Friday, November 04, 2016

Is Luke 20:27-38 the most difficult New Testament passage to preach from?

dontworrybesexy1-205x300 It was a question asked by a colleague this week. Here’s my attempt from 2013. I was guest preacher and was asked to preach from Lectionary. The more I wrestled with the text, the more I was glad of the power and freshness.

From the cowardice that dare not face new truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
God of Truth, deliver us.

I currently serve as the Principal of Uniting College for Leadership and Theology. My sense of call to be Principal of the Uniting College owes a lot to Exodus 3, God’s call to Moses at the burning bush.

Back in 2012, I was aware that the College were looking for a Principal and applications were closing. I was attending Church on Sunday morning and as you sometimes do in a sermon – not here I’m sure – I found myself mentally going through all the reasons why I wouldn’t be a suitable Principal of a theological college

Younger than most Principal’s I know
Come from another country.
More comfortable at the edge of the church than at the center

As I was going through this mental checklist, I realised that I was missing the childrens talk. Which was Exodus 3.

The part where Moses gives all these excuses why he wouldn’t be a very good leader. What if they don’t listen? What if I can’t communicate clearly?

And I suddenly realised, I was just like Moses. Giving excuses. God simply asks Moses “What’s in your hand?” (Ch 4:5) For Moses it was a staff. For me it was my gifts and passions.

So we learn something about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. We learn that God calls people. Asks them “What’s in your hand?” Asks them to give their gifts and passions. We learn that call to mission begins in God’s compassion. God tells Moses (Ch 3:7-8) “I have heard their cry. Indeed, I know their sufferings”

A mission that begins with a God who hears people’s cry. Which makes me want to stop. It makes me want to ask what you hear. What is the cry of your community? What is making people in this community suffer?

Indeed, I know their sufferings, v. 8 and I have to deliver them.

I tell you this story because it introduces me. I tell you this story because it also introduces the Lectionary text, Luke 20:27-38.

37 -38 – But in the account of the burning bush, Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”.

God who calls.
God who listens
God who listens deeply enough to know about sufferings.

So says Jesus, This God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’

The Lectionary story from Luke 20 is set in the temple. Jesus is teaching and as he teaches he’s asked three questions. One of the commentaries call these “testing stories.” Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he’s asked questions. So many questions that they get a title – “testing stories.”

So that tells us something else about this “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. This God doesn’t mind questions. Not in the burning bush story of Moses, where three times Moses get’s to ask God questions, to say to God but what about.

I find that such a helpful image for understanding God – a relationship strong enough to hear our questions.

In this particular story, the “testing question” is asked by a person from a group called the Sadducees. A religious group within Judaism. Who have a unique set of beliefs, including a disbelief in resurrection, in life beyond death.

Hence their “testing question.” They offer Jesus a case study. Well if there was a family of 7 boys and one by one they all died, and one by one the next brother married the widow – then, if there is a heaven, what happens to the wife?

The case study is based on historical cultural practice – what was in Ancient Israel called levirate marriage. It’s explained in Dueteronomy 25:5-10. If a married man dies childless, the man’s brother must marry the widow. It has a purpose – to perpetuate the name and hand down property from one generation of men to the next.

My teenage daughters, in the flash of an eye, would tell me how sexist this is. How much it assumes an oldfashioned patriarchal view of family and marriage and gender.

Jesus responds to the “testing question” in two parts.

First in verses 34-36.

This age, with a concern for marriage – that is the existing hierarchical, patriarchal view of family and marriage and gender

And “that age” the resurrection. When children of God, who are children of the resurrection.”

Those words, “children of God”, used in verse 36, have history. They’ve been used already by Jesus in Luke 6:35-36: love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High … 3Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Which sets up two very different understanding of marriage.

For the Sadduccees, in verses 28, 29, 31, “the man takes a wife.” A very traditional, very patriarchal, way of understanding marriage. Sexist, as my daughters would tell me.

In contrast – For the children of God – those who are living out these values of love of enemies, being merciful – the verbs about marriage are passive.

It’s not, the man takes a wife.

Instead it’s literally, “to allow oneself to be married.”

So Jesus is actually offering a radical critique of current understandings of how women relate to men in marriage.

You can choose to be aligned with the this age, these present cultural understandings.

No resurrection because death is the end. Until death, you get to participate in a very legal, very strict hierarchical pattern. Women are to be given and taken by men, women are simply objects to preserve a male family line, women are useful only if they can produce children. That’s choice.

The other choice, the Jesus choice, is to align yourself with the age to come. With resurrection. On which death is dead. In which women, as equally as men, find value not in producing children, but because of how they live their lives, because of how they love their enemies, because of of how they practise justice and live merciful.

So that’s first response to the testing question. Resurrection. Which impacts on how women and men relate.

The second response by Jesus is to turn to another place in the Old Testament. Not to the Levirate Law in Dueteronomy but to Moses, the burning bush and “the God of Abraham, and Isaac, Jacob”.

As I’ve already said,
the God who calls. What’s in your hand.
God who listens, to the cry of people.
God who listens deeply enough to know about sufferings.
God who offers deliverance. Into a covenant, a set of living relationships, Q and A with God, which give us our identity and guides behaviour.

That’s the God of Abraham, and Isaac, Jacob”. For to God, all are alive.

And of course, this story in Luke 20, is placed between the resurrection story of Lazarus in Chapter 16, and resurrection story of Jesus in Chapter 24.

So what we learn about resurrection here is made possible because of God, who raised Jesus from the dead. In order to offer a covenant, a set of living relationships, not just to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but to any who want to be children of God, to any who will live of life of justice and mercy.

We live a world that’s never heard of Sadducees and burning bushes and Levirate marriages. So how does our world understand marriage? How does our world value women?

I was walking through mall yesterday and saw this T-shirt. “Dont’ worry. Be sexy.” So that’s one way our world values women. Not as children of God, of value because of a life of justice and mercy.

Another way our world values women is as consumers. Shop till you drop. So there’s something strangely appealing about what Jesus is offering. To be defined, not by our bodies, our booty or our budget. But by relationship. A living covenant, a Q and A with God, expressed in a life of justice and mercy?

I have to be honest. I approached today’s Lectionary text going – this is tough. This is an obscure argument about an obscure part of the Bible.

Over the week, I’ve gained fresh insight into the radical nature of God’s Kingdom. We’re invited to be children of God. Our relationships with each other, our relationships with God are not defined not by historic cultural patterns. Nor by how sexy we are. Nor by how much bling we have. We’re children of God. Called by a God who listens to the cry of people’s suffering. Invited to live lives of mercy and justice. That’s good news. For us. For our church. For our wider community.

Posted by steve at 02:18 PM

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this Steve. I’ve always been amused by the fact that in this “testing question”, the youngest brother might well end up with seven or more wives from all his brothers, and yet no one asks “Whose husband is he?”

    Comment by Ivan Clark — November 4, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

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