A sermon, based on Luke 20.27-38, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019
Jesus is my kind of guy! One reason, among many, is that he, like me, loves a good head-shaking, heart-stirring dialogue!
As early as the age of twelve, Jesus engaged in conversation with the teachers in the temple in Jerusalem, amazing them with his knowledge and understanding!(1)
Here, he argues with the Sadducees. The point obscure, even archaic; important in a bygone age, but perhaps irrelevant to us. Yet this is scripture, which we read and upon which we reflect, for we believe it has significance for us today.
But before seeking any meaning, first, a refresher on Jewish tradition: What, who was a Sadducee?
In ancient Israel, the Sadducees, like the Pharisees, were a socio-religio-political party. (For a contemporary Christian reference, think: Moral Majority or its current successor, the Christian Right.) The Sadducees had primary charge and care of the temple. And, though they joined with the Pharisees in opposing Jesus, judging him to be a degenerate, a sinner, unobservant of God’s law and a disturber of the status quo, they disagreed on what constituted authoritative scripture. (Again, for a historical and contemporary Christian reference, think: denominational squabbling about scriptural authority.) For the Sadducees, it was the books of Moses, the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), which has no reference to resurrection. For the Pharisees, the Torah and the prophets and psalms, which provide a basis for belief in resurrection.
Now, “some Sadducees” seek to discredit Jesus and the idea of resurrection by posing a “Gotcha!” question in the form of an extreme example of levirate marriage;(2) the law requiring a man to marry the childless widow of his brother, in the hope of producing a heir, in an effort to preserve the family name. “So, Jesus, if, in this life, a woman was married, in turn, to seven brothers, in the resurrection whose wife will she be?”
Jesus answers, first saying, in effect, “You don’t get the resurrection! It isn’t quantitatively like this life, but qualitatively different!” Then Jesus takes a page from the Torah on which the Sadducees based their beliefs, where God speaks to Moses in the present tense as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;(3) who, though long dead to this world, must be alive as God is alive. Thus, the necessity of resurrection.
Some scribes, bystanders in the crowd, declare Jesus the winner of the debate, saying, “Teacher, you have spoken well.”(4) Still, as the point of the argument, perhaps less obscure, remains archaic, we might say, “So, what?”
So, justice! That is the universal, eternal issue at the heart of this debate. If the Sadducees are right that there is no resurrection, then God’s will is to be fulfilled fully in this world. However, as I read human history and as I ponder theodicy’s centuries-old question about the existence of evil in a creation of a benevolent, omnipotent God, God must have another plan! Therefore, I believe that God continues to fulfill the divine will in this world and in the next.
Yes, as long as we live, as long as we have breath and strength we are to do God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yet the perfection of God’s purpose is beyond our power. For the completion of all things must be left to the Creator of all things. This is good news! For it means that the worries and woes of this world are not, are never the last word. God is always the last word, for God always is the first word!
One final, present-day word on this ancient argument about levirate marriage. Yes, it sought to preserve the family name and to protect the woman from being alone and without support. Yet it also treated her as chattel to be passed from brother to brother. (This notion of women as property is symbolized in the wedding tradition of the father escorting his daughter down the aisle to be given away into the care of the groom and the question, “Who presents this woman to be married to this man?”, the father answering, “I do.”) Jesus said, “Those…in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” This dismantling, this discarding of a patriarchal tradition is a declaration of divine justice.
So, as we wait for our resurrections and an eternity of resolution of all this world’s ills, let us, in our daily labors to fulfill God’s will, believe and behold the dignity and equality of all people.
(1) See Luke 2.41-47
(2) See Deuteronomy 25.5-10
(3) Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you…The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3.13-15; my paraphrase and emphasis).
(4) Luke 20.39
Illustration: The Sadducees ask Jesus about the resurrection, James Tissot (1836-1902)