Goodness, we tend to get wrapped up in our own day-to-day dramas, controversies and other worldly stuff… forgetting that our lives on earth during this age are merely a precursor to what God has in store for us in the age to come… if only we’ll be faithful.
Y’all remember who the Sadducees were, right? They were an aristocratic Jewish sect closely aligned with the priestly class and the “Temple cult.” They controlled the Sanhedrin (religious council) who instigated Jesus’ arrest and execution. Often in opposition to the more populist Pharisees (and the Scribes), the Sadducees tended to be religiously conservative and rejected the authority of Hebrew oral tradition in favor of a strict interpretation of the written Torah. They believed in neither resurrection nor angels, and emphasized free will over religious determinism (i.e., God’s plans for God’s people). As such, the Sadducees tended to be “people-of-the-here-and-now.” Their question to Jesus about what would happen “in the resurrection,” given the hypothetical case of a woman who had had multiple husbands, was intended to buttress their assertion that there was no such thing as resurrection. How could there be?
The practice of “levirate marriage,” (i.e., the responsibility of a woman’s brother-in-law to take her in marriage should her husband predecease her, and when there were no living children), had been enshrined in the laws of nations and cultures around the region for at least a thousand years, and was an accepted tenet of the Hebrew Law (Deut. 25:5). And although we, in the present day and age, might raise our eyebrows at such a practice, it served a valid purpose in a time when there was no such thing as life insurance or government death benefits. The doctrine of levirate marriage ensured that widows would be cared for, the dead would be remembered, and the property of the deceased would remain within the family… thus, ensuring the social order would be maintained. What do you think? In any case, it filled a need at the time, and the Sadducees, being a people-of-the-here-and-now, were resistant to the idea that there might be something more. There can’t be any such thing as resurrection, they said… that would mess up everything here on earth!
But Rabbi Jesus set them straight. There are things that belong to this age, he said. And then there are things that belong to the age to come. Instead of splitting hairs about marriage and property rights… and rights of succession in this age, Jesus pointed listeners towards the age to come: an age without death or possessions. An age in which our earthly understanding of family and kinship is turned upside-down… as we embrace our new identities as children of God.
The concept of resurrection was a relatively new doctrine in Judaism back in Jesus’ day. The first Biblical reference to resurrection is from the book of Daniel, which dates from around the 6th century BC. Daniel prophesied, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky… and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars, forever and ever” (vv. 12:2-3). Of course, the Sadducees didn’t think much of these “new-fangled” writings from Johnny-come-lately prophets. No siree! They put their faith in the Temple cult’s version of the Law of Moses, dating from the time of Solomon (c. 9th century BC). And Jesus, as he so often did, met them where they were, and interpreted for them the story from Exodus in which Moses stood before the burning bush as the Lord said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 3:6). Jesus argued that the Lord did not say, “I was the God of your father Abraham.” No. God said: “I am.” And then, Jesus put a bow on it for them when he added: “He is not a God the dead, but of the living; for to him, all of them are alive” (Luke 20:38). I’m pretty sure that most of the Sadducees were left standing, scratching their heads, thinking, “That… wasn’t… quite what we were asking….” Once again they had been outsmarted. Poor them!
So what is our takeaway from today’s Gospel passage from Luke? While there may be some here who harbor concerns about exactly who they’ll be shackled to for all of eternity… that’s not where I’m headed, in this case. I’m more interested in talking about the elephant in the closet… which is (cue scary music…) the headlines of the day. Most of us are affected, to one degree or another, by the never-ending stream of political drama that has come to dominate the 24-hour news cycle. It only used to be this bad during the weeks leading up to a big election, but now it seems to never end: Who tweeted what to whom? What did they know? and when did they know it? All the buzz is of “whistleblowers,” quid pro quo and a whole raft of foreign policy missteps… the Deep State, attempted coups and shadowy, “star chamber”-like impeachment inquiries… even the end of American democracy as we know it! We are battered with daily metaphors of “bombshells” and “hand grenades”… politicians, from both sides of the aisle, are quick to savage each other in-person, or by proxy, for the sake of a few minutes in the limelight. And whenever we find ourselves overwhelmed and confused by all of this partisan bickering, there are whole gaggles of pundits happy to help us make sense of it all… by reviewing “what we need to know,” all the while putting their own slant on things. It all seems so… self-serving. I’m with Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when he said: “A pox on both their houses!” Maybe you feel the same.
And yet, we’re all rightly concerned! Concerned about how the fall-out from all of the current political turmoil will affect us… about how it will affect our children and grandchildren… about how it will affect our country. And, I guess, on one level it’s good that we’re paying attention. The eventual outcome of all this squabbling will inform America’s ethos, at home and abroad, for a long, long time: influencing how “we the people” promote liberty and justice for all within our borders, and impacting whether or not the United States will continue to be viewed as a “city on a hill” – something to aspire to – by those living in less-fortunate places around the world. So yes, it’s a big deal.
But, in our Gospel passage today, Jesus reminds us that there are bigger deals than the schemes of men and the outcomes of earthly trials that concern us in the here and now. We could build a utopia here on earth that might fail within the space of a geological eye blink – think of a meteor strike… or catastrophic climate change – or we could stumble for a season… and then pick ourselves up again to resume the work of building a just and benevolent society… the “Beloved Community,” as Martin Luther King Jr. liked to call it. And we should do our best. Jesus doesn’t want us to give up… or to abrogate our responsibility to be Kingdom bringers to a world in need of hope. But regardless of the outcome of the current crisis, or the next “big thing,” whatever that might be, we must pin our hopes not on the petty struggles and victories of this age, no matter how enticing that might seem, but on the promise of the next age… of Jesus’ promise that there will come a time when all shall be made right… when we become like angels and children of God… children of the resurrection! (v. 36) So, don’t be, like the Sadducees, “people of the here-and-now.” Keep your eyes on the prize! And remember this: in the end, regardless of how all of the politics of the day play out… everything’s going to be OK. I don’t know precisely what that’s going to look like, but I do know that God will have the last word. And that which is not of God, God can redeem. And that, my friends, is the lesson of the Resurrection!