Sometimes you have to take a step back from a Biblical passage and ask yourself what the main point really is. The reading from chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel is like that, I think.
The Sadducees come to Jesus. They were a group of secular Jews who did not believe in the resurrection. Oftentimes, we think of the Pharisees as the “bad guys” in the New Testament. But, actually the Pharisees were the group of Jews who were very pious and sought to obey God’s Law. Now, they were misguided in this piety, because they missed the whole point of God’s Law and promises, since they were pointing to Christ, and the Pharisees largely rejected Christ. Yet, if we could transport ourselves back to the first century AD to the time of Jesus, the Pharisees would be like the religious “right” of our own era. They were the “religious” people.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the worldly people. They weren’t particularly religious. They were more cultural Jews than religious Jews. And they certainly didn’t believe in all this “fantasy” that the Pharisees believed, such as the resurrection of the body. If we could transport ourselves back to this time, they would be like the secular “left” of our own era. They were the non-religious people.
And so, these non-religious people came to Jesus with a question. The purpose of their question isn’t so much to get an answer, rather it’s to ridicule Jesus for preaching about the resurrection of the body. They point out to Jesus that the Law as given by Moses says that if a man’s brother dies before he and his wife have children, then the man is obligated to marry his brother’s widow and raise up children in his dead brother’s name. In this way, the dead man’s name would live on. The Sadducees are correct that Moses wrote this.
So, they put forward a hypothetical situation where seven brothers successively marry the same woman, each time having no children. Each brother in the line dies without fathering children, so they all end up married to the woman before they die.
First of all, I’m not a big fan of hypothetical questions. What if there were no hypothetical questions?
Second of all, who is this woman who’s been married to seven brothers who all die? Isn’t that a little suspicious? Are there no police detectives looking into the situation?
At any rate, the Sadducees pose this hypothetical question about the woman and her seven husbands to try to poke fun at the idea of the resurrection. The implication is that at the resurrection everything will be exactly the same as it is now and so who will this woman be married to? What a conundrum!
But, Jesus makes it plain that in the age to come things will not be the same as they are now. Things will be different.
The Sadducees’ question, therefore, rests on a false premise. Their premise is that at the resurrection things will be the same as they are now. But, this premise is false. Things will be different at the resurrection. For one, creation will be fully restored and there will be no more sin, death, and evil, because the devil will be destroyed along with these evils of his. So, in the restored creation there will be everlasting life in perfect peace and communion with God and each other.
Jesus doesn’t say much beyond this to the Sadducees, just that things will be different than they are now. So, our categories that we think in now don’t necessarily apply to life after the resurrection, just as they don’t apply before the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. The conundrums we face now will be resolved according to God’s holy will at the resurrection.
That’s why I mentioned at the beginning that sometimes you have to take a step back and ask yourself what a Biblical passage is really saying. What’s the main point?
The main point in this passage is not that at the resurrection people won’t marry. What I mean is that I wouldn’t take this as a proof text to talk about marriage and the resurrection; that’s not really the focus of this passage.
Instead, the focus is really on the resurrection itself, and the point is that things will be different at the resurrection and our man-made dilemmas are false problems that we don’t need to worry about, because God will take care of things and see to it that everything is fully restored as it should be. So, the main message of this passage is that there will, in fact, be a resurrection and that Moses even wrote about the raising of the dead.
The Sadducees had meant to use Moses to ridicule Jesus and his teaching about the resurrection, but Jesus refutes them by using Moses’ own words. In doing so, he refers back to Exodus 3. Jesus says that Moses “calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” The Lord is the God of the living, not of the dead. Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob died and were buried, and yet the Lord is still their God, because all live to him. They will be raised up to live eternally with the Lord. They are now at peace with God, awaiting the resurrection of their bodies.
After Jesus points this out, that the Lord is the God of the living, some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well” and no one dared to ask him any more questions. Jesus made them speechless by referring them back to Moses’ encounter with the Lord in Exodus 3.
Now, in Exodus 3, Moses is in the land of Midian tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. This is after he fled Egypt. He had once been a prince of Egypt, but is now a simple shepherd in the wilderness. One day while he is near Mount Horeb, better known as Mount Sinai, he sees a bush burning with flame and yet not consumed. So, Moses goes to the bush to take a look, and the Lord speaks to him from the flames. In fact, the ground is holy because of the Lord’s presence, so He has Moses take his sandals off his feet.
Then, the Lord says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The Lord is the God of the living, not of the dead, for all live to him.
Then, the Lord tells Moses that He has seen the affliction of His people in captivity in Egypt. He has come to deliver them up out of captivity and into the promised land. And to do this He will use Moses. The Lord calls Moses to go back to Egypt to bring the people of Israel up out of captivity and into the promised land. And the sign that the Lord will give Moses is that once he has brought the people up out of Egypt they will “serve God on this mountain.” This very mountain where the Lord is meeting with Moses is the mountain where the people of Israel will also meet Him. This will be fulfilled later in Exodus 19.
Moses asks the Lord for His name so that he can tell the people of Israel who sent him. God says, “I AM WHO I AM” and tells Moses to tell the people that “I AM has sent me to you.”
That’s an interesting name that God uses to refer to Himself. He calls Himself “I AM.” That is why the people of Israel called Him “He who is” – Yahweh. God is simply “He who is.” He is eternal, existing in and because of Himself, owing His existence to no one else. He just “is.” And He also “causes to be,” which is another sense of His name. So, our God is Yahweh – “He who is and who causes to be.”
And what Has he caused to be? He caused the Israelites to be brought up out of their captivity and into the land He had promised them. Despite their grumbling and their undeserving nature, God had mercy on them and redeemed them as His people. He used the former prince of Egypt who was now a simple shepherd to do it. And when the Lord brought them to Mount Horeb, He commissioned them as His holy people. The Lord made the people of Israel His own people and then later, through Joshua (Yeshua), He brought them across the waters of the Jordan into the land He had promised them, a good land freed from slavery.
And what else has the Lord caused to be? He has caused us to be brought up out of our captivity, a captivity to sin and death and the devil. Despite our grumbling and underserving natures, the Lord has had mercy on us and redeemed us as His people. He used His own Son who came down from the glory of the angels to come in the flesh, appearing as a simple man; he is the Good Shepherd. And He has brought us to Mount Calvary, under the shadow of the cross, to be His holy people. The Lord has made us His own people, part of Israel, redeemed by the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ, Yahweh in the flesh: He who causes our salvation to be and He who is. Christ has come to fulfill what Moses pointed to.
And this isn’t all.
The Lord also promises to bring us into a good land. We have the firstfruits of this land here and now in the Church. Jesus Christ is the one that Joshua pointed to, he is the true Yeshua – Yahweh who saves – who has brought us into the promised land across the waters of Baptism. We’ve been redeemed and made the Lord’s people. He dwells with us as His people. He feeds us with the manna of heaven. He is with us now in this good land of the Church, because He dwells with us through Word and Sacrament.
Yet, that’s not all.
The Lord will also bring us into the better land of the resurrection when what the Church points to now will be complete and we will dwell in person with the Lord and each other. Because of Christ, we are children of God and children of the resurrection. The Lord will not abandon us to the grave, just as He did not abandon His people Israel in Egypt, but brought them up and into the promised land. So too will the Lord bring us up out of dust and the grave and into the better, perfect land – the land of the resurrection that the Lord has promised us.
We live to the Lord our God, because He has already redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his victory in the empty tomb. We have been brought up out of captivity, inhabit now the firstfruits of the promised land in the Church, and will be brought into the perfect land of the resurrection when Christ returns. For your Lord “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” Amen.
(Image is a Greek icon of Christ’s Second Coming from around 1700 – uploaded by Anonymous, Greece – http://ikona.orthodoxy.ru/icon.php?source=source36/53, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3229269)