November 6, 2016-Proper 27 (Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)

October 7, 2016 | by David J. Lull

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 Luke 20:27-38 Job 19:23-27a Psalm 17:1-9

For All Saints’ Day, see my commentary for November 6, 2016.

This Sunday’s readings invite reflection about “life after death”—not just physical death but also other kinds of death, like national tragedies, social injustice, and environmental disasters.

(Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are adapted from the NRSV.)

Haggai 2:1-9

I want to begin with an excerpt from another resource I recommend: Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen (eds.), Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, 3 vols. covering Years A, B, and C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 2011, and 2012 respectively).

Haggai directly addresses people who are rebuilding their lives in the face of catastrophic loss…. The exiles have returned home from Babylonian captivity, sent by the Persian monarch [Cyrus] to rebuild the temple. After a first attempt in 537 BCE (Ezra 3:7-12), the returnees stopped reconstruction due to poverty and hostility from the Samaritan population, followed by political instability in the Persian Empire…. [Writing in 520 BCE,] Haggai warns that lethargy in temple rebuilding and delay in making God’s house the highest priority is directly linked to drought, lack of provision, and ongoing poverty, though these conditions lead the people to hear God’s voice and show reverence for God. God’s promise, “I am with you,” shows that God is with them fully without the building, enabling the people to work in earnest (1:13-14).

[Bob Ekblad, “Proper 27,” Year C (2012), 470.]

These ancient Judeans were no different from their neighbors, who built temples to house their gods. They, like everyone else, believed they would court disaster if they didn’t honor their patron deity. The common belief was that, whatever their condition was, God was behind it, rewarding their faithful reverence and punishing their unfaithful neglect of proper reverence. They were taught, “Honor your god and you will live, be safe from your enemies, and prosper!” They believed their god was “with them” in thick and thin, in sickness and in health, in times of wealth and in times of poverty. They trusted that good times would always follow bad times, provided they demonstrated their reverence for and fidelity to their patron deity.

The “good news” in this preaches! People of faith know that God is “with” them—always and all the time! The ministries of synagogues, churches, and mosques embody, in palpable ways, God’s otherwise invisible and yet real presence. Proclaim God’s presence in the task of recovering from the ravages of war, in the struggle for social and economic justice, and in the movement to slow down, and even stop, the race toward the destruction of life on our planet. In all these good works, God is with us every bit as much as God was present when life first emerged, when each of us was born, and indeed throughout our lives! God is even with us after we die, for then we will be with God!

Part of Haggai’s prophetic message, however, is “bad news.” The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples asks God, “Deliver us from evil!” In effect, it asks God not to behave like other gods who punish the irreverent by visiting evil on them. Preachers who interpreted 9/11, Katrina, and the Orlando Pulse nightclub as God’s punishment for a nation and communities who, in their view, had turned away from God’s commandments would have us worship a god who is like the ancient tyrannical, vengeful gods of the eastern Mediterranean! Instead, we pray to Jesus’ God who, like a kind and gentle Abba, “forgives us” and keeps us from “temptation” and “evil”!

The truth in this “bad news” is that repeated, life-long behavior inconsistent with God’s aims and purposes, whether systemically in the structure of societies or in the lives of individuals, will have disastrous consequences, as history shows. Consistent, centuries-long mistreatment of our planet, God’s beloved creation—its air, land, water, and all living things—is heading toward catastrophe. The worship of wealth and national power has led to the downfall of many ancient and modern empires. It is not that God causes disasters, but that un- and anti-godly values and behavior lead to disasters. God doesn’t “lead us into temptation” and bring “evil” upon us; un- and anti-godly values and behavior do! God’s aims and purposes seek to deliver us from “temptation” and “evil.”

Finally, the lectionary invites us to segue from Haggai’s vision of a restored temple in Jerusalem (v. 9) to the thread that runs through the rest of this Sunday’s readings: namely, to consider whether Haggai’s vision might also be a metaphor of resurrection. The lectionary invites us to consider how God’s loving care in this life continues as extravagantly and unimaginably in “the next life” as Haggai imagined the contrast between the temple’s present, faded “glory” and its promised “splendor.” The splendor of “eternal life,” “life after death,” “resurrection” surpasses anything we have experienced in this life!

Psalm 145:1-5 & 17-21

The psalmist praises God’s justice and faithfulness to all God’s promises as assurance

that God’s love does not cease when a person, or any living thing, dies. In addition, the psalmist is certain that “every living thing will bless God’s holy name forever and always” (v. 21 CEB; compare v. 1). This faith is not just for persons who are at the end of their lives; it is also for those who feel powerless, hopeless, and unloved in the face of adversity. They might be comforted if someone would but show them God is “great” (v. 3) and God’s works are “amazing” (v. 5), “just,” and “kind” (v. 17). How can “one generation” declare “God’s mighty acts” to another generation (v. 4)? By loving, not hateful, words; by loving presence, not hostility; by working for their release from the prisons of incarceration, poverty, and other forms of injustice. Then they might know what the psalmist knows, that God is “close to everyone who sincerely cries out to God” (v. 18), seeks their deliverance (v. 19), and “watches over all who love God” (v. 20a). Listen to some of verses of this psalm that the lectionary omitted:

The LORD is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The LORD is good to all,

and God’s compassion is over all that God has made. [vv. 8-9]

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,

and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

The LORD is faithful in all his words,

and gracious in all his deeds.

The LORD upholds all who are falling,

and raises up all who are bowed down. [vv. 13-14]’

What about v. 20b (“God will destroy all the wicked”)? First, the inclusive “all” undercuts any presumption that God will destroy other wicked people, or wicked people of other tribes and nations, but not us when we or our people are wicked.

Second, the question is whether or in what sense we should affirm the psalmist’s belief that God is a destroyer of the wicked. Those who are afflicted by the wicked—the poor, victims of war and other forms of violence, especially racial and other hate crimes might find comfort in the belief that the wicked bear the full brunt of God’s judgment, at least in God’s mind (or eschatologically, if you prefer). So much the more if people in a position to do so respond to God’s judgment on the wicked by taking effective action to mitigate, or even stop or prevent, the harm the wicked want to do to others. For some, it might be enough that God’s judgment is effective “in heaven,” but others might hope that it will also be effective “on earth”!

Praising God for executing severe judgment on the wicked, as the psalmist does, can at

least have several benefits. It can call us to pay attention to God’s watchfulness over those suffer from the harm that the wicked inflict on them. It can serve as a warning not to become one of the wicked. And it can remind us that God alone has the sovereign task to impose severe judgment on the wicked in whatever way is faithful to God’s merciful and just character. We can also affirm with Ezekiel that God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked”; rather, God prefers that “the wicked change their behavior and live” (33.11). However, Ezekiel is clear that, if the wicked do not change their behavior, they shall die! Although God takes no pleasure in it, God nevertheless will destroy the unrepentant among wicked. God-the-destroyer of the unrepentant among wicked also appears in the New Testament (compare, e.g., the many times in Matthew when the wicked of various kinds are cast in outer darkness; 2 Thessalonians; and Revelation).

Both Testaments, however, also accent God’s forgiveness and loving kindness. Nowhere is that accent stronger than in what Jesus says, on the cross, to his unrepentant executioners: “Abba, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Lk 23.34). Even if early scribes added this saying, based on Stephen’s dying words about his executioners, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them” (Acts 7.60), it testifies to a fundamental belief in Jesus’ witness to God’s radically inclusive loving kindness, even toward “enemies” (Lk 6.27-36). Also radically inclusive is Paul’s “all,” where he says, Christ “died for all” (2 Cor 5.14-15), “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they [all] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3.23-24), and “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5.6). This unconditional “all” means all!

Finally, earlier I emphasized the phrase “forever and ever” in v. 21. Now I want to focus on “every living thing will bless God’s holy name forever and always” (CEB). “What would it be like to live out of this radical inclusive word ‘all,’ which subverts all us-them distinctions that empower destructive scapegoating?” [Ekblad, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year C, 473.] For example, this radically inclusive “all” means that all three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) “bless God’s holy name.” The same radically inclusive “all” appears in the previous verse: God “watches over all who love God” (v. 20a). That means all, without exception: Jews, Christians, and Muslims who love God. This “all” is even more radically universal, because the Hebrew word, traditionally translated “flesh,” includes “everything” (see the CEB) that has the breath of life in it (Gen 6.17)—namely, human beings and every other kind of animal, and even all plant life (Gen 6.12-13, 17, 19; 7.4). Would the human race have restrained its consumption of every living thing and the earth’s precious resources if the prevailing belief was that every living thing will bless God’s holy name forever and always” (CEB)? Our planet might not be headed for catastrophe! Is it too late to listen to this ancient, prescient environmental sage?

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 & 13-17

Some of us do not share this ancient author’s apocalyptic scenario that says a “rebellion” led by “the lawless one,” who is “destined for destruction,” will precede Christ’s arrival (παρουσία, parousia) to judge the world at the end of this age (vv. 1-3). God’s judgment does not wait until the end of this age. It is immediate and specific for every event, from the subatomic level to the global and cosmic. God also judges the entire planet—indeed, the entire universe—constantly, one nanosecond after another. (In technical process theology terms, this is the interplay of the “consequent” and “primordial” aspects of God.) In that sense, “the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1), as a symbol of God’s judgment of the world, is constant and continuous.

Also, in our world, we have seen, and continue to see, evidence of “rebellion” led by many who are “lawless”! We might even agree that “the Lawless One” has been “revealed.” Prophetic economists are telling us “the Lawless One” is rigged global capitalism, which has created an income gap in nearly all countries, resulting in uprisings, which in turn generate endless wars to protect the interests of the wealthy. [See, e.g., Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2014).] Rigged global capitalism is also responsible for massive, worldwide destruction of the environment necessary for supporting life on our planet. Rigged global capitalism, “the Lawless One,” is “destined for destruction”! We can hope its destruction comes in time to save our planet from destruction! If it does, we can say that the constant “arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ” will have inspired the masses to listen to God’s judgment. God’s judgment cannot accomplish the destruction of “the Lawless One” alone. The masses have to listen to God!

We can also affirm that, as “our Lord Jesus Christ” constantly “arrives,” everyone is always “being gathered together to be with him” (v. 1). No one needs to wait for an apocalyptic scenario to unfold in history. Christ, the “Second Person” of God’s Triune Love, “gathers together with him” everyone, everywhere, always, and at all times. If you insist on a timeline, Christ is with everyone to the end of this cosmic epoch. The promise that, in Christ, everyone is “gathered together to be with him” is a way to affirm that God takes care that no one and no thing is lost, and that God redeems everyone and every thing.

Furthermore, this apocalyptic vision suggests that God’s judgment creatively transforms all that is wrong in today’s world. The evil-doers of this world are not its masters; rather, God has made Jesus Christ the world’s “Lord.” God promises those who love and believe in “the truth” (i.e., the gospel) participation in “the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14) This “glory” refers, not to “honor” (as in the CEB), but to the “brightness, splendor, radiance” of God, into which the risen Christ has been transformed. In other words, the end of life in Christ is participation in God’s glorious nature—not just in the next life (resurrection) but also in this life (compare 1 Corinthians 15).

Luke 20:27-38

According to Acts 23.8 and Josephus, a Pharisee and historian of Judaism and the Judean revolt against Roman rule in 66-70 CE, the Sadducees, who were elites involved in the management of the temple, denied the resurrection, because they accepted only the authority of the written Torah (i.e., not the prophets or writings), whereas the Pharisees, who were among the common people, affirmed it, on the basis of interpretations of “the law and prophets” (e.g., Dan12.2-3) handed down in oral traditions. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul, a Pharisee, rejected both resuscitation and the immortality of the human spirit, and proposed a third view, namely, the transformation of flesh and blood persons into immortal Spirit-persons, like the deified risen Christ.

The view of resurrection in today’s Gospel reading has four parts. The first is the phrase “those who have been considered worthy to participate in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead” (v. 35a). Here the καὶ (kai), which most translations render “and,” does not introduce “in the resurrection from the dead” as something in addition to “in the age to come” [for τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου (tou aiōnos ekeinou), “that age,” see BDAG αἰών, aiōv 2,b and ἐκεῖνος, ekeinos b,β, ב]. Rather, it introduces an explanation that is tantamount to an equation: “… participation in the age to come, that is [or, ‘in other words’], in the resurrection from the dead.”

Having cleared that up, we can now consider the surprising restriction of participation in the resurrection to “those who have been considered worthy.” Participation in the resurrection from the dead, according to this saying, is neither automatic nor universal. The passive voice implies that God is the one who decides who is “worthy.” This is God’s sovereign role as the final judge before whom everyone and everything is accountable. The measurements of worthiness are not specified in this saying, but we can infer the criteria from teachings in this Gospel by John the Baptist and Jesus. No one should trust their own judgments either about themselves or about others. Rather, trust only in God’s faithfulness to make merciful and just judgments.

The second part is the statement that “those who have been considered worthy to participate … in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (v.35b). Before we turn to the explanation in v. 36, we should consider how it contrasts with a popular belief and hope that, in the resurrection, family members would be reunited. This saying will disappoint family members who want to be reunited. It will make those who don’t want to be reunited happy! I know of no church dogmas in this area. Even most, if not all, Christians who otherwise consider the Bible inerrant choose to disagree with Jesus here! So believe what you like about the future of families in the resurrection.

The third part is the two-part explanation why, in the resurrection, there are no marriage partners: “for they can’t die anymore, for they are like angels, that is, they are children of God, because they are children of the resurrection” (v. 36). The first explanation is that “they can’t die anymore”; that is, they have become immortal! That implies that the purpose of marriage is to ensure one’s future through one’s progeny and the survival of the human race, by giving birth to children. Those who participate in the resurrection from the dead “can’t die anymore,” which means their future is secure forever, so they have no need for a marriage partner. If that kind of life after death sounds too lacking in intimacy, and if that view of marriage sounds too limited, take issue with it! Remember, this saying is part of a rigged polemic against Sadducees, in which the terms for the debate are taken from Jewish Levirate marriage law (Deut 25.5-6). Therefore, what this text says about marriage is meant for that context. It is not meant for our quite different context.

The next part of v. 36 (“for they are like angels, that is, they are children of God, because they are children of the resurrection”) explains that, “like angels,” the “children of the resurrection” (i.e., those who participate in the resurrection from the dead) are “children of God.” This parent/child metaphor means that God is their creative—non-sexual reproductive—and loving parent, giving them new life in the resurrection, just at God was their “Abba in heaven” giving them life in their first birth. Also, just as children share their parents’ nature (e.g., DNA, personalities), “children of God” share in God’s nature, which throughout the Bible is called “glory.” They are immortal and radiant. Beyond these metaphors and image, we are left with, and must be satisfied with, a holy mystery!

The fourth part (vv. 37-38) is the real core of the matter. “Even Moses himself made it known that the dead are raised,” when he spoke of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 3:6), “for to God they are all alive.” This is a clever, decisive rebuttal of the Sadducees’ position, because it appeals to Moses in the Torah. Besides, what Jew would deny that the patriarchs of Israel are yet alive?

However, this answer seems to open up a new and complex conundrum. Whether this is an authentic saying of Jesus or not (the Jesus Seminar was evenly divided), if I get a chance to meet Jesus face to face, I have a lot of questions for him! Is this statement only about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about the rest of us who will die, and all the past and future dead? In spite of Lk 20.38, “God is not God of the dead,” isn’t God also God of the dead? Aren’t they also alive “to God”? Also, what about today’s belief that death is a “natural part of life”? If God is only God for the living, does God have a problem with death? What does God have against death and the dead?

One thing is clear, the statements in vv. 35-36 assume that everyone whom God considers “worthy” will participate in the resurrection of the dead. That includes Israel’s patriarchs, but is not at all limited to them. Remember, also, that God is the exclusive and sovereign judge of the scope of who is included in “everyone who is worthy.” Therefore, no one should presume they know who is in and who is out! Trust in God’s just judgment, no matter what anyone thinks about you or anyone else. The biblical witness is clear about God’s faithfulness not to give anyone up forever to the place of the dead, “Sheol” (e.g., see Psa 16.10).

This story “offers a ‘great consolation’ (Calvin) to all who have lost a loved one, to all who suffer. For them the continuing life of the deceased is rooted in God’s being and not in an uncertain human survival attached to memories, merits, or even to the immortality of the soul” (François Bovon, Luke 3 [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012], 78, with my italics).

David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and was the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock); and, with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others, Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). In 2010, he published a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” (Religious Studies Review 36/4: 251-62).