Illustration: As Vice President, George Bush Sr. represented the U.S.A at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev's widow.
She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed.
Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev's wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed.
She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband's chest.
There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong.
She hoped that there was another life.
And she hoped that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that the same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.
(Gary Thomas, Christian Times, October 3, 1994, p. 26.)
Many of you will know that Luke is a consummate historian.
You will recall that the beginning of Luke’s Gospel sets out his reason for writing the two treatise Gospel of Luke- Acts of the Apostles
Luke opens his book as follows:
1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Lk 1:1-4)
Who Theophilus was we don’t know.
Was he a wealthy Christian who commissioned Luke to write his Gospel?
Was he a friend of Luke who was wavering on the borderline of faith.
Or is he simply a “lover of God” which is the translation of his name would imply
Whoever Theophilus was – we know the reason for Luke writing his treatises:
“to write an orderly account” of the life, the teachings the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ
So with that in mind, why did Luke record this encounter of the Sadducees with Jesus?
And why did the compilers of our lectionary chose this passage as the Gospel reading for this Sunday.
For it talks about a group of people we are not used to reading about – the Sadducees.
And tells a story about a marriage – the Levirate marriage - which is very foreign idea to us
So let’s back track:
Our Gospel passage begins with the Sadducees questioning Jesus – just as the Pharisees had earlier in this Chapter.
So who were the Sadducees?
In the first Century AD, the Jewish state had two major theological groupings the Pharisees and the Sadducees that impacted the society in Judea.
(Yes there were also the Essenes but they went off to live by themselves in communities such as we find at Qumran – from where the Dead Sea scrolls came. )
So the Essenes didn’t have much of an influence on Jewish society
1. The Pharisees
The Pharisees were scribes and scholars who believed (and lived the teachings) the whole of the Old Testament and in addition added their own oral traditions (codified as the Mishnah in about the third century AD).
The Pharisees were so scrupulous not to break the Biblical laws of the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament- that they produced
“detailed commentaries on the law in the form of innumerable and highly specific restrictions to "build a hedge" around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible violation of the Torah by ignorance or accident.
2. The Sadducees
The “Sadducees” on the other hand were
“the conservative, aristocratic, high-priestly party, worldly minded and very ready to cooperate with the Romans (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries “Luke” - Leon Morris p.316)
The name derives from Zadok the Priest of King David (referred to in Kings 1 and 2) and so they were the “Zadokites”
They didn’t consider the full Old Testament inspired but only the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.
And one of the most important Sadducean tenets of faith was there WAS NO RESURRECTION.
And so they tried to show the absurdity of the whole concept of the Resurrection by setting out the story of a woman who had seven husbands.
3. The Levirate marriage
The story is based on what is known as a Levirate marriage.
The Levirate marriage is defined in Deuteronomy 25:5 where we read
5 “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.
The reason for a Levirate marriage was for procreation. So that the dead brother who had no heir could have an heir.
By New Testament times, the Levirate marriage seems to have fallen into disuse and so it was an academic question – a bit along the lines of “how many angels can dance on the head of a needle”
(One answer proposed to that conundrum posited in the humoristic magazine Annals of Improbable Research, by Anders Sandberg is presented as a calculation based on theories of information physics and quantum gravity, establishing an upper bound of 8.6766×1049 angels)
It was probably one of the standard stories used by the Sadducees to show how absurd belief in the Resurrection is.
And as Leon Morris reflects:
“The Sadducees clearly “thought the answer was impossible and that the impossibility of an answer showed the impossibility of the Resurrection”
(Tyndale New Testament Commentaries “Luke” - Leon Morris p.317)
Darrell Bock in His Commentary on Luke says
“the question (of the afterlife) is a crucial one for several reasons.
(1) Some Jews did believe in a resurrection
(2) Jesus had predicted his own resurrection
(3) Resurrection is at the centre of what became the Christian hope (The NIV Application Commentary Luke by Darrell L. Bock p. 518)
And it is because of this, I believe Luke has recorded this encounter with Jesus.
The Resurrection is a cornerstone to the Christian faith.
St Paul said this in 1 Corinthians 15:
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.
16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, ….(1 Cor 15 12-20).
So what is Jesus’ answer to the Levirate marriage?
Simply this – that the Sadducean marriage dilemma is based on a misunderstanding of the afterlife because marriage does not occur there. Thus the problem the Sadducees pose is a pseudo problem.
(The NIV Application Commentary Luke by Darrell L. Bock p. 518)
It is only once you understand the subplot of the Sadducean problem, that you can understand what Jesus says next
For Jesus goes on to say to the Sadducees:
37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’
38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
Jesus gives them proof of the resurrection from the Torah itself, that is from the Scripture the Sadducees acknowledged.
What we think about the Resurrection is important to the Christian faith.
It is key to our faith.
Note what Jesus said about the Resurrection:
34 “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.
35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.
They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.
Did you notice what Jesus said: We will live in a transformed community. Sin will no longer cloud our relationships.
Let me allow Darrel Bock the last word:
“The absence of evil and the presence of God make marriage as a supportive and protective institution superfluous. For those who hesitate at this remark because their marriage has been so good (– MADDY!!!) Just remember heaven will be even better.”