Tuesday, 5 November 2013

“Jesus is also the question.” (a sermon: Luke 20:27-38)

I heard a story about the time the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth visited the United States.  In his travels, he saw a sign painted on the side of a barn, with the words:  “Jesus is the answer.” 

Barth looked at the words on the side of the barn, thought for a while, and said:  Ja, but Jesus is also the question.”

In today’s lesson, Jesus is also the question.

Our lesson begins with the Sadducees asking Jesus a stupid question. 

Sometimes, if you’re at a public meeting and the speaker consents to have a period of questions and answers, you’re often apt to hear at least one stupid question. 

Now, by “stupid question”, I don’t mean the sort of question that is asked by the person who doesn’t understand the issue and is honestly seeking information or clarification.  That’s not a stupid question. 

I’m thinking of the sort of question that is aggressive in its stupidity, the question that’s asked by the person who wants to demonstrate his own knowledge of the topic, at the expense of the speaker.  That’s the sort of aggressively stupid question the Sadducees asked Jesus.

But, first, we may want some background to the Sadducees and who they were.  The Sadducees were the extreme conservatives of Jesus’ day.  They held to the Law literally.  For them, there was no room for interpretation where the law was concerned.  The Sadducees were opposed to the Pharisees who were of a more progressive bent, despite their bad press and the way we use the word “Pharisee” today. (When we use the word “Pharisee” in English to mean a small-minded religious bigot, as many people do, this use of the word is highly unjust to the Pharisees.)

One important thing about the Sadducees was that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  In the Old Testament, any belief in a life after this physical life was very slow in developing.  In fact, it was only during the century or two just before the time of Jesus that much of a belief in a life after this one was found among the Jews. 

The Sadducees opposed this development.  The reason the Sadducees opposed this new emerging belief in the life of the world to come was that they couldn’t fit the idea into a literal view of the law.  The question they asked Jesus in our lesson was the standard Sadducee-type question:  “If a woman married seven men, whose wife would she be after the resurrection?”

This question has a background.  The Jewish law said that if a man died without leaving an heir, his brother (or his nearest unmarried male relative) was obliged to marry his widow and produce an heir.  This was the theme of the book of Ruth.

Anyway, for Sadducees with a literal view of the law and with a tendency to downplay the resurrection of the dead, this was the standard trick question to discredit those who seemed to accept an idea of the life of the world to come.

Jesus responded to the question.  Not only did he give a good answer, but he tried to assist the Sadducees to find a better question.  This was just as important, if not more so.  As Karl Barth said:  “Jesus is also the question.”

The Sadducees asked Jesus the wrong question on a number of grounds:

1.       The question assumed that the woman involved had no dignity of her own, that the woman’s status in God’s future life depended on whose wife she was.  It was a bad question just on this basis alone.

2.       The question assumed, as well, that the men involved had a reduced dignity in God’s future life if they were without a wife or without heirs.  It was a bad question just on this basis alone.

3.       And worst of all, the question assumed that God’s truth is set in the past, that people cannot discover new aspects of God’s emerging truth for a new era.  The emerging new truth of the life of God’s future was seen as somehow without merit if it was seen as contradicting those treasured truths of the past.  It was a bad question just on this basis alone.

And we still find this today.  There are many people of faith who, even with the best will in the world, cannot for the life of them see new aspects of God’s truth emerging for a new time and a new place.  As we frequently sing in the classic hymn, “The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from the word.” 

Sadly, many Christians cannot grasp this.

·         To give one example, many Christians cannot see the presence of God in the lives of people of other faiths (Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists, and others.).   “The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from the word.” 

·         To give another example, many Christians cannot see faithful, life-giving, God-blessed relationships among couples that have not entered into a formal marriage, whether these couples are heterosexual or same-gender.  “The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from the word.” 

God’s truth comes freshly to God’s people in every generation.  “The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from the word.” 

Today, as it was two thousand years ago, Jesus is also the question.

May God grant each of us the sensitivity to receive with enthusiasm God’s new truth in our new day.

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