Scripture for this Sunday: Job 19.23–27a; Psalm 17.1–8; 2 Thessalonians 2.1–5, 13–17; Luke 20.27–38
Presented with a rather ludicrous question by a group of Sadducees, Jesus turns an enigma on its head; rather than redefine marriage, he redefines death – or rather life, in terms of God’s power.
What he says, and the way that he says it, is a reminder that we do not own one another – and are not meant to. We are entrusted to one another – on loan, as it were – and we might approach one another as if each of us presents opportunities to serve and nourish what has been given to us. How would our way of being be changed if we started each day by asking: “What can I do each day to justify being given this person in my life?” This can go beyond spouses, or even children, to all those given to us in friendship and love.
What Jesus says to the Sadducees actually goes well beyond redefining marriage. Jesus in fact defines God as the power of life; even those presumed by humans to have gone away in death are in fact alive in God, who owns all, living and dead. God’s ownership also transcends all human possession, especially attempts to control people through the agency of empire, whether the ancient empires of nation and country, or the modern empires of multinationals and corporations.
This is relevant background to the reading from 2 Thessalonians. I don’t believe that Paul saw himself as a prophet; he was an apostle, sent to proclaim the gospel, but well schooled in Hebrew scripture, which would have formed the foundation for his understanding of the gospel. As such, he would have been well aware of the prophetic passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. And he would, no doubt, have used them as illustration for the power of God – especially over all kinds of empire.
Much of what passes into the New Testament as prophetic literature owes its origins to the Jewish prophets, especially the book of Daniel. His interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was rooted in an understanding of the empires that had taken hold of Judea, ruled successively by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.
But the context of such prophecies shifts with Jesus, as part of the change in emphasis in the relationship between humans and God that arises in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. What really matters is the climax of the interpretation, intended to be read by any and all who are persecuted and in danger. What the prophecies convey is that all kingdoms fall, in the end, to the rule of God. That is what people living at the whim of possession of a tyrant need to hear, whether the tyrant is Nebuchadnezzar or any of his more recent counterparts. God is the ultimate owner.
In making thei point to the Sadducees, it would have been nice if Jesus had explicitly stated that women are not the property of men, nor created purely to produce offspring for male dynasties. But he was dealing with small-minded men and had to take one step at a time.
The desire to possess is at the root of much human evil and suffering. In this context, as we approach Remembrance Day, we might ponder the role of possessiveness in the origins of wars.
What Jesus tells us, in words framed around resurrection and marriage, is that in God’s kingdom, none are owned, nor are they given. They belong to God. And they always will.