A missionary meets a cannibal

Week of Sunday November 20 – Pentecost 25  The end of the line? is the 2019 reflection on this text, and continues its line of thinking.
Gospel: Luke:20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

Ecclesiastes 3:9-15

What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

A missionary meets a cannibal, and it does not go well. He is eaten. But the cannibal is so impressed by the demeanour of the missionary as he awaits death, that he is converted. So how will these two be raised from the dead? Part of the missionary would have to be part of the cannibal! This was the gist of an atheist pamphlet which triumphantly concluded it had so ridiculed the notion of resurrection, and its logical knots and impossibilities, that I could not possibly continue to believe.

A similar argument is being used by the Pharisees against Jesus in the Luke reading for this week. They are confident they have exposed the notion of resurrection for the stupidity which it is.

Jesus tells them they have completely missed the point. Yes, they have outlined the custom of Levirate marriage, which was a way of ensuring the continuance of the family line, even if they use an extreme example. To make sure his family line was continued if a man died, his brother provided an heir with the surviving wife. (This is all defined in terms of the male, of course.)  Jesus disputes none of it.

But the Sadducees assume in their argument that resurrection life is of the same quality, or same order, as our present life. They expect people will marry, for example. Their argument depends on this. They are wrong, according to Jesus, because the life of the resurrection will be fundamentally different. "They neither marry, nor are given in marriage." The Sadducees have made a category mistake.

Jesus' answer is so good in its context that even the scribes of the Pharisees appreciate it. There is a power struggle between Jesus and the religious authorities going on in the Temple in this part of Luke, (19:45-21:38) but for a moment he wins the scribes over. They recognise he is on their side in the controversy over the reality of resurrection.

So what is resurrection? We can see that there is a problem with treating it as being of the same qualitative order as this life; it makes no sense. Jesus also understood it as different to life now. "They neither marry, nor are given in marriage … they do not die because they are angels and children of God, being children of resurrection."

Resurrection is about a new kind of life in every respect. Bill Loader says

The Pharisees embraced the idea of resurrection from the dead. It was a way of putting flesh on hope, so to speak, in days when justice in this world seemed irretrievable. The righteous would surely be rewarded; they will surely be raised from the dead. Otherwise life does not make sense. Others included the obverse side of the coin: those who perpetrate injustice must be brought to account. It is clearly not going to happen in this life; then they will have to be raised from the dead and brought to trial. Resurrection from the dead and judgement are commonly linked. Such ideas may have developed under the influence of Persian thought; they were also a way of trying to make sense of the hope which Israel wanted to espouse, based on the face that God is a liberator. Jesus and his movement belong in the circles which espoused such notions.

We Christians have made resurrection a centrepiece in our talking about God. We say with Paul, "19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."  (1 Cor 15:9)

We hear the story of the cannibal and the missionary, and similar arguments, and instinctively say, "No that's not right. You've missed the point." But what is the point? When we say resurrection, there is also a sense that we do not know what we are saying. Resurrection is speculation. No one comes back to tell us what it is.

It is clear Paul thought resurrection life and the resurrection body are something fundamentally different from this life; its' noteworthy that he tries to say very little about it except that. Jesus is the same: resurrection life is not the same as now. "They are like angels, they are like children of God…" but he doesn't define that.

If we try and put more detail on what resurrection means, and what resurrection is after death, we are likely to make the same mistake as the Sadducees, and as the Atheist with his story of the cannibal and the missionary. We are bound to be making some kind of category mistake. We are bound to be talking non-sense, because experientially we have no idea, and we can have no idea, what it is we are talking about. We are simply speculating.

According to some philosophies, such as Logical Positivism, we can't talk about resurrection at all, because it's not testable. Therefore there is nothing to say. Whatever we might say is pure meaningless speculation.

Whatever we might think of this argument as Christians, the understanding of reality which argues for the nonsensical nature of resurrection is part of us. It's 'in the air we breathe.' It informs our 'bullshit meters.' There will be a sizeable proportion of any congregation, who although they may not be able to quite articulate why, will be somewhat skeptical of anything we say about resurrection.

And some of them, especially those who are struggling with their faith, or a newly come to church, will hear what we are saying as ridiculous, and rightly question, therefore, whether  everything else we are saying is also ridiculous. For others, or course, resurrection is central to the Faith.

How can we address it meaningfully and pastorally?

Ultimately resurrection is about trust in the goodness of God. The idea developed at that time when life was so despairing, and so irretrievably bad that there seemed to be no hope at all. In the intertestamental period the people if Israel often found life almost impossible. Yet God was still real to them even in the midst of the immense suffering of the timeof the Maccabees. The only way for some of them to resolve the contradiction between the absolute injustice of their world and their conviction of the justice and the love of the God, was to postulate that there would be another resurrected life when things would be set right . Those who had been faithful and just would be rewarded at last.  It was also only reasonable, many concluded, that those who had not been faithful and just, would be punished.

So in its genesis resurrection reflects a thirst for justice, and a hope and trust that God is just rather than arbitrary and unfair, or totally powerless.

We should say this. We should be upfront and say that in the beginning and before anything else, resurrection is a trust in the love of God. Indeed, often it will only be 'hope against hope.' If we only hope for a better life for the world and live for that, we believe in the resurrection. We can doubt and even have days of disbelief.

There is something else.  You cannot prove to me there is a resurrection which is some kind of life after death. There is no proof. It cannot be coherently argued. But I can be convinced that God is trustworthy, and that God loves me, and therefore, on that basis, I can meaningfully hypothesise that there may be this thing called resurrection.

In actual fact it's a bit more subtle than that. In testing, in searching out and in finding the love of God, my need and desire for life after death has faded. It does not seem so unlikely, strangely enough. But neither does it seem so important. For God is the God not of the dead but of the living, as Jesus said. There is something about God which comes back into life now, we might even call it 'resurrection now.'

There's a whole lot about the love of God that is testable, that's actual, and that's observable. When I gave up on all the speculative stuff, all the stuff I simply couldn't believe in because it was mere hypothesis with no prospect of being proved, all the metaphysical stuff if you like, it left me with only one thing I could do, which was to try and live as Jesus lived. I literally began literally to experiment with compassion, with love, with service, with generosity, with forgiveness, and these things changed me and changed the way I saw life. I began to see that although the way of the cross is painful, and sometimes deadly, it is also real, powerful and transformative. I discovered that the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, this person who went doing good in a strikingly different way, is not speculative, it is thoroughly grounded and able to be experienced. It is real.

And the strange thing about all this was that the speculative or metaphysical bits of theology— the stuff we can't test, and have to take on trust—gained their own authenticity and authority. It no longer took an effort, and a blind eye to philosophy and experience, to believe. There was something obvious about it. In crass terms, it began to work. I found it meant something. And so I changed from someone who said there is no possible way that there can be resurrection from the dead, because the mind and our consciousness resides in the working material biological substance of the brain, and when the brain dies so the mind must die. I went from that fact to two understandings.

Firstly, I was no longer anxious whether I would live after death or not; it is no longer an issue. For God truly became "the God of the living." And I think that experience might be summed up in the words 'resurrection now.' I experience something of the new life now.

But the second thing is this: whilst on the one hand I still say that scientifically there is no evidence for life after death, for resurrection, and whilst I can't even imagine a possible process or mechanism whereby it might happen, I have a new appreciation of the world. Living the Jesus Life has enriched my experience of reality, in terms of relating as a person, of thinking theologically, and of thinking as a scientist so much, that now when the scientific method-- which has a very limited purview of reality says life after death / resurrection is not possible, I say, "Yes it does seem like that, but I am suspicious that this conclusion is 'a little bit quick'." It's a little bit too easy and tidy and convenient for the reality I know. For a science which barely knows how to define consciousness, let alone understand how it works, to say categorically that it cannot exist after death, is total hubris.

And I am content with this; Life now, and perhaps, life later. For God is a God of the living. I've always been intrigued by the statement in Ecclesiastes," I know there is nothing better for them to enjoy themselves and be happy as long as they live." It's a refrain throughout the book, although I'm quoting the instance in chapter 3.

I could never quite grasp the peace of that state; how it worked. I was more attune since a very early age to Ecclesiastes' other statement that "all is vanity." I saw no hope for anything, and struggled to find meaning in anything. Perhaps resurrection, first of all, is that I have begun to be content with this life. I find it good. I suspect, all things considered, that there might be something more; I wouldn't be surprised. But if there is not, despite Paul saying we of all people are to be most pitied if we don't believe in the resurrection, I have begun to feel that there is resurrection now, for God truly has been a God of the the living. God has touched me. I have been given resurrection now. For this I thank God. And if there is more— fantastic!

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Online resources I found helpful for this study are:
Bill Loader First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Pentecost 25
Brian Stoffregen  - Luke 20:27-38   Proper 27 - Year C

I have previously covered this text in Luke 20:27-40 - Kingdom and Resurrection.  Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!



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