Sermon: Since You Asked

November 10, 2019
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 20:27-38

by Eric Anderson

I think the most comprehensible response of a modern Christian to this account of the conversation between the Sadducees and Jesus here in the 20th chapter of Luke is: “Huh?”

There’s a whole lot of background to this passage that most of you were never taught. Without it, the importance of the question to the questioners doesn’t make a lot of sense, even with Luke’s minimal explanation.

The Sadducees were one of the three major religious movements of first century Judaism. They believed that Scripture consisted solely of the five books of the Law, the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They believed that the primary act of faithful worship was participation in the sacrificial rites held in the Jerusalem Temple. This is the first time Jesus encounters them in Luke’s Gospel, and also basically the last time they have a conversation. In most of the book, Luke tells stories about Jesus during the time he ministered in the villages of Galilee, or during his final trip to Jerusalem. As devotees of Temple worship, Sadducees wanted to live as close to the Temple as they could. There would have been very few of them in Galilee, and far more in Jerusalem.

As Luke notes, they also rejected the notion of a resurrection, a belief that was common among the Pharisees, another of the major movements of first century Judaism (the third, the Essenes, don’t appear in any of the gospels; at least they’re not identified as such). Pharisaism was strong in the towns and villages where Jesus grew up and where his ministry began. His teaching sounded very much like that of the notable Pharisee Rabbi Hillel, who died a few years after Jesus was born.

So the Sadducees bringing this question to Jesus weren’t just challenging him – they were also challenging the Pharisaic movement. They intended not just to discredit Jesus, but to discredit a major theological opponent.

They chose to use the example of Levirate marriage, the practice in which a childless widow would marry the younger brother of her deceased husband. In that patriarchal society, it provided widowed women with a home and a livelihood. Widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of the community. It also meant that the family still had the opportunity to see a new generation.

D. Mark Davis writes in his blog Left Behind and Loving It: “The purpose of the law is that the deceased brother’s name may not be blotted out from Israel. This is key: The law of levirate marriage is about keeping one’s name alive beyond one’s death. Child-bearing, then, is a form of life beyond the span of one’s mortal coil.”

Living through your descendants: the Sadducees were fine with that. Their hypothetical widow of seven was intended to demonstrate that the idea of resurrection made no sense. How could it? Seven husbands after the resurrection? Surely not!

In his response, Jesus sought to undermine the foundations of the question itself. You see, it assumed that life after the resurrection would look like life before the resurrection. Society would still be patriarchal, and women would need to find homes with men or have none. No, said Jesus. That’s not going to be how it works. After the resurrection, families would still seek to have children and extend their lives through their descendants. No, said Jesus. That’s not how it works, either.

The resurrection doesn’t look like now. The resurrection doesn’t look like what you expect. The resurrection is a new reality.

That would not have satisfied the Sadducees. It was a brilliant rhetorical device, undermining the premises of their question, but it wasn’t based on anything they recognized as Scripture. Jesus’ second argument, however, about God as God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, came directly from Scripture: from Torah, from what they called the Books of Moses, and even from the experience of Moses himself. Better yet, it wasn’t Moses who called God the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob – it was God. It was God.

David Lose writes at Working Preacher: “The passage, Jesus points out, declares that God is — present tense — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not that God was their God. Therefore, Jesus concludes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must in some sense still be alive; hence, the necessity of resurrection.”

To God, the God of the living, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all alive, said Jesus.

The Sadducees had expected to catch Jesus in a logical, Scriptural, theological trap that would not only discredit him but bring down the Pharisaic movement he represented. Instead, he turned it around, first revealing the question’s shaky logical foundation, and then countering with a Scriptural argument they could not ignore. No wonder they didn’t want to ask him any more questions.

Who knows what he’d say next?

That is the risk of dealing with Jesus.

What will he say next?

If any of us asks a question, what will be the reply? Is there anything more dangerous that to hear Jesus say, “Well, since you asked…”

If we want to preserve our notions of what is, what was, and what will be, then no. I don’t think there’s much that’s more dangerous.

Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher, “What we want resurrection life to be is, in part, what we want or wish life to be now. Let’s be honest with ourselves — as much as we believe in the promise of the resurrection, our belief in ourselves sometimes sidelines the promises of God. And so we attempt to orchestrate, delegate, delineate our future life with God as much as we try to do the same now. And in doing so, we overlook the kinds of promises Jesus makes about our future that should very well lay claim on our lives in the present.”

I think the same is true of our pre-resurrection life. We want it to be, more or less, what it is now. OK, I grant you that we’d like a little less dirt – both the housekeeping kind and the metaphorical kind – and we’d probably like our political differences to be solved, as long as they’re solved according to our liking. We have already lived through times that tell us that the future will not look like the past.

The technological changes are astonishing. In my lifetime – and that’s shorter than some of yours – black and white television has become color flat screens that fit in my pocket and also serve as a telephone. The social changes are more astonishing. Out-and-out expressions of racial prejudice in the mouths of public figures shock us. In 1959, they were common. Same-gender marriage is legal today. In the 1980s, I didn’t think I’d live to see that.

The future will not be like the present. Despite the fervent efforts of some people with far too much power, it also will not be like the past. But it will also not be what we imagine it to be.

It will be… different. Since you asked.

Katy Stenta writes at RevGalBlogPals: “This has some strong implications for the church. God is permanent and alive, God is always our God, and yet is the God of the living. Our understandings [will] permeate and grow. Our relationships will permeate and expand beyond our current ken.

“Our understanding of church will continue onward, but will change and grow.

“God is indeed in the thin places.

“In the places where things no longer quite make sense, where possibility and impossibility seem to push each other out of the way.”

Where possibility and impossibility seem to push each other out of the way…

There is the reassuring word in this encounter between Sadducees and Pharisees, between questioners and questioned, between challenger and Jesus, between this life and resurrected life, between past and present, between present and future. God is not God of the dead but of the living. To God all are alive.

Whatever the future holds of progress or regress, of liberation or deprivation, of wealth or poverty of body, mind, and soul, whatever the future brings, God will be there, indeed God is there: the God of the living, to whom all are alive.

It wasn’t just a “gotcha” back to those Sadducees. If they could only have seen it, it was the great promise of the age. Since you asked.

Grasp it. Hold it. Have courage. Have peace.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Since You Asked

Close to the prepared text? Yes. Identical? Well, no. Does it have to be?

Photo of a stained glass window in the Church of Saint Germain in Rennes by GO69 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on November 10, 2019

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