Resurrection life is all about justice and love; and it begins now. (Listen.)
Some of you might remember the quirky tv show, Northern Exposure. A young urban Jewish doctor is sent to small town Alaska to pay off his tuition debt; and there he encounters all sorts of eccentric inhabitants, including Maggie. Maggie’s a bush pilot whose boyfriends all happen to die in bizarre ways. For example, there’s Dave, who freezes to death on a glacier, then Rick, who is killed by a falling satellite.
Her mother tries to console her: ‘Men!’ she says, ‘They’re always dying! And we’re left to ship the body and clean out the closet …’ Then her mother lists all of her boyfriends who have died suddenly and strangely, beginning with Leland, who has just dropped dead playing pool. Her morbid litany goes on and on, and because of the kind of show it is, it’s hilarious: but it’s also very mocking.
We encounter just this sort of mocking in tonight’s gospel reading. As the Sadducees don’t quite tell it, there’s this chick, right, and first she marries one bloke; and oh, I don’t know, maybe he freezes to death; anyway, he dies; then she marries his brother; but he’s hit by an asteroid; and so on and so forth until she’s married all seven brothers turn and turn about. Finally, they’re all dead and she dies, too: seven times a widow and not one son to show for it. So tell us, Jesus: In the resurrection, which brother does she belong to?
Can you hear the dark humour, the snickers? Like Northern Exposure, this is a story told to raise a laugh. There’s no concern for the woman as a person. There’s no acknowledgement of the terrible grief when a spouse dies; or the cruel whispers when a second marriage fails or a third; nor does it address the shame of childlessness in a culture where a woman’s only worth is in her sons. In this story, the woman is simply an object passed from brother to brother, then used as an object to make fun of Jesus.
Because the Sadducees have already made up their minds about resurrection: for them, it isn’t a thing. As scripture, the Sadducees accepted the five books which make up Torah, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy; and that was it. Since resurrection isn’t mentioned in these five books, they rejected the possibility. Instead, they believed that people live on through their descendants: and this is the basis of the levirate law. That is, in this law of Moses written by, for and about men, if a man dies leaving no offspring, then his brother marries the widow and has children in his name to ensure his name continues and the property is passed down through his bloodline.
So this is the context in which the Sadducees tell their tale and ask, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ In other words, who gets her?
They don’t believe in resurrection; they don’t give a rats about the woman: clearly, the question isn’t genuine. They just want Jesus to look ridiculous; his answer doesn’t matter to them at all.
But the question of resurrection matters to anyone who has lived this story, for example to anyone who has had multiple spouses. It matters to anyone whose life is dismissed or crushed by others, or used simply to raise a laugh or prove a point. It matters to every one of us who has had to say goodbye to someone we love. And it mattered to the Pharisees.
The question was posed by the Sadducees. They were a powerful and wealthy aristocratic group who controlled Temple worship and collaborated with the Romans to do so. They were doing well in this life: they knew that wealth and power prevail; they believed that life continues through our children: why would they need resurrection?
But the Pharisees took a different view. They were less concerned with protecting the Temple, and more concerned with the nation as a whole. They could see the writing on the wall: Rome would soon destroy Israel. And in fact, tonight’s story wasn’t written down well until after Jesus was crucified, the Temple was torn down and over half a million Jews were killed by the Romans as they crushed the first of three Jewish Revolts against colonial rule. For Israel, it was yet another devastating episode in a long history of suppression by foreign empires, and so the Pharisees wanted to know: Where is God’s justice? Because it’s clearly not being delivered in this life now.
Like the Sadducees, the Pharisees accepted Torah as scripture, but they also affirmed the Prophets and the Psalms. The prophets pointed to God’s coming age of justice and shalom, and so the Pharisees trusted in resurrection. They believed that the day will come when the dead will be raised up body, mind and spirit: and God’s justice will finally be served.
We’ve heard the prophets and listened to Jesus; we can imagine this promised new age. It’s an age where women are no longer bought and sold in marriage, or defined by their father, their husband, or their womb. In this age, the curse of Genesis is repealed, and the patriarchy defeated once and for all. There’s good news for the poor, release for the captive, and recovery of insight and understanding. The oppressed will finally be free, and all debt will be cancelled. No more debtors prison; no more selling sisters and daughters to settle debt, as indeed still happens in many places even now.
In God’s new age, suffering people will no longer be pawns for political games. Sexuality and race and class and gender will not be used to oppress; indeed, the status quo will be reversed and the poor raised up and the powerful proud brought low. In God’s new age, there will be peace and justice for everyone. Not the fake justice of powerful Romans or aristocratic Sadducees or media titans or mining magnates or billionaires or kleptocrats or dictators, but real justice, for everyone.
This is the sort of resurrection which some Pharisees can envision, and which the Sadducees utterly reject. So you can imagine the crowd pushing in, agog, as the Sadducees tell their story then taunt, So tell us, Jesus: In the resurrection, which brother does she belong to? And maybe some of the crowd are women or Pharisees or visionaries or dreamers; maybe some of them are wondering, Will this woman always be an object of scorn, no more than an empty womb being handed from one man to the next? Or will justice one day be served?
They get their answer in Jesus’ reply, which rejects the very premise of the question. For those deemed worthy of resurrection from the dead, he says, marriage isn’t even a thing; people will no longer be passed around like property. Then he mentions a story from Torah which even the Sadducees can’t reject, Moses and the burning bush. ‘The fact that the dead are raised,’ says Jesus, ‘Moses himself showed in the story of the bush, where he speaks of the Sovereign God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.’ (Luke 20:37-38).
So Jesus takes the Pharisee line, but pushes it further than even they had dared imagine. The Pharisees trusted in an age to come, a future moment when the dead are raised into divine presence and divine justice. Jesus is suggesting something bigger, something grander, something so wildly explosive that even now we don’t fully understand it; but in his own resurrection we get a glimpse.
Because we hear the story after his death and resurrection. So we know that Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob are all dead: but to God they are all alive. We also know that Jesus died: but to God, and to us, he is alive. This doesn’t mean that his death is negated or cancelled by the resurrection; instead, his death is just one episode in an ongoing life. When we meet him on the road, he is wounded, scarred; yet he eats and drinks and breathes spirit into us; his crucified body is shockingly alive. So to God, death is not the opposite of life. It’s part of life: but life doesn’t stop at death, and death doesn’t have the last word. Those who die in God continue to be alive to God; they continue to be held in God’s love. And this is great news for those of us who grieve.
But the news gets even better. From the gospel according to John, we know that when we dwell in Christ and Christ dwells in us, we become part of his resurrected body not just in some future age, but right here and now.
This is the full and flourishing life into which we are called: and contrary to what the Pharisees and most evangelicals believe, we don’t need to wait until we die to experience it. It’s a life which breaks open tombs now, and unites the living and the dead now, and fills the world with blessing now, and breathes new spirit into us. It’s a life which rejects the cynical claim that might is right or that God’s justice is nothing but a pipe dream. Instead, it proclaims the power of vulnerability and self-giving love and insists on the full humanity of all people; it seeks justice and shalom in this day and age, even as it looks to God’s future for completion.
This is what it means to be children of the resurrection. We dwell in Christ and Christ dwells in us so deeply that we become radiantly alive in God. We embody God’s love so fully that God’s kingdom is glimpsed here and now; and when we too die, our living, our loving, and our experience of God’s overflowing abundance and communion will only continue. For us, it doesn’t matter what side of death we are on. God’s life is bigger than death; we have been swept up into God’s life; and this life goes on.
In the gospel according to John, Jesus speaks plainly, ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ he says. ‘Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.’ (John 11:25)
So let us trust in him; let us give our lives ever more fully to him, that we might live into God’s new age as we ship the bodies, clean out the closets, and mourn our dead; and as we seek justice, work for shalom and love one another. And let us celebrate this life that death cannot hold: “the life that Jesus has shared among his community through the centuries, and shares among us now,” as we move into our time of prayer and table communion with the living God. God’s will be done: God’s love be shown: both now and forever: Amen. Ω
Reflect: Are you living resurrection life now, or are you waiting until after your death? If the latter, how might your life change if you sought resurrection life now?
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 20:27-38 (Year C Proper 27) given to Sanctuary on 6 November 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash. Most illustrations of this story show a bunch of men crowding around Jesus, and no women. Consider this woman, and the butterfly symbolizing resurrection life, a corrective.
Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, like so much of the continent, we have been pounded by rain. The rivers continue to flood, and low-lying paddocks are alive with pobblebonks and other frogs croaking their songs of praise. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.
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