Spirit and FireRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 3: 1-12
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings here.
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
I had to smile this morning at the observation of our commentator R.T. France about John the Baptist, specifically that Christians tend to look upon John as “no more than a warm-up act” for Jesus. (p. 98) In fact, the primary Jewish historian of the day, Josephus, writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., made this observation of the catastrophe: “Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man... Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion... Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.” Josephus’ description of the Baptist’s fate coincides with the report from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
It is surprising from our vantage point in history that the primary Jewish historian of his time would attribute Israel’s worst catastrophe to the unjust slaying of John, and not of Jesus, whose works and fate were also known to Josephus. It would be a grave mistake to read Sunday’s text without respect for the significance of John, whose appearance here in the opening of Chapter 3 marks the beginning of the public life of Jesus. [Chapters 1 and 2 compose Matthew’s unique infancy narrative, a theological statement of Jesus as the new Moses.] In this Gospel Matthew begins the narrative of the adult Jesus with the direct “John the Baptist appeared,” skipping over several decades. Unlike Luke, Matthew records no previous contact of John and Jesus in childhood.
John is described as preaching in the desert, though “wilderness” is equally accurate; the terms are laden with meaning in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments, from Israel’s four decades of wandering and purification to the late apocalyptic literature of the final battle between good and evil to Jesus’ own contest with Satan during his forty-day fast. The desert/wilderness, biblically speaking, is the place where people go to face their God, their demons, and themselves. John is the son of the desert; there is no record of his even visiting towns and cities. As the text reports, people “were going out to him,” and his clothing and diet are indicative of a man very much at home among the beasts.
The message of John is one of repentance, i.e., “return to your true allegiance.” His listeners were Jewish, coming from Jerusalem and its surroundings, reflecting Matthew’s special focus in this Gospel upon Jewish destiny. [Luke, by contrast, includes Roman soldiers among John’s hearers.] The message is not unique to John; it is common to Israel’s prophets. In fact, given the place, the man, and his message, it is not surprising that many people would think of John himself as a classical prophet from Israel as of old. Recall that the last prophet in the Hebrew Scripture, Malachi, had died four centuries before John, and the people had mourned that “the Spirit was quenched” from the face of the earth in the absence of prophecy. Thus, the appearance of a man with the bearing of a prophet might be interpreted as the return of the Spirit, which indeed it would prove to be, though John goes to pains to say that he is not that prophet, but that one greater than he is to follow.
John is one of very few prophetic figures who was himself the object of prophesy, as Matthew, in the third line, quotes Isaiah about one crying in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. This preparatory work is the above-mentioned forgiveness of sins, with a baptismal washing accompanying the acknowledge of sin. An interesting feature of this text is John’s refusal to baptize Sadducees and Pharisees coming forward for the symbolic bath of repentance. It is not hard to make the case that John has “major issues” with the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem that consume a considerable amount of Sunday’s text. “Brood of vipers” indicates that either John does not take their conversion seriously, or that whatever their individual intentions might be, they are vital members of a religious establishment no longer productive for the lives of its adherents.
I take the latter interpretation because the following damnation is wide in scope. John tells them to go home and produce good works—presumably emanating from the Temple—if they have any hope of escaping the coming wrath. That John intended his condemnation for Jewish leadership is also made clearer when he states that the claim “we have Abraham as our Father”—will not cut it at judgment time since “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” Blood lines will count as nothing when “the one who is to come” makes his presence known. The forefront here is fruitfulness, a spiritual and corporal productivity. The trees that do not bear such fruit will be cut at the root and cast into the fire.
John depicts “the one who is to come” as greater than he (John). The future one will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. There are two separate effects of the Mighty One’s baptism: the “quenched Spirit” will return and the prophetic morality will be restored in its fullest dimensions. The other dimension is judgment; there will be a “sorting” of wheat and chaff, of the useful grain and the useless weed. What John is describing in apocalyptic terms will be made clearer in the teaching of Jesus, who will speak of productive believers—those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc.—as entering the kingdom, and the unproductive—those who do none of these things—will come to a bad end.
I cannot help but think that the Sunday Lectionary of Readings for the Advent Season—particularly the first three Sundays—are something of an inoculation against a domesticated image of Jesus, born in bucolic simplicity to angels’ song. Indeed, the Incarnation has its humble roots. But the Baptist warns that this infant will grow to baptize in the Spirit and with fire. Prepare to approach the Christmas crib, and prepare to defend your productivity.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 24: 37-44
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT [YEAR A]
USCCB Link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
Along with turkey leftovers and college football rivalries, Thanksgiving weekend nearly always coincides with the Advent Season and the new Church year. [The only exception, I believe, is a year when Christmas falls on a Monday. There ought to be an app for that.] For catechists and parish planners Advent consumes a lot of time and ink. Last weekend in my home parish the pre-Advent advertising sucked the blood out of the observance of the solemnity of Christ the King. Between an irrelevant and interminable sermon, a film about an Advent parish project, and the sale of Advent wreaths, Christ the King made little more than a cameo appearance. Catechists, celebrants, liturgists everywhere, please take note for next year.
In his The Liturgical Year (1981) Adolf Adam quotes note 39 of the 1969 General Norms for the Liturgical Year’s definition of Advent: “Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ's first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ's Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.” (p. 132) There is a unity here in that the seasonal focus is upon the coming of Christ. There is complexity in that the Advent season attempts to celebrate two distinct comings—a historical arrival in past tense human time, and a glorious second coming transcending time and place.
Doctrinally speaking, there is no seam in Advent observance as the Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem is one and the same with the glorious king who will come at the end of time. The challenge of Advent is more of a sacramental nature, i.e., how does the human Church converse over and ritualize the humility of one and the glory of the other? Or, how does one avoid overemphasis of the known (Christ’s human birth) at the expense of the unknown (the Second Coming)? What complicates matters further is that much of American public culture reinforces the “countdown to Christmas” mentality. There is one more complication: the Roman directive describes Advent observance as devout and joyful expectation. In other words, Advent is not a “minor Lent” though the vestment color of purple and the absence of the Gloria are Lenten trademarks. [In the 1980’s there was considerable experimentation with blue—I purchased several sets of blue vestments from Episcopal dealers and was never admonished in any way by my diocese.]
There is no perfect way to square the circle, so the Missal as we have it today begins the Advent season with observance of Christ’s second coming, a theme that will continue until December 16 and the Fourth Sunday, when exclusive focus turns to the specific events leading to Jesus’ birth in time. Thus the new year begins with the last days, and we meet the evangelist Matthew not in his first chapter but in his 24th chapter, his own apocalyptic description of the future.
Our in-house commentator for this year, R.T. France, observes that our text at hand is just one part of Matthew’s grand treatment of the end of time. In this paragraph the primary theme is surprise: the coming of the end days will catch everyone off guard. In an earlier sentence, Matthew describes the coming like lightning in the east that extends to the west, an unusual occurrence in nature that would gather everyone’s attention. In our Sunday text Matthew takes the nature theme to a more catastrophic level, a flood that washed away all the citizens. Jesus is not predicting a flood per se; he is calling attention to the fact that people ate, drank, married, and carried on business as usual till the ark door slammed shut with Noah and his entourage on the inside.
France continues his commentary on the text with the unsettling image of farmers being plucked away while others remain behind. Aside from the suddenness of it all, what are we to make of those who are “taken?” Taken where? France, who writes from an Evangelical background, is aware of the popular notion of “the Rapture,” a concept drawn from this text which France dates to the nineteenth century. He provides two interesting alternatives. The first possibility is that Matthew, who like Luke wrote his Gospel after the fall of Jerusalem, may be drawing from memory of the suddenness of military invasion when certain victims of invasion were carried off for a variety of unfortunate purposes; one might call this a “suddenness of horror” metaphor.
The better interpretation has the advantage of stronger internal Gospel support, specifically, that at the end time there will be a “sorting.” This is borne out in subsequent text beyond our Sunday reading, the famous judgment scene in Matthew 25 where the great king rewards those who fed the hungry and damns those who did not. This interpretation explains the balance of Sunday’s reading where the reader is advised to “be prepared.” Were we to continue reading Matthew’s text through Chapter 25, the daily preparation plan is spelled out in unquestionable detail: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for “the least of the brethren.” Matthew notes parenthetically that we may very well be sleeping through the night at the Lord’s coming, but it will be our waking hours that determine our destiny.
Advent is more muscular than we think.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 23:35-43
FEAST OF CHRIST THE KING (Final Sunday of Church Year]
USCCB LINK to all three readings
The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.”
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We come to the climax of the Liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King. Originally this feast was celebrated on the last Sunday of October. The Tridentine Missal in use before 1970 celebrated the final Sunday of the Church year as the “Last Sunday after Pentecost” late in November. The Gospel of the day was Matthew 24: 15-35, the most graphic description of the final days, similar in tone and message to our Gospel of last Sunday.
When the editors developed the post-Conciliar Missal in the late 1960’s, when the Church’s Sunday liturgy was expanded to three annual cycles of Matthew’s, Luke’s, and Mark’s Gospel, the thinking was that the final Gospel of the Church year ought to reflect a summary statement of each Gospel. The Church drew from the Gospels the “final word” on the meaning of Jesus Christ as put forward by each writer, as the Church looked forward to the Lord’s final coming.
In this new format that we use today, Matthew’s Gospel describes an apocalyptic last judgment where the Son of Man arrives with his angels for the final judgment. The human population is divided into “the sheep and the goats.” When those judged ask for the criteria of their fates, the Son of Man answers that the saved had fed and cared for him in the way they treated the “least,” the variety of the poor and marginalized. It is an excellent summary of Matthew’s entire text, centered as it is on Jesus as the New Moses who has come with an open ended moral agenda in the eight beatitudes. We will be studying Matthew very soon as we approach Cycle A on November 27, the First Sunday of Advent.
Year B, the cycle of St. Mark, ends with the evangelist’s description of the end times, though his account is shorter than the other two Gospels. If scholars are correct, Matthew and Luke used St. Mark as a starting point for their own theologies. Mark has the fewest details of the last days, possibly because the horrors of the Roman siege and destruction of 70 A.D. had not yet occurred, and Mark had never seen “one stone shall not rest upon another” destruction of the temple. Mark’s text is an exhortation to be watchful for the Day of the Lord, that deliverance would soon be at hand, a message reinforced in St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
The statement summary of Jesus’ earthly life in St. Luke’s Gospel this Sunday is quite different from that of the other two evangelists. The text above embodies the full plan of God executed through his Son. The first paragraph describes the total repudiation of the religious officers of his day, the trustees of the patrimony of Israel. It is one thing to disagree or question a man’s intentions, as Nicodemus attempted to do in John’s Gospel when he is perplexed about being “born again.” But it is another thing entirely to heap scorn and to throw into one’s face the belief he lived for. To sharpen the assault, Luke quotes the rulers as using the very terms of Jesus’ identity to assault him. Jesus is taunted as a pseudo “Christ of God” or God’s anointed final prophet. The soldiers, who could only have known of Jesus through his enemies at the cross, amplify the religious insults by scoffing at the title, “King of the Jews.”
One wonders what Luke was feeling and thinking as he wrote these words. Scripture scholars do not believe Luke himself was Jewish by blood. The best guess is that Luke was a Gentile Greek, possibly a “God-fearer” with Jewish sympathies before his own Christian baptism. His Gospel reveals intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and thought, though. Unlike Mark, Luke had heard of the four-year siege of Jerusalem and its destruction. He knew that one temple stone did not rest upon another, and that Jews were now scattering throughout the known world. He, more than most, could see that Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of his own people was a turning point in salvation history, the last hope for the restoration of Israel’s religious fulfillment violently destroyed in an orgy of blindness, jealousy, and complacency.
But if one era was coming to an end, was another on the doorstep. Yes, and it was more than just on the doorstep. It was in the house already. For in the second paragraph we see, in the last moments of Jesus’ life, that word so pregnant with meaning throughout this Gospel, “today.” Way back in Chapter 4, when Jesus read Isaiah 42 in his synagogue, he rolled up the scroll and said “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Just a few weeks ago, we read Luke 19 where a tax collector slid down a sycamore tree and pledged a renunciation of his sinful ways, to which Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” Luke’s emphasis is less upon the distant future and more about the present moment; salvation is here for the one who believes and acts upon it.
Up until now Jesus’ focus has been the salvation and restoration of Israel. But in the Good Friday narrative it is visible to all that salvation is a universal gift and possibility for all. A lifelong criminal of no religious identity or practice asks that the innocent Jesus remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. Jesus’ reply sums up his life’s work, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Zacchaeus may have been a lost son of Abraham, but this thief was a lost son of no one. Or, more correctly, he was a lost son of Adam, father of the human race.
Christ the King is the glorious savior of all. His kingdom cuts through every conceivable human wall created by the hardness of our own hearts. And on top of that, his salvation is here today.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 21: 5-19
THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCCB link to all three readings
While some people were speaking about
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, “All that you see here--
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
Then they asked him,
“Teacher, when will this happen?
And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”
“See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’
Do not follow them!
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them,
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
“Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The three synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) include texts that fall under the category of “apocalyptic literature.” Apocalyptic (from the Greek, “to reveal”) is a form of literature, expression, and belief which focuses upon the future and the interpreting of signs. Strictly speaking, apocalyptic literature does not necessarily have to be religious. Karl Marx is famous for his vision of the future in which class equality would bring prosperity to all. In a certain sense, any utopian art form has some qualities of apocalyptic. My own favorite example of the latter is the film classic “Lost Horizon” (1937), a tale of perfect peace in a war-torn world. It is worth noting that the film and its depiction of classless society was censored and portions of the original were removed in the United States due to imagined Pro-Communist leanings.
Historically, controversy is never far from apocalyptic. The most famous New Testament example of apocalyptic literature is the entirety of the Book of Revelation; there are segments of such style in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, sometimes referred to as “little apocalypses” in which Jesus reveals what is presently unknown and unimagined. In Sunday’s Gospel, for example, the disciples are stunned at Jesus’ assertion that not one stone of the magnificent temple will be left upon another.
I was lucky enough to take a graduate course in the seminary by the esoteric title of “Christian Eschatology,” the branch of theology that deals with time and destiny. Part of the course required mastery of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature; at 44 years removed, let me see if I can recall them. Apocalyptic writing is secret by its nature, requiring an interpretive key. It is the product of contemporary turmoil or suffering. It is usually written under a pseudonym to protect the identity of its author. It likewise targets oppressors under pseudonyms as well. (In Revelation, “Babylon” is a front name for Rome.) It is written to encourage the faithful. It portrays a future overturn of events where the enemy will be crushed and the faithful remnant will come into an everlasting glory.
Apocalyptic literature appears in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. A famous futuristic depiction of the New Israel, read every year at the Sunday Mass of the Feast of the Epiphany, is Isaiah 60. Scholars believe that the third portion of the Book of Isaiah (and quite possibly the second portion, too) was written by an unknown seer under the name of Isaiah and thus inserted into the prophet’s text. Isaiah 60, for example, may have been written during the Babylonian Captivity in the 500’s B.C. or in the stressful times after the return from captivity.
Our helpful commentator Joel Green (who will be with us just one week longer) assists us again this week by explaining the how and the why of this apocalyptic interlude from Jesus. St. Luke is indeed reflecting a strong apocalyptic spirit in the overall preaching of Jesus, who commonly refers to himself as the Son of Man; in fact, this seems to be his preferred title. Jesus did not invent the title; he appropriated it from the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel, where the term applies to a mysterious figure of the redemptive future, though the Son of Man is nowhere identified as a divine figure or even as the Messiah.
This concept of the Son of Man would mesh well with the way that Luke has portrayed Jesus as the both the forerunner and the consummation of God’s plan of deliverance. Jesus is indeed the faithful witness who will suffer at the hands of his enemies—in this case, the official world of Judaism in Jerusalem nestled around the Temple. Jesus has journeyed throughout this Gospel to the Holy City precisely to engage in the final battle for the eternal identity of the Kingdom of God. It is not surprising, then, that Luke would engage an apocalyptic style in describing the final showdown.
There are two distinct parts to Jesus’ declaration. The first is the standard apocalyptic formula to describe the utter chaos—political, social, cosmic—that will accompany God’s final judgment. The second segment, however, is specifically apocalyptic in the sense that Jesus is much more specific. “Before these things happen…they will seize and persecute you.” Recall that this Gospel was written around 80 A.D. In fact, the predictions Luke ascribes to Jesus had happened and were continuing to happen at the time of writing. Peter and Paul had already been hauled before magistrates and executed.
This Sunday’s Gospel is a remarkable marriage of Jewish belief in patient suffering with a never-ending hope in final vindication and victory. The plan of God, the theme of Luke’s entire Gospel, has been laid out most vividly.
The Final Battle BeginsRead Now
THIS SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 20: 27-38
THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone's brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.
Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless.
Finally, the woman also died.
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus said to them,
“The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out ‘Lord,’
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”
With only three Sundays remaining in the Liturgical Year (C) and the Lectionary’s narrative of St. Luke, this is how the Gospel breakdown will play out. Today we have Jesus confronting the Sadducees, old guard Jews, on both the reality of life beyond the grave and the reward of everlasting life. Next Sunday Luke records Jesus’ description of the trials of the future in the “little Apocalypse,” in which he predicts the destruction of glorious Jerusalem and the persecutions of those who remain faithful to his name. The final Sunday of Ordinary Time (34th) is the solemnity of Christ the King, in which Luke portrays Jesus revealing the full coming of God’s kingdom: from the cross, he assures the good thief, “this day you will be with me in paradise.”
Next Sunday’s Gospel is set in Chapter 20, and the best adjective I can apply to this chapter is “nasty.” Jesus has now arrived in Jerusalem, and the Jewish authorities—who have obviously heard of and probably witnessed Jesus at work in the hinterlands—are eager to bring the battle to Jesus on their home turf. This chapter is comprised primarily of a challenge to Jesus: “by what authority do you do the things you do?” Jesus’ loyalty to the Law and the tenets of Jewish observance is brought under hard scrutiny— “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” –and his teachings are openly scorned. This is the case in today’s Gospel where the question of life after death comes to the fore.
One should never imagine that Judaism in Jesus’ day was a seamless garment of theological agreement. Outside of Jerusalem, in rugged solitude, the Essenes awaited the dawn of a new messianic age in monastic austerity. Extremist Jewish patriots, “the Zealots,” formed an active and at times lethal underground movement against the occupying Roman government. (It is interesting that one of Jesus’ Twelve is “Simon the Zealot.”) The Pharisees were a conservative bloc that resisted the encroachment of Greek modern thought into traditional Jewish norms and practices. Scribes were entrusted with copying and preserving the literal texts of the Law; one could refer to them as the experts of the Law, though Pharisees would contest that because they considered themselves the strictest and most detailed observers of the Law.
The Sadducees for their part represented the highest element, the aristocracy, of Jerusalem society. The Sadducees were entrusted with care of the temple, and my impression is that their major priority was stability—maintaining a status quo with the Romans and the Herodian puppet kingship. In Sunday’s Gospel Luke highlights one of the conservative beliefs of the Sadducees, denial of an immortal soul and life after death, both to set up the story and to illustrate the attempts of every segment of mainstream Judaism to somehow “take down” the credibility of Jesus. Joel Green points out that the focus of the battle here is not simply doctrinal—i.e., whether there is life after death—but rather, who is the legitimate interpreter of the Scripture, with Jesus invoking both Moses and the Patriarchs to buttress his argument.
Green contends that the Sadducees’ original question is whether Jesus believed the teaching of Moses, for they set up this tale of seven widowhoods, so to speak, as a logical consequent of Moses’ teaching. This is a trap: if Jesus holds to life after death, then Mosaic law would appear inadequate. Jesus’ response turns this narrative from a contest over who is most obedient to Moses, to who grasps the true understanding of Moses. (p. 718) The specific law raised by the Sadducees is Deuteronomy 25:5, but Green notes that the standard interpretation of the Law, now institutionalized, gave the widow no choice in the matter. The question put to Jesus raises another point: if they grant the idea of life after death, does the Mosaic Law apply even then, or would Jesus dare replace it with his own reckonings?
Jesus draws a contrast between the “children of this age” and those worthy of the age to come. This is Luke’s typical way of dividing the true believer in future glory from those caught up in the cares of this world. In this instance, the Sadducees would fall into the latter category. They would have no base of understanding of the new age of the Kingdom, and thus how inconsequential their marital scenario would be. Jesus then connects the true believers with the authoritative words of Moses himself, who in his encounter with the burning bush understands God to be the Lord of the living. Jesus’ argument is essentially that the Hebrew God is a God of life in the fullest sense, including beyond the grave. The Sadducee position is not only wrong; it is contrary to the mind and faith of Moses.
This episode is preceded in Chapter 20 by a direct question about Jesus’ own authority, a parable on Jerusalem’s unfaithful leadership, and Jesus’ attitude toward obeying Caesar. It is followed by a Jewish challenge to the Messiah’s authority, a condemnation by Jesus of the scribes, and then next week’s Chapter 21 regarding the end of the world. The stormy arrival of God’s kingdom, marked by travails and battles, is indeed at hand.