One of my favourite writers, and one of the greatest Biblical scholars of our generation, N.T. Wright once wrote the following:
I used to tell my students that at least 20 per cent of what I was telling them was wrong, but I didn’t know which 20 per cent it was: I make many mistakes in life, in relationships and in work, and I don’t expect to be free of them in my thinking. But whereas in much of life one’s mistakes are often fairly obvious – the short cut path that ended in a bed of nettles, the experimental recipe that gave us all queasy stomachs, the golf shot that landed in the lake – in the life of the mind things are often not so straightforward. We need other minds on the job, to challenge us, to come back at us to engage with our arguments and analyses. That is how the world goes round.
Here is a man who has years of research under his belt, countless books from his own pen lining bookshelves all throughout the world, a former Oxford professor, Bishop of Durham and now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Yet, he says to his students “help me figure out where I’m wrong.”Our Gospel reading today from Luke can help us all, I think, in our approach to Christian belief and the Scriptures. Not just how we read the Scriptures, but how do we respond to those who think and read and interpret differently to us. I’d like to quickly consider the context, the question and then the answer.
Firstly, the context.
The question from the Sadducees comes while Jesus is teaching in the Temple courts. It’s actually the last in a long line of escalating questions in the Gospel. Luke tells us earlier, in 11:53-54, that the “Pharisees and teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.” From there on the interactions the Pharisees and teachers of the law have with Jesus are acrimonious. Questions or comments come from the Jewish leaders but the motivation behind them is not to learn from Jesus, but rather to try and catch him out. It’s arrogance personified.
By the time we get to the question from the Sadducees Jesus has, just a matter of days earlier, triumphantly entered Jerusalem on a donkey and spent every day since teaching in the Temple courts. Luke tells us, at the end of chapter 19, that the motivations of the Jewish leaders have escalated. Now they’re not just trying to catch him out, they’re trying to kill him (19:47). The chief priests and teachers of the law, together with the elders, question Jesus’ authority to teach, to which he responds with a question of his own… that they can’t answer. After Jesus shares a parable that they understand as being about them they send someone else to do their dirty work. Spies ask him about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus responds with his well-known – “Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Enter the Sadducees and their question.
Believe it or not, this is the first, and only, time they are specifically named in Luke’s Gospel. We don’t know a whole lot about the Sadducees, which is probably why Luke includes the line that they “say there is no resurrection.” What we do know is that they were a group of Jewish leaders who were particularly associated with the elite classes. They were extremely conservative in their interpretation of Scripture, relying heavily upon the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and rejecting the place of tradition in interpreting it. This was in opposition to the Pharisees who drew heavily upon tradition to aid in their understanding Scripture.
Josephus, a famous Jewish historian from the first century, compared the Sadducees to the Pharisees in this way:
The Pharisees are friendly to one another and are for the exercise of concord and regard for the public. But the behaviour of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild; and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.
I’m sure Josephus wouldn’t be surprised by what Luke wrote in Acts 23 of Paul’s appearance before the Sanhedrin. There, in a heated debate, Paul raises his emphasis upon resurrection (no surprise since Paul was a Pharisee who had personally encountered the risen Jesus) and the court reduced to a scene similar to the latest episode of the WWE wrestling.
So, since they don’t believe in the resurrection, but rather that there is only this life and no other, they bring up a question that I’m confident wasn’t the first time they had asked. In fact, it was probably one of their favourite ones that they would bring up whenever they were debating the Pharisees. Kind of like the question about whether or not God can create a rock that he is unable to lift, for the Sadducees this was probably their “go to” stumper; carefully constructed to make a fool of anyone who tried to answer it.
Teacher… Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?
Jesus’ response doesn’t just affirm his belief in the resurrection it reveals that Jesus has a far superior understanding of the Torah than the Sadducees.
The principal that the Sadducees is referring to is called Levirate marriage and is mentioned in Deuteronomy 25. The intent of the concept is to ensure that the family name continues on, with the first son to be born in the subsequent marriage to be considered a child of the first; taking all of the legal benefits of being a son of the first husband.
Jesus’ answer reveals to the Sadducees, and to us, that they misunderstand the relationship between this life and the next. Whilst there is an important connection between the two there will be distinct differences. One of the principals I teach my students, and I hope you may have picked this up here too, is to interpret Scripture in the light of Christ. To take him, his life and his work, as the central starting point and work outwards from there. So, if you have a question about the resurrection then start by looking first at the one who has been resurrected – Jesus.
What we do see there?
Well, his body was resurrected, leaving the tomb empty, which suggests a real connection between this life and the next. With that resurrected body he ate and drank with the disciples, demonstrating that the he is not just a ghost. This all demonstrates some connection with regard to this life and the next.
Yet, there is disconnection too. He is able to appear and disappear behind locked doors. He doesn’t feel pain anymore and so on. This connection and disconnection between Jesus’ life before and after resurrection gives us an insight into the final resurrection. Why? For, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 “I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Changed, not into a ghost, or to body-less souls drifting around in space, but we, as Paul writes just a few verses earlier – we shall “bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Cor 15:49). We will look like him. So if you want to know what is your ultimate destiny in the resurrection – you will be just like Christ; sharing those same connections and disconnections between life before and after resurrection that Jesus displayed.
In the light of this, the Sadducees question looks very petty, and that is indeed what it is. What is interesting, though, is that Jesus doesn’t turn to 1 Cor 15, like I just did, to support his answer. Firstly, it wasn’t written then, but secondly they would have rejected it since it was written by a Pharisee, Paul. As far as the Sadducees were concerned the only authority was the Torah. So where did Jesus turn for authority to respond to a question from the Sadducees? The Torah, of course. And not just some obscure reference hidden away in a corner of Leviticus that everyone has forgotten. No, he went straight for one of the biggest and most important moments in the story of Exodus; the calling of Moses at the burning bush. Moses; the one the Sadducees had conveniently named-dropped into their question just moments earlier. In a subtle, but pointed, reading of Exodus 3 Christ reveals that the long since dead forefathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – are referred to not in the past tense, but the present. And these are the words of God speaking through the burning bush. So, God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive!
Now, the answer.
Or more specifically, the implications of the answer.
The response from the teachers of the law to this scene is both serious and amusing.
“Well said, teacher!”
|I'm just going to leave this here....|
I say serious because here is a recognition from the teachers of the law that Jesus interprets Scripture faithfully and with authority. Amusing because their response is a bit like the answer to the question “Who do you go for in the Rugby League?” – “The Sharks, and anyone playing against Manly.” The teachers of the law don’t really like Jesus, remember they want him dead, but here they’ll agree with him because he just beat the Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval by 40 points.
There is a real danger we can only associate with those whose voices are the same as ours. Those who think like us, who talk like us, who act like us or who look like us. We’ll accommodate others for as long as they’re like us, but ask me to change?
Just a few verses later Jesus reminds us that right belief means nothing if doesn’t impact upon behaviour. He turns to his disciples, while everyone else is listening, and says:
“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (20:45-47)
I think one of the most important aspects of Christian theology is the resurrection. This belief impacts every other aspect of Christian belief, from creation to glorification and everything else in between. It completes atonement and perfects incarnation. It both fulfils the hope that was and provides the one to come. It is the source of our joy and the answer to our prayers. For, Jesus Christ has overcome death, been raised from the dead, and entered into new life. But wait there’s more! Those whose faith is found in him will be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. We will be just like him!
Do you believe it?
Well, here is the question the teachers of the law failed to ask of themselves.
They agreed with Jesus—“Well said, Teacher!”—but in no way did that agreement impact the way they lived in the here and now. We must not make the same mistake.
James, the brother of Jesus, makes a similar point in his epistle when he says “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19). For James, faith without deeds is dead.
So too, for Luke and our gospel reading today, right belief in the resurrection without that impacting behaviour today is dead.
So what should we do?
Well, perhaps if we turn Jesus’ warning around into a blessing we might get a brief insight into what right belief lived out should look like.
Be like this. Walk around in everyday clothes and treat others with respect in the marketplaces. Give up your seat for others in your place of worship and serve others their meals first. Ensure widows have their needs met and when you pray do so simply; hidden away in your secret place. Do this and you will be blessed abundantly.