefore, they must be alive to him.

What does it mean to be like angels? The monasatics of the third and fourth centuries (and beyond) understood it to mean being celibate, mortifying the flesh and others of the ascetical practices. These were not simply renunciations of “bad” things, but strategies for becoming like angels — living with a different set of values and identities than the rest of the world. In the Old Testament (and in the New), the angels are messengers from God, sometimes indistinguishable from humans, until some theophanic moment. Perhaps for us to be like angels is to bring a message from God to others, a message of a new way of living, not bogged down in the oppressive sets of relationships that define us now (and marriage was probably pretty oppressive for the woman in this story). Perhaps it means learning to see everyone we meet as “alive to God” rather than just as an extension of our own desires or convenience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *