On Fire? Or Retire?

I’m not a minister, so it’s not my place to moralize, or preach – and it’s a good thing. But, I love to read the Bible. It’s alive, it’s powerful, and it speaks to us today. And, this is a pulpit. So, this morning, let’s do a short bible study on this reading, then see what it might mean for how we are living our life today, and what it might mean for tomorrow. ...Okay?

In our gospel reading this morning from Luke, the Sadducees challenged Jesus with a trick question. The Jewish law was, if a brother died leaving a wife but no child, his brother was required to take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.
The Sadducees, who did not believe in a hereafter, put the question to Jesus. If there are seven brothers and the first dies leaving his wife childless, and the second and third marry her and also die childless, and likewise all seven die childless, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be?

Jesus, of course answers them that at the resurrection we are transformed, we live again in a new way, we rise to new life as children of God. In our new glorified life we become like angels and neither marry nor are given in marriage. As Jesus answers the cynical Sadducees, he tells them they don’t understand the scriptures. Jesus calls on Moses in the passage about the burning bush, Moses describes God as “Lord, the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob and the God of Isaac.” He is God not of the dead, but of the living. Thus, their question is meaningless – if one believes Moses.

Who were these Sadducees? We usually think of the Sadducees in the same breath as another group, the Pharisees, as in “the Sadducees and the Pharisees.” But, these are two very different parties. The Pharisees were members of a deeply religious party who believed in God and the afterlife, and adhered rigidly, but literally, to the letter of the Law. They represented the spirit of mainline Judaism at the time. In he Book of Acts Paul describes himself proudly as a Pharisee. In later years after the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisees provided the intellectual leadership that evolved into Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is the overall form of Judaism today, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. So, you can think of the Pharisees as the forerunners of today’s rabbis. And, in the sense that Paul was a Pharisee as well as the man who defined and laid down the structure of Christianity, the Pharisees were also forerunners of Christianity.

The Sadducees on the other hand, claimed descent from the high priestly order of Judaism. This bunch of high priests was not popular with the Jews of Jesus time. These Sadducees cozied up to the Greek occupation two hundred years earlier when Israel was occupied by the remnants of Alexander the Great's armies. These were the Greeks the Maccabee brothers overthrew in a guerilla insurrection in 164 BC. Jews today commemorate this successful Maccabee insurrection in the December holiday of Hanukah.

The Sadducees who tried to provoke and trap Jesus in our gospel reading today were an “upper crust” group of elites who didn’t “hang out” with the common people. They were not particularly religious in the sense of “faith” or belief, but were “religious” in the literal sense of observing ritual, of wanting to preserve the rules and rituals of the Temple sacrifices and Temple worship. This was their practice and this was what gave them prestige in the community – not to speak of their income.

Over the years of the Greek occupation they had assimilated the culture of the Greeks. So while they were Jews, they were Hellenized, or Greek-thinking Jews.

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. These were very practical, very logical and reasonable men. They worked the system - to their advantage. They were in power. They had had a deal going on with the Greek occupiers, and now, ever since Pompey’s Roman armies conquered Israel in 63 BC, the Sadducees were in good position to cut deals with the Romans, and did so. Remember the high priest at the trial of Jesus saying, “Better one man should die for the nation.”?

So, think of the Sadducees as people who got along well in this life, who used the beliefs and moral codes of the common people to their personal advantage, and who were living so “high off the hog”, if we can define pagan Roman occupation that way, that these Sadducees had no interest in the idea of a life hereafter. They lived for today.

The Pharisees on the other hand, subscribed to the traditional Jewish perspective. They believed in the oracles of the prophets, the reality of God and the reality of the life hereafter. Their expectations for the Messiah were not inconsistent with the miracles and signs Jesus did, but they were still skeptical that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah. After all, the saying, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is like asking if a President can come from Arkansas.

The Pharisees were very religious, but they were zealots for the letter of the Law. In their zeal they believed in the possibility of the miraculous, but viewed from their literalist perspective, they thought miracles unlikely. In a way, they were similar to the religious fundamentalists of today. They were politically savvy, but motivated by extreme moral principles of right and wrong. And, were often guilty of hypocrisy. Jesus called out the emptiness of the Pharisees ritual behavior in Matthew and in Luke. Let me read, now that you have a context:

When he had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to a meal, and he came in and sat down. The Pharisee noticed with surprise that he had not begun by washing before the meal. But the Lord said to him, “you Pharisees clean the outside of cup and plate; but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You hypocrites! Blind Pharisee! Clean the inside of the cup first; then the outside will be clean also.”

“Alas for you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and rue and every garden herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. It is these you should have practiced, without overlooking the others.

The Pharisees were not unlike some very scrupulous religious practitioners of today, who preach one thing, but the lives they lead do not reflect their preaching. If you listen to their words, they are on fire, but watch what they do. They are retired.

The Sadducees more resembled a modern board of scientific review with potent political power. In a way, their relationship to the Roman occupation was like the puppet Vichy French government which some of you will remember from World War 2. They held power through their masters. They were pragmatists in the extreme. Not unlike much of the politically driven scientific elite of today. I sometimes think the motto of the academic scientific community is, “ If you can’t measure it, it is imaginary.” The Sadducees had no interest in miracles or signs. They simply didn’t believe in miracles or signs. Nor did they believe in a life hereafter. They embodied “worldly wisdom”, which Paul called, foolishness when compared with the Wisdom of God. The Sadducees doctrine was far more Greek than Jewish.

These two views, the Jewish view of the Pharisees and the Greek view of the Sadducees represent two polar extreme ways of looking at the world. Remember Paul’s exasperation: "The Jews look for a sign and the Greeks look for wisdom."

In a way, the situation in Israel in the year 0033 has similarities to our world in 2010. Tremendous tension and unrest in the Middle East. Armed camps aggressive on each side and the majority in the middle. Terrorists, or freedom fighters, Essenes, Zealots. World powers, Roman occupiers. The oil trade was big business – olive oil, not Arabian sweet. High explosives hadn’t been invented yet or there would have been roadside IEDs blowing up chariots.

And in the government, an uneasy coalition of argumentative extremists. The Sadducees representing the high priestly academic caste, and the Pharisees the fundamental religious caste. Acts 23 shows how Paul, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove, leverages this argument when they tried to do away with him:

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.)

There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. "We find nothing wrong with this man," they said. "What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.

Okay. Enough of the Bible study. What does this mean to us today?
The situation in Israel then sounds a little like today’s world. The words liberal and conservative were not in use then, best we know. The way to think about the choices confronting the people of Jesus time was this: Three choices, that boil down to two. And these two choices also stare us in the face today. The choices?

Be on fire – or retire.

The Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife. Here and now is what it is. Grab for the gusto of this life, take what you can, and when you get a little older or a little ahead, sit back in your Barcalounger, play a little golf, watch the Bills and the Orange, build a bigger barn for your IRA, relax your soul.

The Pharisees just didn’t know. They were believers in a life hereafter, but, who can tell when the Messiah will come. They had questions. Some legitimate, some contrived. They went to Sabbath services regularly and said all the prayers dutifully. But, even though they believed in the world to come, that there was more to life than what you see in this life, they didn’t commit. Some led good lives, others didn’t. The Pharisees held back, they were waiting – and, in my judgment, like my Rabbinic Jewish extended family, they are still waiting. These chose to retire.

Paul represents the other choice. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee who caught fire, he didn’t retire. Paul was energetic, he was committed, if at first he was wrong. And his energy, his commitment, his zeal and zest for life and meaning, gave the Lord dynamite raw material to transform this human material. The Lord transformed Paul’s energy into the sparkplug and combustive energy of the Christian Church.

Paul first had to get knocked to the ground and struck blind. But Paul got the message that he had to get to work to transform others by service and by charity and by personal commitment, and to transform the whole world by transforming himself. He didn't retire and let someone else to do the work, nor did he assume that he could sit back and let "the church" do the work of transformation and service. Paul got the message loud and blindingly clear that he had do the work of transforming himself and the world. Same goes for us. If we're passive, "the church" can't transform us, if we're holding back, transformation isn't going to happen. We have to show up for the job ourselves. God will make it possible, but He isn't doing the job alone.

I’m happy to be in a congregation where the Lord didn’t have to take such dramatic measures to light a fire under us. We've got people in their 90's still asking questions and thirsty to learn. We've got people taking risks and action long after their career work life is behind them. They are on fire. This is a congregation of people on fire. Except for one or two of us who might be holding back, still the littlest bit of a modern Sadducee – or a modern Pharisee.

How do I know whether this is me? Simple. We just ask ourselves,
“Am I giving it all I’ve got? Or am I holding myself back?”
“Is there more to life than what I can see? Or should I tear down my barns and build bigger barns?”
“Am I on fire or ready to retire?”

The important choices each one of us has from today forward are:
(1) Retire. Bag it. Settle back. Take what comfort we can get before we are taken by disease or rust. Be like the Sadducees.

Or, (2) Don’t get excited. Keep to the letter of the law. Show up in church. Keep on trucking. But don’t catch fire. Keep the damper down. Keep the fire extinguisher at the ready. Commitment, that’s for zealots. Be like the Pharisees.

Or, (3) Light up, catch fire. Know what’s coming and like Paul, get up, rise up and greet it.

And like Paul who caught a clearer vision of life after his trip to Damascus that day, let’s stand and declare what we believe – the Nicene Creed at the bottom of P. 15 in your hymnal. And then, let’s join in singing “Amazing Grace” on p. 280.