Fr Bosco Peters presided and preached at the 10am Mass. Our Gospel Reading was taken from Luke 20: 27—38.
Read on for the sermon and a video of the service.
I am fascinated by questions. I am fascinated by questions in the Gospels. Jesus asks — wait for it: Jesus asks 307 questions in the Gospels. Jesus himself is asked 183 questions. And he very, very rarely answers a question with a simple direct answer. Normally he answers a question with a question. And why not?!
Jesus, I am sure, would have loved questions children and young people ask: So — if, in the Resurrection, Jesus’ left his graveclothes in the empty tomb, what was he wearing when he appeared to Mary Magdalene?
There are different types of questions. There’s funny questions — I think the graveclothes question fits there; Who was the first person to download something from the cloud onto tablets? Moses. Where is the first tennis match mentioned in the Bible? When Joseph served in Pharaoh's court.
So there are funny questions, and then secondly there are trick questions — we think we know the answer, and we ask the question to try and trap someone we disagree with. A lot of Luke’s Gospel is taken up with people having closed minds and trying to trap Jesus with questions. Today’s Gospel reading is in this category.
And thirdly there are deep, deep questions, questions that we grapple with at great length through our life. These are really the questions that Jesus wants us to live with.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does an almighty, all-good God allow suffering — what we call the problem of evil. Someone might ask that — and it might look like a question to trap us, and, then, when we dig just a little deeper we find that this person has had a tragedy in their life and they are really dealing with the third, deep kind of question. And it’s one thing to have the answer to a deep question in your head — it’s quite another to live with such a question and possible answers in your heart.
Today, we meet the Sadducees — the only time we do so in Luke’s Gospel. From this story, you can pick up a bit about them. In today’s language, in this story they are biblical fundamentalists, bible literalists — and the only books from the Bible that they think are inspired are the first five: Genesis to Deuteronomy.
Jesus has quite a different approach — he’s quite happy, for example, to quote Isaiah and the psalms.
Paul’s letter today can help us avoid this Sadducee-style biblical fundamentalism and literalism we meet in today’s gospel. We heard St Paul write: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”
The word tradition comes from the Latin — to hand on; like a baton in a relay race. Christ’s College, where I was chaplain as most of you know for quarter of a century, has the motto Bene tradita, bene servanda. That’s usually translated Good traditions well maintained. But that’s not accurate. If you know your Latin, it actually means Good traditions MUST be well maintained.
There’s a message in there, I think, for our parish. We need to maintain our good traditions.
The other side of that coin is that it is the good traditions that we must maintain. So it is important that we can sift which traditions are good and which are not.
The historian of Christianity, Jaroslav Pelikan, said it well:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
The Sadduccees were against tradition — they wanted to go back to the book and a very limited book at that.
So the Sadducees are asking Jesus a trick question. They are quoting Deut 25 about levirate marriage — if a man dies childless, a brother is to marry the widow.
But wait: Leviticus 18 & Lev 20 say the exact opposite! These Leviticus texts in the Bible which forbid marrying your brother’s wife and describe the punishment from God if you do so - this is central to the English Reformation and the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon who had been married to Henry’s brother, Arthur.
So — surprise! — if you rely solely on the Bible, you are going to hit some significant contradictions.
The trick question of the Sadducees follows Deuteronomy — if seven brothers all one after the other marry one woman whose wife will she be after death? My first reaction to the story — which I can imagine the crowd laughing about to each other as they were watching Jesus being taken on my the Sadducees: there were seven brothers; the first married a woman and died; then the second; and the third married her — by the time of brother number four or five, don’t you think the next brother in line would be getting suspicious by this pattern of marrying this particular woman and going: Yeah — nah!
Anyway, Jesus could have argued from Leviticus that the Bible is unclear about this. Or Jesus could have gone: well Sunday she’s Brother 1’s wife, Monday she’s Brother 2’s wife,… 7 brothers; 7 days.
But no, Jesus goes deeper. First he helps us reflect on the purpose of marriage. A lot of people, a lot of Christians, a lot of churches even — give the impression that marriage is a primary goal in life.
Jesus is highlighting that’s not the case at all. The central goal of life is eternal union with God — the Resurrection life our Gospel reading today calls this. Marriage, with all its joys and difficulties, is one means to grow into this Resurrection life. Singleness, whether chosen or not, isn’t simply a waiting room for marriage — it is another means. Commitment to celibacy is another means. And so on.
Even in the torrid debates between Christians about marriage and gender, today’s story highlights that gender isn’t even a part of the Resurrection life.
So we have the goal and we have means to that goal. I believe that a useful tool for digging down through our means to what we regard as the goal of our life is another question: the question, Why?
Let me illustrate this point of digging down through different layers of means: why do you want this particular type of job? Because it pays well. Why do you want high pay? So that I become wealthy. Why do you want to be wealthy? So that I can buy a flash car. Why do you want a flash car? So that people admire me. Why do you want people to admire you? And that might be as far as that particular person can go — because having people admire them is their god; that is their idol.
We all have our gods; we all have our idols — all of us. That can include the idols of gender and so on. Use the why? question in your individual life. Use the why? question in our parish life. Jesus keeps stripping away our idols until we are, as Jesus says today, children of God, until we are, as Jesus says today, children of the resurrection.
Life in union with God, the true God, the living God, the God revealed in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, life in union with God, eternal life — this is not a projection of a human wish in the face of fear of death. It is a transformation beyond anything we can imagine.
The transforming love and power that brought all into existence — including time — at the Big Bang, the transforming love and power that is seen in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the transforming love and power that we celebrate and that nourishes us at this table this is the true goal of life.