Back in the early days of the internet, well—not the internet, but the part of it we all use—I had an account that gave me 30 minutes a day of free internet access. Thirty minutes!
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
November 6, 2022
Basically, that allowed me to log on a few times a day, send some emails, read some emails, read a few posts on bulletin boards, and that was it. There was nothing to see on the web, so web browsing wasn’t yet a thing.
Eventually, I found a program that would dial up, dump off any outgoing messages, read any new ones, and even scan those bulletin boards for new posts, then log off. It would do all of this in about 30 seconds, so it greatly expanded my internet use. Now I could read all my emails and bulletin board messages offline, compose my responses offline, then log in and send them all as a batch.
What that meant was that I got to spend more time in forums about religion and language—two of my favorite things. I’m always itching for a good argument about either. Like many people from New York State, I view arguing as a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable social activity that I don’t take personally at all. (I once discovered that not everyone views arguments this way and that some people even capitulate right away rather than engage in a good argument—can you imagine?) But I digress.
All of this is to say that I really enjoy topics that revolve around language and religion. Throw law into the mix, and it’s perfect.
Which is precisely how I feel about the scripture lesson for tonight. In it, we have a question addressed to Jesus about the Resurrection of the Dead. In his answer, Jesus makes arguments that invoke religion, law, and language. And in the end, leaves us with a powerful statement about the nature of God and our relationship with God.
So, let’s start with the Law.
II. The Law
The passage from Luke begins with some Sadducees approaching Jesus and asking him a question. We are told that the Sadducees are “those who say there is no resurrection.” So, right away, we are meant to understand that their interest in Jesus’ answer to their question about the Resurrection of the Dead is not sincere; they are only asking him because they’re hoping to mock the idea and to do so, they decide to make a legal argument.
Under the law of Moses, there are requirements for the preservation of particular family lines. For example, if a man dies without an heir, his next oldest brother must take the deceased man’s wife as his wife and have a child with her that will count as his dead brother’s heir. This is called Levirate marriage, after the Latin word levir, which means “brother-in-law.”
And so, using this legal requirement, the Sadducees put a question to Jesus:
“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.”
The point of this question is to expose the resurrection as a legal farce: would this woman have seven husbands in the afterlife? How would her “true” husband be identified, especially since none of them had produced a child?
Now, this question is the kind of strawman argument that people like to use all the time: you set up a ridiculous, extreme, and highly unlikely ever-to-occur situation and say, “Well, what about that?” The whole point of such an exercise is to make an otherwise legitimate argument look ridiculous. So, the Sadducees invoke the Law to make the concept of the Resurrection of the Dead appear unworkable.
Now, the reasons they wanted to do so were religious, beliefs that their sect maintained that were central to their identity, and in some cases, their power.
The Sadducees were the priestly class and closely tied with the aristocracy. They were often in positions of power, and during the Roman period, many of them held power—including the High Priests—because they had been appointed to them by the Romans. Thus, the Sadducees were often seen as collaborators with Rome.
The English word Sadducee comes from the Greek word Σαδδουκαιος Sadddoukaios, which is a rendering of the Hebrew צדוקים Tsaddoqim, which means “Zadokites,” claiming descent from Zadok, the High Priest.
They were distinct from the Pharisees in several key ways. They only affirmed the authority of the Written Torah, that is, the first five Books of the Bible. They did not acknowledge, as the Pharisees did, the Oral Torah, which was a body of interpretation that helped to make sense of the Written Torah. They did not believe, as the Pharisees did, in angels and demons. And lastly, they did not believe, as the Pharisees did, in life after death. The Pharisees believed that on the Last Day, the Righteous would be raised to new life in a resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees did not believe in any kind of life after death; their reading of the Written Torah did not support such a belief.
But Jesus’ response to their question takes their belief head-on. See, the Sadducees have misunderstood the teaching about the Resurrection. As Jesus says, those raised “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.”
Jesus challenges their understanding of the Resurrection—it is not like normal life. Resurrection is not resuscitation; it is life eternal in a glorified body that is imperishable. In such a state, there is no need for procreation, no need for marriage.
But Jesus’ religious arguments go beyond clarifying the nature of the Resurrection. He argues for the Resurrection using the Sadducees’ primary religious authority—the Written Torah:
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.
Jesus points out that the Resurrection of the Dead is a valid belief because it can be found in the Torah.
And he does that by using a language argument.
In the third chapter of Exodus, as Moses stands before the burning bush, he hears a voice from God saying,
“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”Exodus 3:5–6
And this is Jesus’ point: God says, “I am the God of Abraham…” not was, not used to be, not even have been. Am. The present tense. For three men who had been dead at least four hundred years.
Jesus tells the Sadducees that God says, “I am the God of Abraham…” because, from God’s point of view, God is still in relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They still exist for God. They live, and God is a God of the living, not of the dead.
Jesus is a really skilled arguer. He’d fit right in in New York. He responds to the Sadducees’ ingenuous question with solid legal analysis, theological understanding, and linguistic analysis.
But even more than the deftness with which he deals with the Sadducees’ hypothetical, he teaches us a powerful lesson about God’s nature.
Today is All Saints Sunday, the Sunday closest to All Saints Day when we remember all those who have died and gone before us in faith. It is a time when we remember that “great cloud of witnesses” who have preceded us, who have inspired us, and especially those known to us, whose presence we miss.
Now, in the Christian tradition, our creeds remind us that we, too, believe in a Resurrection of the Dead on the Last Day. We, too, believe that God will raise up all the righteous to live forever in glorified bodies, imperishable and incorruptible.
But often, when talking about the Resurrection of the Dead, someone will ask, “But where’s my loved one now?” In between death and the Last Day, where are those witnesses who have gone on before?
The quickest, best answer I can give is, “I don’t know.” It’s actually kind of astonishing how little time Jesus spends talking about life after death. Given how many contemporary Christians seem to think that Christianity is all about going to the Good Place when you die, it’s stunning to discover how little Jesus actually talks about it.
But what Jesus does remind us is this: even when we are dead—as dead as long-gone Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—we remain in relationship with God, and God is a god of the living.
That is, whether we sleep in our graves until that Last Day, whether we transcend to some other plane of existence, or whether some other fate awaits us, we remain in God’s keeping. To God, we are alive.
And in that is our hope. As God is eternal, so too is our presence in God. As Christ was raised, so too shall we be raised.
It’s an interesting point to realize that the Pharisees first accepted the idea of the Resurrection of the Dead because their understanding of the nature of God demanded it. If God was truly good, just, loving, and faithful, then there had to be a life after this one. There had to be a vindication of the faithful and the righteous. God’s nature demanded it.
And Jesus drives that point home: not only is God good, just, loving, and faithful; God is. And so long as God is, we are. For we are God’s, and God is a god of the living and not the dead.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 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.”
Jesus said to them, “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.”