“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.” –Jesus, responding to the 1st Century equivalent of the giraffe game riddle
I once heard a great observation (I wish I could remember where, so that I could give credit where credit is due) to the effect that it is vastly more important to have the right question than the right answer. If you have the right question but get the wrong answer, you can always step back, try again, and eventually come to the right answer. But if you’re asking the wrong question, no matter how “right” the answer to that wrong question is, it’s still the wrong answer.
In Luke 20, some Sadducees decide to pose a riddle to Jesus about a hypothetical woman, married to seven brothers in succession, asking which one she will be married to in the resurrection. It’s only slightly less obnoxious than the giraffe game riddle that recently made the rounds on social media, and like most riddles, it’s a trick question. The trick, in this case, is the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection at all. (According to a fun Sunday school song, that may be why “they’re so sad, you see.”) The problem is, according to Jesus, it’s the wrong question, which he makes clear to them in his answer. He then goes on to point out that according to the very Scriptures they claim as their own in posing the riddle, resurrection is the real deal. God is not God of the dead, but of the living, he tells them, and it’s not hard to imagine Jesus muttering something like “ya boneheads” under his breath at the end. (Luke doesn’t record those last two words, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus didn’t say them.)
So what, then, is the right question? The right question seems to be, “How shall we live in the here and now? How shall we treat one another in this life?” Jesus spends remarkably little time in the Gospels talking about Heaven or Hell. He spends a lot of time, on the other hand, talking about “the reign of God,” and always in the present tense. “The reign of God has come near,” he says as he returns from his testing in the wilderness. “The reign of God is like…” he says over and over again as he introduces his parables. Is like, not will be like. And he spends a lot of time teaching about the core values and the ethics of that reign. Values like care and concern for the poor and the outcast, like generosity and reconciliation, forgiveness, humility, and grace. Ethics like responsibility for the vulnerable in our midst and removing barriers between people, and removing barriers between people and God. And underneath it all, over it all, flowing through it all, is love. The love of a despised Samaritan for a beaten Jew. The love of a good shepherd laying down his life for his flock. The ridiculous, scandalous, outrageous, foolishly prodigal love of a father who sacrifices all of his own prerogatives, dignity and pride to welcome home a lost child.
There are two ways to view the life of faith. One is as a riddle to be solved, doing enough of the right things, saying the right prayers with the right formula, hanging out with the right people and not letting the wrong people rub off on us, hoping that when we close our eyes for the last time that we will have gotten the right answer but never quite completely trusting that we have. The other is to revel in the gift, wallow in the grace, backstroke in the streaming love of God, trusting that the riddle, if it ever existed to begin with, has been solved on our behalf, and daring to dive into the messiness, the brokenness, the woundedness of the world and love the way we have been loved. Trusting, in short, that there are no trick questions, and that even if we get it wrong today we might get it right tomorrow, and that we have endless opportunities to get it right. Because, after all, God is God of the living, not of the dead, for all are alive to God.