The end of the line?

Gospel: Luke 20:27-38

27 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 [his brother] 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 31and 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 marry 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 marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed 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.


The end of the line?

We all die. But we like to think we can do an end run around death. It shows up in our sympathy for those who must remain childless, and in that apparently irresistible question with its underlying disapproval: "When will you have children, Dear?" There is special significance and pain where there is no child for the continuance of the family line.  Speaking of the world of the Sadducees, James Alison says, "The only way of bluffing past the universal reign of death was by having children... The only way to have a blessing in the land of the living was by having children, descendants."  (Raising Abel pp36) We are not much different.

I suspect this is one reason the climate catastrophe is so confronting, as is the fear of nuclear devastation when we remember it: Climate catastrophe means we all come to the end of the line.

When we approach this reading it is not only that we deal with the universal human fear of death. We read as members of a death denying society. Chaplains and clinicians know well the anger which can be expressed when doctors say nothing more can be done; families sometimes insist that brain dead bodies be kept alive. We are surely unique as a culture that Karen Ann Quinlan was "an important figure in the history of the right to die controversy."   The notion of the right to die would be inconceivable to most people who have ever lived.

The text is also painful for women.  The woman is reduced to a chattel by this story.  She has value only as she provides children for a male.  Childlessness is a cause for condemnation and opprobrium.  Where a couple decide not to have children, or where the male cannot reproduce, it is still typically the woman who bears the blame.  As for the woman herself unable to have children the biblical word "barren" connotes shame and judgement.

Dylan Breuer says

Marriage is not of eternal importance. It does not define who you are in God's eyes.

It's still radical to say. When women get married, most still change their names. Couples planning their wedding speak of the day as "the most important day in our lives." Anthropologists have a label -- "redemptive media" -- for the things one must do in a given culture to be considered good and successful... and marriage (alongside things like getting a college degree, having children, and owning a home) is a powerful redemptive medium in our culture. Think about it -- what chance would a potential candidate for president have if he (or worse yet, she!) had never been married? In our culture, marriage plays a huge role in defining who's trustworthy, who's successful, who's blessed.

All this is to say that the text is more emotionally loaded for us than most texts!

The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. The regarded only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) as authoritative. There is no resurrection there. Resurrection begins to take clear shape in the couple of centuries before Jesus. Alison notes that when the Sadducees give Jesus their story of seven brothers who die in an effort to show that resurrection would be ridiculous— whose wife would she be then!? — that

Jewish listeners at the time would probably have thought immediately of the seven Maccabee brothers who had been executed for their refusal to abandon the Law and who were considered immortal. ... So it's as if the Sadducees were saying: "The levirate law undercuts all the arguments for the resurrection of the dead, even if you use as an example the Maccabee brothers," who were a favorite example for the partisans of popular Jewish belief in the resurrection. (Raising Abel pp36-7)

Today, the Sadducees might appeal to biology and make up an example which highlights that there is no mind, and no life in any meaningful form, which is independent of a living body. Consequently, the notion of resurrection is reduced to being a denial of death.

We need to listen well to this modern Sadducee, for in batting away their objection we all risk the charge of an unconscious denial of death.  Within our faith, this is not simply an argument about being right or wrong about reality.  Rather, to deny death is to fail to live fully, for it denies the reality of life as a biologically embedded and created being.  It is to fail to confront— to be confronted by— death's reality. And that means that we fail to trust God as fully as we might. We say we are saved; that is, we are healed and made well through faith, and "this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God." (Eph 2:8 ) When we too easily make light of death, that denial is likely to close us to the love with which God wishes to bless us.

Another form of death denial is to think we know too clearly what will come. We lessen the affront and the fearsomeness of death by reassuring ourselves that life will come again in a certain form...  rather than trusting that we will not be left alone by the God who loves us, and accepting that we do not quite know, and cannot know, exactly what that means. In the end we must trust this present  life, and its dying, which intimates God to us.

The key thing about this text is that it occurs as Jesus is in Jerusalem knowing that he will die. Craddock says of the early church

Resurrection was first of all a matter of Christology: God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. From that proclamation came the belief in the resurrection of believers. Therefore, while Jesus' words to the Sadducees may have been used in and by the church to counter doubts about resurrection, apparently the primary contention was not on resurrection as such but on the resurrection of Jesus. On that belief depended the understanding of both the present and the future life of his followers. Remove from the discussion the resurrection of Jesus and talk about life after death remains interesting but for Jesus' followers ceases to be very important. (Luke pp 239)

Alison develops what he saw Jesus understood about his death. Beginning with his reply to the Sadducees:

marrying and giving in marriage are realities proper to a world of death... Jesus' reply to the Sadducees' conundrum [is that] having children is a necessity only for those who are dominated by death. For those who are not, it couldn't be less important.

This could sound like just the insensitive thing an unmarried priest would say! Yet as a father whose children have no children I notice that they are not one whit less human, less formed, less compassionate or giving. Indeed, in many ways, they have done good works I could not do.  This is not the message we have as a culture where parenthood is not a vocation but a requirement for goodness, as Breuer notes above.

And then, Jesus' statement about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

Jesus isn’t talking about some special power to do something miraculous, like raising someone from the dead. Rather he’s giving an indication of the sort of power which characterizes God, something of the quality of who God is. This ‘power’, this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead’; it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death.

I suggest that we have here something of great importance. Jesus was able to imagine God, to perceive God, in such a way that his whole vision was colored by God as radically alive, as a-mortal, as in no way shaded by death. Those who started the dispute with him were not able to perceive God in this way, and their theological arguments were, according to Jesus, vitiated from their roots. When Jesus tells the Sadducees that they are greatly mistaken ("poly planasthe"), he is not telling them that they have made a mistake, for example, with respect to some detail, but that their whole perception is radically wrong, distorted, and it is so because it is stuck in a vision which flows from death to death, a vision which has not acceded to God, the entirely death-less.  (Raising Abel pp38)

The denial of death, in Jesus' view, comes from a distorted vision of reality.  It is to think that death has power. In fact, our denial is the evidence that death does have power over us.  Paul Nuechterlein, who most helpfully saved me the task of retyping Alison's words above, sums up the import of Alison's words. It's an excellent vignette of Alison's theology and anthropology.

[He] places before us the thesis that our ideas about God are totally colored by a view which can only see life in its contrast with death. It’s not that there is no such reality that we might call “death.” It’s that our human experience of it is completely colored by what has shaped us culturally and psychologically since the foundation of the world. Our very humanity is rooted in a certain kind of death for which we alone are responsible. If there is another kind of death, a “natural” death, for example, we cannot truly know about it because our experience of death is bound up with what shapes us as human beings.

Jesus takes this different view of God, this different understanding of death, onto the cross. He goes willingly to his death because he could see it from a completely different perspective. Alison says of him:

This was not because he was not human, nor because he was God instead of being human, but because his fully human imagination was capable of being fixed on the ineffable effervescence and vivacity, power and deathlessness of God in a way which seems almost unimaginable to us. (Raising Abel pp 40)

Alison's thesis is that it is in seeing the resurrection of Jesus that the disciples are able to have "a change in imagination... produced" in them, "very slowly, since it is the whole of human cultural perception which is being altered." (Ibid pp41-2) And that such a change is offered to us.

This brings me to my own reading of the text.

The text is not an argument about resurrection. To use it as such, or to use it as support in an argument for life after death, is to miss what it is about. He does not argue with the Sadducees. Alison says his reply is "both direct and discourteous." As Matthew has it: "You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God" (22:29) You either get this or you don't; there is no point in arguing.

Arguing can only ever and always be subject to the charge of death denial (on the part of Christians) or of "denial of being a contingent being" on the part of those who today deny both God and resurrection; that is, denying the reality of God denies our contingency as a created being, and saying that death is mere oblivion, too easily seeks to avoid the possibility that we may have something to answer for about our use of this life. The claim to oblivion is its own form of death denial; it fears what death may bring just as much as the rest of us, and so it claims there will be nothing.  We are never not emotionally invested in such arguments.

Instead of seeing any sort of "proof" of resurrection in the text, I see a claim to a radically different life.  Alison makes the comment on page 40 that

it is in the degree to which we come to perceive how God really is [ie nothing to do with death], and to offer [God] service, that we will be able to alter our behaviour to something more appropriate. 

And as I outline in the first (11 paragraph) section of What Just Happened, we find that much of that change in us is simply given to us, or done to us. If we will "dare death" in our trust of Jesus and in our service of God; that is, if we trust that Jesus' vision of reality was correct, and we act accordingly; less cautious, living more dangerously, risking more consequence for our compassion towards others, then resurrection ceases to be an argument. It is not even a thing to be doubted. It becomes a vision which, in moments of clarity, it is given to us to see clearly.

Andrew Prior. (2019)

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!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 20:27-40 - Kingdom and Resurrection (2010)
Luke 20:27-38 - A Missionary Meets a Cannibal (2013)

Notable words
Brian Stoffregen:  In contrast to Matthew's presentation of Pharisees and Sadducees working together against Jesus, Rabbinic literature (as well as Acts) pictures these two groups as opponents. Part of this opposition arises because the Pharisees accepted the authority of the oral tradition as extensions and proper interpretations of the Law and the Sadducees did not.

Ellis quoted in Fitzmyer pp1301: The question between Jesus and the Sadducees is not Plato's but Job's, no 'if a man die is he still alive' but 'if a man die shall he live again'.  

Marshal in Luke pp 743 quoted in Fitzmyer pp1301: Only living people can have a God, and therefore Yahweh's promise to the patriarchs that he is/will be their God requires that he maintain them in life.



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