Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (November 10, 2019) on Luke 20:27-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
What was the last argument you started in bad faith?
Now we’re probably pretty good at noticing when someone starts an argument with us in bad faith. They begin by first expressing a point of view or a position they don’t actually believe. Or maybe they’re just trolling, antagonizing us while pretending they’re trying to have a real conversation. Or maybe they’re assuming they’re the only expert in the room - so they’ll never listen to you or anyone else’s point of view. An argument in bad faith is never an attempt at an honest conversation because it’s all about undermining the validity of another person’s point of view. So it’s not hard to notice those moments when no one listens to us. But I’m not sure if we’re always willing to admit those times when our behavior stops us from listening too. So what was the last argument you started when you knew you weren’t going to listen? What was it that made you feel in the right and what convinced you that everyone else was wrong? What, in that moment, were your feeling and thinking? And once you have that experience firmly in your mind, hold onto it. Savor it. Then go back to the start of today’s passage from the gospel according to Luke. Because everything you experienced in your bad-faith moment was exactly what some of the Saduccees brought with them when they chose to argue with Jesus.
Now the Saduccees themselves were a bit mysterious because we don’t really know too much about them. From what we can tell, they were a movement within the Jewish community who had, by the time of Jesus, become overseers of the Temple in Jerusalem. Many of the rich and politically powerful were also Saduccees and they, as a group, were closely connected to the what the Roman Empire said and did. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the Saduccees basically disappeared from the historical record - so it’s difficult to reconstruct what they said about their faith. We think their theological viewpoint was defined by an intense focus on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and that they sort of ignored the rest. This narrowing of what they considered to be holy scripture meant that some of the things we take for granted as Christians, like the resurrection of the dead, of heaven, and even the after-life, were things the Saduccees didn’t really believe in. For them, in the words of John Senior, “all of the goodness life [had] to offer - love, justice, peace, abundance, and happiness - [was] experienced within its horizon.” Life could only be made meaningful within the limited boundaries of our time on earth. And once death came, that was it. The hard boundary between life and death was firm. Whatever the afterlife - the place of Sheoul - was going to be - would be separate, distinct, and filled with a kind of meaninglessness that would have no impact on our life today. Life was bookended by that meaninglessness - and so the handful of years people lived on earth was really the limit of what life could possibly be.
So when the Sadducees came to Jesus, they showed up in bad faith. They did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection as the Pharisees and Jesus taught. They asked Jesus to solve a riddle - one they imagined would show how absurd the so-called future life might be. Now, in the centuries before Jesus’ birth, several cultures - including Ancient Israel - practiced what was called Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was designed to preserve and ensure the continuation of a family or tribe. When the culturally defined male leader of a family or tribe died, the brothers and other male descendants were called to mary that leader’s widow - and, hopefully, create heirs that would continue the former leader’s legal legacy. Those heirs were needed to make sure that the so-called social norms that governed things like inheriting land, passing on wealth, and preserving the family’s name, would work. On one level, a levirate marriage offered a kind of grace because the widow of that male leader needed the protection of a male family member. She couldn’t, according to same cultural norms, really work, keep wealth, or provide financially for herself or her family. Once her husband died, she could be easily forgotten and forced to live in extreme poverty. A levirate marriage would ensure her survival while letting the family name continue. But this arrangement, while filled with a little grace, was also a problem because it was rooted in patriarchy. The widow in this system had no agency of her own and her survival depended on which males she belonged to. Since she couldn’t generate her own wealth or pass on her own family name, there was no real way she could say “no” to marrying her dead husband’s brother. She was trapped in a way of life that granted her a little grace while denying her the grace of personhood. So when the Sadduccees told Jesus their riddle, they didn’t bother giving her a name. She, like other women caught up in the levirate marriage system, was defined by the male society said she belonged to. We never learn her backstory. We have no idea where she came from. All we learn is that she’s made a widow seven times before she died. And when some of the Sadduccees asked who she would be in the afterlife, they assumed that the grace she was given in this world would be enough. She had survived while wrapped up in a system that would always keep her nameless. So the Saduccees wondered to whom, in death, would she belong? But Jesus answered that she would continue to be who she already was: she is, and always will be, a child of God.
Jesus chose not to ignore or run past the Sadducees bad-faith argument. Instead, he pushed through, pointing to the limitless grace of a limitless God. The Sadducees assumed that the contours of this life, what they experienced personally, was the only thing that gave us meaning. Any point of view, experience, or reality that challenged what they assumed to be true needed to be confronted in good or bad faith. Yet Jesus knew and gave witness to a new reality where our eternal relationship with God was the primary definition of who we are. We are not defined only by the little bits of grace our culture or our neighbors give us. We are worth more because God chooses to never let us go. There is no hard boundary between life and death that will ever stop God from loving us. And there’s more than one experience, point of view, or way of life that God uses to show us our true meaning in God. The Sadducees wanted Jesus to fall into a trap because they believed life was limited. But Jesus, instead, showed them how our limitless relationship with God can guide our so-called limited life right now. Since we are wrapped up in this grace that will not end, we can - with God’s help - make that grace feel bigger in our world today. We can turn those small moments of grace in our culture and neighborhood into more fuller of examples of God’s everlasting love, by breakdowning all the systems, ideologies, and points of view that undermine someone else’s sense of personhood. Because we, like Moses and Abraham, Issac and Jacob - and even the unnamed woman in the Sadducees’ riddle - we have a God who is a God of the living. And that God wants you, me, and everyone else to know what it’s truly like to live.
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