a sermon from Luke 20:27-38
Can God make a rock so heavy that even he can’t move it? – oh what a clever question. It’s the perfect logical trap: if you say yes, then you admit God is not all-powerful for being too weak, and if you say no, then you admit is not all-powerful for being unable to create something. All the skeptic has to do to discredit your belief in God is just ask you that question and BOOM! you’re trapped; game over.
Except, of course, the question is an absurdity. It pits the power of God against himself, and has no sense of context or divine purpose. It’s not a question about faith, it’s a thinly veiled attack on the rationality of religion. Our Lord faces a question very much like this one in our Gospel today (Luke 20:27-38). “What happens when a woman marries seven different brothers, and fails to produce heirs from any of them? On the day of resurrection, which of them will be her husband?” Like our Giant Rock question today, this snarky question attempts to trap Jesus in an absurd conflict, and their intention is to discredit the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
The way they do it in this question is by pitting the finer points of the Law, namely levirate marriage, against the much bigger question of resurrection and eternal life. Levirate marriage was the practice of a wife marrying her husband’s brother or next-of-kin if he died before she produced him an heir. The idea was that by having children with her late husband’s brother, they would produce an heir to take the dead man’s place in the allotment of family property. The entire story of the book of Ruth centers around this sort of situation and the fulfillment of that law.
One may be tempted to think that the Sadducees are asking a silly question – a woman marrying a total of seven brothers, and coming out childless on all counts, sounds pretty extreme. But actually, this is very close to a story that they all were familiar with: the Book of Tobit. Rejected by the Jews for their Hebrew Bible but preserved in the Greek Old Testament tradition, Tobit is a story of a faithful Israelite during the exile who sends his son Tobias to collect his money before he dies. On his journey, the son learns of a woman who has been married seven times, and each time a demon has killed her husband immediately, so she’s had no heir from any of them. Tobias turns out to be the right sort of tribal match for the woman, and they agree to marry. Thanks to the help of an under-cover angel, Tobias is able to drive away the demon and their marriage is a blessing and a success.
The Sadduccees took the scenario from that story and posit the question “what if it didn’t have a happy ending? You who claim there’s a resurrection, what will be her status when she’s had seven husbands and produced no heirs with any of them? They’re all genealogical dead-ends!” They think that their interpretation of the law of levirate marriage rules out the possibility of the resurrection of the dead, and if the situation in the book of Tobit had ended differently it would be all the more messy for Jesus and the Pharisees, who all preached the resurrection.
Good doctrine comes from right interpretation
When Jesus answers their question, he side-steps the absurdity of their forced conflict. The law of the levirate marriage existed to protect the stability of the civil life of ancient Israel and make sure that the property rights never left their allotted tribes and families for too long. Using it as an argument against the resurrection is a complete mis-use of scripture! So instead Jesus picks up a text that does deal with the resurrection of the dead. And it’s not what one might expect. He goes back to the book of Exodus, in chapter 3, where Moses encounters him at the Burning Bush. There, God is proclaimed as the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. Jesus then adds the assertion that God is the god of the living, not god of the dead, and that therefore Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are still alive, and therefore the resurrection of the dead is true.
What this shows us is that if we are to understand the scriptures rightly, we have to read it in the right way. The Sadducees were interested in legalism, like the Pharisees, just with a different focus. When they picked up the sacred scrolls, they were looking for affirmations of their own power and authority as priests. They sought a religion that would keep Jewish society peacefully functioning under Greco-Roman rule. Eventually the Temple would be destroyed and the Sadducees’ power and theological perspective would essentially be wiped out. When Jesus picks up the same sacred scrolls, he read them quite differently. They weren’t about maintaining the priestly status quo for the Sadducees, and they weren’t about legalistic holiness as the Pharisees taught, but rather they’re about the work of God in creating and redeeming his people.
Something that might be a little off-putting here, for us as well as for the Sadducees, is the realization that if you want to understand the Bible rightly, you have to come at it with the right lens. If you take a bad interpretive model, you’ll get bad theology. What if I do it wrong? How do I know if I’m reading it correctly?
How To Read the Bible According to God
Thankfully, Jesus went on to instruct his disciples in the right reading of scripture. In Luke 24, the very evening after his resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” A week or so later he explained further: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” This is how the Church has aimed to interpret the Scripture ever since: they are about Jesus, they are about the Gospel, and they are about the work of the Gospel. What the Apostles saw in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus were not only the fulfillments of Old Testament Prophecy, but the true meaning and purpose of the Old Testament! When we pick up the Bible, we are looking for Jesus, whether it’s an Old Testament lesson or New. Yes, the historical and grammatical meaning of scripture is valid and useful, but if that’s all we ever do, then we’re being like the Sadducees – confining the text of the Bible to a very narrow field of meaning and twisting it away from what God is truly saying to his people.
Many of you probably memorized the Apostles’ Creed at some point in your lives: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord; who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, and was buried…” and so on. If you’re a careful student of the Communion liturgy, you might even have the longer Nicene Creed memorized. Either of these are excellent tools for understanding the Bible. These creeds are summaries of the Christian faith, and as such you can pick up virtually any text in the Bible and find an echo of at least one line of the creed therein.
“All live to him”
As to our text today, we are reminded of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Or, better yet, as the Apostles’ Creed words it, the resurrection of the body. Jesus specifically says here that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him. This is a critically important doctrine – all live to him. All those who have departed this life are dead with respect to the flesh, we see them no more, but (at it is written) “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wisdom 3:1). This is why St. Paul wrote that when we mourn, we do not mourn as people without hope. This is why our Burial Service is able to direct us to a praiseful ‘alleluia’. This is why we remember the departed in our prayers, and take encouragement from the examples of the saints before us.
In death, life is changed, not ended, for we know that those who are united to Christ will never be separated from him, and not even death can take him from us, or us from him. This is why, of all the virtues, faith, hope, and love are theological virtues, as they accompany us through not only a good life, but into eternal life.
Let us pray.
O eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life: Shed forth upon your whole Church in Paradise and on earth the bright beams of your light and heavenly comfort; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have loved and served you here and are now at rest, may enter with them into the fullness of your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.