Then a group of Sadducees, those in denial of a resurrection, approached him to question him and asked,
“Master, Moses instructed us [about what to do] when a brother dies with respect to his wife, and when this man dies childless then the man’s brother shall take the wife and raise up seed for his brother. [Here’s a case for you to make a judgement about marriage and the resurrection]. There were seven brothers. The first, having taken a wife, died childless, and then the second and then the third until all seven died leaving no children, and finally the woman also died. Which of these seven will the woman be wife in the resurrection?”
And Jesus replied to them in these terms:
“The sons of this era indeed marry and are contracted to be given in marriage, but by being counted worthy in that era to attain the resurrection from the grave they do so without being married or given in marriage, for then [in that era] they can do so no more, being the resurrection sons of God having become like the messengers of God.
“But as for the resurrection of the dead it was evidently well demonstrated to Moses at the [burning] bush where he refers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and of Jacob. For this is no God of the dead but of the living. For all live to him.”
Then some of the scribes contributed this by saying,
“Well said Teacher,” for no-one dared thereafter to ask him any more [tricky] questions.
And he said to them:
“How can it be said that the Anointed is the son of David? For in the scroll of the Psalms it is David who says: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: sit at my righthand until I make your enemies as a footstool for your feet.’ David therefore calls him Lord so how then is he David’s son?”
And at that point, in the hearing of all the people, he said to his disciples: “Be on your guard with the scribes. They love walking about in their dress, their long robes, delighting in the greetings they receive in the market places, the reserved seats in the synagogues, and the couches set aside for honoured guests when dining, collecting the houses of widows as they go, making a show of praying long prayers. At the end, these are due for an exhaustive judgement.”
In Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that when Paul announced that he proposed to proclaim “Jesus and the resurrection (ἀνάστασιν)” at the Areopagus in Athens, the philosopher crowd of Epicureans and Stoics found this a strange duo for this Jewish upstart to be debating (Acts 17:18). They listened attentively for a while – after all a new coupling of gods might mean some benefit or at least some ongoing debates. But then they heard Paul explain that Jesus had ensured the resurrection from the dead of humans, God’s own image bearers, they turned away, or most of them did, they had heard enough (17:32). They might come back to this very strange teaching another day.
Now we do know that Luke wrote his two books to a fellow named Theophilus. But we do not know exactly how far along the path of learning as a follower of Jesus that Theophilus had reached. To what extent was he steeped in the teaching of the Old Testament already? But clearly, from what Luke explicitly tells us in his Gospel’s preamble, Theophilus was a believer who would gain immeasurable benefit – as we do – from the “orderly exposition” of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, and so deepen his understanding of what he had already been taught and what he already believed from having been instructed by the teaching of “the custodians of the word”, the eyewitnesses including, presumably, the Apostles.
And so Theophilus is being instructed about the ministry of Jesus as background to the teaching he has already received. The resurrection of the dead is not only a teaching; the teaching of the Apostles is that Jesus’ resurrection has meant that a new life has been unleashed with the raising of Jesus of Nazareth from the grave. He has been confirmed as the servant who has suffered, the elected Prince of all princes, the only Son who was given because of the great love God has for the world.
With Jesus’ resurrection, those who follow him profess the faith that their lives, here and now, are about participation in God’s family, about membership as sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father. The meaning of our lives is creation restored, God’s purposes maintained, our life redeemed.
So when Luke continues his account of Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the days leading up to his arrest. He is aware of his own and Theophilus’s need (and ours) to hear what Jesus said when confronted by the Sadducees who deny the resurrection. This group, entrenched it seems at this time within Jewish communities, seem to want to give primordial emphasis to their disbelief, their denial, of the resurrection.
And so Luke records how Jesus responded to their homespun parable and their tricky question. They asked this after the scribes and the Chief Priests had been reduced to silence with Jesus affirmation of taxation and government under the One God who rules from heaven.
We notice that after Jesus answered the Sadducees, he received the applause of the scribes, presumably pleased that their contra-orthodox opponents had now been put in their place, there were simply no more tricky questions, indeed no questions at all. So, this is to suggest that this is a time in the temple when Jesus’ opponents were dumbfounded.
But how had Jesus responded to the parable about the wife of the seven brothers put forward by the Sadducees?
We notice already that the story Luke presents is based on the presumption that the woman is defined merely in terms of her first marriage. She is included in the story merely as one who is necessary for the “raising up of seed” (ἐξαναστήσῃ) to the initially betrothed brother. It is as if the provision of the law given by Moses was simply to ensure fatherhood; motherhood is simply passed over as a means to the more enduring end of the male-paternal line being preserved. That use of the word (ἐξαναστήσῃ) in this context certainly suggests that Luke is alert to the Sadducees efforts to “immanentize” any reference to the resurrection. The story has the effect of reducing the value of the Mosaic provision to merely living and thriving from one generation to the next.
Are we to read this as the Sadducees rhetorical question: how do the sons of this age, by compliance with Moses’ provision, reach the age to come? The question, as asked, presupposes that there is some doubt about the resurrection, as if it is simply a matter to be debated (in the sense of the term ἀντιλέγοντες rendered denial). Or to put it in contemporary terms they are arguing something like:
How can life in this era anticipate the Marriage Sup of the Lamb when marriages in this era are contracted in such culturally complex ways?
The interesting point is that Jesus, by his response to the Sadducees, does not deal at all with the details of their bizarre parable. Rather, he declares to them in plain terms a biblically rich account of how life is lived and how marriage is experienced in this age and what is to be expected of the resurrection. In this age there is the giving and the taking, the leaving and the cleaving (Genesis 2:24-25) that is, as Moses recorded it, and as God intended it to be for this age from the outset.
But being involved in marriage and giving in marriage, of leaving and of cleaving, is according to God’s ordinances, and is not as such and never has been a pre-requisite for God’s image-bearers’ participation in the fulfilment of these creational purposes. Such participation is for those who will be the children of the resurrection, the sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father, who have this promise bequeathed (or breathed) upon them by the self-same Creator and Redeemer of their lives and by His action in their lives are thereby deemed worthy.
They shall be holy because He is holy (Gen 17:1; Lev 19:2).
They are simply, purely and completely, the subjects of God’s favour to receive in His time what He will bestow upon them. They live henceforth because He has blessed them. They will be His resurrection sons and daughters because of His action that counts them worthy.
The truly amazing aspect of Jesus’ response is found in his ignoring their presumptuous parable. Instead, he proceeds to instruct these interrogators, and anyone else (like ourselves) who may be listening, about basic matters for understanding the religion to which they claim to adhere. And as for their misunderstanding of the resurrection, they have missed a basic truth that should have already been evident to them from Moses’ encounter with the Lord at the Burning Bush.
He is after all, the God of the living. Don’t you fellows know that?
Then Luke says, the scribes gave their applause. They were well satisfied that the Sadducees had been gezumped by Jesus’ reply.
And so, in that context, where questions would no longer be asked – such was Jesus’ teaching authority – but we then read that he was not finished with the issues as raised, not yet anyway. He proceeded to begin an unpacking of Psalm 110.
Could it have been the Psalm set down for singing at that time?
We know now that He was teaching them about the rule that was to be given to him at his father’s pleasure. Like David, the greater son would submit to the will of God, and it would be in submission to the Father’s will that God’s greatness was going to be revealed for all to see.
Psalm 110 : 1-2 – from a song about a mighty struggle.
God the LORD spoke to Him
Revealing to Our Saviour:
“On My right sit, see My favour.
Thus My promise to My nation.
Your reign extend,
To earth’s end,
Thus My Rule established,
Enemies all vanquished.”
Luke has outlined the Sadducees’ parable – the details of which Jesus has ignored – and that parable, together with Jesus’ reply, raise questions about sonship, about being children of parents, and how that relates to being sons and daughter of God’s kingdom. Luke goes on and reveals to us that Jesus was well aware of the manner in which our discussion of God brings us to reflection upon ourselves.
Our discussion of God’s Kingdom should, sooner rather than later, bring us to consider our own responsibility to seek justice. Our discussion of ourselves as God’s children must sooner rather than later, bring us to discuss the marriages and the families for which we have been allowed to form and for which we have been made responsible.
So, when Luke notes that Jesus then turned to discuss Psalm 110
The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.
or as we have rendered it:
God the LORD spoke to Him
Revealing to Our Saviour:
“On My right sit, see My favour.
we can see just how cumulative Luke’s discussion is. What does it mean for all of us to be the “raised up seed” of our parents? If one were to trek through the barren rhetorical wastelands of the Sadduccean parable, and live by what it presumes, then all one is left with is merely one generation following another. All one is left with is to find the purpose of one’s (given) life in the age in which one happens to live and to invent a purpose that then comes after we have left this scene. That is indeed a slavery from which God alone can rescue us by raising us up as His children, as members of His family.
And here, having dealt with what we might call the “immanentized eschaton” of the Sadducees (life finds its meaning in extending the family-tribal line) and the resultant applause of the scribes who didn’t agree with them, we note Jesus’ warning to his disciples.
Watch out, he says, for the vicious status-seeking of the scribes!
The warning is of a persistent danger. They have to be on their guard. Here Luke also takes up the theme from Jesus’ preaching to which he has earlier drawn our attention.
Alas, for you, my disciples, when all men speak well of you for that is precisely what their fatherS made of the false prophets. But I say to you who are attentive to my teaching: Love your enemies. Make it well worth their while for those who hate you to have contact you with … (Luke 6:26-27).