November 6, 2022

"A Marriage Problem"

Luke 20:27-39

 

At first glance, today's passage from Luke may seem like a pointless theological debate, such as, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" By the way, the answer depends upon whether the bodies of angels are bodily or spiritual. If they are corporeal(embodied), maybe one, if they are really tiny; if spiritual, then the answer is unlimited. But who cares? We might ask the same of this question raised by the Sadducees. Who cares, and how could something so trivial matter to our faith today? I must admit I have thought the same thing every time I encountered this passage, which is one reason I have never preached upon it in almost 30 years of sermonizing.

As is true of a lot of scripture, there actually IS meaning for us in this passage which we can apply to our faith today. To find it, we'll need to begin by using the old adage from real estate - As is true of where one buys a house, LOCATION is essential. This story comes near the end of Jesus' earthly journey. Up to this point, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, driven out the money changers, and set up shop teaching in the temple. These actions did not sit well with the religious leaders of the day.

Luke 19:47 tells us that these leaders felt threatened by Jesus' behavior. "Every day, he was teaching at the temple. The chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard." So let's take a closer look at these leaders and their places of power within the Jewish faith.

First, the Chief priests. They are found only in the New Testament and the English translation of αρχιερεις (archiereis), which means "archpriests." The chief priests were the leading priests who were members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and the high priest was one of the chief priests. These priests were from the tribe of Levi.

Then there were the scribes. They were experts on Jewish law and had diverse roles. Some could have been lower-level scribes who served as village scribes making up contracts and documents—and serving as government officials. Most of them lived in Jerusalem and were associated with the temple's priests.

The third group mentioned in Luke 19:47 are the Leaders of the people - The Elders, who made rules and regulations based on Jewish law for the people to follow.

Each group was represented in the Sanhedrin Council, the seat of power within the Judaic religion. Jesus, in teaching at the temple, threatened the council's authority. I want to be clear that this is an issue about power, not the Jews versus Jesus, for Jesus was Jewish. This issue is purely about power and the real threat of losing authority.

So, these three groups representing the council ask Jesus directly, By WHOSE authority do you do these things? (Throw out the money changers and teach the meaning of the law to the people right here in the temple? I guess an equivalent situation today would be as if someone came into the narthex at the back of the church, threw out all of the literature and brochures on our table, and then preached their own sermon with a large contingent of adoring followers transfixed by their words while our service was going on. I have to admit I would feel threatened if something like that happened! So, this group of threatened leaders wanted to know what he was doing and by whose authority.

Jesus responds cleverly with a question about John the Baptist. By whose authority did John baptize? This question set up a dilemma for them. If they said John's authority came from God, then Jesus could ask, "Then why did you not follow him?" If they said John's authority came from human beings, then they would deny that John was a prophet, which was also a problem, as John was still very popular after his beheading. The masses believed he was a prophet, meaning people would have turned against them. They didn't answer, so neither did Jesus. Touché.

Then Jesus told a challenging parable- one that was directed right at the temple leaders.(20:9-19) suggesting they were unworthy tenants in the temple, that they had failed to recognize the Messiah, and that they would be replaced. I don't think this parable turned down the temperature of the conflict!

Then he avoided another trap about paying taxes. (20:20-26) The trap - If Jesus had said to pay taxes, the people would have been upset, as taxation to Rome kept their oppressor in power. To stop paying taxes would stir up rebellion. Jesus tells them to give to God what is God's, and Caesar what is Caesar's. This answer distinguished between Caesar and God, pointing to Caesar's false claims as a god.

That brings us to today's passage, and a new group appears- The Sadducees. The Sadducees were an aristocratic, wealthy, politically minded group willing to compromise with Roman authorities to help keep the uneasy peace. They controlled the high priesthood, were from the Levite priestly class, and held the majority of seats in the council. For the Sadducees, the only books of the Torah that mattered were the first five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). No teaching had authority if it didn't come from these five books.

Because of this, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, which the other groups I have just mentioned DID believe in. You may think that bodily resurrection is a Christian thing, but you would be wrong. Consider the following passages, all of whom reside outside the Pentateuch:

Hosea 13:14 "Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your destruction?

Then there is Job 14:14-15. "If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service, I would wait until my release should come. 15 You would call, and I would answer You;
You would long for the work of your hands."

Then there is this passage from Isaiah 26:19.19 Your dead shall live; their corpses shall rise.
Those who dwell in the dust will awake and shout for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth to those long dead."

Finally, in Daniel 12:2, it is written, "2 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt."

The belief in some form of resurrection after death was well-founded in Jewish theology. The Sadducees were in the minority in their opposition to the idea.

Perhaps to bolster their position on the absurdity of this notion, they try to ask about a practical problem about resurrection, regarding the "Brother law" found in Deuteronomy 25:1-10. This passage says in part, "5. "When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go into her, taking her in marriage and performing the duty of a husband's brother to her, 6 and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.."

Under this law, the Sadducees want to know whose property this woman would be in the resurrection, especially if her first husband died, followed by all 6 of his brothers. The question was meant to show that the whole idea of resurrection was foolish.

Some issues about this question are absurd in another way due to their patriarchal beliefs at the time. First, these men all debate whose wife the woman will be. It was true in 1st century A.D. life that women had few rights, if any and were primarily seen as property. Thankfully that has changed in most but not all places in the world.

Second, the passage tells us, "All men died childless." The woman was not part of the birth equation. The absent children were considered only concerning the male figures of the families, so the female and her reproduction abilities were unimportant. My wife, a Labor and Delivery nurse for more than 20 years, would vehemently disagree with this notion, and rightly so!

Jesus responds to the Sadducees by telling them that life on earth is not the same as the life to come. Our existence becomes more eternal than earthy, angel-like, and closer to God than we are on earth.

Then Jesus uses a story from Exodus, one of the approved books of the Torah by the Sadducees. Jesus states that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the living; therefore, if that is true, then these ancestors in the faith are also alive in God's presence- Hence the resurrection yet to come. The scribes, who must have been hanging around from the earlier questions, affirmed Jesus's teaching because it also affirmed their beliefs about resurrection.

There are some significant points in this passage:

  1. Life after death will not be the same. Theologian Kyle Brooks, in working through this passage, states, "What won't be resurrected are the petty squabbles and theological quandaries of our times. They will be regulated to the realm of dead things…Resurrection does not come without death, but it leaves dead things in its wake. It does not fret about dead husbands and wives. On the contrary, it rejoices that the dead can die no more."

 

  1. Conditions in this life, particularly relational constructs, will not matter as they do in eternity. That doesn't mean they won't hold importance. Early in our relationship, Paula and I had a bit of a theological debate about whether we would know each other once we got to heaven due to this very passage. I sure like to think so, and I'll see and know those I have loved and lost before my own death. One of my favorite passages, John 16:22, tells us of the day of great reunion in heaven when we will see each other again, and no one will take away our joy. Our relationships will be different, not as meaningful as they are here and now. We don't know precisely what they will be like, but we will be connected primarily through our relationship with God.

 

  1. Then there's the biggie-Resurrection what is it like? How does resurrection compare with immortality? Well, the immortality of the soul ( a Greek notion) promises that some spiritual element of a person persists beyond the physical death of the body. The resurrection tells us that some form of our bodies, the whole person, will be united with God. Paul tried several times to explain this, but in my mind just muddied the water. In 1 Cor. 15:35-49- he suggests these bodies will be possibly plant-like, celestial yet earthly, and overall hard to explain.

 

In closing, we all will die - there is no escaping that. But because of Jesus, who died upon the cross and rose again, we live and die with the promise that somehow, in ways we cannot fully comprehend nor understand, we will be raised from death to new life. The last verse of one of my favorite hymns written by Natalie Sleeth, "In The Bulb, There Is A Flower," says it best. "In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt, there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see." Until that victory is revealed, may we live in the mystery and hope of the resurrection. Alleluia! Amen.

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