Luke 20:27-38 - The Question about the Resurrection
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 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 anymore, 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.”
Jesus’ life on Earth must have been constantly exhausting. No matter what direction he turned, he was consistently confronted by people who wanted or needed something from him. Those who needed healing were lined up around the block. Those who sought his teaching and wisdom covered the hillside when he got up to speak. The disciples who followed him closely would have amazed, amused and exasperated the most patient of teachers. And, some days, the religious authorities would show up, not because they wanted to learn from him but because they wanted to be justified in believing what they already believed.
On this particular day, it was the Sadducees turn. Though often referred to in tandem with the Pharisees, the two groups were ideological rivals. The Sadducees rejected the oral Torah and, particularly, any belief in angels or the afterlife, which explains the outlandish question they ask Jesus. Their ‘question' is not something that has developed organically over years of seeking truth. It’s a cleverly crafted but hard worn case study (one gets the feeling they used it regularly to ridicule the Pharisees) that they drag out as if they were taking centre stage at ‘The Theological Roast of Jesus of Nazareth.'
Their argument – which I can’t help sarcastically referring to as ‘One Bride For Seven Brothers' – has its roots in a concept called ‘levirate marriage’ from Deuteronomy 25:5. It specified that, in cases where a man dies without having children, his brother would marry his widow and raise any children he has with her under the deceased brother’s name.
And this law, as bizarre or unpalatable as it may seem to us today, tells us many things.
It tells us of the importance of lineage and family lines in ancient cultures.
It speaks to us of sacrificial love in the face of tragedy, of family and legacy.
It tells us that God cares about the widowed and the vulnerable.
And it tells us nothing about life in the world to come.
Theologically speaking, the Sadducees have brought a knife to gunfight. For two key reasons.
First, the Law exists to teach us how to live life in a broken and hurting world. It helps us re-calibrate and compensate for the ways in which life goes wrong. To argue, then, that there can be no resurrection because of the practical problems that stem from re-ordering community to care for the vulnerable living in the aftermath of loss is, quite simply, ridiculous.
But secondly, and more importantly, is how limited their God is. To their minds, God himself is bound by their logic puzzle, a slave to the Law he gave. This God cannot create a Heaven, a world, an ‘age-to-come' that they cannot imagine. He is limited by their understanding, their definitions and their categories. A God made in their own image.
Sadly, their failure is one that we are all capable of and often succumb to. We approach God with the expectation that the only things he can or will do are things we would do too.
We struggle to imagine him loving those we can’t.
We draw lines between what he can and cannot forgive based on what we can or can’t.
We believe that certain things matter to him because they matter to us.
We forget that other things do matter to him … because they don’t matter to us.
This passage raises all sorts of challenges for me. Firstly, I am confounded by Jesus’ response. To be perfectly honest, I’m not completely sure what to make of it. Every commentary I read points to Jesus’ brilliant rhetoric in rebutting the Sadducees’ argument, particularly because of how it reads in the original Greek … but that side of it is lost on me and I’m not sure what to make of his words about the life after this one.
The other challenge is to allow myself to be confounded. To be confounded in the face of Jesus’ words is humbling. It points to my imperfect understanding and my limited knowledge and that, at least, reminds me that I don’t need to have all the answers. Instead, I know I’m heading in the right direction when I have questions — legitimate and authentic questions — that come from wandering and wondering rather than my default setting of just assuming that Jesus should agree with me.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.