Friday, November 12, 2010

Pentecost 24C

The  movie, Amadeus, about the life of Mozart as told from the point of view of his jealous arch-rival, Salieri, makes the point that Mozart’s life spans the closing decades of the 18th century, a time when much that was certain and fixed was breaking down.  It was the time of ending of old political alliances and notions of Empire, and the beginning of the age of modernism, a time of enforced change as the marauding armies of Napoleon tore down the old Europe and replaced royal courts with efficient bureaucratic administrations and the rule of the proletariat.  It was also a time of relentless cultural change, with Salieri at one point lamenting that proper Italian operas were being tossed aside for Mozart’s flashy music-hall extravaganzas.  I must admit when I first read the play on which the movie was later based I found the thought intriguing.  Mozart – who for most of us today represents a tradition that is time-honoured and for younger people even rigid and stuffy – through the eyes of Salieri comes over as a brash, self-opinionated pop-star, his music - brilliant and innovative and ultra-modern as it is – offensive to good taste.

And so it is with the Pharisees.  We in the church are accustomed – wrongly accustomed, in my humble opinion – to a jaundiced view of the Pharisees as seen through the eyes of the Gospel writers and the early Church.  The Pharisees seem to represent a way of looking at the world and of thinking about God that is rigid and hide-bound and unimaginatively tied to lists of do’s and don’ts.  The Pharisees – so the Christian tradition often supposes – completely miss the point of God’s love and of the stunningly free gift of grace.  And I guess we hold this opinion of the Pharisees because Jesus argued with them so much.  Well, but what if Jesus argued with the Pharisees because they were worth arguing with?  What if they argued a lot because they agreed about a lot?

Because in today’s Gospel reading it is the Pharisees – and Jesus – who represent the radical, fresh, smarty-pants new thinking – and who are coming under fire from the old school, the sect of the Sadducees.  Certainly, there seems to have been a bewildering array of different Jewish sects and splinter groups all arguing ferociously amongst themselves, and in the early Church itself there was also fierce argument between different traditions and communities who – as St Paul complains – see themselves as followers of Apollo or followers of Paul or even – some of them – followers of Christ.  It’s good for us to bear this in mind especially when from time to time we hear the complaint that we should all just go back to the good old-fashioned religion of the early Church where things were as they should be.  The reality is that disagreement about what God is like and what God expects us to be like is as old as religion itself!  The Sadducees believed in the good old-fashioned books of the Bible, the first five called the Pentateuch.  God had spoken through Moses and that according to the Sadducees was that.  The Sadducees didn’t hold with the idea that God was still speaking to God’s people, didn’t like the idea of letting newer writings like the prophetic literature into the Bible, and certainly didn’t accept that God could be revealing new truths through outsiders.  There was nothing in the Pentateuch about heaven or eternity, and like good religious people everywhere it became very important for the Sadducees to prove how ridiculous their opponents were - and so in today’s story they come up with a hypothetical example as a way of demonstrating how this new-fangled belief in resurrection leads to an impossible contradiction.

Well, we should probably pause at this point and feel sorry for the poor lady in the example who gets passed along from brother to brother like a sack of potatoes, and certainly we need to notice that the hypothetical situation revolves around the Levirate marriage system which was designed to ensure the continuity of families in a society where there was no such thing as social welfare.  A patriarchal society that more or less treated women as possessions.  But the real point that is being made in today’s Gospel story is about God.

And in fact, at this point in the history of the Jewish people, belief in life after death was very new-fangled.  Most scholars believe that teaching about resurrection started to creep into Jewish thought just a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, when the people of Judah newly released from exile began to re-establish their religious practices under the cultural and political influence of the Persian Empire.  Like the belief in angels, the idea of personal immortality may have been a fairly recent import into Judaism from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Empire.  And new sects like the Pharisees picked it up and embraced it and thought yes, that makes sense.  That’s how God would be, that makes sense of God’s perspective on justice, especially when we live in a world where justice is so often denied.  A belief in resurrection seemed natural to a people who had lived through the destruction of the Temple and long years of exile.  And so the hope of liberation, that is at the very bedrock of the religion of Israel, began to also mean a hope that at the end of this life, at the end of the age, everything that keeps men and women imprisoned and oppressed would be transformed.  And so the righteous would surely be raised from the dead.  Life, they thought, just wouldn’t make sense otherwise.  And Jesus, like the Pharisees, embodies this hope and belief in resurrection, this hope that all that we are is not lost at the end of our earthly life, but is somehow gathered into God and completed. 

And Jesus answers the Sadducees’ hypothetical question, and his answer makes a couple of things really clear.  Firstly that he is on the side of those who think that God can and does keep speaking new words in new times, that faith is not tied to dusty old scriptures but also grows in response to new situations and new experiences.  That our thinking about God needs to take account not only of our own religious traditions but the insights of other traditions and other ways of seeing the world.  He is a Mozart, in other words, not a Salieri.

And the second thing is – in just a couple of words – he tells us why we don’t just die into nothing.  Which is surprising because at first glance Jesus answer looks a bit flaky.  Not one of his very best arguments.  Hey! says Jesus to the Sadducees, the books of the Pentateuch that you yourselves accept describe God as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and everybody knows that God is the God not of the dead but of the living – so obviously Abraham and Isaac and Jacob must be not dead but living.  Well, um, OK.

But I’ve thought about this some more, and I think what Jesus is saying here is stunning in its simplicity.  He is actually pointing out the obvious, which is that the only sensible way to talk about God - is as a God whose character and existence are revealed in relationship.  In relationship with actual men and women in the unfolding of history.  What it means is that God is not God by Godself – but God with us.  God is love, God is the God of relationship.  And if that is the case, if God is first and foremost God with us, and if God’s loving care of us continues so that even in death God is still God with us, then we also are with God.  If God’s life is first and foremost a sort of creative relationality – a relationship which brings us into existence – then our own identity and our own existence is constituted out of relationship with God.  So if God remains God, then we remain in relationship with God.  If God’s loving care for us never ends, then our relationship and our life in God never ends.

It’s a big claim, but it’s a simple claim.  We die into God because of who God is, and because of who we are created to be.

But then in Luke’s version of the story is where Jesus - or perhaps the Gospel writer himself - pads out the argument with the observation that the Sadducees’  hypothetical situation can’t arise in any case because there is no sex in heaven.  Which from the point of view of the poor seven-times married wife might seem like rather a relief though the rest of us might not necessarily see it as such a good idea.  It seems to come from the idea that because there is no more dying, there is no more need for babies – and of course owes much to the sort of over-religious values common in both Jesus’ day and also in our own that curiously overlook the blessing that God bestows on sexual union in Genesis chapter two.  And in fact Jesus’ own theology of loving relationship that lies behind his answer to the Sadducees suggests that we are who we are not only in relationship to God but in relationship to one another – that our human relationships are based on the foundational relationship we have with God – so without arguing the point perhaps we might also trust that the relationships we have with those whom we have loved throughout our lives might also be fulfilled and completed in the life beyond this.

The point is simply that God is God.  That the basis of all our hope as Christians is that we are formed and live our lives in the context of God’s love, and that trust in the eternal God of love to complete and fulfill us in love in the life beyond this is surely not misplaced.