What does Jesus mean by saying that God is “God not of the dead, but of the living”? And what does it mean to read this text on Remembrance Sunday?
This statement of Jesus’ comes at the end of what looks like a pretty arid and profoundly patriarchal theological discussion. But it has profound significance for how we understand God and, therefore, how we live our lives. So what does it mean?
Plainly, Jesus does not mean that God is concerned solely with the dead. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were, by the time of Moses, long gone. And by the time of Jesus, Moses was long gone. Yet Jesus asserts that, to God, “all of them are alive.” In fact, our translation diverges here from most others, which say not “all of them” — i.e., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses — but “all are alive”. So Jesus plainly also doesn’t mean that God is concerned solely with the living.
It is tempting — especially in this period of remembrance — to think that Jesus is speaking simply about some form of afterlife. And as the question that he is posed is about the resurrection, that’s not unreasonable.
But Jesus is saying more, saying something far more radical, far more fundamental than a simple and vague assertion about the continued existence of a person’s soul or spirit or essence beyond death. Jesus is describing not so much our fate as our Father: he is outlining something of the nature of God.
Jesus is pointing out that God is, as one writer puts it, “completely and entirely alive”. The same writer goes on to explain it this way:
There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead’; it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death. [James Alison, Raising Abel quoted here.]
God has nothing to do with death. God’s back is turned to death. Life and creativity pour out of God. Therefore, God is God not of death but of life, not of the dead but of the living.
Lest we be tempted to think of this as Jesus being hopelessly naïve about the reality of death, we should remember that, when this exchange with the Sadducees takes place, he is standing on the threshold of his Passion. Jesus knew what suffering awaited him; he knew that he would die and what his death entailed. By this point in the Gospel of Luke, he has already predicted it three times. He has also predicted his resurrection twice, and that resurrection will vindicate his assertion that God is the God of life not death.
What does it mean to hear this message on Remembrance Sunday? Many of those whom we remember today, on whatever side of the conflict, were killed more than a century ago. They, too, are alive to God. For all that they died in what they hoped would be the war to end all wars, and for all our relative comfort and safety, we still find ourselves in a world shaken by war, hatred and violence.
Whenever we turn to violence, whether as nations or individuals, whether by taking up arms, lifting our fists or letting our lips become cudgels, we turn from life to death. In doing so, we expose our own fear of death even as we embrace it.
We need instead to turn to life, to let the life of God infuse all our living: all our thinking, all our actions, all our relationships. This would open up in us such boundless love and creativity that war would truly be a thing of the past.
We are so used to turning to death that we often don’t think twice about it. We need instead to make an active choice for life. This is why our liturgy includes a confession. In confessing our sins and our sinfulness, and in asking for forgiveness and renewal, we turn to life.
Turning to life is also part of what Communion is about. As we receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we not only proclaim the Lord’s death but celebrate and receive his life. This life working in us by the Holy Spirit strengthens and enables us to turn to life in the choices that we face each day.
We do have the capacity to turn to life, as we are reminded this weekend when we mark not only 101st anniversary of the end of the First World War but the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And, as we face choices in the general election, we should ask ourselves what it would look like to turn to life in the way that we cast our votes.
“To God, all are alive.” It is a bold, strong statement. It draws together the living and the dead. It draws together all those who have been in conflict with one another. It means that the Good News that Jesus came to proclaim to us is that, for God, death isn’t is a thing. So if death isn’t a thing for God, and if we trust God, we need no longer fear death — not for ourselves, not for those we love and not for those whom we remember.