Today we read about Jesus in the Temple, fielding questions from the Sadducees. But before we get into what that whole conversation is about, let’s talk about what’s been happening up to this point. See, by now in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has entered the Temple, kicked out the moneychangers and the merchants, and set up shop as the authority. He’s teaching the crowds, like he always has, but now it’s in the Temple, in the heart of Jerusalem, at the center of the Jewish universe. And because he has such authority there, and he’s in front of so many people from all over the Jewish world, the different groups of leaders—Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes—want to trip him up with questions.
They started by trying to get him to name whose authority gave him the right to kick out the money changers and merchants, and take up his seat in the Temple. They knew he couldn’t give an answer that would please the crowds and also not get him into trouble, so they thought it was a smart question—until Jesus insists they answer his question first about the authority of John the Baptist’s baptism.
Then, he gets confronted by a group asking him about taxes. Is it lawful, under Jewish law, to pay taxes to Caesar? Say yes, and Jesus would lose favor with the crowds. Say no, and he could be charged with sedition against Rome. So Jesus deftly maneuvers through it, giving us the phrase “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; but give to God what is God’s.” And puts the ball right back in their court.
Well now we come up on the Sadducees. We aren’t told anything about them except that they didn’t believe in the resurrection. So, naturally, they wanted to discredit Jesus and his teachings by pointing out how absolutely ridiculous resurrection was! That should tip us off that their question is not in good faith. We all know the type—they’re not asking to learn, but asking to prove something. And because they’re not asking in good faith, we should read Jesus’ answer in that light.
So this ridiculous situation is proposed: a man dies childless, and so his widow marries his brother. The brother dies childless too, and on it goes down the line until all seven brothers die, never producing a child. The widow dies too. Who, the Sadducees ask—probably with a condescending smirk—is the woman married to in the resurrection?
Because if there’s one thing that is important to sort out about resurrection theology, it’s the question of who owns the woman when we’re raised. Yeesh.
See, the Sadducees were stuck in this utterly unimaginative place where they saw resurrection as nothing more than picking up where we left off. Death is an interlude, but after the resurrection, everything will resume for the rest of eternity exactly as it is. It’s not really all that surprising, though. These Sadducees were doing pretty well. They were the rich leaders in the Temple, the leading men of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. They ate well; they had good connections; they probably were among the few Jews who still owned their own land. If the resurrection was supposed to be all the goodness God promises, then it would probably look a lot like what they were already experiencing.
But if there was no resurrection—which is what they believed—they had every reason to make sure this life was good and comfortable. They were well-known for being collaborators with the Roman oppressors. They were entirely uninterested in upsetting the way things were. They followed a philosophy of getting along with the people in power so that they could keep the comforts that they had. And in case that sounds cynical, it’s a normal thing for people to do. If they overturned the apple cart, what would happen to them? To their loved ones? To their neighbors? To their nation? Far from being cynical, if this is all there is, they were being practical. Wise, even.
Living without a belief in the resurrection did more to the Sadducees than just rob them of an imagination of what could be though. It set up fear of what might happen as the driving force behind their decisions. So things needed to be the same. They needed the world to remain predictable, keeping the same shape so they could navigate it. They didn’t have room to imagine how the world could be different, because different could be bad. And it robbed them of an imagination for what God might do.
So Jesus responds by pointing out their lack of imagination. Marriage, as they understood it, wouldn’t even exist in the age to come. Without death, there would be no need to make sure a man had descendants to maintain his name. The world will be so completely different from how we imagine it now that the closest Jesus could get to describing it was that we would be “like angels.” The broken systems that oppress women, that vilify other races, that warn us to fear those different from us won’t make sense in a world where there is no fear of death. Without the fear of want or worry, the entire imagination of God can reign!
But with the promise of the resurrection, we usually look at it as the longed-for future that God gives us, with essentially no effect on the present except that comforting hope. But why? Why do we have to limit God’s imagination to the far-off future? Why, if we know that God’s imagined and longed-for future brings full dignity to people on the margins, why do we tolerate it now? Why, if we know God’s imagined and longed-for future brings peace among nations and cooperation between people, why do we accept that as reality now? Why, if we know that God’s imagined and longed-for future will see an end to sexism, racism, and oppressions of all kinds, why do we allow them to keep happening now?
The Sadducees lacked imagination for what the present could be because they had no belief in a hope of what will be one day. They were driven by fear that if they imagined change, it would overturn their world and it would all end in an instant. They were fearful of engaging in God’s future because they only had the present to look forward to. They were fearful of breaking the systems of oppression, the chains of brokenness, the shallowness of fleeting wealth, because it might not go so well for them or their family or their people, so they didn’t work toward God’s future.
But we do have that hope. We do have that imagination of God calling us to what the future might be. We can work toward God’s imagined and longed-for future without the fear of what might happen if we try. We can work to end the blind evil of systemic racism that judges people differently based on nothing but their skin tone; we can work to end the appalling world of multibillionaires living in the same country where a quarter of children live in poverty; we can work to create a society based on the principle of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation that heals wounds rather than perpetuates the cycle of vengeance.
The hope of the resurrection isn’t just a comfort that there is life beyond the tragedy of death. The hope of the resurrection changes things here and now! It means we don’t have to live in fear of what might happen if we try to make God’s imagination our guide to the way things should be today. It means we can trust that even if we never finish the work of making God’s kingdom happen, we can point the world toward what will be, and that might be enough to make the world a better reflection of God’s kingdom.
And it’s because we know that our redeemer lives. And we know that God will make all things new, starting today. And really, if God’s future is as wonderful as we hope it to be, why shouldn’t we try to start living it today?
Thanks be to God. Amen.