Gospel: Luke 20:27-40
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and 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. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31Then the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age many and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither many nor are given in marriage. 36lndeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And 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: 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive’ 39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
Point One: Don’t argue with Jesus! So says Robert Linthicum, and he is correct. The story clearly shows Jesus’ superiority in an argument. That is part of the strategy and purpose of the gospels. But this reading is far deeper than that.
Point Two: God cares. At its best, Levirate marriage which the Sadducees are using to ridicule the concept of resurrection, was a form of social security. It protected the widow, who would otherwise be left without income, and perpetuated the family line. Jesus’ answer suggests that after death the care of God is such that the protections of levirate marriage are not necessary. God cares. This implies not only God’s love, but God’s power, which is greater than death, and reaches beyond death.
Jesus’ argument obviously implies the Sadducees don’t know what they are talking about. It also fits with the teaching of Paul in first Corinthians 15. In that chapter Paul is clear that resurrection is not “more of the same.” There is a complete and absolute dying, and a raising to something new.
The argument of the Sadducees really rests on an understanding of resurrection which is more like resuscitation than the complete change of existence implied by Jesus and Paul. In their view, life goes on the same, essentially.
In fact, the idea of resurrection was not the traditional view (which some voices in our age assume, and now deny as a naive and primitive view which is ridiculous.) The Sadducees were indeed in the role of the skeptics. But they were not the radicals, or the enlightened ones, in the argument. They were the traditionalists. Jesus (and he shared this view with the Pharisees) was the proponent of the new view, the radical understanding of reality. Resurrection was not the traditional understanding of reality after death, and despite the critique which is often made today, resurrection was not an avoidance the reality of death.
The people of Jesus age were well aware of death, and far less in denial than our society! For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise? argues the Psalmist (6:5.) These people knew and accepted that dead was dead, unlike some modern day funerals, where death seems to have become same kind of “translation” to the best of all holiday resorts. Our society has lost its confidence about death, and is in denial.
If we do not dismiss resurrection as denial and wish fulfillment, we can see that it was actually statement of hope in the face of injustice, suffering, and absurdity. Those who suffered and saw wholesale slaughter during the Maccabean rebellion, and other events, were not denying death. They were saying, “Surely life is not as short and meaningless and absurd as this!” As a statement of hope in the face of injustice, suffering, and absurdity, resurrection is completely congruent with the notion the Kingdom of Heaven. In the face of apparent certain defeat and failure, resurrection is saying, “Anyway!”
Resurrection is congruent with the “now and not yet” of the kingdom. It is not merely “giving death the finger,” but also saying “Anyway,” to suffering and injustice. It is a statement of hope and trust in God, because it says that despite the absurdity of everything, it will live according to the mores of the kingdom, in the hope of the kingdom. Rather than denial, Jesus’ doctrine of resurrection was a statement of faith in the love and justice of God.
In all of that Jesus said nothing about mechanisms. In his teaching resurrection simply is. The Sadducees’ attempt to ridicule him assumes mechanism. They assume how things are; that is, how resurrection will happen. Jesus not only repudiates their mechanism, but does not name a competing mechanism.
Whenever we argue about the mechanisms of resurrection, we are making a category mistake. Essentially, we are trying to hijack a statement of hope and trust and desire, to make a statement of physics. If we reduce the notion of resurrection merely to “life after death” we are also making a kind of category mistake. We impoverish the whole notion of resurrection.
One of my philosophy tutors suffered from multiple sclerosis. He said of life after death, “Why would I want more of this?” Even blessed with a physically healthy life, l am now old enough to think that the verses added to John Newton’s hymn might threaten a horrible future:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing his praise
than when we first begun.
If resurrection is not more than merely life after death, it will be endless torture. There are days I am tired of life after only 55 years! I do not want more of the same. I want better. Yet what is apparent in popular belief, is only an increase in quantity and quality, not a transformation. It is essentially denial.
Listen to the stories- “He’s gone to the greatest golf course in the world!” That would get boring. It would not be enough. The implications are not thought out, just as the implications of my comments on Newton’s hymn are not though out. Immediate denial of the boredom of heaven is often not based on theological subtleties. It springs from a doctrine of heaven that is really essentially only a denial of death.
I emphasise these issues for two reasons.
The first is that I think much of our society uses the idea of life after death, ever though we may call it resurrection, as a means of death avoidance. The reasoning goes like this: “If I believe in life after death, I won’t have to worry about it.” That sounds ridiculous, but it is what used to underlie my adherence to the doctrine. Not that I would have admitted it- even to myself.
I am going to die. I am not happy about it. I will avoid it as long as possible. But l am also giving death, and injustice and absurdity “the finger” now, by seeking to live a kingdom, resurrection life. And if death should turn out to be a complete end of me in every way, this is still one person who has said “Anyway! There is more worth than you, Death. You will always be less, always inferior, to what could be. You kill me, but you fail.”
The second reason is implicit in what I have just said. We are not simply called to be agnostic about the mechanism of resurrection. We are also unable to even imagine a mechanism. All life we know, and can conceive of, is dependent on matter. And we are not able to understand how even this matter based consciousness works! Our life, and self, is held in the tissue of the brain. When the brain begins to decay, we die. There is only hope. There is no cogent imagining or reasonable hypothesis available to science.
A doctrine of resurrection which is more than merely “life after death,” can make sense for a modern mind which has a scientific world view as an inescapable part of its foundations. For those times when our fragile self has no defense against the threat of death and its inevitability, when depression or despair threatens to overwhelm us, resurrection lets us give absurdity “the finger.” It will say, “Even if you utterly destroy me, I can imagine something greater, something and much worthier, than you! And I will live for it- anyway- because it is better.”
There are times when this is a grim, almost hopeless and pointless spiting of death’s inevitability. It is one last tiny act of resistance. But sometimes I find- even me, the skeptic- a sense, and assurance, and hope, that this is far more than mere words! We are in the now and the not yet.
Look at where this week’s reading is situated in the gospel of Luke. It is so much more than an isolated statement. So much more than a story showing Jesus can out argue his opponents. It is a part of Luke’s theology of the kingdom. It is part of his stand against injustice and empire. It is a stand against the absurd and the pointless. It proclaims the kingdom.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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