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Sermon Preached by Acting Dean Trevor Harrison on 7 November 2019.
I met the ‘Black Widow’ first when I was asked to conduct the funeral service for her third husband and she introduced herself to me with, “They call me the ‘Black Widow.’” All fine and good and we farewelled her third husband in fine style.
Where it got difficult was when some time later she turned up in my office with a man in tow and she said, “We would like you to marry us.” I could not keep out of my mind the image of a black widow spider with her next victim in mind. I did officiate at their wedding and they became very regular worshippers and were very happy together.
All that came to mind for me when I first read this week’s Gospel which tells of another ‘Black Widow’. The Sadducees, one of the powerful parties in the Jewish religious hierarchy, in an attempt to trap Jesus by his saying some heretic statement, asked him a question about marriage and resurrection. One of seven brothers married a woman and had no children, and then he died. As was often the custom, to care for the widow another brother married her, and the same thing happened to him--no children and then death. All seven brothers married the widow and all met with the same fate--you guessed it--no children and death. The seven-time widow eventually herself died. Now came the perplexing question. "In heaven whose wife of the seven is she?" Jesus reflects for a moment before answering. If I were Jesus, I would have begun my answer by saying, "You would have thought by the time the fourth brother had died that the rest of them would have thought twice about marrying her." But instead he reminds them that God is God of the living, not the dead. The question they had asked was inconsequential. He is basically saying, "Our concern should be about the living."
The Gospel of Mark's account of this same encounter gets to the heart of Jesus' answer. After Jesus has silenced the Sadducees with his thoughtful response, in Mark we read the following passage:
28” One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’
29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’
32 ‘Well said, teacher,’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.” (Mark 12:18-34)
Jesus knew that the Sadducees, who asked the question about the Black Widow, were seeking only to trap him and he knew that their question arose from the minutia of the Jewish Law, whereby the scholars and lawyers had turned the Ten Commandments into 612 rules and regulations. They may have thought they had the detail of the Law sorted, but in so doing they had overlooked the spirit of the Law. The Spirit which Jesus summarised: ‘God is a God of the living, not the dead’ and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength and love your neighbour as yourself.”
In other words, who is married to whom in heaven is unimportant for the here and now. What is important for the here and now is how well we do in making this earth as near as heaven could be.
I’m sorry if you were looking for me to give you a description of what heaven is like, but I have no intention of ever attempting that as I know that for you I would be a downright failure, because I guarantee you that my idea of heaven could very likely be your idea of hell!
Both the Old and New Testaments refer to there being “a new heaven and a new earth” and commentators have said describing what that might be like is problematical, just like trying to describe to a baby in its mother’s womb what life outside the womb will be like.
To love God and to love neighbor--so simple, yet we make it so difficult. And the truth is to find the fulfillment that comes with fulfilling these two commandments comes not with addition or multiplication but by subtraction. The noted writer/theologian Richard Foster writes:
Contemporary Culture is plagued by a passion for possessions...more is better...the result is that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic....We feel strained, hurried and breathless....Christian simplicity frees us from this modern mania....People once again become more important than possessions.
This probably leads to some questions we all need to ponder and reflect upon as we look at the text from Luke. And the questions are these:
- What do I need rather than what do I want?
- How am I blessed rather than how am I shortchanged?
- How much in my life is concerned with the accumulating of possessions and how much of my life is focused on building community with and caring for others?
- Do I spend more time considering what I don't have rather than what I do have?
- How would others who live in poverty look at my lifestyle?
- What can I do to alleviate the worries of others who are facing hardships much greater than any I have known?