Much of the end of the Gospel of Matthew is normally considered during Lent and Easter. Commentary on those readings that are included in the Revised Common Lectionary may be found in the highlights for Year A. However, portions of these last chapters are routinely skipped by the Elves either because they are covered more traditionally in Mark and Luke, or because they do not fall into the orthodox belief system promulgated by the RCL. The discussion on the resurrection in Matthew 22:23-33 is lifted word-for-word from Mark, and repeated in Luke. Luke’s version is the only one that is read, as the Christian liturgical year winds down to the triumphalism of Christ the King Sunday, and – insistence on an actual season of Advent notwithstanding – the Christmas season begins.
The “Resurrection” of Jesus is the defining story of Christianity. But what does it mean in a post-modern, post-Enlightenment, even post-Christian world, in which science leaves little room for meaningful metaphor? Logos has been trumping Mythos since Mark first set down the story:
So the Saducees, who do not believe in resurrection, try to trap Jesus in a riddle: A man has seven brothers. He dies and his first brother marries his wife; then that brother dies and the next one marries the wife; then that one dies . . . until the seventh man dies. Then (probably from exhaustion) the wife finally dies. Whose wife will she be in the “resurrection”? Jesus demolishes the flame throwers by first mocking them: “at the resurrection, people do not marry but are angels, (and therefore have no sex)”; then by asserting that they have missed the whole point of the resurrection: namely, the God of the patriarchs is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Jesus’ answer presents an astounding contradiction between what became church dogma and belief and what the early Christian movement understood: God is for the living, not the dead. Who are the living? Those alive on earth today? Those who have been taken to be with God in some spiritual realm? Despite orthodox Christian teaching, based on a literal interpretation of Jewish messianic hope from the century before Jesus’ birth, God did not save Jesus from death. The “pre-Easter” Jesus became the “post-Easter” Christ after followers who had known him combined the stories they had preserved through oral tradition with the Greek-influenced mystical intellect of Paul – who, while he was a contemporary of Jesus, never met him.
For 21st century exiles from orthodoxy, resurrection is most certainly not the resuscitation of a corpse. For some, it is the reclaiming of hope as the smoke rises, carrying God away with the souls of martyrs. In Night (Chapter 4) Elie Wiesel asks and answers the question, Where is God in the presence of evil? “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.” We are forced to deal with the meaning of “death.” We are back to John Dominic Crossan’s working understanding of a kenotic god. “A kenotic god is a god whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death.” In Search of Paul, (Harper San Francisco, 2004) p. 288.
Only in that context can Paul’s words be understood to be personally transformational, not politically triumphant: “I passed on to you as of paramount importance what I also had received: ‘That the Anointed died to free us from the seductive power of corruption’. . . .” 1 Corinthians 15:2-3 (Scholars Version). Paul’s theology no longer makes literal sense in a post-modern world. But it does make sense as metaphor. Jesus was raised from the dead, not as a resuscitated corpse, but as an example of how to counter the prevailing social systems of injustice. “If the Anointed had not been raised,” Paul goes on (1 Cor. 15:14) “then our message has lost its credibility.” The fact that Jesus and others gave up their lives for distributive justice-compassion – living in covenant with God’s rule, not society’s rule – does not mean that there can be no distributive justice-compassion. Paul goes on to argue that if it was only in Jesus’ life-time that there was any hope for God’s realm of justice-compassion, then “we are the most pathetic people in the whole world” (1 Cor. 15:19). But the Christ was only the first fruits of the harvest of the dead who gave their lives in the struggle. The hope for the future is found in the ones who continue the work.
We are not satisfied with a god who can be absent in injustice and death. The idea leaves us without hope unless our hope comes from outside intervention. Resurrection has been interpreted to mean “rebirth,” which is a nice idea. Rebirth happens regularly over the course of anyone’s life. Whenever change happens, we are reborn – for good or ill. Resurrection has come to mean coming back from the dead, either as a reincarnation into human life, or as a spirit, such as the Christ, or the Holy Spirit. But resurrection is more than the evolution of a human life, and more than an interceding spirit sent from an intervening god. Resurrection means moving from injustice and death to justice and life.
The past two millennia have seen the institution of belief systems that attempt to address the human need for hope and a belief in justice. If we can’t have justice in this present physical life, we will have it either in the next life, or when the cycle is finally finished, and – as the writer of Revelation put it,
. . . the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a voice from the throne saying, “See the home of God is among mortals . . . he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Rev. 21:1-5.
Scholars and enlightened seminary graduates can spend all the energy they wish claiming that the “Revelation to John (Apocalypse)” was a no-holds-barred rant against the Empire of Rome (it was). But nobody cares. It’s called “Revelations” by the people, and it is believed to be a literal prophecy – a “doom” or even a “curse” that cannot be avoided or changed:
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new.” And he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. . . . Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” Rev. 21:5-8.
This is the popular, orthodox understanding of resurrection: the ultimate dream for retributive justice (pay-back) that every human being shares. The proof lies in the misinterpretation of Paul’s first-century Jewish mysticism, and the seeming circular argument that “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.”
But John Dominic Crossan explains that Paul was talking about the Pharisaic belief (and hope) in a general bodily resurrection of all the people who had died in the struggle for distributive justice-compassion. This resurrection would happen when God acted to send his representative (the son of Adam) to – as Crossan puts it – begin “the great cleanup of the world’s mess.” In other words, the Jewish messianic hope portrayed in the prophecy of Daniel from the 150s bce, would restore God’s covenant rule of distributive justice-compassion. But, Crossan emphasizes, in no way was the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ – the first of the martyrs to be raised from the dead – unique to Jesus alone. Instead, the resurrection happens to all who have given their lives in the service of distributive justice-compassion – in the present earthly life or in past lives.
For 21st century exiles from orthodox belief systems, resurrection is an ongoing, participatory, quality of life. Whenever anyone acts to restore distributive justice in the work place, in political institutions, in families, in social life, resurrection into the new life imagined by the writer of the Revelation to John happens. Resurrection is a metaphor for transformation; it is not a future dream, it is a present reality.
So, has the kingdom come? Look around you. Crossan observes, “The world belongs to God; God is good; the world sucks – what’s wrong with this picture?” The formal, theological jargon for the solution is “participatory eschatology.” The new world comes whenever humans create it. The question to be asked is not “are you saved” for God’s afterlife; the question is, “what are you doing about joining the program here and now?”