I turned a post from earlier this week into a sermon. You can listen to it here, or read on.
Have you ever been sucked in by something or someone? Before you know it, you’re playing a game you never signed up for, and the rules were totally defined by somebody else? I think we’ve all been there. Back before Eliza was born, Cassie had a sweet car – a black, five-speed, Ford Mustang Convertible. Man, was that a fun car to drive, but it was utterly impractical for the new life upon which we were about to embark. There was no room in the trunk for a stroller, no room in the back for an infant car seat, and it probably isn’t a great idea to drive around with the top down on a sunny day with a baby in the back seat anyway. We began the search for a new car by heading to the Eastern Shore to check out a couple of dealerships. Our first stop was the Honda dealership, where we ended up test driving a car. Within minutes, we had been sucked in: discussing terms, trade-ins, and credit checks. We were about 90 seconds away from signing off on a new car when Cassie looked at me and said, “did you want to buy a car today?” It was as if the blinders had finally been removed, “No,” I said, “Did you?” As easy as it is to be sucked in to a situation you don’t want to be a part of, it is next to impossible to get out of it. After three different managers and an hour and half later, we were finally out of the Honda dealership, without a new car.
This is precisely the situation in which Jesus finds himself in this morning’s Gospel lesson. He has finally made his way to Jerusalem and crowds of people welcomed him on Palm Sunday with cheers and song. The first thing Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem was go to the Temple and begin flipping tables and chasing out those who were making money off the faithful who had come to worship the Lord. Obviously, this put Jesus even further on the outs with the religious powers-that-be, and so chapter 20 of Luke is all about Jesus’ tit-for-tat with the Chief Priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, who play a key role in our lesson this morning.
The Sadducees, like the Pharisees, were a powerful group of men within the Temple structure. They were wealthy, from good families, and they desperately wanted to see Israel return to the good old days of proper worship in the Temple system. What is most important for us know about the Sadducees, however, is that they did not believe in resurrection, but they were pretty sure that Jesus did. The debate over resurrection was a chief point of contention between the two ruling parties in Israel, so either side took every chance they could to prove the other one wrong, which is why the Sadducees approached Jesus and attempted to suck him in to their ongoing debate. If he happened to say something heretical that could get him killed, that’d be an added bonus.
They try to suck Jesus in by way of a most ridiculous set of circumstances. From our perspective this scenario is nearly impossible to comprehend: a woman who marries seven brothers!?! The temptation for us as hearers of this story is to get sucked in to thinking that this is a story all about marriage, but really marriage is just the foil the Sadducees employ to try to show just how silly it is for someone to believe in resurrection, and not it isn’t even real marriage that they use, but the ancient practice of Levirate Marriage. In Deuteronomy, chapter 25, Moses lays out a law that is very important in a patriarchal culture: if a man is married to a woman and dies and there is no male heir to carry on his family name, then the man’s brother must take his brother’s wife as his own in order to bear a son in his brother’s stead. Ostensibly, there are two reasons for levirate marriage: first, it ensures that a family lineage will continue, and second, it protects the man’s wife who, once her husband is deceased, is a woman without a family with no real means of income and no ability to own land. The Sadducees, believing only the first five books of the Bible – the books of Moses or the Torah – to be scripture, abide by the law of levirate marriage, as do the Pharisees, for that matter, and so they attempt to trap Jesus in a theological conundrum by taking it to its illogical extreme. What if the woman ended up marrying seven brothers, all of whom died without a male heir, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be?
As I said before, here’s where we tend to get sucked in because this is one of those theological questions that, if we’re honest, nags us. When mom calls from the nursing home to tell you she’s met someone who makes her very happy, I guarantee you this question comes to mind. When grandma who has faithfully buried two husbands dies with no instructions on burial, I’m certain this question comes up in family discussions. Women are no longer required by law to take on the brother of a dead spouse to produce an heir, but questions about relationships in the age to come are certain near the top of the “What is heaven going to be like when I die?” list. Other popular options include: Will my sight be fully restored? Will my dog, fluffy, be there? Are there speed limits on the roads in heaven? Questions about the afterlife have challenged the faith of many a believer, have left more than a handful of clergy stumped in a Bible study session, and have produced at least three best-selling books – IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS! And so, some two-thousand years later, we are quickly sucked into the theological pea soup of the Sadducees. We really want Jesus to give us a straightforward answer to this question about afterlife relationships. His response, however, turns the question upside down.
“If you think life in the age to come is going to be like life on earth only more and better, you are sorely mistaken. Resurrected life is like nothing you can imagine here on earth. Even marriage, that deepest and most intimate of relationships on earth, will pale in comparison with what is in store in the age to come!” Getting sucked in by the Sadducees only leads to disappointment. Even as Jesus stands in the Temple court, facing the cross in less than five days, he is a lot less interested in death than he is in life, which is why I think the most important line in today’s Gospel lesson is “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.”
It is so easy to get sucked in to theological squabbles over this or that. It is way too simple to get bogged down in the silly questions of unbelievers: Whose wife will she be? Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift? Did Jesus know about subatomic particles in first century Palestine? Jesus is quick to remind us, however, that the resurrected life isn’t about intellectual assent to a list of doctrinal assertions, faith is about believing that you have been made alive in God. Faith is about knowing that when we cease to breathe air on planet earth, life is not ended, but simply changed and our entrance to the nearer presence of God is guaranteed though faith in Christ Jesus. Let me tell you how helpful it is to have this sort of faith when the going gets tough.
Immediately following this exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees, Luke tells us that “no one dared to ask him another question.” The Chief Priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees all attempted to suck Jesus in, but he wouldn’t take their bait, and maybe that’s the real lesson we can learn from today’s Gospel lesson. When people try to pull you in to their games, keep your eyes focused on what’s really important. Keep striving for the Kingdom of God, don’t worry about tomorrow, or about having an absolutely perfect knowledge of God, but rather trust in the Lord, live a life that brings honor and glory to the God of the living, and the rest of the details will work themselves out. Amen.