by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 20: 27-38
We see in today’s Gospel reading that those ol’ Sadducees are at it again. Like other gatekeepers of religious traditions, they are misappropriating scripture for a self-serving purpose. In this case, they are posing a question to entrap Jesus and fortify their position against the idea of resurrection. You and I have also experienced people using the Bible manipulatively, even maliciously. In today’s text from Luke we note the Sadducees quoting words “of Moses” to stump Jesus and deny the possibility of resurrection rather than pursue honest questions. They ask Jesus to comment on the implausible situation of a woman who’d had seven successive husbands, all brothers, all who died before giving her a child and their elder brother an heir. Their rhetorical move was designed to prove the impossibility of resurrection. But Jesus wins the Sadducees’ challenge by moving away from legalism and literalism to a spiritual plane full of nuance, metaphor, and mystery.
A key difference between the Sadducees and Pharisees is that the Pharisees, like Jesus, believed in bodily resurrection. One way to remember this distinction is with this wordplay: “The Sadducees, were sad, you see, because they did not believe in the resurrection.” Like the Sadducees, the Pharisees worked to discredit Jesus on other matters—but not on the possibility of resurrection. Religious factions, then and now, develop more from struggles for authority than from theological differences. Those who set the boundary lines for religion try to claim control even over unknowable matters beyond this life. In order to discredit Jesus, the Sadducees challenged him with a hypothetical scenario they were certain would disprove his belief in resurrection.
Having reminded you about this distinguishing feature of the Sadducees’ theology, let me share one more bit of background before you and I weigh in on whether or not WE believe in resurrection. Let me say more about levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 teaches that if a married man dies without children, his oldest brother should marry his widow “to raise an heir for the deceased’s brother.”1 By marrying his brother’s childless widow and fathering a child with her, he made it possible for the family’s line of succession to continue through the eldest son via his brother essentially stepping in for his deceased brother. That child is then considered the dead brother’s child, which I note because implicit in this practice is an alternate biblical understanding of eternal life: one can live on through one’s children and their children.
All the canonical Gospels present Jesus as believing in some concept of resurrection, and all three synoptic Gospels tell this same story about the Sadducees trying to discredit Jesus for his faith in the resurrection. But we don’t know very much about Jesus’s understanding of resurrection. And the details of life after death are hardly a minor issue for many Christians who want to preview heaven the way they visit a website for a preview of a hotel room before making a reservation. Of course, this debate over the reality of resurrection is not unimportant.
The questions we must grapple with inside today’s reading from Luke are the same that the Sadducees forced onto Jesus: Is God’s resurrection power real and is resurrection a literal reconstitution of our current self? For example, do people remain married to any and all former spouses in an afterlife? The Sadducees are framing the question of whether there’s life after death in such a literalist way that I think few of us would want eternity modeled on a stagnant notion of life that freezes us in one setting, one stage of development, one set of relationships for all time.
Thankfully, we have the option of affirming resurrection without claiming to know more than is knowable. This modest claim in support of resurrection seems honest and yet sufficient for me. And I’ll show my cards up front: God’s love is all I need to have experienced to trust whatever lies beyond the grave.
What I do know from my own experience of life is that life is the opposite of stasis. Life is growth and change. When we stop growing and changing, we die. Ninety-eight percent of our bodies’ atoms are replaced every year. And in response to the Sadducees’ hypothetical questions, I’d insist that resurrection can be affirmed without believing in an afterlife in which a woman is married to seven brothers, which sounds more like a pilot for an awful reality television show. Who wants to be resurrected into a life of misery? No wonder the Sadducees rejected the idea of resurrection.
But if growth continues after death and into resurrection, as I hope, then I can’t expect life after this life to be pure perfection. Once perfection is attained, nothing else can happen because that will destroy perfection. Literalist notions about perfection resurrection are not truly idyllic after you ponder the idea for more than five minutes.
If you ask me if I believe in resurrection, I will have to respond by asking what you mean by that. And if you reply that resurrection or life after death involves living in a perfect paradise, I might reply, “We have no assurance of that” or “I’m not interested in an existence that prevents me from learning and changing and growing. A life where nothing changes would be hell—however heavenly it started.”
I waited until just now to use the word “heaven” in part because the Sadducees didn’t mention heaven when they baited Jesus, and because the concept of heaven was developing at this time period, and mainly because in all the utopian/dystopian fiction and Christian theology I’ve ever read, there is no way to envision a purely idyllic state of existence. Just because I can’t envision something, doesn’t mean it can’t exist, of course, but it does mean it’s not a helpful construct for me. Have any of you, maybe in your childhood, tried to imagine what a perfect existence would look like? When you were ten, Heaven might have been some realm where it’s always summer and you have unlimited access to a swimming pool and cold watermelon and it never gets dark so you can ride your bike with your friends to buy candy at the Pak-a-Sak whenever you want. That’s what heaven might be like if 10-year-olds in the 1960s got to create it.
Again, life and stasis can’t coexist, life and perfection are contradictions. Life must include challenges and growth. Whatever bliss I imagine will fall short or wear off or have harmful unintended consequences. Could you really be happy if your perfect paradise meant nothing new or challenging happened? Wouldn’t that be a kind of death? Or as I said earlier, hell.
More importantly, Jesus did not even try to prove that resurrection was about a perfect place or perfected state of existence. Yes, John 14 says Jesus promised his followers he would go to prepare a PLACE for them—his Father’s “mansion” (in the King James version) or “home” with many rooms where they will reunite. The writer of John may understand this literally. But we don’t know if Jesus did. The synoptic Gospels do indicate that Jesus proclaimed a now and COMING kin*dom that was already breaking into the world, a realized eschaton. All the Gospels present Jesus as believing in some idea of resurrection and all three synoptic Gospels tell this very story about the Sadducees criticizing Jesus for his faith in a resurrection. And you have to admit, resurrection is a major piece of most Christains’ theology. Whether you see death as the end for you or an opening to another state of existence is a pretty big deal to most people, so the Sadducees chose a debate worth having. The Pharisees and many other Jews including Jesus DID believe in some kind of eventual resurrection of the dead. As a Jesus follower, I believe in resurrection. I just don’t know what that looks like. But my faith in God’s vast compassion leads me to trust that, in God, death does not have the final word.
Resurrection is a process I trust and have witnessed in, for instance, a buried seed sprouting into new life. That beautiful metaphor does not prove a conscious life after death. But it does emphasize ongoing change.
Richard Rohr says, “resurrection” is another word for change, particularly positive change, which we tend to see only in the long run. In the short run, change often looks like death. Resurrection is a Christian quality or capacity I believe in and sometimes experience. After all, Easter Sunday is not the only celebration of Jesus’s resurrection; for Christians EVERY Sunday is resurrection Sunday where we say “no” to death and celebrate life, and even on a day like today when we are grieving the death of our brother David, we both accept the reality of death and push back against death by shouting “no!” to the tomb and to any notion that David’s life has disappeared or is meaningless.
We don’t have to understand what resurrection means or choose a particular metaphor or interpretation in order to affirm life over death, to celebrate resurrection’s transformation, and to face our mortality while celebrating our vitality. What matters is not how I view death but how God does. Luke 20:38 affirms that God is not the God of the dead, not like the Greco-Roman gods of death, Pluto and Hades. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is God of the living and to God, all those who have died (like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) nevertheless “are alive” in God. Consider that phrase. It suggests that through death we will enter more fully into the unitive life in God, which will allow us to experience beyond our current imaginings and to be, at last, fully alive. But we won’t find any pictures of that on the internet. Today’s Gospel lection concludes this way: “Now God is God not of the dead but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” It is only Jesus’s language of metaphor and mystery that allows us the merest glimpse of life in God–a language the Sadducees do not know.
The apostle Paul approached the ineffable this way: “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Richard Rohr today offers this: “The resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection.”2
To live in God’s memory is the only eternity I need; to unite with God, the only heaven I desire.
1 Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from
Cultural Anthropology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001,137
2 Rohr, Richard. https://cac.org/good-news-from-old-images-2019-11-10/