We should love God without a reward - Ephraim the Syrian
The triumphal entry to Jerusalem has happened, tears have been shed over Jerusalem, the place God has been faithful to for ever so many generations, the place that has returned the favor with unfaith.
Jesus has struck a blow at the heart of Jerusalem, the Temple. The traders and money changers have had their business interrupted for a day. Jesus has now attracted the attention of those who are to be the tenants of the vineyard who have usurped ownership of the vines and turned it into their source of power, prestige, and wealth. Did they do that deliberately? Did they do so consciously? Did they wake up one day and say to one another: “This God of Hosts thing isn’t working for me anymore and if you think it is working for the young people you are not paying attention. If you don’t believe me, you are whistling past the graveyard. We need new methods and a new message. I’ll tell you what we’ll do . . .” Now that I write that . . . nahh . . .
In all seriousness, these things happen slowly. Faithfulness and expediency do not live together peacefully. (Lk 20:19-26) Institutions and the Faith that built them are always capable of enmity toward one another. In matters of Faith, spiritually speaking, people tend to build shacks and not cathedrals. To add to them is both pointless and ultimately ends in collapse. Maybe we are reading such a story of collapse in Luke 20.
The Sadducees, writes Ephraim the Syrian, called themselves “the just” [saddiqim] because they served God even in the face of the conviction that there is no resurrection. (they also do not believe in angels or spirit - Acts 23:8) It was a proud way of saying: There is no reward for serving God. That is most certainly true. Even Jesus says this in the parable of the servant and the master. (Lk 17:6-10) Like all other simple truths one is left with the choice to seek the source of it, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, or to build a shack dedicated to the snippet of truth only to overlook the God who stands behind the truth.
Chapter 20 of the Gospel of Luke are about the clash between a much cherished place of hope and the God who it is to represent. The fact that it is a cherished institution that those who have no hope nonetheless give themselves to in order to gain peace is exemplified in the story of the widow’s coins. (Lk 21:1-4)
That widow, in those two coins, is certainly not making her contribution because the Temple is pretty. (Lk 21:5-6) What religion does one invest in that only puts up pretty buildings? If there is really no connection to the eternal “Was,” “Is,” and “Will Be,” a tangible one for the individual, then there really is no reason to involve oneself unless one can do so for external, personal affirmation. That affirmation is fickle and fleeting and must be defended, perhaps even violently. That affirmation is not merely on display in riches and power. It is on display in about every “eulogy” or modern living hagiography I have ever heard.
The widow does not have enough copper to buy the affirmation. Jesus’ affirmation of her echoes the Beatitudes of chapter 6: Blessed are the poor, the kingdom of heaven has noticed them and has heard their longing cries (Lk 18:1-8), and that kingdom is for them. That kingdom knows that one cannot simply hide from answering for ones life in a comfortable grave. (Lk 12:4-5)
With that, it might be good to look at Sadducees a bit to understand the argument. We know that they disappeared after the destruction of the temple. Political expedience exacted its price at the collapse of Jerusalem and the Temple, powers to which the Sadducees were too closely tied. We know from Josephus that they were politically powerful having cultivated and extend their influence in Israel ever since their appearance under the Hasmonean period. They were successful but not necessarily wealthy, though they had access to people with wealth. (Ross, 2013) Ross concludes that, in general: “The Sadducees pictured God and humans as independent and distant, both in this life and the next. Rewards for righteousness were in this life, and hence they were keen on wealth and influence as evidence of divine blessing.” There is an obvious contradiction here with the report of Ephraim. The reason for that might well be that we only know about them from the writings of those who did not like them, so our knowledge of their thinking is incomplete.
They had a lot in common with us: They believed in free will. If it happens, people did it and people willed it. They did not think anything was binding on them unless it was written and they assumed the Torah to be superior to any subsequent writings, especially the apocalyptic ones like Daniel were the Resurrection is prominent. The Pharisees had their interpretive tradition but the Sadducees rejected it preferring the use of logic and understanding applied by the people of the present alone when reading scripture. They acknowledged angels but refused the Pharisaic idea that the dead became angels. (Ross, 2013) Jesus insistence that the dead become “Like the angels” addresses that argument.
When the Sadducees hear of the lion laying down with the lamb they envisioned dinner for the lion, not shalom. Have we ever sat in a bible study where someone had to point out that a lion's digestive track forbade Isaiah vision? I have. I have names. What you see is how thing are and will be. If there is a world to come, and they did not pose the possibility saying it was inconclusive since God did not say so clearly in the Torah, it would be just like this one. It represents an unwillingness or an incapacity to imagine more and better.
But back to the widow. As Jesus says: She gave everything she had to give - to an institution he had just condemned utterly, that was run by people without a vision of her redemption. She is poor. It matters little whether the Sadducees thought that she was poor for reasons of lack of righteousness or whether they thought she should not have worried that she was poor because the righteous are somehow unconcerned whether God rewards them or not. Either way, she is and will remain poor under their care. Is there no vision of how her life might be different? Is there no vision that God might care and actually do something about it?
What vision do we have for the poor, the sinner, the life lived into shambles? What vision do we have for those who are dying? What vision do we have for those who come to the end of a life made misery by the world, the actions of others, outrageous fortunes, and even their own flesh? Is this really all there is and if anything follows it will be more of the same? If the lamb in Paradise must yet fear the lion, why would it go there. Unless lambs somehow get satisfaction out of being eaten. I wouldn’t know.
Our faith is driven by the idea that there is a resurrection and a time of redemption according to God’s holy vision of the Kingdom. The temptation is to lose that vision. This Sunday might be a good opportunity to ask: How are you and God’s vision meeting?