Luke 20:27-38, It Is Not Over When You Are Dead

[November 10, 2013] Today’s Gospel text is the one in which the Sadducees ask Jesus about the resurrection. There is more here than meets the eye. We should know this because Jesus’ answer is indirect. Here, as often, Jesus does not answer the question the Sadducees ask. His answer nevertheless accomplishes something and carries Luke’s story forward. Let us try to discover what is going on.

Background (Luke 19:28—20:26)

In Luke 19:28-40, the Palm Sunday story, Jesus had entered Jerusalem as the King of Israel, come in the Name of YHWH. As He rode on the donkey colt, when the city came into view, He wept for the judgment that was coming upon it, when the Romans would raze to the ground, because they did not recognize the way of peace and the moment of their visitation (19:41-44), when the opportunity was given to them to repent. In a demonstration He drove the merchants from the Court of the Gentiles, accusing them of being thieves (19:45-46), perhaps signifying the destruction of the Temple. There is a hint here that they are stealing from God and will not get away with it.

In 20:1-8 the chief priests and elders, the stewards of the royal city of David and of God’s people Israel, question Jesus about His authority, and He turns this around to question their competency  as authorities in the city, since they are cowards, motivated entirely by expedience (politics).

Jesus then tells the parable of the tenant farmers (20:9-19) who are stewards of a vineyard and attempt to steal the fruit of the vineyard from the owner. It becomes clear that Jesus is the son of the owner of the vineyard who has come to demand the fruit of the vineyard for the owner of the vineyard, his father. The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is the people of Israel. The tenant farmers are the chief priests and elders (and the sect of the Sadducees to which most of them belonged) who are supposed to render the fruit of the vineyard to the owner of the vineyard. The fruit of the vineyard is the nation’s and the Diaspora’s worship of God (of which the Temple in Jerusalem is the center and symbol) and the fruit of repentance which God has been demanding through the Law and the Prophets and most recently through the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. These tenant farmers want to keep the fruit of the vineyard for themselves, that is, the chief priests and elders and the Sadducean aristocracy have wanted to keep the benefit of the nation’s devotion for themselves in terms of profits and have taken advantage of the nation’s acts of repentance. Indeed, the nation’s and the Diaspora’s worship at the Temple and donations have profited them greatly.

“The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor” (20:19-20).

Jesus brings them out and indirectly exposes them in the three questions that follow, two of which they ask Him, in which they had intended to expose Him, and one—the last of which—He asks them. In His response to the first question, we understand that they render unto Caesar what is Caesar (with more than just taxes!) but they do not render unto God what belongs to God—namely the fruit of the vineyard! That is, the fruit of repentance, which has been the theme of Jesus’ ministry.

The Question of the Sadducees (20:27-36)

In the second question, they ask a question about inheritance and marriage in order to make mockery of the doctrine of resurrection. I know the following is cute, but some readers may find it helpful: The Sadducees were “sad-you-see” because they did not believe in the resurrection or in angels or in anything that they did not find written explicitly in the first five books of the Bible. The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection, just like the orthodox Jews today. But they were not in charge of things in Jerusalem. The Sadducees were. Even the High Priest was a Sadducee. (If you remember that the Pharisees could see “far, you see,” and therefore believed in the resurrection, and that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection and so were “sad, you see,” you will be reminded of which is which.)

The Sadducees want to show that law of Deuteronomy 25:5-10 only makes sense in terms of this life. The land (that is, the inheritance) needs to stay within the patriarchal family with a view to the Year of Jubilee, when all land would return to the original families that owned it. The line of inheritance must not be allowed to run out (and leave the family). So in a case in which a woman goes through seven brothers and does not have a child through any of them, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? The question is meant to be absurd; the Sadducees who posed the question, as I said, did not believe in the resurrection.

Jesus says, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; for they cannot even die anymore, because they are like angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”

Not all the dead rise at the same time. First there is the resurrection of the “righteous” (the redeemed), and then later there is the resurrection of the unrighteous. Jesus is talking about the first one: “those who are considered worthy to attain to” the age of the kingdom. The resurrection of the unrighteous comes after that age. Jesus does not talk about this later resurrection.

Jesus tells the Sadducees that those who rise can no longer die. Therefore the question of children is now irrelevant, for they are all sons—and therefore heirs—of God. The law only applies to this life. His answer shows that the issue marriage is also irrelevant—men neither marry nor are women given in marriage. Jesus does not answer the question of the status in the resurrection of the woman’s relationships with those whom she has already marriage. She is either married to none of them or all of them. Apparently it is irrelevant, or Jesus does not choose to say. Like in the case of the first question (20:1-26), He evades the direct question by putting things on His own terms.

The Unanswered Answer to Their Question on Marriage

Maybe we are not satisfied with this. Let us explore what Jesus says and does not say here. The Sadducees asked Jesus a question about marriage: “In the resurrection, which one’s wife will she be? For all seven had married her.” This is the question. Let us put just this aspect in modern terms: Imagine when the dead rise that you rise with them. Now, you might have been married several times. What if all your spouses are also there? Which one will you be married to now? The last one? The first one? The one you liked the most? The one with whom you had children? What if you had children with more than one? Well, in the Old Testament polygamy was practiced. Are you married to all your spouses? Maybe no one is married to anyone any more. All marriage bonds are dissolved. You see the problem?

So, let us say I have had seven spouses and all eight of us are resurrected on that wonderful day; we are all worthy. Does Jesus tell us here what our marital status is going to be on that day? He says, they “neither marry nor are given in marriage; for they cannot even die anymore, because they are like angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” Obviously He is using the word “sons” inclusively, because he is talking about the wife and the husbands. But does this answer the question? He only says that we are not going to be getting married anymore and no one is going to be giving us away in marriage—anymore. What about those whom I already married? Am I still married to all of them, or none of them?

Jesus says that we will be like angels. Notice that He does not say that we will become angels (like some people think). He says that we will be like them. Okay, but what do we know about angels? When it comes to marriage, we do not know much. We certainly do not hear about angel families or angel couples; we do not even know if they have gender or if they can procreate.  On the other hand, it is not hard to imagine that, because they are spiritual beings, they might all be intimately connected to each other. Are they like lovers and spouses? Or are they like siblings, brothers and sisters, since they are all “sons of God”? For angels, is there even a difference?

Jesus is our eldest Brother, but He is also our Bridegroom. In the resurrection how will be related to our spouses, to each other, and to everyone else? The apostle Paul says that God’s ways are unfathomable. “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” (Rom. 11:33-34; see Isaiah 40:13-14). He says, “God has prepared for those who love Him” “things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2:9; see Isaiah 64:4). Probably, we will love each other more than now, and understand each other more, and the way things will be will be better than anything we can imagine.

I suspect, in view of Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, that we shall all be married to each other—that our present marriage bonds are indissoluble for they are a pledge or guarantee or initial payment of a future promise. Some say, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:42-49, that our bodies will not be physical, but that is not what this passage says. It says our bodies will no longer be soulical (psychikos), instead they will be spiritual. If a soulical body can be physical, why can a spiritual body not be physical? Jesus, after all, had a physical body in His resurrection, a body that could be seen and touched and handled. And in our resurrection we will be like Him—our bodies will be transfigured to become like His body (Philippians 3:21). In John 20:17 He told Mary to stop hugging Him until He had ascended to the Father, implying that she could hug Him once He ascended. Perhaps our physical bond will be greater than that of siblings, for our union will not be for the sake of physical procreation but for love (and perhaps spiritual procreation).

This, however, was not the point that Jesus was making in Luke 20.

Jesus’ Message to the Sadducees (20:37-38)

I think Jesus’ next statement shows what He is getting at. He said, “That the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exodus 3:6). Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him.” The last two words are the pronoun in the dative case. It can be variously translated. It probably has the sense of “in the presence of God” or “with God.”

What Jesus notices that God uses the present tense—“I am”—when God calls Himself the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God is not the God of the memory of these people, but these three individuals are still living—now—in the presence of God. The implication is that “those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead”—even though they may have died—are all still living in the sight of God.

Jesus is not actually talking about resurrection here. He is talking about Paradise, where the dead (if they are redeemed) are right now, before the resurrection. Another word we have for this is the “Communion of Saints.” The dead are not dead. They are alive to God, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Paul was writing to the Philippians when he was imprisoned, he was not sure if he was going to die. He said that he had a “desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Philippians 1:23). For, as he later told the Corinthians, “while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord … [but we] prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

One day, however, we will not only be “with the Lord,” but we will become like Him; we will be given a body like His resurrection body. He “will transfigure the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21). This is what resurrection means. “For we know that if [this body,] our earthly tent, is taken down, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For also in this [body] we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our dwelling place from heaven, if indeed, being clothed [with a body], we will not be found naked [like a ghost]. For also, we who are in this tent groan, being burdened in that we do not desire to be unclothed, but clothed upon, that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4). We do not want to have no body at all but, when we have shed this body like a set of clothes, to have new clothes put on over us, so that we are physically “swallowed up” by eternal life.

“Now He who has wrought us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a pledge” (2 Corinthians 5:5). In other words, our experience of the Holy Spirit now is our guarantee or down-payment of the resurrection to come. Just as God certainly raised Jesus from the dead, God will certainly raise us up by the same power (Romans 8:11).

The resurrection may be hard to imagine scientifically, but scientifically the universe is far stranger than what common sense leads us to believe. How the resurrection will happen, we do not know. What we know is that it did happen to Jesus and He still lives in the power of that life, and it will happen to us in the same way. The saints who have died are alive to God now, and when we die we will be alive with them. When Jesus Christ comes in glory, God will clothe us with a new body—like Christ’s—and we will live with Him forever in the glory and beauty and goodness and joy of God.

However, Jesus’ words here, as we said, are not actually a statement about the resurrection at all but about the fact that the dead are not dead but live in a communion before (and with) God.

Remember that the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection. Since the Sadducees only believed in this life, with no reward or punishment in the hereafter, they were very practical. They paid attention to what worked. Cooperating with the Romans worked, and so they did it. God rewards you in this life only, they thought, so if you follow the laws of Moses, and are politically astute and financially clever, God will reward you by helping you become rich. So it seemed, and so they thought.

Yet if what Jesus says is true, it means that we bear the consequences of this life into the hereafter. This is the relevant point denied by the Sadducean nonbelief. If we live in this life only, as implied by their question, then God rewards or punishes our behavior in this life only. This means that if we can get ourselves wealthy or position ourselves well in terms of power in this life, that is evidence enough of God’s approval of us. If we are poor or blind or lame or crippled or a social outcast, that is proof of God’s disapproval. The Sadducees could thus both congratulate themselves and justify their lack of regard for the poor (except to the extent that the Torah requires). Their hypocrisy is that they can steal from God and justify themselves if they become rich and powerful in the process: God apparently approves of their behavior because God rewards them, which proves that they are not really stealing from God. If, however, the dead live then reward and punishment will be rendered in the hereafter. Present success proves nothing in terms of God’s approval (as per the later Wisdom literature, such as Ecclesiastes or Job). We recall the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.

The Third Question (20:41-44)

Indeed, when Jesus asks the third question, about the Messiah sitting at God’s right hand, He is talking about His own resurrection and the reward of His inheritance—in spite of the fact of His death in the poverty and shame of the cross (though really because of it). Sitting at the right hand of YHWH is the reward for His obedience, and it is in utter contrast to the power presently possessed and held on to by the chief priests and elders of the nation, especially in terms of how it is obtained.

The second question—which points out that the chief priests and elders (the stewards of the Lord’s vineyard) live only for this life, imaging that their loot is God’s reward—follows from the first question—which points out that their thievery (see 19:46) is a stealing from God. The third question follows from these two, making the point that Jesus’ way of obedience and humility and love, leading to the cross, issues in the greatest reward: in His resurrection He, the King (the Son of David) though incognito in His humility now, shall sit at the right hand of God.

This, the Gospel way that Jesus exemplified, the way of voluntary poverty in this world that grasps after wealth for the phantom of security, and the way of repentance in view of the way this world rejects God and “protect” itself from God, this “way of the cross”—in the sight of God and before the goodness of creation—is what this text (Luke 20:27-38) seems to be about. It is therefore about our spirituality, that is, how we exercise ourselves (askesis) in this life.

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