Today’s gospel is one that could almost make you feel sorry for the Jewish establishment of Jesus’ day – the scribes, priests and Pharisees. It’s part of a whole chapter of “gotcha” stories, where Jesus’ opponents think they have found the perfect way to catch him out, only to find themselves outwitted every time, confounded by the breadth and depth of his understanding. It’s a bit like watching judo, the way he turns their own arguments against them. There are many stories like this, - think of the famous question about paying taxes – render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God the things which are God’s…. or the woman taken in adultery, when instead of pronouncing on the woman’s guilt Jesus forces his accusers’ attention onto their own– Let him who is without sin cast the first stone….
In all these scenarios Jesus is being challenged by people who are trying to discredit him in front of his followers and so turn the crowds against him. This time it’s the turn of the Sadducees, who, Luke very helpfully tells us, didn’t believe in resurrection or life after death and so choose to attack on that very subject. They come at him with a knotty legalistic conundrum – whose wife will the seven times married woman be in the resurrection? What does Jesus do?.… he ignores the legalism and replies with an exposition of eternity which changes the nature of the exchange entirely: they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
And he goes on, with the same authority, to resolve the Sadducees’ real issue, about life after death, by reference to Hebrew history and scripture, concluding with Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.
That’s where our gospel reading stops, but it’s worth noticing in the next verse the impact of Jesus’ powerful exposition. Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
And so we see how, whilst he may have convinced some of his opponents, he has also shown them once again how threatening he is to the established order….
There is a common theme of resurrection, the hope of eternal life, to all three of the readings set for this Remembrance Day, and you may think I’m being perverse in choosing to focus on the context and conflict surrounding the gospel reading, rather than the reassurance of Thessalonians or wonderful certainty of Job - I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.
Yes – yes of course – wonderful words, and even better if you sing them.
Words, language - one of the greatest gifts we have – enabling us to make sense of the world, to express the most complex ideas, to tell our feelings and share our grief, hope, love.
But we can see in the gospel story how language can also be used to divide… how words are not enough on their own, how they can even be traps and weapons….. and I think too that we can see all around us today the danger of using language in ways that do much less than justice to the complexity of our society, our country and its needs and aspirations – so much less than justice to our common humanity. The rhetoric of Twitter, of some electioneering, of religious intolerance, of parts of the media, spill over into all areas of life and risk corrupting, insidiously, the way we think, our very values. Louis Brandeis, an American Supreme Court Justice in the early 20thC, wrote about this:
We are not won by arguments that we can analyse, but by tone and temper; by the manner, which is the man himself.”
This is the power of words: that the way we choose to use them sets the tone and temper of our discourse, publicly and in private. Words are the tools with which we construct arguments, lay out logical, persuasive cases: but equally they can be used in ways that play on our fears and prejudices, making us vulnerable, preventing us from seeing the bigger picture, drawing us into prejudice and a meanness of understanding. The Sadducees had planned to catch Jesus out and in doing so to make him look ridiculous. Instead, his words shone a brighter light revealing a wider horizon, illuminating truth about God, truth about eternity. they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.
In a few minutes we will be making the Act of Commitment, pledging ourselves once more to serve God and mankind in the cause of peace. As we remember and give thanks for all those who have died in conflicts down the years, what can we learn from the story of Jesus and the Sadducees that will help us to honour their memory and to make wars cease…? Sounds a tall order, but each one of us has influence in our own sphere, in the places we go, the institutions we belong to or work within, with everyone whose lives we touch. We may not have millions of followers on Twitter or any public platform, but we can still make a difference. And what Jesus shows us in this story is the importance of living in the light of eternity. Of looking at each question, each situation, as children of God, members of a kingdom founded on love and therefore on equality – because as children of God we are all equally loved, by God who made each one of us unique and valued…. And that’s true of everyone we meet, see or hear about, whether they recognise it or not – and however easy or hard we find it to see the image of God in them.
So as we commit ourselves to work for peace, perhaps we can have in our hearts the awareness of all that humanity shares and not what divides us – that “the peace and welfare of the nations” is not just a matter of high policy, distant strategy, but is also built from below, from within, by lives lived in the light and love of God’s kingdom – by each one of us continually asking the question – to quote a famous wristband – WWJD?– What would Jesus do? – and listening for the answer – and obeying it. And so allowing him to change our love – for him and for one another - from a spark to a flame.