Sermon November 6 2022 ~ Perspective (Luke 20:27-38) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever thought of the perfect comeback… hours after the argument is over? We have no idea, of course, if the Sadducees in the passage we just heard later thought up the perfect comeback after their attempt to trick Jesus with this question about the resurrection failed so completely – but I suspect they probably tried.
Because he really irritates them. All his preaching and teaching, interpreting passages of scripture when the Sadducees think Moses’ words should always just be taken literally.
Because the Sadducees are kind of like a ‘denomination’ of Judaism, the way the church now has Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists. All Christian, but each with its own sort of personality or emphasis or focus. And it was the same with Judaism at the time of Jesus.
The Pharisees in fact, although they get quite a bad rap in the gospels, they were actually a more open and scholarly and intellectually curious group within Judaism at that time – it’s the Pharisees that later morph themselves into Rabbinical Judaism with its spirit of inquiry and debate and intellectual rigour.
Whereas the Sadducees are a different kind of group. Theirs is a more ‘fundamentalist’ kind of Judaism – they focus ONLY on the first five books, the Torah, the Books of Moses. So not only do they reject the kind of scholarship the Pharisees embrace – because they think Moses’ words should always just be taken literally – but they also don’t care for Jesus’ always going on about the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and all the rest of them.
So the Saducees think Jesus is really in need of a little tripping up. He really irritates them. With all his blithe confidence that he legitimately knows what he’s talking about. And what better way, they think, than to point out how technically problematic the whole notion of this “resurrection” that he talks about would be.
It might not seem like an inspired argument to us, their question to Jesus, but the Sadducees take very seriously the biblical law of Levirite marriage, as written in the book of Deuteronomy. In which brothers are commanded to marry their brothers’ widows if they’re childless, so as to ‘preserve their name’ through subsequent offspring.
Now. As anyone who knows the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn will recall, there is indeed ANOTHER place in the Torah that specifically CONDEMNS Levirite marriage – but apparently the Sadducees just ignored that bit.
Because they’re very serious about Levirite marriage. And for them, it seems like a GREAT argument for why resurrection can’t be a thing, the way they outline it. Not seven brides for seven brothers, but seven brothers and only one bride – because the poor thing keeps having her husbands die without leaving any children, and so she then gets married off over and over again to the next brother in line.
“Which could happen!” they point out to Jesus with unseemly glee. “Technically, it could! So THEN where would she be, Jesus, if resurrection is really real. Who’d be her husband in heaven, eh? All seven? ‘Cause that’d be crazy! Right? So whaddya have to say to THAT?”
Whenever I read passages like these, I always imagine Jesus doing that Charlie Brown lean against the wall and sigh thing. Do we really need any more proof of a loving and eternally patient God than the fact that his head just doesn’t explode?
But I think maybe it’s because he senses something else beneath the Sadducees’ attempt to trip him up and make him squirm – which, make no mistake, IS their primary goal here. But I think maybe he senses beneath it something much more poignant. A yearning for understanding that they may not even realize.
What is it that really matters? What is it that lasts? What gives our lives eternal meaning: value beyond this life and into the next?
Because for the Sadducees, the law of Levirite marriage WAS what gave a life eternal meaning. It was about a man having children: that’s how his ‘name’ was kept alive, how he lived on after he was gone. And yes, for the Sadducees that was indeed the limit of their concern about WHOSE life might potentially have eternal meaning – and women and children need not apply --
But if a man had died before having any children, it was incumbent upon his brother to marry the widow in the hope that a SECOND try for family posterity would work. Or a fourth or fifth or even up to seven, that number that in the bible always signifies more like ‘infinity’.
However many it took – for the Sadducees, the value placed on a man having children, leaving descendants, was an eternal value, the deepest need, the ultimate goal. And we see the shadow side of that in the desperation of those in the bible stories, like Abraham and Sarah, and Hannah, and Elizabeth, for whom children just don’t arrive. Because for them that’s not just a personal loss in the present – it’s a broader loss of the husband’s eternal life, still living after they’ve gone, leaving behind their essential selves in an ever-unfolding legacy of descendants.
So yes, the Sadducees are trying to trip Jesus up, but they’re also, maybe unconsciously, revealing how deeply they think about, worry about, wonder about, “what gives my life value not just now but after I’m gone”.
So Jesus is gentle in his response. Which is really quite lovely. Because being tricky quite aside, the Sadducees – Jesus can tell – maybe really just want to know what we ALL want to know. What gives my life meaning, not just now but in the grand scheme of things? What is it that matters about my life, that will last after I’m gone?
For the Sadducees, however, the first hump they have to get over – and I really don’t think they do – is that beyond is not here. And so that whole question of who that poor widow times seven will be married to in heaven? Completely moot.
It would have been a staggering answer to those around Jesus at the time, and not just the Sadducees. Maybe somewhat less radical now, though I’m not actually sure of that.
Because one of the most difficult things we have to imagine, we have to somehow picture and trust in, and we don’t have a whole lot to go on, is what happens after we die. And it’s pretty hard when we’re imagining something, to get past the particulars of everything we’ve ever actually experienced.
Is there a place? Are we ourselves? Are others THEMselves and do we recognize them? Are we changed? – Yes, there are passages in the scriptures, there are teachings of wisdom that give us a sense, that suggest a shape for what comes after, but each one in whatever detail it provides can wind up provoking even more questions. From the vision in Revelation of the Heavenly City, to Wisdom of Solomon’s souls of the righteous at peace in the hands of God, to the Apostle Paul’s resurrection of the body, to Jesus’ vague words here to the Sadducees that we’ll simply be “like the angels” –
Any of these and more may feel ‘right’ to us somehow, if we consider what life beyond death might be like. But can we really imagine them fully, without using the parameters we know from here? Aren’t we limited in what we can grasp, beyond that it’ll be with God, and it’ll be good?
Because even with the best imagining that we can do, it can be difficult to get our minds around the notion of a realm in which the things that seem to us at any given time in this life to be most important, what gives our life meaning, are wholly transcended.
“How can it be completely moot which brother she’ll be married to?”. The Sadducees would have been flabbergasted by that answer. “That’s the most important thing about her.”
Yeah, says Jesus, no it’s not. It’s only the most important thing about her… to you. But God has quite a different perspective.
It’s of course an accident of history that offers us – as British Commonwealth Christians with Celtic Christian roots – our observing of All Saint’s Day and Remembrance Day within such a short piece of time in early November. All Saint’s Day, as I mentioned last week, was simply a Christianizing of the Celtic Samhain – the post-harvest turning of the year when the veil between this world and the next was made thin, drawing us near to those who’ve gone before. And Remembrance Day began as Armistice Day, marking the Armistice that was signed on November 11, 1918 to end the First World War.
So for us they land together. And together really DO make it a time when we’re aware of that thin veil not only as individuals, but also as a community. Remembering not only those most beloved to each of us ourselves, but also remembering generations of young people who waded into war on our behalf and didn’t return. Or returned wounded to their core and wounded unto death.
And in our remembering, we articulate meaning. I always say to families in preparing for a funeral “What is it that you have to hear in this service, what has to be said about this person’s life” – and that’s about meaning. What has this life meant. And it doesn’t even need to be words. The best funeral in the Bible is barely even a funeral at all: it’s just all these women just turning up after Tabitha has died with all these clothes she made them.
It's utterly perfect -- it stretches FAR beyond the Saducees’ limited perspective, in which Tabitha’s life probably wouldn’t have meant a blessed thing –
But ultimately? It’s still only the most important thing about Tabitha – to her friends. Because the best we can ever do is to try to articulate the meaning to US of these lives that God has gathered into Godself, these people somehow beyond and also here, in our remembering.
Jesus is gentle with the Sadducees because he knows that. Because he knows that how we make meaning can only ever be through the limits of our perspective. Whether that’s deep and wide in relation to those most beloved to us, or built on stories or memories or contributions of those with whom we’ve shared community, or even focused very precisely in honouring the willingness of some very young people to wade into war, to lay it all down – when such a thing should NEVER be demanded of people and yet it is.
The eternal meaning we make through the limits of our own perspective, it’s real and it’s valid and it’s beautiful.
But God’s perspective? Transcends even that. “Like the angels,” Jesus says. And we can’t grasp it. We can only sometimes feel it. A brush of the spirit, a fleeting sense. An awareness of presence, an absolute conviction that energy can’t be lost and love abides and the goodness has been gathered into Goodness and Godness with capital Gs.
It’s not surprising the Sadducees had no good comeback. It’s wildly confusing to try to understand beyond and yet somehow here, and frankly I’m not sure Jesus tossing out “like the angels” was really his best work.
But at least it’s a beginning. How, we don’t know. But where? Right here.