November 6, 2022, Ordinary 32 C (Luke 20:27-38)
by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon
While Jesus was often surrounded by a crowd who wanted to hear his teachings and witness the miracles, he was constantly ambushed by groups of people who tried to trap him and find a reason to kill him. After Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly, he went to the temple and cleansed it, accusing those who were selling and benefiting, “You have made it a den of robbers.” Since then, the writer of Luke tells us that the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people were looking for an opportunity to get rid of Jesus. The chief priests and the scribes came and tested Jesus by asking, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (20:2). When they failed in their attempt to trap him, they asked him another question, “Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” (v.22). Jesus outwitted all their malicious attempt because his authority and teachings do not come from this world, but from God.
Some Sadducees finally come and ask this question, “When a woman is passed down through seven brothers, whose wife will she be on the day of resurrection?” The meaning of Sadducees is “righteous ones” in Hebrew. It also comes from the name of Zadok, the high priest under King David. According to Josephus, New Testament, and other rabbinic writings, the Sadducees rejected the notions of resurrection, angel, and spirit which the Pharisees embraced. While the Pharisees valued the oral tradition, the Sadducees were very strict in accepting only the written tradition of Torah, the first five books of OT written by Moses. While the Sadduccees held themselves in conflict with the Pharisees regarding “the purity laws, civil law, temple ritual, and sabbath observance,” they were still united in their attempts to trap Jesus and kill him (Powell, Harper Collins Bible Dictionary).
While Sadducees do not believe in resurrection, they still want to test Jesus with the topic of resurrection. Whose wife will she be? For contemporary readers, it is disturbing that a woman is treated as a property to be handed down through brothers. Levirate marriage, as found in Deuteronomy 25, is intended to provide a widow with an ongoing social and economic status by marrying her brother-in-law. At the same time, biblical commentators believe that it was used to make sure that the property of a family stays within the family circle rather than going to a stranger. In that regard, the woman is again considered the property of the man and the family unless the next brother in line refuses to marry her. So, the Sadducees ask this question to point out how ridiculous it is to believe in the resurrection and how messy it will be to sort out each relationship and property after everyone is raised from the dead.
Jesus’ response is radically different from what they expected in his answer. Why? It is because he presents a new reality in the resurrection that supersedes our imagination of what is possible and not. “You think you will still marry or given in marriage when you are resurrected? You got it all wrong. When you are resurrected, you will not die anymore. Not only that, you will be like angels and will be children of God, and children of the resurrection” Marriage is a practice the couple covenant with each other to become “one flesh” in their love for each other (Mark 10:8). But when we put on a new body after the resurrection, we will live in a radically different reality, not bound by our notions of family or possession but by the vision of God for holiness and love.
Being aware of how loyal these Sadducees are to Moses and Torah, Jesus points out how Moses is the one who acknowledges the resurrection of the dead by calling God “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Luke 20:37). They are not dead but alive because God is the God of the living, not the dead. Having the power of life and resurrection, this is the response Jesus gave to his disciple when he heard that Lazarus whom he loved just died: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (John 11:11). Jesus had the same response to the dead daughter of Jairus: “Do not cry, for she is not dead but sleeping” (Luke 8:52).
I attended Union UMC in Boston, a predominantly African American congregation, and was nurtured by the pastor then, the late Rev. Martin McLee. He won Ziegler Preaching Award in 2006 and preached his sermon at New England Annual Conference. As he stood before the conference, he began his sermon by saying, “I would like to share with you that I am not here on my own. I stand on those who have gone before me.” He even mentioned my name, “I also stand on the shoulders of my seminary intern, Bob Jon.” I am sure that I did not significantly contribute to the forming of his character as a preacher. However, he wanted to include everyone who had been in his journey and give thanks to God for their support and prayers. He passed away in 2014 at age 58. But I credit him saying, “I stand on the shoulders of the late Rev. McLee who welcomed me to Union and to his home.
The words of Jesus in Luke 20 also encourage us to name those who have gone before us and believe that they are not dead but alive. So, I pray, “God of my grandmother, God of my father, and God of Martin McLee.” Apostle Paul says, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). While it is Christ who gives us the words, it also takes a particular group of people who teachs us what it means to love God and love our neighbours. They pass their faith on to us by putting on Christ through their personality, words, and actions. They may have passed and are not with us anymore on this earth. But they are still alive not just in our hearts, but in the presence of God who will wake us up from sleep one day and bring us to the “dwelling places” Jesus has promised (John 14:2).