Saturday, November 5, 2016

Reductio ad absurdum in Jerusalem

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C


All the readings this morning hold the sense an ending: rightly so; the church is near the end of the liturgical year and approaching the cusp of something new.  In the wake of All Saints Day and the Feast of All Souls, we look toward the action and purpose of God in our world and in our lives across all time and space.

In the book of Haggai, a minor prophet, we catch a glimpse of the prophet speaking to the people in a difficult time.  This is a precise moment in time – the people are no longer in exile in Babylon but back in Jerusalem, but the city is a shadow of what it used to be: there are hostile neighbours and all work on rebuilding the temple has stopped.  In this climate of uncertainty, anxiety and fear, Haggai repeats the ancient promise of God that dates back to the Exodus from Egypt: “Take courage, work, for I am with you.”  We can look back and we find that Haggai’s message was heard and responded to: the work on the temple resumed and by about 515 BC the temple was completed.   Where hope and vision had been lost, where the community had become paralysed by anxiety, they are reassured by Haggai’s message and so radically refocused that they can move forward as a people.

Hundreds of years later, in the fragment from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica we also catch a glimpse of a community going through a difficult time.  This little Christian community was riddled by uncertainty as to what to believe: is the end of the world coming now or are they to wait?  There are ‘fear merchants’ predicting disaster and the end of all things: secular writers, warning of disaster and point to storms and earthquakes; religious leaders confuse them similarly.  How can one live in such times?  Paul is very clear: he takes this little church back to the God in whom we trust – we are held in God’s care and our task is to trust, to live confidently, to work confidently – and to not be shaken. 

We might all identify with the anxieties of the Thessalonians: we watch the coverage of the American elections; we ponder Trump and Clinton, we contemplate the hopelessness of the wars in Iraq and Syria – the tragedy that is Aleppo; we see the trauma of refugees, camping in the streets of Europe or risking hazardous journeys; we know a world where employment opportunities are shrinking and where financial inequity is rampant and increasing.  Yes, it is hard not to be shaken and we may feel like asking the question, how is it possible to live in such times?

In the gospel this morning our distinctively human and deepest anxiety about life and what it means is drawn to the surface.  It is focussed about the fact of our mortality.

In Jerusalem Jesus is challenged by the powerful religious establishment of the time, Pharisees and Sadducees.   These two groups had their theological differences: the Pharisees believed in a resurrection; the Sadducees did not; so they were sad, you see!

The Sadducees challenge Jesus with the question of the resurrection – is there life beyond death? –they present him with a proposition that makes the question look ridiculous.  They clearly know that the best way to discredit an idea is to have everyone laugh at it.  So, they raise the Mosaic tradition that stipulates brothers are to marry their brother’s childless widow and raise children for their brother: seven brothers die childless; then the woman who has married them all; so, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?  Philosophically this looks like the argument philosophers call reduction ad absurdum.   It’s a fine joke but the real humour and the irony rest with Jesus: the Sadducees have got it all wrong – the proposition falters because this life is not that life; this reality is not that reality.  This reality that we cling to so tenaciously now (this life) is just the threshold of another dimension entirely.

This other dimension is to where all these readings draw us: in Haggai a dispirited society has lost sight of its spiritual roots and is paralysed by fear – but they have to grasp that God is still with them and there is work for them to do – now.  In Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians, the believers are overwhelmed by uncertainty, is this the end of days and what should they do?  Paul says, get a grip – trust God; live as people of faith are meant to live.  In the gospel, the aristocratic cultivated Sadducees, sneering at the silly idea of the resurrection, try to intimidate Jesus – and in effect Jesus says you know nothing – reality is more than you can ever imagine.

I have in my mind’s eye an icon of the resurrection: it shows Christ stepping into the void and hauling men and women from their graves and drawing them into life.  Of course we don’t understand it – we can’t – but the image speaks more powerfully than any words.  This is He whom we follow.

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