The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r199.htm
s199^95 Somerton Park Sunday 32c
"Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother in law to her; raise up offspring for your brother." But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went into his brother's wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also."
- Genesis 38.7-10
We in our modern society find the hypothetical question put to Jesus about the seven brothers each married to the one woman rather far fetched. However for the Jews of Jesus' day, and Roman Catholics still, they well knew that the question in fact derives from what they regarded as a part of sacred scripture - the Book of Tobit - in what we call the "Apocrypha" or "Deuterocanonical" books of the Bible.
In this book the devout "Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was reproached by her father's maids, because she had been given seven husbands, and the evil demon Asmodeus had slain each of them before they had been with her as his wife." (Tobit 3.7,8) Tobit was a devout Jew who steadfastly refused to sacrifice to the calf Baal, tithed, and was charitable, even to the point of burying those killed by the King. Despite his devotion and charity, he falls on hard times, loses his money, the King confiscates his property and he becomes blind. The book tells the story of how God, through the Archangel Raphael, brings his son Tobias to marry Sarah and cure his father of the blindness which had afflicted him.
In the book of Tobit, we are not told that the seven husbands who were given to Sarah were in fact brothers. The reason for the hypothetical question of the Saducees including that they were brothers was that the law stated that if a brother in law failed to take his sister in law as a wife to raise up sons for his brother, she was ordered to confront him in the counsel of the elders, take off one of his sandals and spit in his face. (Deuteronomy 25.5) Such a surprising action is commended for refusing to perform an act of charity towards a woman. It was not that the brother in law would have been expected to keep her as his wife. Refusal, without a son, meant that the woman had no ties to her late husband's family, and so denied the woman the support of the family of her in-laws, as well as the support of a son to look after her in her declining years. In most cases it would have forced her into prostitution. This in fact was the sin of Onan in Genesis 38.9 which I quoted at the beginning of this sermon, which has curiously been equated with masturbation ever since.
It is quite clear that Genesis and Deuteronomy perceives any scruples about fidelity or incestuous relationships as quite secondary to the primary obligation of charity to a sister in law. To suggest that Genesis or Deuteronomy have anything to say about masturbation what so ever is to fail to appreciate the importance of what they do say about charity.
The question that the Saducees put to Jesus is: "Whose wife will she be?" So the really important thing for them was who owned her. By obeying the law, these seven brothers had been brought into a dilemma. They had no way to decide, whose she was. It was the fault of the law, and the law had to provide an answer. One easy answer might have been the one who had had children by her. Since this was not the case, the law then ought to specify that the woman was wife, perhaps to the first or to the last, or whatever. The law ought to specify, the woman wasn't given the choice!
They had a conception of women as possessions, and Jesus doesn't answer this at all. And traditionally still to this day some women are treated as possessions. In the service of marriage, the bride is "given away". Sometimes I joke about having an auction, which isn't particularly appropriate. If we still regard our spouses as ours, something we own; rather than persons to love, we still haven't seen what it is all about.
As a matter of information the second order of the Marriage service in the new Prayer Book for Australia has a rubric that: "The man may receive the woman's hand from a member of the family or a friend and similarly, the woman may receive the man's hand." (p657) The importance is not in equality, but in not being a possession - which takes it from being a feminist statement to a Christian statement. Of course it is very hard to deny the fathers of the bride their one moment of glory and power. Such moments come very few and far between for most males!
The Saducees were looking at the question as a question of who had a right of possession, which is precisely the opposite of a spirit of charity. They suffered from the same sin as Onan, they were more concerned with who persons or things belonged to - the offspring would not be his.
It is certainly my interpretation, but when Jesus ends the story by saying God is God of the living not of the dead, he is saying that there are some who might seem to be alive, but because of their spirit of possessiveness are, in fact, dead. It is our charity which makes us alive. Similarly he speaks of God being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, being God of the living. While it might appear from this side of life that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are long since dead, in fact they are alive.
If we look at anyone else as a possession, spouse, child, or whatever, that person ceases to be fully human in our eyes. If we devalue others we devalue ourselves, and God ceases to be God of things.
However there is another aspect of this little interchange that must be brought out. We are told in this passage that the Saducees didn't believe in the resurrection anyway. Why on earth then would they ask Jesus about something they in fact didn't believe in? Clearly there is another agenda here. We can see this agenda when we read of the vehemence of the opposing sides to this question when St Paul is arraigned before the high priest Ananias in Acts 23, by one reckoning in 56AD. Paul noticing that some of the crowd were Pharisees and some Saducees, he called out "Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead." This caused a great dissension among the multitude, becoming so violent that the tribune had to rescue Paul from the council. So the other side to this question to Jesus was who was right - they or the Pharisees. Which party possessed the truth - they or the opposition?
Jesus answer stresses not who is right and who is wrong, but who is dead and who is alive. One is dead or alive not because of one's particular theological stance, but again, on our love for those around us. This runs directly counter to those who want to make a big issue of doctrinal correctness. If doctrines divide people then they are not of God. Doctrines which are of God are those which bring people together.
So the gospel reading for today tells us a few of the things that can get in the way of charity. One of the things that can get in the way of charity are moral things, like fear of doing something wrong. Or a spirit of possessiveness can get in the way of our charity. Something is mine by right. Or a spirit of correctness - that it is more important to be right than to be charitable.
But turning it around the other way, and seen in a positive gospel light; we don't actually now have to worry about these things. Instead of thinking that God has built all these walls we have to climb over to reach those on the other side; or expecting those on the other side to climb over to us - realise that the walls are imaginary and illusory. God doesn't want them there. We break them down simply by being charitable.
St Paul sums this up, in his usual brilliant way by listing all his qualifications for confidence in the flesh: "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the Church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything ... as refuse ..." Philippians 3.5-8
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