Image: Orthodox Icon of the Transfiguration.
‘Life and how to live it’
Ordinary Sunday 32, Year C
Job 19:23-27a; Luke 20:27-38
On the altar-table (and on screen) we have an Icon of the Transfiguration. The icon shows Moses and Elijah “alive” with Jesus, just as Moses, in the Exodus passage about the burning bush, encounters the God of Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah and Rachel and Jacob … Today’s gospel invites reflection on physical and spiritual vitality – on living traditions, life-affirming imagination and life-giving respect.
We might ponder these things in terms of the Sadducees, the priestly class – “conservative, aristocratic … worldly-minded and ready to cooperate with the Romans, which, of course, enabled them to maintain their privileged position” (Leon Morris).
Jesus is teaching in the temple precinct – he is stirring things up. The Redeemer and Vindicator of the oppressed is a threat. The establishment makes the rules, sets the parameters on life and how to live it. There is order. There is hierarchy. There is also a great deal of fear – fear of the Romans, of an uprising, of divine judgement, of death.
The levirate marriage laws the Sadducees cite appeal to men frightened of their own mortality.
“Taking” a deceased brother’s widow ensures that his name lives on. Ensures that his property remains in the family. The scenario described would have stirred up some panic. What sins have cursed the family so? What mysterious powers this woman must possess!
In the first century, as in subsequent times, this kind of patriarchal code/control could claim to have a woman’s best interests at heart – she needs looking after. Really? Whose physical and spiritual vitality is of paramount concern?
The eyes of the establishment are often blind to those who serve their needs – those who labour, those whose lives are harsher and shorter, those who give birth to builders, miners, soldiers, artists, entertainers …
We read the gospel alive to issues of class and gender – in our own time. Through tears for Mahsa Amini and all who suffer under patriarchal and kyriarchal systems. Alongside all who strive for equal employment and education opportunities … for right relationships and marriage reforms … for fair representation in government, in community and religious leadership, in the arts …
Things are changing but establishment mores are resistant to change.
The Sadducees’ attempt to ridicule Jesus is echoed in contemporary ridicule of “hysterical feminists”, “resentful class warriors”, “tree huggers and ferals”, and so on.
The establishment is ever threatened by alternatives to mainstream values. It will seek to ridicule and destroy.
I’ve experienced this – I’m sure you have too – watching commercial television, listening to popular music, in the street, at the beach … I’ve experienced it within family contexts and within the church. I’ve known the fear it engenders and I’ve pondered the fear it masks.
I don’t want to live in fear. I want to be free to ask questions. I want the enjoyment of respectful relationships, equality. I want the peace of abundance – not the anxiety of entitlement and scarcity. I want to engage with others in a living tradition – in search of understanding, wisdom, full humanity, bliss, the beatific vision! Why not?
The Sadducees, like most religious conservatives, limit revelation to just a few texts. In their case it was the Torah, the five books ascribed to Moses. Not for them the various written and oral commentaries on Torah. Not for them the psalms or the prophets, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, or the stories of Ruth, Tobit or Job.
Something happens when we shut down tradition like this (when we confuse tradition with calcification). There’s a lot of fear and denial. For a start, we deny our own part in the tradition – I’m speaking as a survivor of evangelical conservatism now – the gospels did not arrive from heaven but arose in conversation. The gospels arose in settings just like ours. The Word of God is an event – the Word becomes flesh – historical, cultural, sensual, ecological … becomes life-sustaining Bread!
What’s exciting is the sheer multi-sensory, poly-phonic, inter-textual nature of living tradition – it is creative to the core and open to new possibilities, always.
Sometimes our religious language gets tired – hard and narrow.
I’m not sure our gospel is about life after death in any conventional sense – Gnostic or medieval Catholic. It’s not about more of the same life. It’s not about extending the world as we know it.
I think it’s about religious imagination (“How my heart yearns within me!”) and faith’s passion for a world to come – a world where men, women and non-binary persons are free of the fearful and possessive grasp of others, where people are free to marry or not to marry, where people are assured of their own worth, their own gifts, their own place in the tradition, in the community and family of God.
I think it’s about a world in which bushes burn with divine light, waters carry life from country to country, and creatures shine with their own God-given brilliance. Life-giving respect … on earth as it is in heaven.
Grasped by this kind of other-worldliness, I believe, we are closer to the Christ at risk of ridicule and we are closer to the Christ for whom “all are alive”.
Resurrection from the dead means freedom with Christ from all that diminishes life in love – freedom from all scapegoating and death-dealing. Resurrection means freedom with Christ for all that promotes life in love – freedom for all kinds of hoping and flourishing. It means, as Paul says, “standing firm” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
How does the refrain “All are alive to God” revive or relieve your imagination? … Amen.