Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 32), November 10, 2013
Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Did you notice something a bit … odd about today’s Gospel lesson? Something that just doesn’t make sense? The reading starts out like this: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” And what was the question they asked? They asked about the Resurrection. Why, if they don’t believe in it, are they asking questions about it? Why do they care? And why are they paying attention to a guy who obviously does believe in the Resurrection? Who are they, anyway?
Well, we don’t know that much about them, but we do know they were Jews. This isn’t much of a surprise since Jesus was a Jew, as were all his disciples, and the Pharisees were Jews, too. In those days there were a lot of different factions and groups within Judaism, and they argued. They argued a lot. One thing they argued over was which books were the most authoritative. Some Jews (like the Saducees) believed that only the Books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—were truly Scripture. They didn’t believe the writings of the Prophets or the books of History should be part of the Bible. Other Jews (like the Pharisees) believed that the Prophets and the histories and the writings such as Psalms and Ecclesiastes should be considered Holy Scripture and thus part of the Bible. The debate didn’t get finally settled until some time after Jesus’ death.
And which books you considered to be Scripture affected what you believed. For example, resurrection isn’t mentioned once in the books of Moses. So the Saducees didn’t believe in it. If God were going to bring people back from the dead, they reasoned, he would have told Moses about it. Since Moses didn’t know about it, they thought, it won’t happen. Now, that has a huge effect on how you understand God. If there is no Resurrection, than any reward for faithfulness (or punishment for unfaithfulness) have to come in this life. Therefore, if something good happens to you it is because God is rewarding you … and if anything bad happens to you, you must have done something to deserve it. You can tell why this was a popular belief among the rich and well-connected people. They were rich and powerful, therefore God must be rewarding them more than other people, therefore they must be better than other people.
The problem is, sometimes bad things happen to good people. I’m sure you have all seen that in your lives. Sometimes horrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it at all, and sometimes good things happen to bad people. As it happens, Moses wasn’t the only person to ever hear God’s Word; God had kept on speaking, through prophets and judges and teachers and men and women and all kinds of people. And one of the things God spoke about was the world to come. This world we live in today is not the end of the story. The good and bad things that happen in this life are not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come, a kingdom where there will be no more death, or war, or pain, or hunger, a place where every tear will be wiped away. And when that kingdom comes, the dead will be raised. They won’t have lived and died in vain; they will be saved, redeemed, made holy, healed, restored.
The Saducees didn’t believe any of that. They thought it was stupid. How could anyone believe that the dead could live again? It just didn’t make sense to them. You get one life, they thought, so don’t mess up. And when a group of them heard of a popular preacher talking about God’s kingdom to come, about life out of death, about resurrection, well, they wanted to trip him up. The reason they asked Jesus such a long question was to make everybody see how absurd the very idea of life after death was.
The question goes like this: A woman is married and her husband dies before they have children. So she marries his brother. (This was actually a common custom; women couldn’t work outside the home and couldn’t own much property, so a woman needed to have a man to support her, whether her father or her husband or her sons. And women needed to be controlled so they wouldn’t bring shame on their family, and therefore they needed to be married. So if she was widowed without sons, it was her brother-in-law’s job to marry her so she wouldn’t starve or embarrass anybody. In those days marriage had a lot more to do with property and family connections than it did with love.) But this woman was really unlucky: her second husband died, too, and so did her third, and so on. I feel so sorry for that woman; can you imagine what her life would have been like, passed around from brother to brother as an obligation, watching her loved ones die around her? But eventually she died, too. And what the Saducees wanted to know was, whose wife would she be? They didn’t ask because they wanted to know about the coming of God’s kingdom; they didn’t ask because they were concerned for people who suffered grief and loss like the woman in their question; they didn’t ask because they wanted to know whether they would see their loved ones after the resurrection. They asked because they wanted to show how stupid it was to hope for anything better.
They expected their question to really trip Jesus up. Obviously she couldn’t be married to more than one man at the same time! If the woman and her husbands were all alive at the same time, which one got her? It’s like some cheesy romantic comedy: Someone comes back from being marooned on a deserted island and believed dead, to find their spouse has remarried! That’s the Saducees’ point: the whole situation is absurd, but if everybody is resurrected from the dead it’s the sort of thing that would have to happen. I don’t know anyone who’s married seven brothers, but I do know a lot of people who’ve gotten remarried after a spouse’s death, and I bet you do, too. But the problem is, the Saducees are assuming the wrong things. They assumed, of course, that God’s kingdom would be just like this world we live in now, and in particular that marriage would work just the same.
That’s where the Saducees were wrong. The whole point of God’s kingdom is that it’s not like this world. Things are different, and they’re better. In God’s kingdom, death has lost its sting. In God’s kingdom, all have enough; no one is in danger of starving. In God’s kingdom, injustice is destroyed. In God’s kingdom, no one is abused or neglected and no one lords it over others. In God’s kingdom, all people are loved and valued; they don’t get passed along just because it’s more convenient that way. In God’s kingdom, relationships aren’t based on business transactions, or fear, or greed, or need. In God’s kingdom, relationships are built on the foundation of love and equality that is Christ.
The Saducees didn’t get that. The type of relationships they understood best were based on need and practicality and power. It was a kind of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” way of looking at the world. We sometimes find it familiar. Although we no longer routinely treat marriage as a business transaction, we treat other kinds of relationships that way. We’re nicer to people when we need something from them. We seek out and befriend people who can help us get where we want to go. Now, that’s not all there is to most relationships—but that kind of quid pro quo creeps in everywhere. In this life, that’s just how things go. But that’s not how things go in God’s kingdom. In God’s kingdom, relationships won’t be based on social pressure or need or obligation. In God’s kingdom, we’ll be free to build relationships based on love and affection.
The Saducees were asking the wrong question, and they were asking with closed hearts and minds. Because they didn’t believe in the Resurrection, they thought that the ways of this world are the only ways that matter. But we know better. We know that our Redeemer lives, and that we will be raised from the grave to be with him in God’s kingdom. We know that God is a God of the living, and more than that, of the truest and best kind of life there is. We know that this life is not the end of the story; we know that death is not the end of the story. Our hope is in the Lord our God, who created us, who redeems us from the grave, and whose spirit dwells within us and continues to give us words of hope and love even today. Thanks be to God.