Gospel: Luke 20:27-38
When I was a teenager, I used to do this thing with my mom where I would go to her, describe some conflict I was dealing with, and solicit her advice. And when she gave it me, I would triumphantly shoot down each idea, explaining how it could not possibly work.
I loved it. Getting to shoot down my mom’s advice proved that obviously I had a far better grasp on the inner mechanics of the world than that wise and patient woman did, and I left those conversations silently congratulating myself on my maturity.
My mom was not such a huge fan.
The Sadducees in today’s gospel are pulling something similar. They’re not putting this question about resurrection to Jesus because they actually want the answer. They’re putting out this question because they want to see Jesus falter, to not have an answer, or maybe even better, to have an answer that they could tear into little tiny pieces like a pack of wild hyenas. That kind of thing is a real ego boost.
It’s a little hard to understand why this question the Sadducees ask is even a thing without doing a little bit of talking about the history behind it, so bear with me for two minutes for that.
First: the Sadducees. These guys haven’t appeared at all in Luke’s gospel until now, just after Jesus finally completes his journey to Jerusalem and is teaching at the Temple. We read a little about them in the gospel of Matthew, but they’re usually paired with the Pharisees. And you know what? The only place where the Sadducees would put themselves side-by-side with the Pharisees was when it came to Jesus. In just about everything else, the Sadducees and the Pharisees fought like cats and dogs.
Sadducees were priests at the Temple; Pharisees taught out of their homes.
Sadducees were born into their positions; Pharisees got there through hard work and study.
Sadducees only took the first five books of the Bible—the Torah—as authoritative. The Pharisees also considered all the other stuff in what we call the Old Testament.
Which is why, by the way, Pharisees believed in the resurrection and Sadducees did not: because there’s no explicit reference in the Torah to resurrection. So as it happens, this question that they choose to show Jesus up also has the bonus effect of making the Pharisees look stupid. Score.
The question that the Sadducees put to Jesus is about Levirate marriage, where a guy will marry his brother’s widow if his brother dies without having kids first. This was a big deal. Having a kid to carry on your name was how you lived on after death: your legacy survives through your children. We hear evidence of that even in Jesus’ story, right? How many times do the gospels remind us that he’s a son of David, the greatest king of Israel?
So: in this really unfortunate hypothetical family that the Sadducees propose, one poor woman has to marry seven guys, and everyone dies without there being any kids. “So,” say the Sadducees to Jesus with a smirk on their faces, “whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”
The hyena pack starts salivating. Jesus starts speaking. And five verses later, the hyenas are slinking off with their tails between their legs.
What the heck just happened?
First, Jesus makes a distinction between the people who belong to this age who marry and are given in marriage, and the ones from the age of the resurrection where, Jesus seems to be saying, marriage will not feature. “Look,” Jesus is saying to the Sadducees, “you’re asking me this question that presumes that everything in the resurrection will look exactly like it will before the resurrection, and it simply ain’t so.”
Because, Jesus goes on to say, in the resurrection, our “success” in life won’t be defined by how many kids we have, but by whose kids we are. And the people of the resurrection are God’s children, says Jesus. That’s the primary relationship. That’s the one that matters.
And finally, Jesus says, putting the nail in the coffin of this question that the Sadducees are probably really regretting asking about now, “You may not have a full vision of the resurrection right now, but God sure does.” And Jesus proves it by heading straight to the Sadducees’ own playing field, the Torah, where they were sure there was no mention of the resurrection, and pointing out that when God appears to Moses in the burning bush, God identities Godself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not, “I was their God.” “I am their God.” Because to God, Jesus tells us, all of them are alive.
The Sadducees bring this silly little question to Jesus, fully expecting that it will put him in his place, but it’s Jesus who ends up reorienting them, pointing them back to this central truth: God’s vision is a lot bigger, a lot more beautiful, and a lot different from yours.
And as much as I want to end this rehash with a little fist pump, and enjoy the warm pit in the stomach that comes with seeing a bunch of people who didn’t like Jesus get their comeuppance…I can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the Sadducees.
Because it’s scary to have your proper, hard-earned understanding of the world rocked by someone else, and to be left without an answer. It hurts to hear that God’s vision for the world isn’t what you thought it was—especially if you work for God.
We see evidence of that pain everywhere in the division of the church. We argue vehemently with our Christian neighbors about whether baptism is a gift of God or a decision on the part of the believer, about whether the bread and wine is really Jesus’ body and blood, about whether God is okay with pastors being married, or female, or gay, about who gets to go to heaven and who must go to hell. We take comfort in the doctrines of our flavor of church, and fight with a furious self-righteousness when other believers try to take them away. We are simply not at home to the message that Jesus leaves with the Sadducees: God is simply bigger than the boxes we try to fit God into.
But you know what? It’s there, right in the tension between who we understand God to be and the overwhelming truth of who God is—right where our expectations are broken and we encounter the fear of not knowing, that God speaks to us.
Like when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush: “Take off your shoes! You’re standing on holy ground.” Poor Moses didn’t even recognize what he was facing! God had to tell him.
And like when God-made-flesh said the Sadducees: “God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.”
God leapt off the page for the Sadducees that day, when Jesus invited them to discover that God was too big to be contained, even by the holy words of the scrolls of the Torah. God wasn’t just the God of dead, dry, understandable, quantifiable words anymore. God couldn’t even be contained by the Torah… or by heaven…or by God’s very divinity. That’s how God ended up sitting on the Temple steps in Jerusalem, letting anyone come to him who wanted to listen. That’s how God ended up sitting in a Temple full of worshipers looking to worship the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all facing the wrong way.
God was so eager to be with us, to save us, to love us, that God couldn’t wait for us to understand or get things right. God was so eager that God became flesh and walked on the stony dry earth of Palestine two thousand years ago, all the way to the holy city of Jerusalem, where God wept, because the city couldn’t see the God for whom it yearned in the body of a thirty-something sweaty rabbi who walked the land and ate with outcasts and sinners and hung out with adulterers and prostitutes and failures.
Encountering God doesn’t start with us understanding, or even recognizing God. It starts with God understanding us perfectly. Understanding our faults and flaws and fears and wanting to be close to us anyway. Wanting that so badly that God just couldn’t wait for us to understand, to get everything right, but just went ahead and became human so that God could walk around among us, full of grace and truth.
So let the joy of this grace and truth fill you: having faith isn’t about having it right, knowing all the answers. It’s about God knowing us, and loving us so deeply and passionately that God is willing to step in, and on the wood of the cross, make up for everything we get wrong, murmuring as he died: “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
We don’t have all the answers. We don’t have to. God loves us here, where we are: broken and beloved, saints and sinners. Thanks be to God.