The gospel reading for this morning, Luke 20:27-38 quite frankly, most likely will sound odd, archaic, and even irrelevant to most of us. Stay with me and don’t switch off, together we will try to make sense of this passage.
A bit of historical context.
The primary historical element that will demand some attention is the role of the Sadducees, who though in some ways the rivals to the Pharisees, were united with them in their opposition to Jesus. The Sadducees had primary authority over the Temple. They recognized only the original five “books of Moses” as fully authoritative, and for this reason did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (as that is not referenced in the Pentateuch).
Because Jesus had so recently attacked the sacrificial practices of the Temple, it is easy to understand that they would put away their differences with the Pharisees to discredit Jesus
(though by cornering him on the question of the resurrection they may also seek to embarrass the Pharisees who similarly believe in the resurrection). The law they referenced — called levirate marriage from the Latin levir (“brother in law”) comes from Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and sought to insure the preservation of one’s family name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother.
The question is hypothetical, meant to take an ancient practice to the extreme in order to show that the whole idea of resurrection was foolish.
28 “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. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
NOW Jesus wasn’t stupid. Clearly Jesus avoids their trap by making two moves.
First, he demonstrates their failure to understand the resurrection or resurrection life,
contrary to the assumption betrayed by their question, is qualitatively different from life here and now.
Second, he demonstrates their failure to understand Scriptures by using another passage
from the Pentateuch — the crucial Exodus 3 story of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush and the revelation of God’s holy name — that he takes to establish the validity, indeed certainty, of life after death. The passage, Jesus points out, declares that God is — present tense — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not that God was their God.
Therefore, Jesus concludes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must in some sense still be alive; hence, the necessity of resurrection.
NOW there is another historical context that we need to consider.
In the patriarchal culture of the ancient world, it would strike few as odd that these men debate the ownership of this woman in the afterlife: “whose wife will the woman be”?
Furthermore, it would strike few as odd that these Jewish men were deliberating the reproductive repercussions of this one woman, a (hypothetical) wife of seven different men. As in this case, even the absent children were considered in relationship to the male figures of the families: “all seven (men) died childless” (Luke 20:31); “raise up children for his brother” (verse 28).
Sadly, but true in all patriarchal societies (ancient and modern), the female body often becomes the place of theological regulation.
A good present example is the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that officially reversed Roe v. Wade, declaring that the constitutional right to abortion, upheld for nearly a half century, no longer exists.
For this unnamed woman, Torah would determine her earthly relations but could not resolve her future life. And, as readers were tipped off in advance, the Sadducees had little concern for her future implications because of their theological assumptions.
The question remains. What difference does this argument make for an embodied faith?
NOW allow me to digress a little.
What do I mean by “Embodied faith”?
“And the Word of God became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”
(John 1:14, Message.)
Embodied faith is also relational faith; it is involved with people. Embodied faith cares about people and their needs.
I stand in awe sometimes as I listen to people who claim to be Christian argue against taking steps to care for the least of these in our midst.
Embodied faith is also reflective faith; it is faith that has been subjected to critical reason and careful thought. You realise snake handlers have great faith, but they are not very reflective.
Embodied faith is taught, not caught. Embodied faith is a faith passed on from one generation to the next. It takes place in story, in tradition, in Scripture and in song.The other side of course is to realize that embodied faith is a living faith.
Though passed along from one generation to the next, it embraces the present time and addresses the needs of the moment.
An embodied faith is not afraid to use the language of the present to express the hope
and beliefs handed down from generations before.Embodied faith is about life in the here and now.
I believe the key to this passage —is the relationship between “God” and “life”,“for God is a God of the living.”
Herein lies the key to Jesus’s hermeneutical approach. Text matters. Text matters.
Notice the stark question in the mouth of Mark’s Jesus: “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” [Mark 12:24]).
But not text alone. Human (legal) relationships —even those bound by Torah —have no bearing in the next life.
Sometimes I wonder what Jesus’s followers expect will happen from their interpretation of the text? Hopefully, something that will bring life, energy, meaning, and substance to the reality in which they find themselves.
“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living: for to him all of them are alive.”
God is about life. And death is part of life. Embodied faith is about life and death. Embodied faith wrestles with the issues of life and death.
Have you ever considered when our theology fails to touch human bodies — when theology becomes disembodied — what difference does it make?
When this occurs, commitment to nation states overrides fair treatment of individuals.
Jesus’s response that this woman — and all embodied individuals — are the “children of the resurrection” (and, so, lose ‘attachments’) is also striking.
On the one hand, it seems to be a belittling of embodied faith, a statement that implies that human relationships do not matter.
On the other hand, “Children of the resurrection” ought to care about more than their own.
This is not Western style “family values.” Resurrection’s children ought to be God’s children (Luke 20:36) and live as if their relationships can expand, becoming like the “angels” —
God’s messengers and actors in the world — living in God’s service.
It clearly challenges contemporary notions that ‘married’ life is the only true fulfillment of a meaningful life. When one looks at the present life through the lens of the next life, the present world looks differently. Old beliefs may not apply.
What theological ideas do we still have in place that displace and disregard the bodies of people?
If God is a “god of the living,” followers of Jesus ought to be about things that bring life, which seems to emphasize a call for embodied living recalling not just what happens when we die — “In the resurrection … whose wife will she be?” —but paying attention to present realities.
For example, why have a theological system that forces women to remarry again and again so that they to give birth to protect their (first) husband’s name?
NOW there are contemporary theological debates that take our attention, like the inclusive nature of our congregations toward people of various sexual orientations, wondering if the preached word can originate from within anyone other than those of the hetero-orientation.
And important question for us to reflect: “What theological beliefs do we still have in place that displace and disregard the bodies of people?
In a few moments we’ll be sharing the bread and wine. At the last supper, Jesus says, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you” (1 Corinthians 11).
May the God of the living continually draw our attention to this life beyond the limits of our imagination.
May the God of living continually remind us that death does not have the last word, life does.