This Sunday the lectionary Gospel continues our hopping and skipping journey through the later chapters of Luke. It is an interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees. They tell him a story of a woman forced to marry each of seven brothers, one by one. (Hopefully she got to start with the oldest.) I’ve always found it among the least pleasant Gospel encounters.
(I took the last couple weeks off from writing these Monday Meditations due to the demands of travel to lead a retreat for a church. Had I known this one was coming perhaps I’d have postponed my hiatus…)
But that’s the way it goes with the Bible. Whether I particularly like a text or not, there it is. And God is there, waiting to speak through it. My part is to show up and prayerfully explore it. So here we go.
The Sadducees don’t get much ink in the New Testament. Most of us are far more familiar with Jesus’ ongoing sparring match with the Pharisees. Luke seems to realize this, and notes one of their distinctive characteristics for us.
The Saducees are
those who say there is no resurrection” (Luke 20:27 NRSV).
That’s why they’re ‘sad, you see’?
Sorry. I could not resist passing on to you the lame joke that I heard about this text when I was a teenager.
A Horrible Question
They present Jesus with a little made up story — a sort of parable they think makes the idea of the resurrection look silly.
The law says if a woman’s husband dies before they have children, she should be married off to one of his brothers. It seems having children to carry on your name, your lineage, your heritage, was very important to identity — and maybe to your place in the afterlife.
Of course, in modern eyes this whole practice seems to be pretty gross. We can’t imagine a marriage that has so little to do with love that two brothers from the same family would be interchangeable as husbands. We can’t imagine how voiceless, how used, the woman in question must have felt.
The Sadducees, however, weren’t pointing out problems in the law. They wondered about the implications for the resurrection.
They imagined the hypothetical woman marrying not just two brothers. They wanted her to marry a whole family of seven boys. Each and every one died childless, they say.
At least they didn’t blame the woman.
But then the question: who gets to be her husband after the resurrection?
I think the whole story is just awful.
A Serious Answer
Jesus, however, takes it seriously — presumably because he does believe in the resurrection. He knows that his own story is going to end, not in death, but in in resurrection, and his followers will build their faith, their life, and their mission on it.
His answer includes a weighty insight in passing, and a bit of exegesis that seems a bit more iffy.
The insight is to say that where one comes down on the question of resurrection relates to where one actually belongs.
The Sadducees are
Those who belong to this age…
And they therefore are mostly concerned with earthly things — like that they
…marry and are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34 NRSV)
There is, it seems, another, entirely different kind of people:
…those who are considered worthy of a place in that age
and in the resurrection from the dead…” (Luke 20:35 NRSV)
Notice that the first group is a natural state. The second is a gift given at God’s consideration.
That resurrection crowed, Jesus says, is not concerned with such earthly things as marriage. In fact, this business of death on which the whole dilemma hangs will be a thing of the past:
Indeed they cannot die anymore,
because they are like angels
and are children of God,
being children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:36 NRSV)
It seems to be a radical change of being — where marriage no longer is a category.
A Pastoral Dilemma
Jesus’ answer does make some Christians anxious. If we’ve married and can no longer imagine life without our partner, how could we bear a heaven where it no longer matters?
Personally I’m content to leave the fine points to God. We’ll all find out what it really looks like in the life to come. The vision of Christ for his people, in John 15 and 17 for instance, is that we are to be so radically united that we are as much “one” as the Persons of the Trinity are “one.” And he prays that for us while we are here in this life.
I suspect that the oneness we are to experience in heaven is going to make any earthly oneness look like a mere shadow. I also suspect that the oneness we do experience through marriage, where we are no longer two but one, may find itself expressed even more powerfully in heaven.
Some Dubious Reasoning
But I mentioned some potentially iffy exegesis. That comes in Jesus’ final point to prove the resurrection is true.
The reasoning goes like this:
Back at the burning bush God identified himself as
…the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob.” (Luke 20:37, NRSV. Cf. Exodus 3:6)
This is proof of the resurrection because
…he is God not of the dead,
but of the living;
for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:38 NRSV)
But wait, you say, God mentioned those names to Moses because they were Moses’ long dead ancestors. The Exodus text wasn’t trying to say that they were still alive.
And you would be right, in the simple historical reading of the text.
You think it’s iffy reasoning because you are a post-Reformation, even post-Enlightenment sort of Christian.
But Jesus’ reasoning was probably not iffy at all to his hearers. They were schooled in the rules of rabbinic interpretation. I suspect a close examination in light of Gamaliel’s rules would tell us that Jesus was right on the money in terms of that tradition.
Ipso facto presto chango, Jesus wins.
But he really won the argument some time later — when he himself rose from the dead on Easter morning.
I’ll again be teaching an Advent online course on classic medieval “lectio divina,” the ancient way of engaging with Scripture with both mind and heart, intellectually and prayerfully. Registration is the week before Advent. If you’d like me to let you know by email, click here and sign up for the waiting list.