By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 6, 2022
Luke 20:27–38 (ESV)
27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
There are many things in scripture that cause me to pause and think. This week I came across one of those passages. We often look to scripture to provide the answers to our problems, but there are times where the Spirit of God prompts us to ask questions.
Today we meet Jesus while he is in a discussion with one of the primary sects of the first century Jewish religion, the Sadducees. There are two main sects mentioned in the New Testament. The first is the Pharisees, we speak often about them because many of the confrontations that Jesus has with religious leaders come from this sect. The second is the Sadducees. This is the first time that Jesus is confronted by this group of religious leaders in Luke’s gospel, and when we consider all the gospel accounts, we do not learn much about this group. If you do research outside of scripture, you would be surprised at how little we know about this sect within the first century Jewish community. Even though it was one of the three primary groups.
The Sadducees are believed to have been a more aristocratic branch of the first century Jewish community. The origin of this group is debated, some say that they can trace their roots to the High Priest Zodak, who served during the reign of Solomon. And since the priest from this lineage were the only ones that returned after exile this could account for the aristocratic placement of this group. Another theory is that this group derived their name from the Hebrew word for justice or righteousness. Since most of what we know about this group indicates that they primarily focused their attention on the Torah, this idea seems logical. They were focused on the law and the keeping of the law so they would be seen as righteous. Basically, we do not know exactly where the name comes from, but we do know that they were primarily priest that served in the temple. And because of their position in the temple, they had power and influence in the community.
The origin is a mystery and just as mysterious is their demise. There are no known contemporary expressions of Sadducee teachings in Modern Judaism. And very little of their teachings have remained in the collections of Rabbinical teachings. So, when it comes to beliefs, all we really know is what is provided to us through various verses like the ones we read today. The Sadducees deny the resurrection. This can be expanded even a bit more, it is believed that the Sadducees denied angels and demons, they denied an afterlife, and they rejected the oral teachings of the prophets. From what we can glean from the few remaining fragments of their teaching is that religion was a social, terrestrial, and political framework.
I struggle with this. But the struggle gives me some insight into our contemporary issues today. The Sadducees were wealthy. They were the political leaders. They were focused on justice in the land. Today we might call them Social Justice Warriors. They wanted to use their wealth and influence to provide for a better world. This of course is conjecture on my part because we do not really know. But they did not believe in the resurrection, so if this was true, and I believe it to be true since that is what is indicated in scripture, the focus of religion is not for something in the life beyond but in life here today.
It is important for us to understand this because it leads into the essence of the question that they ask. Questions are important. We ask questions all the time, and these questions lead us to answers. Has it ever occurred to us that we might ask the wrong questions, and if we ask the wrong questions, we might be leading ourselves into a direction that might take us further away from the truth instead of closer to it? This is what I think is going on in this text today.
Often, we look at this passage as the Sadducees attempt to corner Jesus into making some theological claim that might put his teaching into a particular box. Often this is what is occurring when the Pharisees are asking questions. When they ask a question about divorce, it is a question that deals with two contemporary schools of thought within the rabbinical teachings of the Pharisees. One branch thinks that it is acceptable to divorce for nearly any reason where the other branch restricts it to infidelity of the bride. Oddly, both groups focus primarily on the grievances perpetrated by the bride and give greater latitude to the men. And we see in the answer that Jesus gives that he does not side with either branch directly but mainly redirects the question to the one they fail to ask, what about the men?
Many think that the Sadducees are entering into this sort of thing. They want Jesus on their side. They see him healing people. They hear him teaching that we should give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. They think that maybe, just maybe Jesus might be more like them than the Pharisees think. So, they come to him with a theological question of their own, one that deals with the Resurrection. We might find this question odd, because by Jesus’ day most Jews believed in the resurrection. There is a quote from the Mishnah that states, “Whoever denies the resurrection of the dead has no share in the world to come.” (Sanhedrin 10:1) This teaching was common among the religious, except the Sadducees. The reason the Sadducees rejected this idea is because in the Torah references to resurrection of the dead are vague and sporadic at best, and most even deny it altogether. If this is the case why did this theological idea take hold in among the masses? It relates to two men, Enoch and Elijah. Scripture says that they did not die but were taken to be with God. The Sadducees could reject the story of one, Elijah because his reference come from the teachings of the prophets and is not in the books of Moses, but Enoch is from Genesis and that causes some problems.
We get caught in the theological debate of resurrection, but we often overlook how they ask the question in the first place, mainly because Luke tells us that they deny the resurrection so our attention goes to that point. But they ask a loaded question. “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”
This question has layers. Yes, they are attempting to corner Jesus into some theological statement about resurrection, but there is more to the question than eschatology, they are also asking a question about marriage. How they ask the question reveals more about them than they might think. Their question is not only about resurrection but they are also asking a question about their own belief system dealing with marriage in the world they live in. And for us to truly understand Jesus’s answer to the question about eschatology, we must also understand the other.
This question deals with what we call, Levirate Marriage. We do not practice this sort of thing today but in ancient times it was important. In this sort of marriage if a brother dies and the widow is without a son the younger brother is to take the woman as his wife to raise up a son for his older brother. To us this might sound like some barbaric practice, but we are reading this through the eyes of a culture that has very little need. We have all that we need in our culture. We may not have all that we want, and we might be a bit upset about the price of things but we have what we need. This was not always the case in the world.
In a largely subsistence agricultural based culture scarcity was a real issue. Not only was scarcity of food an issue but scarcity of people. In our present reality we tend to forget what life was like throughout history. Even in recent history during the western expansion of America, people were scarce and a death of one in the family could mean death to all. The idea of marriage for love is a luxury that many places do not have. Marriage throughout history was survival. Survival of the family, the clan or tribe, and survival of humanity. The Levirate marriage to us sounds weird but look at it from a place of survival.
You might wonder what the benefit of this sort of arrangement might have. The answers are broad, but greatest benefit is the continuation of the family name. This is what the Sadducees were interested in. In their view life is now and the life beyond was through the continuation of the family line. In this manner of thinking the provision that God gives is to maintain the family. If we consider their potential history and background this makes sense. They were the aristocrats. They were the people, maybe the only people that could trace their lineage back to the time of King David. But what if you could not make that claim? What if your family line was broken, or what if there was not a male child to carry on the family name? There are instances of this occurring in the ancient texts. These were the things that they focused on and when the discussion came up about the resurrection they had little to draw from. And this is where the question takes on a different form.
What happens in the resurrection? Is it a continuation of life as it is on earth or is it something different? Those that have wealth tend to believe that the afterlife will be a continuation, and those who struggled and suffered through life often believe that the resurrection will be something better. You see the Sadducees are attempting to formulate some understanding of these things. They have built their life and their beliefs on this continuation of the family name. If there is a resurrection how will the line continue especially in those weird cases where the lines of inheritance are skewed here on earth.
Let us go back to the Levirate marriage. It is a law, or a custom that preserves the family name and inheritance. It is to ensure the continuation of the family and provide for the lives within the family. This is not something that was unique to the Hebrew people but is a custom that is found throughout ancient middle eastern cultures. This might come as a surprise to some of us. We often think that all of scripture was unique to the Hebrew people, but there are aspects that appear universal. This does not mean that it is not important it simply means that at times God allows us as humans to participate with Him in the world. Because the survival of the family is important to all people, we see it in scripture as well as in the laws of men. Just like we see the commandment to not murder being found in multiple places as well. The question is not so much that it is there but why. Is there a reason beyond the preservation of inheritance for this to be in scripture?
This is the heart of the question that they are raising. Why did God allow this law to be preserved? Are we married in the resurrection? There are some religious groups that believe that marriage is eternal. This is something that we may not even realize we believe or would deny that we believe but this is why the Twilight book series became popular. The idea that love and marriage could be eternal has some attraction to us. Part of the reason marriage has become such a talking point within our lifetimes is because we have allowed these views to take root in our theological minds. It is a luxury to think like this. It comes from a place of security and abundance. It is our desire that the future whatever it may bring will be a continuation of what we have here. But what if a marriage is not perfect? This no longer seems to be promising, but it could be hell.
I love marriage, do not get me wrong. I think it is one of the greatest gifts that we have been given. But we can idolize marriage. I love my wife and my family. I cannot think of what life without them would be, nor do I even want to consider it. But when we begin to consider marriage to be eternal something happens. We begin to worship humanity instead of God. We being to place our families in a place that should be occupied by God alone. For as beneficial as marriage is to the world around us, it can also be destructive. And I know that this is not a popular perspective.
Here is the problem. We define marriage within a segment of history, and we believe that our definition is true and right. But when we perpetuate this into the future, situations change. And when we hold the past to our contemporary systems, we end up condemning all, even those scripture regard as holy. We no longer participate in Levirate Marriages, why? Because times change and so does culture. What we once did even a hundred years ago no longer makes sense in today’s culture. Some of my favorite movies as a child were produced by Hallmark, and I find this interesting. A company that makes huge profits on romantic cards, often produced movies that had very little to do with our current understanding of love. Sarah Plain and Tall was one such movie. Many of you have either watched this movie or read the book. It is not a marriage about love, but necessity. And there are vast libraries of similar titles where women marry a man in the frontier not because they love them but because winter is coming and they do not have the means to move back east. These were staples of my younger years. These are all forms of Levirate marriage. A marriage based on survival, not romantic love. The Sadducees are asking Jesus, if there is a resurrection, which brother will this woman be married to, because here on earth she would have been married to them all.
This is what I want us to consider. What is marriage? I do not want you to answer this out loud, I do not want you to answer this politically. I do not even want you to answer this based on your understanding of scripture. I just want you to think of it from raw humanity. Marriage is survival.
I know that sounds crass. I know that I do not sound romantic. I know that this is not what focus on the family says. I know that this is not what the pastor said on your wedding day. But it is the truth. Marriage is survival. It is cooperation between individuals for mutual benefit. This is why marriage of some form can be found in every culture throughout the world. It ensures survival. This is why throughout the ancient middle east various religious groups had similar laws and rituals, because marriage is survival. What about love? What about joy? What about pleasure? Marriage is so much more than mere survival you might say.
Marriage can be all those things, but it is those things only after survival is secure. One of those Hallmark style of movies I spoke about is Love Comes Softly. In this movie the woman moved west with her husband and they had their entire future waiting for them. And they were in love, the type we typically think of in marriage. But while the husband was working, he had an accident and died. This young woman was left in the middle of nowhere with nothing. She was encouraged to marry a man out of necessity. They both knew that it was for mutual survival that they formed this bond. She thought that she would never love this man, and he did not truly believe that he would love her. He needed a woman to help with his daughter, and she needed help surviving the winter. But somewhere along the way community emerged. Somewhere along the way their mutual desire to survive and provide for the needs of each other something more emerged. Love came softly.
When Jesus says that we will not marry or be given in marriage this is what he means. Today we are focused on the luxuries of marriage. And we have forgotten the core. Survival. If we want to survive, we cannot be selfish. Selfishness will eventually lead to destruction. We were not created to live like that. We were created to live in a community. Humans are social creatures. Our very minds cannot survive without others around us. Selfishness is destruction. But if we want to survive, we give. We sacrifice for others, we share with others, we provide what we can for their benefit and our own. Survival requires cooperation and from these relationships build. Love builds. We would give our lives for those that we love. Jesus said that in the resurrection we will not marry nor will we be given in marriage. Have you ever wondered why that would be? Survival is no longer a necessity.
In the resurrection we will no longer be worried about the survival of our family because we live in the presence of God. We will no longer worry about who will take care of our sons or daughters because everyone will live in a constant state of mutual benefit. Because survival is no longer a necessity, we would be free to pursue our goals and our dreams. This is what God created us for. We were created to share in his good pleasure. Our primary purpose of existence is to make the world into Eden. We were to live in a state of mutual benefit with those around us and with the world beneath our feet. We were to live in union with God. And God himself would ensure our survival.
Over the past few years, I have watched as people have argued and divided over the definition of marriage. I have watched as people have divided and argued over theological opinions in reference to the afterlife and how the end will occur. I have watched as people have gone to war over differences of opinions. I have watched it; I have participated in it. I have contributed to it. But I no longer care. It does not matter, because marriage is survival. The Gospel of John tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his unique son not to condemn the world but to save it. And that all can have life through him if we repent, turn, or return to him and believe in him. God has given us our means of survival; we will live through him if we live for him. Family is about survival, and so is the church. But our life does not come through marriage but through faith in Christ. Everything else is luxuries we can thank God for.
Jesus concludes his teaching, by meeting these teachers and leaders where they are. He understands that they may not understand. So, he speaks to them through their own words. God is the God of the living not the dead. He is the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God is the source of life and survival. Those that come to him have that assurance. How do we know this? Because there are still sons and daughters of Jacob. We know this because after generations we still have churches and faith. We know this because Jesus provided that hope in his life, death and resurrection. He lives and he has promised that we will also live. We can get distracted by many things, even good things but the most important thing is Christ because he is the key to life. Let us not get caught in the debates. Let us not get bogged down in the arguments, but instead let us encourage each other and those around us to focus on the most important things. Loving God with all we have and all we are. Embracing the Holy Spirit in our personal lives of prayer. And living the love of Christ with others. If we do these things, we will find that we have life. And we will have life abundantly.