Few topics spark less consensus in the social, spiritual, and scientific communities than how we define life and death. The more we know about physical and psychological aspects of life, the more we are able to diverge in our beliefs about it. Medical advances blur the distinction between life and death. Years ago, when I worked for a hospice, I learned the various deaths a person with terminal illness often endures before the cessation of life at the cellular level. Despite, or maybe because of, the inevitability of death, it is a topic most people find uncomfortable to discuss or consider in depth. Today’s scriptures confront what constitutes life and death at the spiritual and physical levels. We learn that physical and spiritual life are inextricably connected and fundamentally in conflict - though not perhaps in the way we think.
In Ezekiel, we find the prophet in a remote area having a conversation with God. God led him to an area that was possibly the location of a deadly battle many years before. The prophet observed dry bones everywhere, noting that the valley was “full of bones.” The beings, for whom those bones gave shape perished years before so that none of the soft tissues remained. He responds with a degree of incredulity when God asks if those bones were capable of living. That God asked about dry bones is interesting. Bones are living, essential, parts of the body, yet when presented without the connected flesh and sinew they seem to be the least lifelike component of the body. The are individually hard and unbending, more mineral in appearance than other elements (flesh, blood, sinew) that together make a living being.
Nevertheless, God challenged Ezekiel to deliver a message of life to the bones. As he delivered the message from God, the loose bones assembled into skeletons; the various tissues reconstituted themselves over the bones until the message of the breath brought them to life. The least lifelike body material brought together a long-dead multitude into restored life - a multitude identified as the “whole house of Israel.”
We know from the accounts in the Old Testament that God did not send prophets to Israel when the nation was spiritually consistent and connected to God. If there were any “happy happy joy joy” prophets, they did not warrant a book accepted in to canon. God sent Ezekiel to prophesy to the nation so spiritually dead they might as well have been the bones in the valley where God took the prophet. God used the prophet to share the message that no matter how spiritually sick or dead we believe ourselves/our community to be, God can make a way for us to return into the right relationship with him.
The brief passage from Romans makes clear that our “life” focus shapes our faith. Fleshly life versus spiritual life presented stark contrast when they are seen as determining our connection (or lack of connection) with God. Put simply a fleshly/physical focus separates from God. A spiritual focus connects us to God. We make a mistake when we read or interpret the passage in a way that leads to denial of physical need (nutrition, medical attention, hygiene) or comfort. The verses refer to the outlook or mindset of the people, NOT the nature and needs of our human lives bound by physical bodies - we should keep in mind that God created us with these physical bodies. God appointed humankind caretakers of creation; we are obligated to take care of our bodies.
When the passage refers to a physical or flesh driven mind, it means a way of thinking limited by our human nature, not the substance of our body. It binds us to temporal thinking which is driven by the limited experiences we have in a lifetime. The spiritual mindset embraces God’s eternity and is guided by unlimited opportunity. It opens our understanding to embrace the possibilities that come when we work in God’s kingdom.
Ezekiel replied to God from the temporal, limited mindset when God asked if the bones could live, but when given a direction by God, he displayed his eternal mindset. Ezekiel gave us an example for meeting God’s expectation by putting aside the limitations we have defined by living in a limited body and accepting the guidance from God with the understanding that it came from God and is shaped by the eternal mindset.
The nature of life (and death) in Scripture is as complex as in the social and scientific texts. What we really want to do, though is live. We can control our temporal nature and practice working in the eternal kingdom with a purpose that exceeds our physical life span and what we can comprehend. Before long, we’ll be hearing the bones rattle.