Text: Luke 20:27-40
There’s a piece of legislation in the book of Deuteronomy called the law of levirate marriage. In a patriarchal society in which children were seen not only as a sign of blessing and prosperity, but also as a way for a man to ensure the survival of his own name, his family line, levirate marriage was a way of seeing that there would be a son to continue that name even if a married man died before having children. According to the law, it was the duty of the dead man’s brother to marry the childless widow, and the firstborn son that they produce together would not be his, but would be the legal offspring of the deceased brother. And by doing this the surviving brother would redeem his dead brother’s lineage, and keep his name alive in Israel. That was the point of the law.
The sermon title, “All of them are alive,” is taken from the final phrase that Jesus says in a conversation he has with the Sadducees in which they reference this law. This is the only time in Luke’s gospel when the Sadducees have an exchange with Jesus. Just this once. They want to talk about resurrection, which they don’t believe in, and in case that wasn’t heavy-duty enough, for good measure they mix in the politics of marriage and biblical interpretation. Take a sip of that cocktail, and you’ve got to admire the Sadducees for making the most of this one opportunity to ask Jesus a question. That this is an important exchange in the memory of the early church is reflected in the fact that it is recorded in almost the exact same form, in the same narrative location, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Despite its apparent importance, I admit I’ve never even attempted to preach on this text before, and I don’t remember ever hearing any sermons on it, although I’m sure it’s been done. Part of the strangeness of this passage is that very mix of topics that the Sadducees put before Jesus. It addresses something about which, I think it’s safe to say, most of us have quite a bit of interest in having a little more clarity on – resurrection. But the references to the culturally specific marriage practices of the ancient near east make the whole thing come across as distant and opaque. The effect for us can be one of disappointment. Here we have Jesus himself being asked a question about resurrection – something he rarely talked about, by the way. This is not the apostles talking about the resurrection of Jesus after they experienced it. This is Jesus, before all that, giving his own perspective on what resurrection is or isn’t all about. Here it is, right here. But the question from the Sadducees isn’t at all the kind of question we would like to ask, and so we are pretty quickly detached from the whole discussion. After that final phrase out of Jesus’ mouth, “all of them are alive,” Luke writes: “They no longer dared to ask him another question.” And we’re left feeling like we missed something. Something profound enough to silence the questions of everyone. What I wish it said was: “After that, everyone had lots more questions, which Jesus answered directly and thoroughly; see appendix for full manuscript.”
Not what it says. So what’s going on here?
Aside from not believing in resurrection, we don’t know a whole about the Sadducees, but we do know a little. They were associated with the elite and had close ties to the Jerusalem temple system. This exchange with Jesus takes place in the temple, so it’s the Sadducees who are on their home turf here. Another thing about them is that they believed that only the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures were authoritative: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. There’s not a whole lot else known about them, and because the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, they pretty much drop off the map altogether at that point and had little to no influence in the formation of what became rabbinic Judaism in the centuries that followed. Ironically, this group challenging Jesus about resurrection from the dead will soon come to their own historical dead end. Their connections with the temple establishment and their view of scripture is enough to know that this was a fairly conservative group, with interest in maintaining the status quo. This also fits well into their beliefs about resurrection because one of the things about resurrection is that it seriously messes with the status quo.
The Sadducees believed only in the Pentateuch and because those books have nothing to say about resurrection, they didn’t believe in it. It wasn’t in their Bible. But a lot had happened with the people of Israel since the time of Moses. They had mixed and mingled with Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. They had assimilated some of the philosophies of these other cultures and expanded their own scriptures to include words of the prophets, Psalms, Wisdom literature. The idea of resurrection doesn’t show up until late in Jewish thought. The book of Daniel, one of the last books of the Old Testament to be written, forged out of the encounters with those other cultures, gives one of the most explicit reference to resurrection. In the final chapter of Daniel it says: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky.” It’s not entirely clear what’s envisioned here, but we can begin to see the early outlines of a belief in a resurrection of the body and a rewarding of the just – a theological innovation that would have been deeply comforting to a persecuted people for whom life in this world was anything but just. By Jesus’ time the belief had become mainstream for Jews.
But the Sadducees object, and they reach back into their scriptures, to present a case to Jesus to show the utter absurdity of resurrection. Specifically, the law of levirate marriage in Deuteronomy. They present an extreme, but hypothetically possible, case to Jesus in which a woman ends up getting married to seven brothers, all of whom die without any children. Finally this woman dies, and the Sadducees have their punchline: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For seven had married her.” Whatever their motivations – political, theological, even if they genuinely wanted to know how this could all work – the scenario has the effect of making bodily resurrection sound ridiculous – or at least a logistical nightmare.
A present day question about resurrection that would have a similar kind of effect might sound something like this:
We now know that the lining of the human stomach replaces itself every three-five days, the liver every two months, and we have a whole new outer layer of skin every month. Every minute about a billion cells in the body die, replaced with new cells. In one year’s time approximately 98% of the atoms in each human body are replaced with others. These atoms were created inside the cores of stars billions of years ago and ever since have been cycling through gas and rock, bacteria and soil, species long extinct and those still among us today, including, you and me. We will one day be in the ground, or up in smoke, but these atoms that have composed our bodies will continue to compose countless other bodies. Now, in the resurrection, therefore, whose atoms will be whose, since they belonged to everyone?
What Jesus doesn’t do in his response is attempt to sort out who and what belongs to who. As usual, rather than answer the question directly, he presents an entirely different framework out of which to consider the matter at hand.
What he does do is challenge marriage and having children as a way of ensuring the preservation of one’s name, perhaps challenging the whole arrangement of patriarchal society in the meantime. In resurrection life, Jesus says, not only do people not belong to death, they do not belong to each other, nor do they need to create offspring in order to overcome the forces of death. They are, as Jesus, says, children of God.
For the Sadducees this woman, unsuccessful in her most important duty, having children, is passed down from one brother to the next. Their question is “To whom does she really belong?”
For Jesus, the woman does not need a husband to escort her into resurrection life. She doesn’t need to have a child to validate her spiritual worth. And she belongs not to any of these men, but to God.
Resurrection is not merely a resuscitation of the old order of things, but a living out of an entirely different order in which we are all children of God, something the New Testament goes on to say can already happen right now, in this current life.
That’s part one of Jesus’ response. But there’s more! Picking up in verse 37.
What Jesus doesn’t do is attempt to convince the Sadducees that they have too narrow a view of Scripture. He does not reference the prophets or Psalms. He does not quote Daniel. He doesn’t say that they should really consider opening their minds to Greek philosophy which does have at least a few good insights into the nature of reality.
Instead, he suggests that all they need to know about resurrection is already right there in front of their eyes, if they’re willing to see it. To affirm what he wants to say about resurrection, Jesus quotes from their small Bible. Specifically, in Exodus.
It’s a crazy piece of interpretation Jesus pulls off, but well within the scope of rabbinic creative license.
What’s crazy about it, is that to support resurrection, Jesus names three guys who are extremely dead. “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story of the burning bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” That’s the verse in the Pentateuch Jesus uses to support resurrection. Everyone knew that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead, very dead, dead, buried, gone. Jesus’ creative reasoning goes something like this: God is the God of Abraham, God is the God not of the dead but of the living, therefore Abraham, and all of them, are alive in God. Therefore resurrection. If you accept the first two as true, which Jesus’ audience certainly did, the next follows.
Speaking from a strictly logical perspective, it’s not an entirely satisfying answer. Few of us are willing to accept as a basis for our faith biblical proof text + creative twist = theological proof.
But there’s something about that final phrase, “to God, all of them are alive,” that bursts outside the boundaries of cold logic and suggests an entirely different way of seeing.
Our only way of understanding life is in contrast to death. That which is living is that which is not yet dead. We depend on death to give life context and meaning.
What Jesus might be asking his listeners to do is to let go of our ways of defining life that are helplessly intertwined with the reality of death, and to entrust ourselves to a reality which exists without any reference to death at all. The Divine is sheer aliveness, thriving outside our own small experience of death, holding everything in being and a continual Source of life leading to life. “To God, all of them are alive.”
What kind of world is it in which old Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Rebekah and Isaac, Rachel and Jacob are utterly and profoundly alive? What kind of world is it in which Jonah and Job, Esther and Ruth, Peter and Paul, St. Francis and Clare, the early Anabaptists, our mothers and fathers in the faith are all living in God? Confucius, Socrates, and Rumi right there with them. And not just the heros, but the millions of unnamed anonymous participants in history, the childless woman of seven marriages, who are also among the alive?
This passage most likely does not leave us in the same state that it left the crowds around Jesus. “For they no longer dared to ask him another question.” Hopefully it does just the opposite. “For it stirred in them a hundred more questions that they didn’t have before.”
Resurrection is a great mystery, and what it means to us will hopefully continue to evolve and grow over time. There is space for questions and unknowing, belief and unbelief. It is ultimately not ours to decide what it is and isn’t.
What we do believe, as a church, on this side of death, is that although the historical person of Jesus no longer walks among us, that we, through the grace of God, are the body of Christ. Resurrection happens among us. Christ is not merely a ghost, an idea, a lingering dream, but Christ has a body, and we are that body. We are the organized and energized atoms of Christ’s continuing life. We are animated by the same Spirit.
And maybe even those who we consider dead are somehow also participating with us in all this. In God, all are alive.