27Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, 28 “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.[a] 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”
34 Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 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. 36 They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection. 37 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.[b] 38 He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.” (Common English Bible)
What is heaven like? Do you ever ask yourself that question? And, have you wondered why so many people, even non-religious people, seem to be keenly interested in the afterlife? Witness the spate of books that have been published over the years, including several recent bestsellers. The message of these books is that the afterlife will be – for most people – a peaceful place full of light where they get to experience a wondrous reunion with beloved family members. Belief in some kind of continuation of life beyond the grave goes back thousands of years, with early humans intent on honoring the dead and making provision for the transition to the next life. Though it is true that some traditions, including ancient Judaism, were less interested in what happens beyond the grave than were others.
The lectionary provides us with a reading from the Gospel of Luke that focuses on the question of resurrection – not that of Jesus, but a general resurrection of the dead. We find Jesus confronted by a group of Sadducees, a faction within first century Judaism that was quite traditional in their reading of the Torah, were connected to the Temple, and tended to be close to the Romans. They come to Jesus with a question about the resurrection that is couched in the context of levirate marriage. In levirate marriage, if a man dies, leaving his widow without a child, then a kinsman, usually a younger brother is to marry the widow and hopefully father a child for the one who has died. So they pose the question: suppose a man dies, leaving no child. According to levirate practice, seven brothers in all marry this woman, but none of them father a child with her before she dies. Therefore, in the resurrection to whom will she be married?
The Sadducees want to see what kind of a biblical interpreter Jesus is. Is he a good traditionalist like them or is he a liberal. Since in their reading of Scripture there is no resurrection, the right answer is – none of them. But, in their mind, belief in the resurrection poses a most interesting problem. In their mind this dilemma shows how silly this idea of resurrection really is. If you’re thinking that this is the liberal position – think again.
The liberal position, one that relied on a much expanded canon and influenced by apocalyptic ideas that filtered into Judaism in the post-exilic age, embraced resurrection. As we learn more clearly in the Book of Acts, belief in the resurrection is held by the Pharisees. Jesus may have his problems with the Pharisees, but on many issues he is one with them.
Jesus sees through their subterfuge. He knows that they claim not to believe in the realm of God to come. For them this is all there is. Jesus solves the dilemma by proclaiming that in the realm to come there is no marriage, since in this new realm there won’t be need of procreation. No marriage then perhaps no heavenly family gatherings either. Why is that? Well, marriage, family, procreation – as we see with levirate marriage – has a lot to do with security. In the new realm of God security is to be found in God not one’s mate or one’s progeny. Remember that for Jesus, brothers and sisters, and even mother, is to be found in the community of faith.
Jesus resolves the dilemma posed in the question, but he’s not yet finished with the Sadducees. But Jesus isn’t finished with the Sadducees’ question. He seeks to overturn the Sadducees position on their own terms.
As we read this interchange it is good to remember that questions about the resurrection aren’t new. It was as much a stumbling block then as it is today. Many inside and outside the church can’t conceive of a continuation of life after death. Many within the church find themselves in a position close to that of the Sadducees, and likely see this as the “liberal” position. But Jesus, like the Pharisees, must disagree, and he responds by confronting them with a passage from the Torah itself – from the Book of Exodus. He points them to the story of the Burning Bush. When God speaks to Moses, God reveals God’s self as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In this revelation God, or so Jesus believes, is assuming that the three Patriarchs are living. As Jesus puts it in verse 38, “He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.” Yes, if his questioners will take seriously the word of Torah, they must conclude that there is resurrection; otherwise God has misrepresented God’s self.
Although ideas of resurrection and an afterlife present moderns with intellectual problems – after all, in light of what we know of the universe – where is heaven? At the same time resurrection speaks to the question of justice. Resurrection of the dead helps make sense of the complexity and messiness of this life. Apocalyptic ideas emerged in the post-exilic era, as Jews of that era tried to make sense of their present experiences that seemed to contradict God’s promises of blessing. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note: Belief in the resurrection was strongest among people who were repressed. The Sadducees, who lived in luxury, had little reason to hope for a better world. [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 246.]
As I noted earlier this story speaks to the question of security. The Sadducees, as members of a wealthy sector of society, found sufficient security in this life. They took to heart promise that wealth was a sign of blessing. Thus, this life was enough.
But what about those who haven't been so "blessed" in this life? Where do they find ultimate justice? Consider the woman whose marital status forms the basis of the question posed to Jesus. Levirate marriage was designed to do two things. First, it was designed to perpetuate the family name. Any child produced by the levirate system would be the heir of the first husband, usually the oldest brother. When this occurred, the family experienced God’s blessing. The second purpose was to provide security for the woman. Without any social safety net, she was extremely vulnerable unless there was family – that is a child. But in the levirate system, she became wife (and thus the property of the one who claimed her). Consider the story of Ruth and Naomi. In marrying Boaz, her nearest kinsman, she provides a future for herself and for Naomi. In producing a child, Naomi’s line continues through Boaz. This woman, however, ends up being married seven times – and is like seen as a burden to each of the six younger brothers – and she dies without a child, meaning that she failed to fulfill her purpose in life. She died essentially as woman under a curse. While the Sadducees had no need for resurrection, perhaps for her the promise of resurrection was a promise of justice and freedom. No longer would she be the burden or the property of another. She would be free in Christ, who is her true security.
So what is your view of the resurrection? What do you want this to be? Are you content with this life, with no need for anything else beyond this life? If so, why? Like the Sadducees, are you content with the luxuries of this life? If not, does the promise of resurrection offer a word about justice for you and for others who don’t enjoy the life of luxury in the here and now? How might we envision the hope that God’s justice will prevail?