A Provocation: Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (November 6, 2016): Luke 20:27-38

Luke 20:27-38
20:27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him

20:28 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.

20:29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless;

20:30 then the second

20:31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.

20:32 Finally the woman also died.

20:33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

20:34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage;

20:35 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.

20:36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.

20:37 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.

20:38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.


A Question or Two:

  • Why is it so important to the storyteller to identify the Sadducees in terms of what they DO NOT believe?
  • Why say it this way: “They cannot die anymore?”  That makes death sound like an accomplishment that is now out of reach.  What in the world would that mean?
  • Or is that precisely the point?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is a great little story that the Sadducees pose to Jesus.  They are arguing against the Pharisees, who are on the other side of this argument: they say that the life of the Creation is extended by God to include an aeon of Resurrection.  The Sadducees say that the life of Creation is bracketed by death: there is no aeon beyond this one.

The difference is sharp and decisive.

And both sides have reasons for their positions.  Of course part of the difference between Pharisees and Sadducees is rooted in what counts as Scripture to each group.  If you hold only the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as Scripture, there is no reference to resurrection in those books.  If you count also the Prophets and the Writings as Scripture, then a life beyond universal mortality is indeed part of God’s gift to Creation.

But in neither case is the generalized American popular Christianized notion of some kind of continuous immortality on the table.  The Sadducees are not denying such a life (though they would, if that were the issue) and the Pharisees are not supporting it (in fact they would vigorously deny it, given the chance).  And Jesus is surely not weighing in on the side of such a notion.  Given historical possibilities, he also would reject such a notion, even (or especially) if it were put to him in the form of the usual “going to be with Jesus” model so common in American popular theology.

The little story told by the Sadducees is brilliant.

The story creates an absurdity (a moral, patriarchal absurdity) in order to do away with the Pharisees argument.  In a patriarchal system, it will be morally offensive if brothers have to share the same wife in the resurrection.  Patriarchal laws regulate which men have sexual access to which women’s bodies.  This is covered under the laws governing incest, but it is all about the controlling of women’s bodies.  The notion of an aeon in which all life is again alive creates a real control problem, which the Sadducees (like any group of patriarchs) reads as a moral absurdity.  God could not possibly set up a situation (by raising the dead in the coming aeon) in which the morality of the patriarchy is made dubious.

The Pharisees also have a moral argument on their side.

The demand for an aeon of Resurrection grows out of a sharp-eyed recognition that life, bounded as it is by mortality, is too short to witness actual justice.  Empires control people by using torture and murder as unanswerable political arguments.  “If we have hoped in Christ only for this life, we are of all people most to be pitied,” said the apostle Paul, more or less on this topic (1 Corinthians 15:19) because if Empire can torture you to death and suffer no consequences, then our lot is pitiable.  Empire will argue that right and wrong do not matter, that the only thing that matters is whether Empire can kill you or not.

Against such a view of reality, “messiah” provides a critical analytic for Jewish faith (even in the present time when the language shifts to the notion, not of a messiah, but of a messianic era).  “Messiah” means that God agrees: the world is not the way it is meant to be.  God did not create a world in which children would have to starve to death for the Creation to function properly.  “Messiah” means that God promises to turn the world right-side-up, even if it can only happen in the aeon beyond this one.

This theology is deeply realistic, even as it is ultimately hopeful.  The Pharisees’ theology knows that empires win when mortality forms the boundary of human life and possibility.  Rome will always win if the contest is won by strength and brutality and depth of military resources.  The promise of a coming aeon allows God to get in the game properly.

The Pharisees’s argument is therefore a moral argument: God HAS to get into the argument, and that is exactly what God does not manage to do in a world limited by mortality.  This is an important point.  God OUGHT to make a moral difference in the world, but it is difficult to demonstrate (in the face of imperial power) that this is how things work.

That means that any monotheism (Judaism and Christianity in particular) is going to need to solve this problem.

If you use the word “God” as if it were a meaningful term, your attention will be focused on the reality of injustice in the world.  And the realities of existence will either require you to ally yourself with Empire (as did the Sadducees) or with the promised aeon that will finally bring about the justice your faith requires you to demand.

Notice that Jesus adopts the Pharisees’ side of things here.

Nothing short of a resurrection will bring about justice.  “God is the God of the living,” says Jesus, pointing to the ancient stories of the first Jews.  But Jesus is not just talking about Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and all the old ones who populate the stories that make Israel what it is.  He is also pointing to the martyrs that Rome has killed in its effort to squelch the Jewish hope for justice in Creation.  “It may be easy to murder us,” says Jesus (and all of Judaism), “but you cannot get rid of us: God is the God of the living, and martyrs never die.”

Resurrection is not merely a personal promise given to each bereaved person (which group finally includes all of us, one by one).  Resurrection is a promise given to an entire Creation that waits for justice to be more than a misty dream.  If justice were only a misty dream, it would be difficult to argue that we ought to seek it, pray for it, work for it, or serve it.  If justice is only a misty dream, then our only hope should be to become a “star,” since “when you are a star they let you do whatever you want” (to quote a presidential candidate and every self-centered self-made man).

Jesus and the Pharisees refuse to live in such a cynical world.

That is what it means to be “children of the Resurrection,” which is also to say “children of God” (Luke 20:36).  To be a child of God is to refuse the comforts of cynicism.  To be a child of the Resurrection is to refuse to surrender, even in the face of Divine silence and Imperial power, the demand for real justice, real fairness, real accountability.

That means that there is much more at stake in this little scene than might first appear.  This is not about the absurdity of patriarchy, though such systems of control are always finally absurd.  This is not even about whether religious belief in “life after death” is defensible in a modern scientific world.  If “resurrection” is only about “going to heaven” to live with your big buddy Jesus, then resurrection is pointless and indefensible.

But this little scene concerns itself with the possibility that the human demand for justice actually has a grounding, and that we can actually criticize the abuses of the powerful on ethical grounds, and not merely on the ground of our discomfort.

There are many ways to attempt to ground an ethics, but for Jews and Christians (at least) ethics is and will be grounded in a larger vision of life that draws its energy from the belief that this is God’s Creation.  And this larger vision requires God to be the God of the living, and that, therefore, all of Creation drives toward life, rather than merely ending in death and mere mortality.  This larger vision depends on an understanding of the purpose of Creation, which must be that all life ought be allowed to thrive.

But such notions of the purpose of existence will always be awkward for cynical structures that content themselves with simply gaining and holding advantage.

Think about this the next time you hear yourself say that you want your children to have every advantage.  This is not a neutral, individual statement.  It reveals a notion of the need for a competitive advantage in order to succeed in the world.  If my children need “every advantage,” those “advantages” exert force over your children.

If that is the way the world is structured, we do not need (or want) ethics.  We only want power and advantage.

And Jesus, in this little scene, will not be on your side.  That is worth thinking about.



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