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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

They pondered what it meant to 'rise from the dead' (C32O)

Sunday’s scriptures, as usual, are full of what will no doubt turn out to be unrealized hermeneutic potential. Taken together with the readings for next weekend, they represent excerpts from foundational passages that chart the faith of the people of God in the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, particularly the resurrection of the body, which is a pretty hot topic in Jesus studies. The Nicene creed (resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi) and Apostles’ creed (the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting) both refer to this mystery, but it rarely, even at funerals, gets talked about except in apolitical language of reunion in the afterlife and people living on in their descendants if we could just imitate their good points. (These “good points” are later expanded, in the “words of remembrance,” into such things as “loved horses,” “drank and smoked a lot,” and “loved the Cubs.”) In a certain way, this kind of afterlife imagination was the root of the Sadducees’ test of Jesus in the gospel yesterday.

The Sadducees were the ruling class in Jerusalem, and as such, had no need of the afterlife that the lower classes had. If your belly is full now, and you have the ear of the king, how can it be any better in the future? For similar reasons, the Sadducees did not accept the teaching of the prophets, which demanded justice on earth as proof of covenant living, as part of divine revelation. They only accepted the Torah, the law of Moses represented in what we call the books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers. Many Pharisees and Essenes, on the other hand, along with a great number of Jewish peasantry, by the time of Jesus had a faith that life continued after death. This faith came about by an unshakeable sense of God’s justice that was mortally tested at the time of the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes (The Shining One) in the second century BCE. It was around this time that, in addition to the books of Maccabees, from which we heard the first reading read yesterday, the books of Wisdom and Daniel (also considered apocryphal in some Christian traditions) were written. In all three of these texts, there are indications about this rising sentiment of a bodily resurrection, and they arise from a sense of divine justice. If God is good and just, and these martyrs die with broken bodies at the hands of persecutors for keeping the covenant, then God, being just, must restore their bodies to them when God makes all things right. Just how that happens is the stuff of which apocalypses are made, such as the apocalypse of Daniel from which we will hear next Sunday and often do on November Sundays. It is from the Daniel texts that we (and Luke, and Mark, and Jesus himself) receive the imagery of the Son of Man, one whom God sends to make right the rule of earth. This “Son of Man,” more precisely, “one who is a human being,” is actually a title given to all the just in the land, but conferred upon the one for the benefit of all. The Wisdom text that we hear so often at funerals, which begins, “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them,” is from a section of Wisdom (2-5) that deals with this very problem, the untimely death of the just at the hands of the unjust. 

The Sadducees, clinging to the Mosaic law and scoffing at Jesus and the pharisaic belief in resurrection, appeal to Moses in their question that is intended to ridicule Jesus. But Jesus retorts (even more strongly in Mark than in Luke) that the Sadducees understand neither Moses nor God. Using their own “version” of scripture, the Torah, he quickly refutes their argument by saying that if Moses called God the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then they must be alive, because God is a god of the living, not the dead. (Crossan points out that the argument from Moses does not appear in any other literature about the resurrection, so it might not be the real point of Jesus’s retort, which might have been simply to put the Sadducees down and play to the sympathetic peasant crowd.) He further argues that in the resurrection there is no married or being married to - people are completely different, “like angels,” he says. This argument is picked up by James Alison (and possibly by Rene Girard himself) to show that God is so utterly outside the realm of death that even to define God as “immortal” is to define by a negative. Where there is no need for progeny, for children to keep one’s name going, because all relationship is in relationship to God, there is no death. Or better, where there is no death, then the sexual-political machinery of marriage is not required either. But all of this is in the realm of the unknown: the real point is just that, in the world of God’s justice, things are transformed, they are different than we can know, and better than we can imagine.

So, what does all that have to do with us? I find Crossan’s conclusion both familiar and stunning. On page 69 of The Last Week, he summarizes the meaning of this Tuesday-of-Holy-Week (in Mark) encounter between Jesus and the temple establishment:

“His words suggest that God’s concern is the living and not the dead. To think that Jesus’s message and passion were about what happens to the dead, and to ask questions about the fate of the dead, is to miss the point. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is not primarily about the dead, but about the living, not primarily about life after death, but about life in this world.”

Alison, in Raising Abel, the Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, takes the point further, urging us to consider that our very view of God is skewed because of our being complicit with death, which has nothing to do with God. God is so different from what we imagine that “to God, all are alive.” One really good homily that is available online that deals with these texts puts the repercussions for us, the living, like this:

...(In) our world, anxiety about death makes us slaves to the insurance companies or lenders whose rules convert our fears into money for their shareholders; if we believed only in life then our attitude to money would be different. 

In our world anxiety about death makes us liable to get into relationships which might be harmful, for fear of being alone - forgetting that we are never alone with God; if we believed only in life then our relationships would be different. 

On the other hand in our world anxiety about death stops us taking risks, being creative, living a bit dangerously sometimes, pushing life to its limits to enjoy it as much as possible; if we believed only in life then our faith, our enthusiasms, might overcome our fears. 

Also in our world anxiety about death makes some people frightened of not being remembered, which drives them to do extreme and terrible things; the leaders of our nations are prone to fall into this trap, but so can we be in our own ways. If we believed only in life then our politics, our behavior towards outsiders and opponents, would be different. 

Boy, this gets really hard to wrap one’s heart around. Is it possible, when we can see that death is empirically part of the process of natural selection in the cosmos from stars and galaxies through the biosphere of this planet to the molecular level, that death is an illusion? On the other hand, we know that by the conservation of energy nothing is really “lost” or dies, it just changes form. Even the smashed nuclei of atomic particles reappear in other forms after their apparent destruction. Nothing is ever lost. But is this also missing the point?

It seems to me Crossan gets it right, appealing to the pre-scientific Jesus, who seems to intuit that God is only life, and that in justice, God must in fact restore to life what has been lost in injustice. But his message is that the “empire of God is at hand,” and ‘at hand’ almost certainly means “already here.” What happens after we die, then, is less important if we are convinced that we carry within us now the love and the gospel of the God of life. Like Jesus, we might be able to find the courage to face the apparent might of other powers who want an empire of violence and oppression rather than one of peace and equality. A faith in the resurrection of the body, then, might just be oriented toward behaving in this world in ways that are life-giving to everyone, and don’t simply hoard the best of life for ourselves and those who share our economic and political biases. The passion of Jesus for this God of life leads him to take his “throne” for us on Christ the King Sunday this year, crucified by Rome’s governor between two other insurrectionists. 

I don’t know about afterlife, but I can put my faith, here and now, in this “Human Being,” whose empire of peace and equality transformed even the executioner’s device into a symbol of compassion and a sign of divine presence. I can perceive that this world is worth living for, and I make better and better decisions the more I let into my heart the realization that the God of life, the God of Jesus, is not a death-dealing, power-hungry emperor like Caesar, but love-poured out, like Christ and all who have loved like him and because of him. It helps me begin to understand the joy that underlies Paul’s cry of liberation (1 Cor 15:55):

"Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory? 

Where, O death, is your sting?"