One of the common tropes in the Gospels is how different groups of people hostile to Jesus’ teaching would try to ensnare him in his words in order to discredit him, only to have Jesus escape the trap and carry the day. Sometimes, as for example with the ‘Render unto Caesar’ teaching (which directly precedes today’s Gospel story), he does this with satisfying answers; at other times, it seems like he’s getting away on technicalities — more clever wordplay than actual substantive argumentation. But before we roll our eyes at these cases, we would do well to take a step back and see if he’s not actually doing something far more interesting and compelling. Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 20.27-38, is one such example. Some Sadducees come to up to Jesus and try to trap him with a logical problem about belief in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ response at first seems perfunctory and maybe even a little silly, but actually reveals a teaching that just might turn our whole perception of the world on its head.
The story starts like this:
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus 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. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
First let’s set up the background for this. We’re getting towards the end of Jesus’ earthly life here. He has arrived in Jerusalem and the religious authorities are circling around him trying to get him to say something that will discredit him, either with the people or the Romans. The Sadducees, the religious party at the centre of this story, were generally upper class, and promoted peace with Rome in order to keep the Temple intact and free from outside interference. Their religious sensibilities were focused on the ceremonial aspects of the Law and they only considered the Torah (i.e., the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) to be Holy Scripture. They were what we might call ‘establishment conservatives’ and as such they resisted theological speculation. And any messianic hope they had was for a great High Priest who would renew Israel’s liturgical life, rather than a king who would free Israel from her enemies.
Here, some Sadducees go up to Jesus in attempt to discredit both him and what they considered to be an ‘unbiblical’ belief in the resurrection of the dead, by asking him a ‘gotcha!’ question around Levirate Marriage. Levirate marriage worked like this: If a married man died without children, under the Law, his younger brothers would be entitled to marry his wife; the firstborn coming from this second relationship would then legally belong to the older brother. As the Sadducees saw it, this law caused an impossible problem for belief in the resurrection: In a case where there were, say, seven brothers who married the same woman, one after the other, whose wife would she be in the resurrection?
Jesus isn’t having any of it, and responds like this:
“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Jesus’ basic point is that the premise of their question is wrong; marriage is a strategy for this world, not for the world to come. None of the brothers would be her husband because there won’t be such thing as ‘husbands’ and ‘wives’ at all. This is a pretty good response, but then he grounds it in a linguistic quirk from the book of Exodus. There, God self-identifies as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In context, God is clearly trying to get Moses on board by establishing continuity with the promises made to Moses’ ancestors. But through some linguistically suspect word play (eisegesis at its finest!), Jesus turns this into a statement on the relationship between God and life: God cannot say “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” if these men are dead; if they were dead, God would have to have said, “I was the God…” Therefore, they must still be alive to God.
While the text presents this as a ‘mic drop’ moment for Jesus, we can be forgiven for being less than impressed by Jesus’ answer. They ask him a question about marriage and Jesus says marriage is irrelevant but never actually says why. What might be going on here?
It seems that Jesus is arguing that marriage is inherently a human strategy for dealing with the problem of death. I don’t say this to disparage marriage — it is after all one of the major symbols used in the Scriptures for how God relates to Israel and later the Church — but this is the logic of Jesus’ argument. Without a conception of eternal life, our lives are going to be mercilessly short, and the only way to have any sense of living on is in securing one’s line of descendants. By (theoretically) eliminating sexual competition, marriage is a strategy for doing just this. If we think of it in these terms, the Sadducees’ selection of Levirate marriage in their argument against the resurrection makes perfect sense, for the whole point of Levirate marriage is to ensure the line of the firstborn (who in the patriarchal stories is the one who receives the ‘birthright’ and is the rightful inheritor of the promises made to his father) is able to endure.
Jesus blows up this argument by turning the whole thing on its head. There is no need for strategies to deal with mortality in the Kingdom of God because death is meaningless to God. God is The Living God, the God of the Living, and the God of Life.
Where God is there is life.
In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus prefaces his answer by telling the Sadducees that they “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22.29). Generally this is understood to refer to resurrection as a miracle. But what if instead, resurrection is actually a consequence of God’s power — God’s energy, God’s dynamism, God’s life? As James Alison puts it in his book Raising Abel:
Jesus isn’t talking about some special power to do something miraculous, like raising someone from the dead. Rather he’s giving an indication of the sort of power which characterizes God, something of the quality of who God is. This ‘power,’ this quality which God always is, is that of being completely and entirely alive, living without any reference to death. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let’s put this another way: for us ‘being alive’ means ‘not being dead’; it’s a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death. (p. 38)
With this in mind, Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees is not saying that their argument against the resurrection is wrong because they misunderstand marriage, but because they misunderstand the nature of life itself. With God, life, not death, is the default. Life is everything.
Even with all this in mind, it’s hard to see how we might apply this teaching in our day-to-day lives. What comes to mind for me is Hildegard von Bingen’s image of the presence of God as veridity, ‘greening’, that insatiable, unstoppable, creative and life-giving force that is so active in our world. Where God is, there is life. Where there is life, God is at work. May we all, in all that we do this week and in the weeks and months ahead, look for life, cherish and support it in all that we do.
4 thoughts on “The God of Life: A Reflection on Luke 20.27-38”
I always imagine a line of “All of them and none of them” before He launches into the explanation. It is somewhat implied. From our perspective, the Sadducees answered their own question. The hypothetical woman is the wife of all of them, in the sense that it is part of her identity, but they are wrong in thinking it relevant, since it doesn’t matter in the kingdom of God, any more than her hair colour does. (She isn’t being passed around between them after the resurrection.)
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