On Why We Divide
November 6, 2022
Job 19: 23-25
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
Luke 20: 27-40
“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question.”
Today’s sermon is titled On Why We Divide.
Most of what I know about human nature I learned from second graders. Seven and eight year olds are unabashed in expressing themselves. They will insult and offend one another without a second thought and then turn around and forgive one another just as quickly. Once children discover the power of “I statements” they wield it like a sword, carving out a place for them and only them. “I had pancakes with whipped cream for breakfast.” “I have a cat and a dog.” “I don’t like the color green.” Children make these pronouncements as if they are vitally important so, on some level, they must be. Here is something I have noticed time and again. It is in times of relative peace and calm that children are apt to make these statements that set them apart from their peers. But when there is a challenge to figure out, or someone is in trouble, or not feeling well, it is as if all differences and divisions disappear and the interest of every child shifts to being part of the whole. It’s fascinating that people of every age long for the safety and unity of a group and yet we are so brutal in defending our group against whomever we perceive is the outsider or the other.
I suspect this is a dynamic as old as time. We see it playing out in our scripture reading for today, where we find Jesus, arriving finally in Jerusalem for the last time. In his last days, it is the divisions between the Sadducees and the Pharisees that will set the stage for Jesus’s arrest and execution. The Sadducees and Pharisees are not different cultures; they are both devoted Jewish interpreters of Hebrew law. The Sadducees interpret Jewish law strictly. They regard only the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) as scripture. Sadducees do not believe in angels or in the afterlife and the Sadducees serve only in Jerusalem so they are very much entwined with the politics of the occupying Roman forces. The Pharisees largely serve in smaller synagogues outside of Jerusalem. Pharisees include the teachings of the prophets and they fully embrace the idea of resurrection and an afterlife following death; they freely refer to angels as a state of being we can anticipate after death.
Jesus was a Pharisee, technically, although he was constantly pushing the traditional edges. Consequently, Jesus is perceived as a threat to the Sadducees and they are determined to prove him guilty of blasphemy. The Sadducees are giving Jesus a question about how marriage is regarded in the afterlife, thinking they will trick him into crossing the lines of the law, but Jesus engages with them with what one biblical scholar identifies as “intelligence, resolve, dexterity, and grace.” Jesus even uses their own scriptures from Exodus to prove that God regards all his children as living beings, even if they are no longer on this earth.
In the end, even Jesus’s opponents have to admit that he “spoke well” and “they no longer asked him any questions.” I suspect the author of Luke offers this story not because we need a lesson in the laws of marriage but to illustrate the deep divisions within the religious culture of Jesus’s time and how he navigated them, not with attacks or condemnation, but with civility.
We could all use a little civility, especially in this election season. I feel emotionally assaulted by the negativity of advertising and the stupefying tolerance of political violence and threats of violence. How have we arrived at such a place? Why are we so apt to divide ourselves from others? I have a theory, completely untested, and voiced out loud only once this past week. The only way I can make sense of why we divide ourselves from others even as we crave belonging is this: In the tens of thousands of years of human evolution, our ancestors were faced with very real and present dangers to their survival. Large carnivorous animals like saber-toothed tigers, brutal cold, illness, and threats of violence from other tribes. I suspect our brains are wired to not only perceive threats (indicated most effectively by seeing a difference, not a similarity). Now, in our present age, when real and present dangers are not so obvious, we fabricate perceived danger in “the other” whomever they are, or whomever we are told they are. And as we unite with others of like mind against the perceived threat, we are convinced, like our ancestors of old, that it is a matter of life or death. With stakes so high, norms are discarded and the very rule of law is bent if not broken.
There is a way to interrupt our tendency to divide and defend. Karl Marx warned against it because he thought, correctly, that belief in an existence beyond what we know made people content to tolerate injustice. Karl Marx famously wrote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
Marx thought that a trained focus on the afterlife was keeping some of the most disadvantaged people in society from engaging in progressive politics. G.K. Chesterton, an English writer and philosopher, responded with another opinion. Chesterton theorized that a lack of religion also had a profound effect on society. He wrote, “Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.”
Here we are, a hundred years later, living through the effects of a society that continues to place the greatest value on wealth, fame, and power. The masses are unsatisfied, disillusioned, and divided and dangerously similar to the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’s age, willing to put a man to death to redirect the tides of change and preserve the status quo.
But Friends, there is a “light that shines in the darkness and the darkness can not and will not overcome it” (John 1:5). Job, after losing everything and everyone he loved, saw the light shining in the darkness and testified, “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock for ever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.”
Every time we refuse to give in to the darkness, we testify to the light. Every time we refuse to give in to fear, we testify to the power of love. Every time we refuse to yield to demagoguery, we testify to democracy. Every time we denounce violence, we testify to peace. And every time we vote, we honor the veterans, the suffragists and the civil rights activists who came before us, demanding freedom and equal representation.
In closing, Friends, I remind us that Jesus did not turn away from those who challenged him; he faced them with “intelligence, resolve, dexterity, and grace.” I pray that we, too, stand resolute and ready to face our future, undeterred by divisions, committed to truth, with hope for the future of humankind. So be it. Amen.
Source of love we call God, we are in dire need of your guidance. It is so difficult to care for one another in a polarized atmosphere, where the expression of opinions and beliefs run roughshod over the call for civility. I pray your help, Lord, in steering us towards a better way, whatever that may be. Perhaps one in which we can see one another without labels and the judgment that comes along with labels; perhaps one in which we can both oppose the practice of war and still hold those who have served, and are still serving, in high esteem. I pray that we will pause and reflect as to how we can take steps toward an end to the wars within ourselves, the wars between friends, families, the wars between religions and the wars between nations. We are all suffering in various ways, and there is healing to be found in helping those whose sufferings are greater than our own. For the victims of war everywhere, we pray for you. For the Veterans that are waiting for medical care, counseling and treatment, we pray for you. For the leaders of our local, state and national government, and those that will soon be sworn into office, we pray for you. May the light of peace and the pull of hope and the warmth of compassion guide us today and always. This I pray in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray by saying…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you now with these words from Philipians 4:6
“Have no anxiety, but in every prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be made known to God. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds.”