As we heard last Sunday, our Bible lessons in November have moved on from stories that relate to the growth in grace of the early Church, to a concern with the last things, something we see in today’s Gospel.
Last things are sometimes frightening, always mysterious. The older we get, and the closer we come to the end of our lives, the more we may consider death. Just this past week, former President Jimmy Carter said something about the subject. "I obviously prayed about it," he said. "I didn’t ask God to let me live, but I just asked God to give me a proper attitude toward death. And I found that I was absolutely and completely at ease with death."
A proper attitude toward death. What might that be? Our attitudes are always influenced by the time and place and society in which we live, and by the faith we hold. How we humans view death and what comes after death is different in different cultures, and even changes within cultures over time.
In Jesus day, and historically up to His time, the Jews did not believe in a life after death. Rather, they believed that God meted out punishment and reward during one’s lifetime. Therefore, a righteous person should expect to lead a good and happy life, while a sinner’s life would be filled with pain and suffering
Because there was no belief in life after death, the most a Jew could hope for was Sheol, that place where departed souls existed for as long as someone remembered them, after which, when memory of them was gone, they faded away. For the Jew of Jesus’ time there was no fear of hell, but there also was no hope of heaven, or at least that was how it was until the Pharisees began to preach about a life after death, about the existence of something more than Sheol.
The Pharisees were strongly opposed by the Sadducees, who held firmly to the long established belief in Sheol and nothing more. The two groups would argue over whether or not there was an afterlife, and then the Sadducees came up with what they felt was a foolproof argument against the possibility of anything more than Sheol.
“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.”
When we hear the question, which Jesus and His Jewish listeners fully understood, we’re in the dark, unless we know a little bit about Hebrew levirate marriage and the Hebrew belief in the nephesh.
Levirate marriage is a type pf marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow if she is childless. In societies where a woman is totally dependent on a man, this can be a positive thing for the widow, as she can then continue under the care and protection of her new husband and have children, the latter being very important to a woman in such a culture.
In the ancient Jewish world, the first child born to the brother's widow would be deemed the heir of the deceased brother, and entitled to claim the deceased brother's share of inheritance. If the deceased brother was a firstborn son, the levirate child's inheritance was the double share to which the deceased was entitled.
There is a story of Levirate marriage in Genesis, chapter 38. Tamar is widowed by Er and so her father-in-law tells his next son, Onan, to get Tamar pregnant. Onan lies with Tamar, but refuses to give her children, by deliberately practicing a form of birth control. Why would Onan have not wanted Tamar to have children?
Here’s the problem! If the deceased brother, in this case Er, died childless, his living brother, in Genesis that would be Onan, would be entitled to inherit an increased share. So, there’s a good reason for a living brother to not want to marry his brother’s widow and produce a child who would inherit. The living brother might prefer to inherit everything himself.
In Genesis, God strikes down Onan because of his refusal to impregnate Tamar, so Tamar’s father-in-law promises her his third son, who is still a child. She waits for this last son, Shelah, to grow to manhood, but the father-in-law does not keep his promise. Tamar then acts on her own, cleverly seduces her father-in-law, and finally conceives a child. All ends well for her.
Now we all know about levirate marriage, just as did all those who heard the Sadducees speaking to Jesus. But refusal to marry a widow or see that she became pregnant, isn’t the problem the Sadducees present in today’s reading. The seven brothers in their argument have all done their duty and married their brother’s widow. Sadly, there have been no children, a great tragedy for a Jewish woman of Jesus’ day, but the question the Sadducees are most interested in is – to which man’s nephesh does she belong?
The word “nephesh” in Hebrew is literally the word “soul” or “life”. The nephesh of a Jewish man in Jesus’ day was made up of all that he possessed, and a wife was considered a possession. Thus, the woman was part of her husband’s nephesh. When a man died, if there was an afterlife, and if a wife is part of a man’s nephesh – well - such a problem! Where does she fit in? To which man’s nephesh does she belong in this afterlife of which Jesus speaks?
We can just imagine how smug the Sadducees felt as they presented this puzzle to our Lord. See! You can’t answer that one, can you Jesus? So – there simply can’t be an afterlife. It just wouldn’t work. They were doing their best to trip Him up, trying to get Him to give a less than orthodox answer, by asking Him a question which made perfectly good sense in those days, a question based on the way people, men in particular, defined who they were.
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but 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.
What? Jesus does not address the Sadducees’ puzzle. He does not become embroiled in a worldly argument based on worldly standards. Instead, in a way that would have stunned His listeners, He presents the truth.
God is the living God, and those who trust in Him will become “like angels,” not concerned with the worries of the present, and they shall be “children of God” and “children of the resurrection.”
What this tells us today is that God’s purpose is to make us like the Risen Christ, to make us like Jesus by means of our own resurrection to eternal life. Jesus grounded this hope, not in the problems of the present, but in the living God Himself. Jesus reminds us that the Holy One, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the living who can give life even to those to who have died. And just like that, the Sadducees were rebuffed, because their idea of God´s greatness was too small.
We, too, make God small, because a small God, one we can outthink, one we can rationalize, is so much easier to deal with. Breaking the Ten Commandments is so common today we don’t even give it a second thought. Money is the God of choice in our world. Cursing, using the Name of Jesus in particular, is rampant. Failing to keep a holy Sabbath is commonplace. Not loving our neighbor as ourselves is standard. We think that perhaps our small God doesn’t really care about such “little sins”, and that He will forgive us if we tell Him we are sorry. So, instead of striving to be holy people, which is the way to show we are truly sorry, we repeat our transgressions over and over again.
We aren’t shaken by the glory, the power, and the majesty of God. Instead we see everything we have as “mine”, just as the ancient Hebrew men saw everything as part of their nephesh, part of themselves. We live in comfort, and in our daily lives we easily forget all about God. We forget the tenents of our faith, forget to live each day as if it were our last, forget to be always aware of the Presence of our Lord by our side. We set aside our baptismal promises to love and serve God all our days.
Some Christians even side with the Sadducees, claiming there is no after life, no resurrection, but the tremendous greatness of God and the promise of resurrection and future transformation are an essential part of our Christian faith. Day-in and day-out the Church proclaims that we believe in “God, the Father Almighty,” “the resurrection of the body,” and “everlasting life”. These words are part of the established creeds of the Christian faith, recognized by all denominations.
Tamar never gave up. She strove constantly for that which would sustain her life and ensure her safety and wellbeing. She was patient. She was humble, and she was determined. Life handed her hardships and disappointments, but in the end she triumphed. May the same be said of us as we struggle to be holy people, to lead the holy lives to which Jesus calls us.
Then, in the end, despite our particular problems and burdens, God will convert our frequently inglorious present into a life of eternal significance filled with joy, peace, and an incorruptible glory—through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let us pray:
Grant, O merciful God, that we may ardently desire, truly know, and perfectly fulfill those things that are pleasing to You, to the praise and glory of Your holy Name. Direct our course, O God, that we may do what You require us to do. Show us the way and grant that we may follow it according to Your will, and that by Your great mercy and through the intercession of Your Son our Savior Jesus Christ we may enter into the eternal glory which He has promised us. All this we ask in His Name, Amen.