Tricky Question

Luke 20:27-38 Lectionary 31

There is nothing simple about this story.  The relationship between Jesus and the Sadducees, marriage, Jewish law, and resurrection, –all of these are complicated, and all of them are integral to our gospel reading this morning.

The Sadducees were priests who had power and influence. They kept company with others who had power and could enhance theirs.  They benefitted from the current system.  It was in their self-interest to maintain the status quo.

Jesus, on the other hand, challenged and disrupted those systems that kept people oppressed, and preyed on the vulnerable.  The last shall be first, he said.  Take care of the poor and vulnerable because they are valuable children of God.  Just as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me. Be kind to those who cannot improve your status.  Jesus was a threat because he was bucking the status quo, and changing the system.  Those with no voice and no power, and some others, were listening to Jesus.

Some of the frightened religious leaders decided to ask Jesus a trick question.  As defenders of the law of Moses, they decided to draw on that as a basis to trap Jesus.  Using Deuteronomy, they asked a question about the laws of marriage, which held that when a husband who had no son died, his eldest brother was legally obligated to marry the wife. This brother would be called to father a child.  The child would be considered the son of his deceased brother.[1]  This marital arrangement, called a Levirate marriage, was to ensure the continuation of a family.

Some of the Sadducees posed this question to Jesus.  Suppose a man dies, and has no son, and his brother marries his wife, and they have no son.  Then that brother dies, and so on, and so on, until seven brothers have married the same woman.  When they are raised from the dead, whose wife is she?

Marriage vows today say we are together until death parts us, but many of us envision being reunited with our loved ones after death.  There was a woman who was dying, and grew weaker every day.  In the midst of her illness, her husband died suddenly from a heart attack.  With help, the woman was able to pull herself together for his funeral service.  Sitting at the visitation, person after person approached her.  One after another offered condolences, along with the hope that she and her husband would be reunited in heaven.  After hearing “You will be together again,” for the ninth time, the widow’s chest began to rise and fall, heaving with deep sobs.  With tears were streaming down her cheeks, she cried, “I am never going to get away from him, am I?” Not everyone wants their earthly life to continue just as it was after death. [2]

Know that the Sadducees did not believe in life after death, but they knew Jesus did.  Jesus could not violate Torah, but he also preached that God will do a new thing. Jesus taught that God’s power for life breaks the bounds by which we manage and control our lives.  These Sadducees didn’t want a new thing.  They were perfectly content with being in control.

Jesus wasn’t going to play their game because it diminished God. Jesus’ response was bigger and more threatening than the questioners could imagine.  God destroys all the ways we categorize and measure life on our own terms.

In a world bent on death, God wills life for us.  How ironic it is that we have trouble turning over our lives to God when our own truths, and our own reasoning lead us to cherish the very things that are killing us.  We are in bondage to sin. The power of the resurrection breaks those chains. What feels like the shattering of our lives is God opening up new possibilities for new ways to live.  What the Sadducees viewed as a threat was an invitation.

God works to bring life from death, and to make all things new. Resurrection is about God’s love for us. Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him, they all of them are alive. God’s promise is that we are now and forever in his loving hands.

There are short videos that I show to children who are preparing for their first Holy Communion.  In one video, the young man learning what to do at the Lord’s table is taught to put one hand out, palm up, and then his other hand, palm up, slightly overlapping.  His hands are open, and empty.  Doing this in an exaggerated manner, he says the word “receive.”  The young man practices over and over again, preparing to receive Jesus with open hands.   Receive.  Receive.

In their attempt to trap Jesus, the Sadducees closed themselves off from the new life God brings.  They limited themselves to what they thought they knew instead of being open to the Holy Spirit.  It felt safer to them than relinquishing control that they did not really have in the first place.  When their hands held on so tightly to their knowledge, their misguided truth, their status and their pride, they could not open their hands to receive the only life that matters, the one that God gives.

What is it that you hold so tightly?  Open your hands, and receive life.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] See Deuteronomy 25:5-6.

[2] This story was told by Barbara Brown Taylor.

Author: Pastor Cheryl Griffin

Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin thinks God has a sense of humor for leading her into ministry, but can’t imagine doing anything else! Pastor Griffin received her BA degree from the College of William and Mary. She worked as an accountant before God led her to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, where she received her Master of Divinity degree. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Griffin is a member of the Ministerium Team and frequently leads small groups at synod youth events. She is also a representative to the VA Synod Council.