Thought for the day
When core ritual practices undergo change, this indicates a major shift in worldview. A good example for today is how we conduct funerals. There was a traditional pattern which is now breaking down, even if slowly. The tradition reflected convictions: prayer for the dead, hope of eternal life, fear of judgement and so forth. The current “customisation” of funerals tells us that such a world of meaning no longer holds. What do people really thinks happens when we die? And yet, hope in the faithfulness of God, who raised Jesus is really at the centre of Christian faith from the very start. In any case, we’re all in for a surprise!
Our loving God, you raised Jesus from the dead, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. Strengthen our hope in your abundant gift. Amen.
The Question about the Resurrection
Luke 20:27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Luke 20:34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
The dispute here is part of a series of disputes at this point in the Gospel. In that context the authority of Jesus is challenged (20:1-7); a trick question about paying taxes to Caesar is posed (20:20-26); and finally, Jesus goes on the attack, presenting a puzzling issue from a messianic psalm (20:41-44).
Within that chain of arguments, the present text about the resurrection finds its place. Compare Mk 12:18-27 and Matthew 22:23-33 for significant differences.
Kind of writing
This is a dispute, with a typically rabbinical style of argument, pitting one biblical passage against another. The quotation from Exodus is a valid counter argument only because Jesus denies the premise that in the next life there will be marriage at all. The Exodus quotation—in the present tense—is read to say that in God’s own eyes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still alive to him.
Old Testament background
(i) The technical term for the practice described in the reading is levirate marriage (levir is the Latin for brother-in-law). It is discussed in Gen 38 (a famous case, with a disturbing illustration) and in Deut 25:5-10 (and possibly also in Ruth 4). The basic principle behind the regulation is that a widow is forbidden to remarry outside her deceased husband’s family (probably to prevent alienation of property).
When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:5–6; the whole passage as far as v.10 is worth reading).
However, Lev 18:16 and 20:21 totally prohibit marriage between a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law (historically important for the marriage of Henry VIII to his brother’s fiancée, Catherine of Aragon). The rabbis resolved the conflict by claiming that the general principle is given in Leviticus while the law in Deuteronomy applies only when a married man dies childless.
(ii) But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am Who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘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’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:13–15)
(iii) The first real mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Hebrew Bible is found in the book of Daniel:
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. 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, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.” (Daniel 12:1–4)
New Testament foreground
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. (Luke 24:1–12 NRSV)
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised (1Corinthians 15:12–16)
Verse 27 Since the time of the writing of Daniel, faith in the resurrection had become a standard teaching among groups such as the Pharisees. However, more traditionalist groups such as the Sadducees clung to the older conviction that there was no real afterlife.
Verse 28 The law of levirate marriages is recounted as the basis for the case.
Verse 29 A very special case is given (the book of Tobit is based on a popular folktale very like the story here). The key element is childlessness.
Verse 32 The case for analysis is completed with the death of the woman herself.
Verse 33 The question presented is meant to land the interlocutor in a contradiction: the woman cannot be the wife of seven brothers and therefore there is no resurrection of the dead. Looked at closely, the argument has a great deal less cogency that might appear on the surface. Firstly, the question seems to have only a tenuous link with the law of levirate marriage. The very same “contradiction” of polyandry would apply in the case of widow marrying any number of unrelated spouses. The levirate law seems to add colour and suspense but not substance to the argument. Secondly, the question presumes that marriage will be part of the life to come. This is the assumption which Jesus denies, precisely because the two ages differ.
Verse 34 In these two verses the legalistic, largely specious, basis of the argument is rejected. The picture of the life to come is mistaken and so the two different ages require appropriately different dispensations. In all, four arguments for the resurrection are offered here: (i) marriage won’t count; (ii) in the new age, radical non-existence is impossible; (iii) God speaks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as if they were alive; (iv) God is a God of the living.
Verse 35 There is no disparagement of marriage here: simply the conviction that categories of this age are inadequate for the age to come.
Verse 36 This verse is a considerable expansion of Mark’s: For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven (Mark 12:25–26). The puzzle is the phrase “anymore”. It seems to mean that those who have died have entered “that age” and so resemble angels and may be called children of the resurrection. A second, more radical death into total non-existence or perhaps hell is impossible on account of their new state, already described in vv. 34-35. The idea of a second death is found in the book of Revelation (Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).
Verse 37 This argument is from Scripture. In God’s own words—not I was but I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the patriarchs live before God.
Verse 38 The God of the living—perhaps a hint at this verse from Deuteronomy: See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god beside me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39.) The concluding verses, more gentle than in Mark, are omitted in the lectionary: Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him another question. (Luke 20:39–40).
Pointers for prayer
1. The question of the Sadducees suggests that our status here in this life influences how we will be in the afterlife. The reply of Jesus affirms that we are important not because of any “status” we might have but because we are children of God. Recall moments when you saw your, or the worth of another, as something other than worldly status.
2. A common tactic in an argument is to make fun of the position of another. Then one does not have to take seriously the view being expressed. Have you ever found yourself doing this? Have you experienced others doing it with you? What were the effects of such an attitude? Is there life here? If not, where have you found a fuller life?
3. Jesus used the phrase “children of the resurrection” to describe his followers because we believe in something that cannot be proven. Life can sometimes present us with that kind of a challenge–an invitation to believe in things we cannot prove: another person, a cause, the value of a course of action, etc. What has been your experience of believing and acting on this kind of faith?
God of all the living, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ you have given us the life which even death cannot destroy.
Remember your unshakable promise and strengthen us to live in this world as your new creation.
We make our prayer though our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.