What's Resurrection For? SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Twenty-Second Week after Pentecost
Twenty-Second Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 20:27-38
1) At long last, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem! He enters riding on a colt, surrounded by exuberant praise; he weeps in lamentation over the city; he heads straight for the temple, angrily driving out “those who were selling things there” - and then returns to the temple “every day” to proclaim the good news to the “spellbound” crowds (Luke 19:28-20:1). Unnerved and alarmed, the powers that be “kept looking for a way to kill him,” but his popularity protects him - and so the religious authorities set out to discredit his teaching (Luke 19:47). If we can embarrass him, or entrap him into saying something offensive, surely the people’s admiration will fade, the crowds will disperse, and we’ll be able to seize him without causing a riot… A series of three controversies ensues: the first on authority, the second on taxes - and then this week’s reading, on resurrection (Luke 20:1-40).
2) The cross looms in the background of all this; the stakes are stark, and the fear of death - for Jesus and also for his followers, no doubt sensing the tension in the air - pervades the scene. One by one, Jesus adroitly avoids the traps his opponents lay for him, and at the same time transforms each exchange into an opportunity for further teaching. In this way, the attempts to discredit him only further delight and amaze the crowds (including, as we’ll see, some of the authorities themselves).
3) Sadducees were a Jewish sect with close ties to the temple leadership - and so in that sense, since the setting is the temple, this third controversy culminates the series (Here come the temple leaders!). Sadducees differed from Pharisees, from Jesus, and from the Gospel writers in at least two key respects: first, they didn’t believe in any coming age of resurrection, and second, they only recognized the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) as authoritative scripture - and it was commonly thought that those books, unlike others in Hebrew Scripture, don’t attest to a resurrection. And so the Sadducees challenge Jesus, essentially arguing that the doctrine of resurrection is absurd and unworkable.
4) Their challenge takes as its starting point an ancient patriarchal practice called “levirate marriage,” after the Hebrew word, levir, “brother-in-law” (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10). If a married man died childless, his brother-in-law would take his widow as his wife and have children with her, offspring who in turn would a) carry on the dead man’s name into future generations, and b) take care of the widow in her old age. Viewed through this lens, marriage itself was a strategy for dealing with old age and death: a couple’s children would provide for them in their elder years, and continue their legacy after they died. The practice of levirate marriage, then, was a way for both a widow and her deceased husband to still benefit from this system of care and continuity. On one hand, then, levirate marriage protected widows; but on the other hand, it only did so by effectively treating women as a kind of property, passed on from one brother to another.
1) The Sadducees confront Jesus with a hypothetical scenario. Take levirate marriage, they say, which Moses commands. Suppose a widow ends up becoming serially betrothed to multiple brothers-in-law, each of whom dies childless, and then the woman dies. In the age of resurrection, whose wife will she be?
2) It’s a “gotcha” question, designed to dumbfound opponents into either silence or a sputtering reply, and so to show that the whole idea of an age of resurrection is absurd - and also, in this instance, to expose Jesus as a charlatan. Not quite so clever as you might have thought, folks. The Messiah? I don’t think so. Nothing to see here, ladies and gentlemen, now just move along...
3) But Jesus, without missing a beat, has an answer. Your mistake, he says, is to assume that present-day conventions (like marriage) extend into the coming age of resurrection. On the contrary, in that age people “neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore...” (Luke 20:35-36). Why is death relevant here? Jesus takes for granted that marriage practices of his day were, among other things, strategies for dealing with old age and death, since children would both care for the elderly couple and continue their legacy into the future. But since aging and death will be obsolete in the era of resurrection (“they cannot die anymore”), such marriage practices will be obsolete, too.
4) From this angle, then, the Sadducees’ hypothetical question is easy enough to answer: Whose wife will she be? She won’t be anyone’s wife. She’ll be herself, a “child of God,” a “child of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).
5) And for a final flourish, Jesus turns to the Book of Exodus - one of the five books, please note, that the Sadducees recognized as authoritative. Remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? There God says, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” - not “I WAS the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (see Exodus 3:6). The God we worship, Jesus insists, is “God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive” (Luke 20:37-38). In short, if Abraham and Sarah are alive to God, there must be a resurrection! Beaten at their own game, the Sadducees retreat - and even “some of the scribes” looking on are impressed, saying, “Teacher, you have spoken well” (Luke 20:39).
1) At its core, this week’s reading is a high-stakes controversy story in the shadow of the cross. Fear of death is crackling through the atmosphere: Jesus’ opponents are looking for a way to kill him, and so they set about trying to trip him up, diminish his popularity, and clear the way for arresting him without provoking the crowds. Jesus deftly sidesteps the trap, transforming it into another opportunity to teach, and along the way, demonstrating at least two things about discipleship: first, that while it may include days of tranquility, it also involves conflict with the powers that be; and second, that it means engaging those conflicts with intelligence, resolve, dexterity - and grace. Jesus doesn’t deride or condemn the Sadducees, despite their intentions. Rather, he responds to them directly, citing scripture both sides hold in common.
2) Generally speaking, Jesus’ teaching in this story functions as a word of caution against projecting our everyday experiences or cultural conventions onto what “resurrected life” does or doesn’t mean. Resurrection is a great mystery, and though we may indeed proclaim in broad strokes that God’s love is stronger than death, we’re wise to leave the finer details to God.
3) If the Sadducees attempted to use ancient marriage practices to critique the idea of resurrection, Jesus effectively turns the tables, using his account of the resurrection to critique marriage practices of his day. For as Jesus tells it, the widow doesn’t enter the age of resurrection as anyone’s wife, much less anyone’s property. Rather, she enters simply and emphatically as a “child of God,” a “child of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). That luminous identity, not her marriage status, will define her in the age to come. And remember, for Jesus, “the age to come” isn’t only “coming” - it’s also arriving here and now, like the dawn at the beginning of the day. The new era, as Jesus puts it, has “come near”; it is already “among you,” its inauguration already “fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 10:9; 17:21; 4:21). The cross will soon give way to the empty tomb, the first fruits of that coming age. And so whatever dignity, whatever freedom, whatever liberation awaits in the age of resurrection - begins today!
4) What is resurrection for? In this story, Jesus transforms an apparently arcane attempt to trap him into a powerful pep talk for his followers (including us!), a sermon in the midst of struggle: I know we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and that the fear of death is palpable - but do not be afraid! For you are children of the resurrection, and you can carry yourself accordingly, not only in the age to come, but even now. Be emboldened, be strong, be assured, be poised - for come what may, God will not let you go, anymore than God has let Abraham and Sarah go. No - to God, all of them are alive! Listen: you shall not seek death, but neither shall you fear it. For the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of the widow and the orphan, is God not of the dead, but of the living!