32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 • Psalm 98 • 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 17-21 • Luke 20:27-38
It is unfortunate that these ancient scriptures don’t speak to our current times. I mean, don’t you find yourself just wishing we could make some connection, find some common social dynamic, some historic comparisons that would enable us to find some meaning and maybe even some hope? It’s too bad these stories are simply too old and too far removed from our own experience to be of any value.
Consider this obscure story from this obscure Old Testament book. What value could the book of Haggai possibly be? Why would we waste our time reading it, and in the process, force Anne to try to pronounce all those impossible names? It’s almost cruel.
You’ve got this story of a people who have known good times, but things aren’t so good now. It seems the best years were behind them. “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory?” asks the prophet. The structures that once held a diverse nation of immigrants together had come crumbling down and created a bitter divide. The people became divided. The choices they had in leadership were poor and poorer, as they found themselves pining for the day when great leaders had walked in their midst and drawn them together around a common identity and a common sense of purpose. Foreign countries began to insert themselves in the politics of the day. Rival institutions began to get involved where they didn’t belong, effecting long-term outcomes and undermining the cohesion and strength of the people. Things began to spin apart, and ultimately so did the country.
It’s too bad there are no comparisons between then and now! Don’t you think?
Well, let’s get back to that one in a moment. Maybe we can find something in the New Testament texts. In Luke, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to a throng of people, a cheering, partisan crowd calling for this Messiah, this descendant of King David to lead them back to a former glory. The powers that be are a little unsettled by it all, so they send some Sadducees to ask Jesus a gotcha question. It drips with cynicism, this conversation. We know it because Luke reminds us right at the beginning of the story that these aristocratic leaders didn’t believe in the resurrection. They didn’t believe in life beyond the grave. This was a core principle for them. Yet that doesn’t stop them from presenting this puzzle that is built on the very premise they dismiss.
It’s too bad we can’t relate this to our own experience, although we should probably be glad we don’t have cynical leaders who seem to adjust their beliefs according to whose vote they happen to be trying to collect in any given moment.
So, not only do the Sadducees, not believe in the scenario they are asking Jesus about, they also don’t seem to care that they are exploiting a tragic situation to do it. They couldn’t care less, it seems, about this widow who is left destitute and without a future because she has no children nor a spouse able to make a living to provide for her needs. They couldn’t care less that she has lost everything she ever loved. They couldn’t care less that she is perceived not as a human being, but as an object, something to be owned and controlled: “whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” To which of these former husbands will she belong on the other side of the grave? That’s their question?—Which one gets the benefit of her cleaning and cooking and care-giving? Which of these fine men will get the services of this woman?
It’s a good thing we no longer have people who are objectified and dismissed in our modern world, as sad as it is that we can’t relate to this story. It’s too bad we don’t have to wrestle with human value and dignity.
So there are apparently no possible links we can draw from these ancient stories to our own experience. But at least we may hope to find something in Jesus’ response, which is remarkable.
It seems clear that Jesus knows full well what these men are doing. Jesus is clear that they are here to trap him, to trip him up, to impeach him of the authority he has gained in the eyes of the people, made clear as he rode into town. The question has no other purpose. But what Jesus does is stunning, and perhaps a model for what we might do in our own cynical generation.
Jesus answers the question. And he does it by taking these Sadducees more seriously than they do themselves. Not only did the Sadducees not believe in the resurrection—which is why they were sad, you see. They also had an originalist view of the scriptures. They argued that the only scriptures that were authoritative were the books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first five books of our Old Testament. The rest were of lesser importance. So Jesus doesn’t duck the question or try to pivot to a proven debate response highlighting how deplorable or crooked his opponents are. Jesus simply responds.
He restores the value of the woman without undermining the value of her husbands: Those who are worthy of a place in the realm of God are given a different relationship, a higher relationship on their own terms.
And then he uses the only scriptures the Sadducees claim to value to invite them to think differently. In the story of the burning bush in Exodus, a book you believe to be authoritative, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, according to the tense of the scriptures you so value, are alive, not dead. To God all are alive, you see, for God is a God of the living.
Jesus doesn’t just seek to win the argument. He seeks to win the hearts of even the most cynical in his midst. He believes in them more than they seem to believe in themselves.
Does this change these Sadducees? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But this doesn’t change Jesus and their response will not change how he will act no matter what. In less than a week, Jesus will be up on a cross and all signs will be that the cynicism of the powerful had won. But we might wonder if all is as it seems to be given the rest of the story.
And these stories leave us with a powerful hope that God’s work in Spirit and truth is larger than any given moment. It calls for our own active and loving engagement with friends and enemies alike, no matter what we wake up to on November 9th. You see, one election does not decide the future. This is surely a lesson Haggai taught to a people who had seen the worst they could imagine and found themselves looking to a future that had promise and was baptized with hope. This is surely the sense of the charge to the Thessalonian church in an age of a powerful ruler who disregarded his people: “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught.”
It is no different for us, who are invited to remember on a day we call the Lord’s Day when resurrection and new life are always in the mix, that cynicism and fear can be paper-thin and far more fragile than we think, even and perhaps especially in the most vehement of our opponents. We look to a Spirit that is larger and eternal and more powerful than we can imagine. And it is found in all of creation, even in those places and people where we would least expect it. And so we stand firm in good faith, offering ourselves as arguments for God’s love. Giving ourselves to a future that we know is possible. Faith wins. Love wins. It always has and it always will.
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