The Meaning of Life and Death
The Meaning of Life and Death
Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Without money and without price – free and priceless at the same time. Water and food, wine and milk, there for the taking, There, provided you choose to come, to take up this invitation.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Why buy what does not feed you? Why work toward something that provides no satisfaction?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
A banquet is being held, a table set with good things to eat. Delight in this food. Listen to what is being said. Listen so you may live. This is an invitation to an abundant life.
Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near…
Listen and seek while this possibility exists. What does that mean? What is expected?
[L]et the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Give up wicked ways, leave aside unrighteous thinking. Return to God, who is merciful and who offers abundant pardon. Even after wickedness and unrighteousness, there is still mercy to be found. Even after all that, there is an open door. Why? Because God does not expect us to be God.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…
The ways of God are different. One might expect that to be the case, you know God being God and all. And so God is not the measure of a good life, not the yardstick, not the goal. But there seem to be expectations, at least according to the Book of Isaiah. There are some steps that need to be taken to accept that invitation to an abundant life.
Compare this with the Gospel, which is less about the good and more about the not so good. It all begins rather cryptically. Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices – what on Earth does that mean? Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. It is unclear what happened in this passage from the Bible, but there are theories. One was that Pilate had punished those who killed John the Baptist. Another theory was that the blood was symbolic, that anyone who offered a sacrifice for impure reasons, with improper motives, would have tainted the offering.
Then there was the tower of Siloam which fell and killed some people. Again, there is no known historical event. Assume a tower fell, a bad thing happened. Were those killed deserving of that fate? Was it linked to their behavior, their way of living? Was it divine punishment, the wages of sin truly being death?
In the New Testament, there were various shifts in theology, shifts in comparison to certain Jewish teachings of that era but rooted in other Jewish teachings. There was an active debate within the Jewish community about what happens when you die. The afterlife was not a major focus of Hebrew Scriptures. There are allusions to what happens, references to going down to Sheol, a place of darkness where the dead lie, having no memory or strength. Who goes to Sheol? Everyone. Everyone good or bad, righteous or otherwise. Blessings were offered during life, and therefore there should be no expectations about what would happen after this life.
This theological view began to change. In fact, the Book of Isaiah is perhaps the first example of the concept of resurrection in the Bible.
Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
This idea was new. And it was not readily accepted. There was an ongoing debate on the afterlife, as I mentioned, one that lasted for centuries up through the time of Jesus. Two groups in particular were noted in the Bible for their differing views, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees are said to have believed in the traditional view of Sheol, that there was no afterlife, no reward for good lives, no punishment for worldly sins.
The Pharisees instead held that there was reward and punishment for how one lived, a form of heaven and hell. I found one scholarly reference to the Pharisees believing that those who lived good lives were rewarded by being reincarnated back into the world. Someone of a cynical mindset might suggest that reincarnation back into the world was something other than a reward.
For Early Christians, there was no afterlife debate. Jesus presented in the Gospels a clear message of life after death. Consider the parable of the fig tree:
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’
Three years, three years and not a fig. Cut it down. Why waste the soil? Why waste the space? But the gardener intervenes. One more year, one more chance. I will work at it some more. I will dig in, I will put some manure on it.
Sounds a little like church. Whether I am the gardener or the manure is a subject for another Sunday.
The gardener is willing to work at making the tree produce fruit. But there is only so much the gardener can do, only so much time available for digging and fertilizing. And then the time will come for assessing the harvest.
The harvest of a tree is obvious. The crops we plant, the animals we tend to, can be measured, by the bushel, by the gallon, by the pound. That is all well and good for figs. But how should the harvest of a good life be assessed? How should it be weighed? What would be the unit of measure?
The parable of the fig tree follows Jesus’ warning to repent. Repentance comes after sin. Sin is a different kind of harvest, the bad fruit of bad decisions, bad choices. In the imagery of the parable, the figs do grow but they come out sour or bitter, stunted or misshaped.
To repent is a process. It requires two steps which cannot be avoided, no skipping one or the other to get quickly to the end. First, the sinner must acknowledge that he or she has sinned. The sourness and bitterness tasted, the stuntedness and misshapenness seen for what they are. I did that and it was not the right thing to do. Second, the sinner must say so. Not just realize it, not just reflect upon it in his or her heart. It must be said out loud. I have sinned and this was my sin.
This is necessary because repentance is followed by an additional step, the step even harder than owning up to sin. The sinner must ask for forgiveness from the person who was the target of that sin. Forgive me for having done this to you. Forgive me for failing to do what I should have done. Forgive me for my sin.
This does not happen a lot, at least in my experience, the full process from repentance to forgiveness. The acknowledgement, the confessing, the request for forgiveness. Parts of it might happen. Did you hit your sister? Say you are sorry. But that is a familiar form of family playacting. Mom or Dad imposes an apology, but there is often no understanding of having done something wrong.
She started it. You always take her side. He is always taking my stuff. Punish him.
Punish him. Punish her. Punish them. There is an impulse to see some form of justice done, the pound of flesh type of justice. You did a bad thing and now a bad thing will happen. The scales of the universe return to their proper balance.
Is that the way things should be?
Think back to the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Each of them had an understanding of the afterlife based upon this principle of balance. For the Sadducees, you were rewarded or punished during the course of your life. Blessings and suffering came as the result of proper or improper behavior. This is not terribly surprising if you know a little bit about the Sadducees. They were the rich and powerful, the aristocrats and the Temple priests. See, God loves us so much, he gave us all this stuff – yay us!
The Pharisees took a different view. They were generally not the highest of the high, but they were rarely from the lowest of the low. Middle class does not really work here, so think well-off but not crazy wealthy. The good would be blessed and the bad punished in life and in death. There would be balance now and forever. So live a good life so you might receive a good death.
Back to my question: what are the fruits of a good life? Do we receive the blessings of this life in payment for being good? Or does our worldly goodness get tallied up at the end in our final performance review? I must confess that I am not a fan of either theoretical system.
This week I heard about a study – you may have seen it as well. This was a long range study. In fact, it may be the longest ranging study of human beings in history.
This study has been going on for 75 years. In began at Harvard in 1940, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study followed two groups of men, over 700 in total. Sixty of them were still around as of 2015. One group of men consisted of sophomores at Harvard College. The others were teenagers from the poorest neighborhoods in Boston, people who may not have had running water in their homes. Both groups were followed through surveys, interviews, and medical testing, every two years for eight decades.
The advantage here was that people were not self-reporting in distant hindsight. There were interviews all the way through and medical assessments to back up what was reported. What did these researchers learn from these men? What long term lessons were found? They did not report that the rich are gloriously happy and the poor utterly miserable. They did not find the salt of the earth living blissfully while the movers and shakers were wracked with ulcers and anxiety.
They instead found something simple and wonderful. People with good relationships have better lives. They found that social connections are good. That relationships are the surest means of assessing a person’s well-being and for predicting their ongoing sense of well-being. And the reverse was true. Loneliness and isolation are toxic, leading to declining health, physically and mentally.
This was not a matter of the number of friends a person has. It was more about quality rather than quantity. And it was not just about being married for a long time or in a committed relationship.
Negative relationships are not helpful, regardless of their numbers or their longevity. But also note that the relationships need to be good, not perfect. People can bicker, they can even fight, but the best relationships are the ones in which one person can count on the other when the going gets tough. And not just spouses, not just significant others. Friends, family, and other loved ones bond together in good relationships of care and concern.
That is what these researchers found. They spent 75 years finding out that loving one another is the pathway to a good life. Sounds vaguely Jesus.
Didn’t we know that already?
Yes and no. Yes, because Jesus said so. Again and again, over and over. If Jesus had an essential refrain, loving one another was it. But also no. No, because other preoccupations pop up in religious life. Other worries and concerns, different points of emphasis and contrary marching orders. The simple of message of Jesus gets ignored. Why?
There are many reasons. Think of the Sadducees. They were fortunate. They had lots of stuff – money, power, influence. So those became the most important matters rather than love. The Pharisees focused on the afterlife and the type of behavior needed in order to find your way into a blessed metaphysical condition. So sin becomes crucial: sin and punishment, anxiety and angst.
Nothing has changed. The names have been changed to protect the not so innocent. There are Sadducees in the world who think God’s love takes the form of good fortune and God’s wrath takes the form of poverty. There are Pharisees who concern themselves with the sins of others to the exclusion of all else, particularly their own sinning ways.
There is another reason that this idea of love is well known but not well followed. Good relationships are hard. Really hard. Good relationships are built day after day, year after year. They are tended to like a fig tree, taking time, effort, and yes the occasional load of manure. You do not give up on these efforts quickly, even when they are frustrating, even when the fruits are in the distance rather than in hand. Good relationships are hard, because love is hard.
Love is simple, yes, but easy, no.
And sadly, we are often more interested in what is easy. If I offered a pill that gave health and happiness, I would be rich. If I wrote a book that explained how to achieve health and happiness in twelve easy steps, I would make a fortune. Well you do not need a pill or even twelve steps. You need one step, one really hard step. Love people. Care about people. And work hard at loving and caring about people. How long should this take? It should take forever. There’s a commitment.
What if I mess up? What if I make a mistake? Is it all gone, is it all ruined? I suppose that depends on the mistake. But practically speaking, one mistake, one argument, one angry moment should not be enough to make love disappear. Again, it depends.
But then there is something you can do about it. You can think about what happened, consider what you did or did not do. Realize what was done. Understand it. Acknowledge it. Maybe say it out loud. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. Then go to the person on the other side of this doing or not doing, this mistake, this lapse, this sin. Go and ask him or her to forgive you. Oh geez.
This is another example of how hard love is compared with all those other quick fixes for life’s problems. Asking for forgiveness is hard, just like asking for love. Because honestly, asking for forgiveness is asking for love.
[E]veryone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
The wine and milk without money and without price. The rich food that satisfies. Isaiah was talking about love, meaning loving God. And Jesus was talking about love, meaning loving God and each other. The measure of a good life is determined by the good relationships that we have, and have had, during our lives. They come and go, ebb and flow, but building and maintaining those relationships is the meaning of life. More important than anything.
I realize that eternal life is the hope and promise at the center of Christian thought. I understand that heaven is an abiding concern for many. And so I will let you in on a secret, just between you and me. If you act right now, you can get in on the ground floor of a sweet deal. My patented formula for eternal salvation with a money back guaranty. Money back because I am charging nothing for it. Here it is.
Love God and love one another. Do that every day. Every hour and every minute just to be safe. Do that week after week, month after month, year after year. Do it for 70 or 80 or 90 years, give or take a decade. Do that and you will have had a good life. Someone at Harvard told me so. Maybe even a blessed life. Someone else told me that.
And when you leave this world of ours and find yourself elsewhere, remember to mention what you did. How you spent your time living for love, loving for life. It is my professional opinion, that the response will be something like this, “I am pleased to hear that at least some of you took my advice. Welcome aboard.” Give it a shot.