Looking at Luke 20:27-40
“Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.” This is Luke’s preface to the next round in the escalating conflict between Jesus and his critics. It provides a key point for readers like us who may not know about Sadduccees. So we may rephrase it a little: Some people who didn’t believe in the resurrection asked Jesus a question about the resurrection.
In the (frankly bizarre) story that follows, one becomes quickly aware that this is nothing to do with seeking information and everything to do with attempting to make Jesus look stupid. It has the flavour of being an old insider joke – like an after dinner speech about vegans at a conference of butchers. The wonder is not that Jesus deflects it so easily, but that he makes it the basis for serious analysis on resurrection. When I am attacked, (by contrast), my gut instinct is to attack back, not to reach for the hearts and minds of my attackers.
So here’s the story:
“‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘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. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?’”
The so-called “levirate marriage” (Hebrew: yibbum) was mandated by Deut 25:5-6, which obliges the oldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the firstborn being treated as that of the deceased brother (see also Gen 38:8) which renders the child the heir of the deceased brother, and not the genetic father.
In English history, Levirate marriage practices have been sometimes followed for dynastic reasons, to preserve marriage alliances and to protect the social status of royal spouses. Upon the death of Arthur Prince of Wales, his widow Catherine of Aragorn was married to his younger brother, the future Henry VIII. And see how well that one turned out?
But Levirate marriage had important dynastic and economic implications. It was a serious issue, deserving of serious consideration. But the point here -or rather the punchline- comes in v33: “Whose wife will she be?”
The question is not a question, because it is posed by those who do not believe there is any conceivable answer. So why ask it? It’s rather like that occasion when the “Woman at the Well” (in John 4) asked a question about the relative statuses of Jerusalem and Samaria. Jesus treated the question as a distraction (or even an obfuscation) and just moved deftly past it, to the real point at issue.
And so he does here:
“Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’”
As an account of what “resurrection life” looks life, this is extremely helpful, and with 1 Cor 15 constitutes the bulk of what The New Testament offers on the subject! The first verse (v34) offers a comparison between the two states of being (the “now” life and the “then” life!). The second verse (v35) suggests the idea of judgement (“considered worthy”) and further describes that new kind of life. V36 takes this further: “They can no longer die…” concluding with the ringing statement, that “they are children of the resurrection.” And then, in a slightly rabbinic style, he extrapolates from Exodus 3 and the familiar phrase “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob ” to make the startling conclusion that “to [God] all are alive.”
It’s a confident response, so strong and clear that you almost forget that he hasn’t answered the question.
But then, of course, it wasn’t a question at all, only a nonsense to catch him out. And “Some of the teachers of the law responded, ‘Well said, teacher!’”
We may take this as their first honest statement of the whole exchange. “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
Lord, I realise that when I ask you questions it is often more about me and my insecurities than about finding answers.
But I thank you that you are the God of the living, the God of Now, the I AM, and the God of Forever.
And as it is with angels now, all our ecstasies and intimacies then (soon) will be with you.
I can’t wait.