Opting out

10 November 2019; Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 27C (RCL); Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

The Bible tells us precious little about any kind of an afterlife. In the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he tries to give us some insight into the resurrection, but pretty much just says, “It’s a mystery.” This is one of the only passages in which Jesus talks about the resurrected life, and he pretty much only tells us what it isn’t.

Or perhaps he tells us what this life isn’t if we want to see that other life. To be counted worthy of the resurrection, we neither marry nor are given in marriage. Revelation 14:4 says much the same thing. The 144,000 are “those who have not defiled themselves with women; they are virgins.” There was certainly a strand of early Christianity that opted out of marriage. The apocryphal Acts of the various apostles all involve a woman, either married or betrothed, who hears the preaching of an apostle and decides to abstain from sex, which then gets the apostle in trouble with her husband, her fiance, or her father.

After she is baptized, the apostle celebrates a eucharist, which always has water in the cup. To be married, and to claim children as one’s own necessarily involved sacrifice. To opt out of sacrifice meant to opt out of marriage as well, and childbearing. The ‘aquarians,’ those who had water in the chalice, were also encratites (see Andrew McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists), and women could preside at the eucharist (eg., the Montanists in northern Africa).

Belief in the resurrection was a political statement. The Sadducees, who did not believe the resurrection, were political activists. If God was going to reestablish the kingdom, it would be through the political activism of God’s people. This could easily lead to compromise with governing authorities, in order to keep the Temple going. The Essenes and the Qumran people (if they are not the same people), saw the compromises of the Jerusalem authorities as absolutely damning, and opted out.

The Pharisees, who did believe in the resurrection (that makes Jesus a Pharisee), could be political quietists. At the resurrection, in God’s own good time, God would reestablish the kingdom and populate it with the just who were raised. To refuse marriage and sacrifice, then, implied a belief in a future kingdom not this one – a dangerous political move.

The Sadducees pose an ironic question to Jesus. The only reason for levirate marriage was to assure that the dead man had progeny to inherit his land as a way of keeping his name alive before God. If one believed in the resurrection, one need not practice levirate marriage; one needed only to practice justice to assure resurrection on the day of God. In fact, says Jesus, one need not practice marriage at all. God’s kingdom does not depend on human institutions like marriage.

The author of the second letter to the Thessalonians also makes a political statement: before the resurrection, the lawless one must be revealed, the one who exalts himself above every object of worship and takes his seat in the Temple of God. This would be the various Caesars, who had images of and altars to themselves erected all over the Roman Empire, in temples dedicated to the Roman Peace (see S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power).

How do we opt out? and of what? I suppose monastics are still making a political (or at least social and cultural) statement by opting for celibacy. But I suspect our politics is no longer organized around sacrifice and marriage. Perhaps it’s money that is the organizing principal of today’s kingdom. How on earth could we opt out of that? Would returning to the farm make as clear a political statement as the refusal to sacrifice made in Jesus’ day? Perhaps it’s the way we tell our stories. People probably just thought those Qumran people were flaky, but not particularly dangerous. But the way they wrote their story indicated that they expected something different. What do we expect, and how can we be clear about that?

Leave a Reply

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