27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
Jesus is a mysterious and profound figure in the Gospels. His teaching continually calls his hearers to make paradigm shifts in their lives. Jesus’ instructions are anti-intuitive, counter cultural, and offer a decisive challenge to the status quo. Just when we are tempted to think that we have figured Jesus out, he explodes the box that we have put around him and challenges us to a deeper life.
Jesus is like a late-comer to a local fishing tournament held many years ago. All of the big name locals are present, and they are competing neck and neck for the prize. Each person has his or her secret bait, and the most successful have modern bass boats, high-end fish finders, and the best rods and reels available. By the time that the late-comer enters the fray it looks as though he is hopelessly behind. Those who are watching the tournament shrug their shoulders as the late-comer calmly puts his canoe into the water and pushes off. Some even begin to laugh when they realize that he does not even have a fishing pole. Yet the mysterious entry calmly rows out into the river and moves into an area unoccupied by other fishing boats. Then as the clock ticks down to the finish, he opens up a bag that he carried with him. To everyone’s surprise he pulls out a half-stick of dynamite. He lights it and tosses it overboard. A few moments later there is a geyser of water near the point of entry. The late comer then rows to the spot and begins to collect the fish that have now floated to the surface because they were stunned by the detonation. After the closing bell is rung, he paddles to shore and his load of fish is triple that of his next closest competitor and sets a new tournament record. There are shouts of protest, but it is found that this technique was not against the rules. It was simply a game changer. In our text for today, Jesus likewise challenges foundational assumptions about the nature and meaning of resurrection.
Jesus is confronted by a group of Sadducees who attempt to trip him up with a question related to marriage and the resurrection. On the surface, Jesus’ conversation with the Sadducees may seem non-confrontational, but Luke 20 records several challenges that Jesus receives from the religious leaders of his day. Moreover, the Sadducees as a group were well known for their denial of the resurrection. This was a point of contrast between the Sadducees and Pharisees. In other words, the very fact that the Sadducees ask Jesus about life in the resurrection suggests that there is an agenda behind their question other than mere interest.
They offer Jesus a scenario in which a woman ends up married to seven brothers each of which dies and is replaced by the next brother in faithful fulfillment of the levirate marriage law from the Old Testament. This law obligated a brother to marry his sister-in-law in the event that his brother died before producing children. The firstborn child of the new union would then be considered the offspring of the deceased brother. The Sadducees then ask Jesus, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Our Worthiness of Resurrection Life
The Sadducees must have believed that they had handed Jesus an unsolvable Gordian knot. For the Sadducees, the very idea of the necessity of Levirate marriage was proof that there was no resurrection. For them, a person lived on only through his or her offspring so Levirate marriage provided a means of a childless male to have offspring “from the grave.” But as Jesus often did, he adroitly side-stepped his way out of the apparent trap and used the question as an opportunity explode the status quo assumptions of the Sadducees and to point all within ear shot to the deeper reality of God’s kingdom. In other words, Jesus demonstrates the irrelevancy of the Sadducee’s scenario and pushes them to confront the truth about God’s kingdom and the resurrection.
Jesus transforms the conversation away from the question of marriage and focuses on the paradigm shift that occurs between this age and the coming age of God’s kingdom. Some have taken Jesus’ answer as proof that marriage relationships are not part of the afterlife. This however is not the intended teaching of the passage. Rather Jesus focuses on the profound contrast between an existence focused solely on one’s current life and one that is shaped by the future life of the resurrection. Notice that Jesus uses the language of “those who belong to this age” and “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection” (italics added).
Through his use of the language of worthy, Jesus invites all of his hearers including us to ask ourselves, “What makes a person worthy of life in God’s coming future of resurrection?” Jesus does not directly answer this question for us in this context, but if we have been careful readers of Luke’s Gospel, there have been several recurring themes that serve as markers to this life.
Whereas Jesus offered several scathing rebukes of life in this age as “faithless and perverse” , Jesus’ stories consistently portray a different mode of existence for those who will embody the way of Jesus. In Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s Gospel, we encounter exhortations to eat and associate with “sinners” for sake of extending God’s grace to them. We discover that we are to live by an expanded definition of love for neighbor and recognize that our sworn enemies may in fact embody this ethic better than we. We are exhorted to love others and show mercy extravagantly and indiscriminately. In short, the way of Jesus turns cultural assumptions upside down and overturns tendencies to exclude from access to God those on the peripheries and margins of society.
Jesus’ use of worthy was a subtle critique of the exclusivity of the Sadducees who were drawn primarily from the upper classes of society and who were ultimately the persons most invested in the status quo because they had the most at stake in the world as it currently operated. Their primary interest was in maintaining their own privileged position in society.
The initial part of Jesus’ response is clear: the Resurrection is real and each of us needs to be ready to enter into to it. It is not about marrying and being given in marriage – it is about being a child of the resurrection.
But Jesus is not finished. He pushes the envelope with the Sadducees by citing Moses. The Sadducees prided themselves on their conservative approach to Scripture. They believed a doctrine only if it was rooted in the text, and for the Sadducees, only the Law of Moses, Genesis – Deuteronomy was recognized as authoritative Scripture for life. Their rejection of the resurrection was based in their insistence that Moses had written nothing about resurrection. Yet in verses 37-38, Jesus introduces the conversation between God and Moses at the burning bush on Mount Sinai as proof that Moses believed in the resurrection. Jesus paraphrases Exodus 3:8 “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” By speaking of his relationship in the present tense, Jesus suggests that God’s words imply an on-going, beyond the grave relationship between God and Israel’s ancestors.
Jesus’ words are bold and daring. He has challenged the Sadducees on their misunderstanding of the nature of resurrection and invited them to reflect on the character of their own lives. Now he clearly suggests that they do not even understand their own Scriptures!
The Game Changer
This text is subversive and deeply unsettling. As we reflect on our lives today, do not we find ourselves occupied primarily by the “busy-ness” of the world in which we live? Are not our lives more about “marrying and being given in marriage” than about learning to reflect, cultivate, and embody the sort of existence that bears witness to the reality of resurrection? Moreover our communities of faith and our homes overflow with copies of the Bible. We hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed from our pulpits. We pour over texts in daily devotional times. We engage the Bible in our conversations with one another. This text challenges us to consider the real possibility that we may be misreading the Scriptures as a means of squelching the new work that God is seeking to do in our midst.
Jesus was a game changer. His life, death, and resurrection have changed everything. Are we willing to realign continually ourselves and our communities in order to reflect the game-changing life that God offers to those who follow Jesus?