The Problem with Resurrection
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and 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. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but 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. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And 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. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
The Sadducees only appear once in the gospel of Luke and many of us tend to lump the Sadducees and the Pharisees together as the bad, bad guys of the New Testament. In fact, there’s an old church camp song that warns children about Pharisees, Sadducees, hypocrites and goats, and tells them these are the kinds of characters we DON’T want to be. So it’s easy to get them all confused as bad guys, even for grownups.
However, when we dealing with scripture, it’s kind of important to know what kind of dubious characters we are dealing with when we talk about Pharisees and Sadducees. So let’s break it down a little bit.
I read a really good sermon recently in which the preacher rightly described the Pharisees as the less conservative or more liberal Jews of their time. The Pharisees read all of Hebrew Scriptures including the historical books, the Psalms and the Prophets. They came up with the oral Torah – developing new interpretations for old laws so to make the Torah more acceptable and more relevant. In fact, the Pharisees were the ones who were trying to open up the Jewish faith so that everyone could participate in Torah law, not just the priestly class. Compared to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were the open-minded ones.
The Sadducees, however, only accepted the first five books – the Pentateuch – as sacred text. They rejected oral tradition and relied upon literal reading of scripture. The Sadducees were sort of the “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of folks.
Another important difference between Pharisees and Sadducees was their political views, particularly their views about the Romans occupation. The Pharisees were downright hostile toward non-Jews and especially the Roman government in Jerusalem. The Sadducees, however, were happy to align themselves with the Romans, supposedly to keep the peace, but many of them also managed to get rich working with Rome. If the Pharisees were more blue collar, working class types, the Sadducees were the white-collar guys, the ruling elites, the ones who held most of the power in the temple hierarchy even though nobody liked the Sadducees very much. The Pharisees were concerned about the spiritual condition of ordinary people, although Jesus often accused them about not tending to the physical needs of the people, particularly those outside the religious community. The Sadducees kept a careful distance from anyone who was not a Sadducee so, not surprisingly, ordinary people wanted very little to do with them.
The Pharisees were faithful Jews who studied and thought deeply about their faith, believed in resurrection and a life beyond their present reality, especially since that reality included suffering at the hands of the Roman government. In fact, one of the Pharisees’ big disappointments in Jesus was that he didn’t seem interested in overthrowing Rome. In the passage just prior to this one, Jesus in fact tells them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The Sadducees wore their religion lightly, like an attractive accessory, and were most concerned about how they were doing in the here and now. The idea of resurrection or an afterlife seemed ridiculous. There’s nothing explicit about resurrection in the first five books of the Old Testament, so if you read your text as literally as the Sadducees did, resurrection isn’t even an issue. So the Sadducees stored up all their blessings, and what mattered to them was protecting what could be seen and felt and spent in this life. The Sadducees were truly, “live your best life now” kind of guys.
If you had to place Jesus in one of the two camps, it’s clear that Jesus would be more aligned with the Pharisees than the Sadducees. Jesus, however, had issues with the way in which both groups misapplied their understanding of scripture, particularly when it came to how they took care or didn’t take care of God’s people.
The Sadducees and Pharisees had pretty much nothing in common with one another except for one thing: Jesus had become an enormous problem for them.
Today’s text takes place on the Tuesday of Holy Week and Jesus has already faced a number of challenges from the Pharisees. The Pharisees questioned Jesus’ authority to teach in the temple, his healings on the Sabbath, and his questionable associations with sinners. And you can see Jesus engaging with and trying to teach the Pharisees over and over again in the Gospels. In earlier arguments, Jesus goes back and forth; the Pharisees ask one question and Jesus asks another. And some of the Pharisees seem to eventually understand what Jesus is talking about.
But today the Sadducees show up in all their priestly splendor to take Jesus on. But it’s clear that they really are just messing with Jesus. The idea of resurrection is so laughable to them that they ask Jesus a complicated hypothetical question designed to make Jesus look foolish and discredit him entirely. They invoke marriage laws from Deuteronomy in which the brother of a man who dies childless is required to marry his widow. And the Sadducees produce this elaborate hypothetical in which 7 brothers marry the same woman and all 7 die without producing children. Which brother will be the poor woman’s husband in heaven?
It’s unclear how the Sadducees reacted to Jesus’ answer to them, but it seems to me that Jesus demonstrates two things in his reply. First, that resurrection means something far different than the Sadducees’ question suggests. Jesus seems to say that the issues involved in resurrection for the Sadducees, like marriage and inheritance and multiple husbands and who belongs to who are not really issues. After all, angels don’t worry about husbands. Angels don’t worry about inheritance. Angels don’t die. Angels don’t have children. The children that seem to matter in resurrection are the children of God and, according to Jesus, that’s pretty much everybody.
Then Jesus goes on to use the Sadducees preferred scripture to point out that when Moses encounters the burning bush in Exodus, the voice of God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” God speaks of the patriarchs not as some fondly remembered friends, not as a bunch of guys who have been dead and buried for years, but as living people. So while Abraham, Isaac and Jacob might be a distant memory to the Sadducees, captured only in the literal ink of the Torah, the patriarchs are alive for God. The resurrection of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has already happened.
So what is Jesus up to in this answer?
Remember that we are talking about resurrection. Resurrection is not the same as immortality. Resurrection is not the same as life after death. Resurrection is not even about heaven. We are talking about resurrection – the transformation we see most clearly in scripture as the transformation that happens to Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus wasn’t simply raised from the dead, although he was no longer dead. Jesus didn’t only walk out of the tomb like Lazarus, although his body was missing from the tomb when the women went to look for it. Jesus didn’t just come back to life like Jairus’ daughter, although Jesus lives and reigns among us and through us and in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we look at the lived experience of the disciples and other Christians’ experiences of the resurrected Christ, we can see that resurrection is a much deeper and, frankly, more mysterious experience than immortality and the assurance that we’ll be married to the same person in heaven that we were married to in life. I’ll leave it up to you if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
It seems in resurrection, death is no longer an issue at all. Resurrection is a living, breathing, tangible experience of Jesus in the world. And it changes everything. For Jesus. For the disciples. And for us. It changes every human experience we have.
Resurrection is such a game-changer that it is hard to give the Sadducees a hard time on this particular point. It is difficult to wrap our minds around the resurrection. Even the Pharisees’ understanding is limited by their wish to see the Romans get theirs after exploiting and torturing the people of Israel for so many years. The Pharisees want to know there is an afterlife so as to extract some sort of cosmic justice for the suffering they’ve endured in this life.
Quite simply, resurrection is a problem. It’s a problem. Because resurrection isn’t only what happens after we are dead. The Gospel stories of the resurrected Christ are not intended to prove that the resurrection happened bodily, literally, and historically and all we have to do is give our intellectual assent to it and all will be well. Rather, the Gospel stories are intended to invite us – all of us, the disciples of today – to experience the ongoing reality of resurrection NOW. A resurrection reality in which things that look dead to us – people, relationships, all of the world’s brokenness – all of those situations are, in fact, being transformed into something new. Right now. Right in front of our eyes.
Where do we see resurrection happening among us?
First, it happens in our experience of the liturgy in worship. Every Sunday, we come face-to-face with the resurrected Christ who has been made known to us in the breaking of the bread, in the waters of baptism, and in the proclamation of God’s word. Resurrection is not just something that will happen to us someday. Resurrection happens now.
I thought about this as I was preparing the funeral service for my friend Alan’s father yesterday. Our service of witness to the resurrection proclaims that death isn’t the beginning, but the completion of our resurrection that began in our baptism when we died to our old lives and were resurrected to new life in Jesus. So it’s not like we will be resurrected. It’s that we already are. In our baptism, we have all been resurrected.
Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, but God of the living. God doesn’t let dead things stay dead. And that’s a problem for us. Because while we see resurrection as good news – and it is very good news indeed – it is also bad news for folks like the Sadducees or anyone else who can only imagine that what we see is all there is to see, or that justice only happens at some distant point on the horizon, which is the Pharisees’ understanding. Resurrection is terrible news for those of us who want to bury our heads in the sand and imagine that things were once better, are bad today, and nothing good can happen in the foreseeable future.
But resurrection won’t let us off the hook. And the resurrected Jesus never stops pursuing us. We may feel that pursuit just like the disciples when they encountered the resurrected Christ. They are lost in their grief. They are terrified when they find an empty tomb. Dismissive and scornful of the women. They run to see for themselves and yet still cannot believe their own eyes. They are doubting and dubious. The disciples mistake Jesus for an ordinary gardener or a stranger on the road. They decide to go back to their old lives, but then they see a figure on a distant shore. A terrible night of fishing turns into a morning of nets filled to bursting. The disciples’ experience of resurrection is confusing, heartbreaking, filled with moments of great joy, and difficult to explain in a way that sounds anything but ridiculous. But what is clear from all of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament, that the disciples were transformed fundamentally. After resurrection, the disciples are different people.
The New Testament confirms that experiencing resurrection is neither comfortable nor comforting, and even when it’s staring us in the face, it won’t be immediately recognizable. But if we keep our eyes open for it, the scales will fall.
Once there was a wise old woman who lived in a small village. The children of the village were puzzled by her—her wisdom, her gentleness, her strength. One day several of the older children decided to fool her. No one could be as wise as everyone said she was, and they set out to prove it. So they found a baby bird. One of the boys cupped it in his hands and said to his friend, “We’ll ask her whether the bird I have in my hands is dead or alive. If she says it is dead, I will open my hands and let it fly away. If she says it’s alive, I’ll crush it and she’ll see that it’s dead.” So they went to the woman and presented her with this puzzle. “Old woman,” the little boy asked, “this bird in my hands—is it dead or alive?” The old woman became very still, studied the boy’s hands, then looked carefully into his eyes. “It’s in your hands,” she said.
Brothers and sisters, we have a choice. We can live as if we are dying or we can live as if we trust that death truly has been defeated. We can believe that God will take every broken thing, hold it in his hands, blow the dust of sin off it, and transform us into something new and redeemed and beautiful. That is what God does. That is who God is. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. That is our God. Let us live into the promise of our resurrection. Let us welcome the resurrected Christ among us as we break bread together with one another today.
Thanks be to God. Amen.