Luke 20:27-38 CEB
Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless. The second and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. Finally, the woman died too. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”
Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy to participate in that age, that is, in the age of the resurrection from the dead, won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection. Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.”
How many here have seen the classic cartoon shorts from Tom and Jerry? In each one, Tom the cat seeks to catch Jerry the mouse, usually through increasingly convoluted means. Do you remember how often Jerry, as small as he was, outfoxed Tom to escape or even turn the tables on his larger opponent? We love this kind of story where the underdog outsmarts those trying to trick or trap them! Well, the gospel writers love this kind of story too, and like our scripture reading this morning, they love showing Jesus outwitting his opponents time and time again. The Sadducees attempt to give Jesus a puzzle he cannot possibly solve, to show just how ridiculous his belief in resurrection truly is. Now yes, Jesus does out puzzle the puzzlers, but I think the thing we can often overlook in these stories is that Jesus always engages. Whether it's questioners, scoffers, or sarcastic accusers, Jesus never dismisses them, instead taking on all comers with serious consideration to meet them where they are. He is determined to speak their language and ultimately seeks to plant a seed in them that will grow something new. For all of us today, as we come face-to-face with Jesus in our scripture, are we too willing to meet and engage, rather than scoff and dismiss? Are we willing to be seed planters, letting the Spirit do the work of bringing life in a new way to the interactions we have with others?
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the Sadducees, these contemporaries of Christ, and the Pharisees. Who were they? What do we know about them? Well, from scripture and a few other authors in antiquity like Josephus, we know a few things. First and most importantly for our scripture reading today, we know they do not believe in the resurrection like Jesus and the Pharisees did. The Sadducees accepted only the authority of Moses and the written Torah, unlike Jesus and the Pharisees who saw value and meaning in the prophetic literature, psalms, and oral interpretation too. As more of a curious side note, they also did not believe in angels either. Basically for them, if it was not in the Torah and said by Moses, it was not worth believing. Finally, they were made up of the elite upper crust of Jewish society, who were described by Josephus as “able to persuade none but the rich,” so their beliefs tended to be restricted to the wealthy. Now here they are, ready to question Jesus using their wild scenario of a wife and seven husbands to make another’s belief in eternity look silly!
It reminds me of a speech class, my wife, Caitlin had, because in it, a classmate shared a presentation with his central argument being that if “with God all things are possible,” isn’t it possible that God doesn’t exist (Matthew 19:26 NIV)? In other words, he concocted this wild scenario where he attempted to use God’s own words to prove that God doesn’t exist… It kind of falls into the same camp as other wild questions that spring up from time to time, like “Can God make a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it?” They are meant to trick or trap, making them hard to engage in and almost impossible to answer, much like the example from the Sadducees. Jesus could have easily dismissed them and their outlandish scenario! Jesus could have scoffed at them, called them ridiculous to their face, and walked away! Instead, in verse 34, Jesus responds by saying, “‘People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage.’” Jesus here does what he always seems to in the Gospels, he takes these puzzlers seriously, responding to their scenario as though there is a real question there to answer. He addresses them as though they are willing to learn something.
Jesus proceeds to meet them where they are, acknowledging that marriage can be something important for folks in this life. For the Sadducees especially, marriage and children mattered a lot, as with no eternity ahead their legacy and their descendants mattered the most. However, first things first, Jesus proceeds to dismiss their assumption of the woman as property, saying that in eternity this woman is not a belonging for her seven dead husbands to fight over. While for them marriage and progeny were the points in life, what matters more in eternity is our standing as people who “‘can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection.’” Where Family status, legacy, and progeny matter, the woman in the story stays property, but in eternity and resurrection where these do not matter, she is free to be an eternal child of God. Jesus hints here that something new and different is happening in the resurrection that Sadduccees and even we today can just barely understand.
Jesus has answered their question, but he isn’t done yet, as he then goes on to answer the question they should have asked. Their question should have been, do the written Torah and Moses ever speak about resurrection and eternity? That would have been the question for people who were hungry to learn and honestly wanted to have a conversation with someone like Jesus who believed differently than they did. In Exodus 3:6, at the burning bush encounter, the LORD tells Moses, “‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’” (Exodus 3:6 NRSV). Jesus quotes this to the Sadducees, for Jesus holds God to be “the living God,” and so God is the God of the living (Deuteronomy 5:26 NRSV). In Exodus, God references the dead patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the present tense to the still-living Moses, so they must be alive, not dead. If they are alive, there is some kind of resurrection and some kind of eternity for them to be alive in with the God of life!
Do you see what Jesus did there? He keeps showing the puzzlers he’s taking them seriously. He met the Sadducees where they were, and he spoke in their own language so that they could understand him and what he held to be true. They held the Torah and Moses to be of the utmost importance, and through some novel interpretation, Jesus gave them a defense for resurrection using the Torah and Moses. Can you imagine how they must have felt? I say imagine because while we have a recorded response from the Pharisees and scribes in this scripture passage, there is no recorded response from the Sadducees in Luke. I imagine they probably did respond though, and I am sure it was a loud and negative one. I am sure they would say that those verses could not mean what Jesus said they did! Could they? Surely not! But what if they did…? Jesus plants seeds, and uses that image to describe building the kingdom, I mean mustard seed anyone? A seed can take a while to grow. Did this seed grow in the hearts of the Sadducees that day? It’s hard to say, but maybe something planted did grow. Maybe just maybe, the scoffers had their minds opened and saw God and creation just a bit differently afterward.
That outcome is out of Jesus’ hands and often out of our own, but we can learn from Jesus in this encounter to be willing to puzzle with the puzzlers. The Sadducees came to test Christ’s orthodoxy, as they understood it, with a riddle, and Jesus in turn riddled them right back. What about us? When someone disagrees, thinks differently, or holds different values and experiences, how do we respond? Do we scoff? Do we dismiss? Do we walk away, not even willing to tolerate their ridiculousness? In other words, do we treat people as anything and everything other than being a child of God? That should be enough, as it was for Jesus, for us to meet them where they are, speak in their language, and let the Spirit do its work with them and us. After all, as Jesus so neatly pointed out today, we have all of eternity to work with! Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman