First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 25

William Loader

Pentecost 25: 6 November Luke 20:27-38

Levirate marriage was a way of ensuring the family line continued. It could also protect women. We are entering the ancient culture of male and female and the values which determined their relationships. The values reflect a male-dominated society. Marriage was a crucial element in maintaining stability. That stability was related to the family and extended family. You married someone in the extended family, not an outsider. Bearing children was important to sustain the family. Families were their own welfare system, their own economies. Sexuality was a key component. Marrying outsiders or having children by outsiders produced unstable offspring. Sexual behaviour must be closely monitored. Women must be guarded. They bore the children, which was a blessing if they belonged and a curse if they came from outside. This is the background of the Sadducees’ ‘case’.

The Sadducees appear to have been the more culturally sophisticated of the identified movements among Jews at the time. Their followers tended to be among the leading priestly families and the aristocracy. Their approach to scripture was more conservative than that of the Pharisees. Many of their stricter interpretations coincided with those we find in the sectarian writings among the Dead Sea Scrolls, so much so that some argue that these writings were from Sadducees. More likely they come from similar priestly classes and reflect sides taken in disputes that reached back 200 years.

The Pharisees embraced the idea of resurrection from the dead. It was a way of putting flesh on hope, so to speak, in days when justice in this world seemed irretrievable. The righteous would surely be rewarded; they will surely be raised from the dead. Otherwise life does not make sense. Others included the obverse side of the coin: those who perpetrate injustice must be brought to account. It is clearly not going to happen in this life; then they will have to be raised from the dead and brought to trial. Resurrection from the dead and judgement are commonly linked. Such ideas may have developed under the influence of Persian thought; they were also a way of trying to make sense of the hope which Israel wanted to espouse, based on the faith that God is a liberator. Jesus and his movement belong in the circles which espoused such notions.

The Sadducees rejected such speculation and were prepared to ridicule its exponents. That is what is happening here. It is not difficult to imagine that this was not the first time they trotted out their question, designed to expose the absurdity of the idea of resurrection. The focus of the discussion is not the woman and what she had to go through, but the intellectual quicksand into which Jesus and the Pharisees entered with such crazy ideas.

Perhaps Jesus’ original answer was quick and sharp: ‘God is not God of the dead but of the living’ (20:38a; Mark 12:27). It is so like Jesus’ responses elsewhere in form and style. It is enigmatic. At one level it is no answer at all, if you think the dead remain dead. At another level it is saying that to claim God is god of the living must include that God’s care extends to those who have died in a way that they cannot really be dismissed as dead. Jesus is operating with a theology of God which says: even in death God is with us and therefore we must be with God and so: we must be going to exist! His thought is in the context of resurrection: we will be raised to life.

Like other anecdotes with such snappy punchlines this one now has some supporting argument, typically, scriptural argument (20:37). The same thing can be found in Mark 2:25-26 beside 2:27; 7:6-13 beside 7:15; 10:6-8 beside 10:9. Luke also follows Mark in bringing further supplementary argument (20:34-36, based on Mark 12:25), which he has expanded further. This is most interesting because it deals with the problem, that, even if you do accept the idea of resurrection, how will such a situation be sorted out?

The answer in Mark 12:25 and expanded in Luke 20:34-36 is remarkable for what it assumes. Instead of saying that such a question assumes too literal an understanding of future life, it states that in the resurrection life there will be no marrying. It means more than that. It means there will be no marriage and no sexual intercourse. In Mark this probably reflects the view that the age to come is like being in the holy temple where sexual activity and nakedness is forbidden. Such an understanding was widespread. Luke’s expansion seeks to strengthen the argument by noting that no reproduction is necessary, because people will not die. Behind that is an assumption, common in his day, that sexual intercourse is for the purpose of procreation, usually associated with a value system which saw sexual intercourse just for pleasure or for mutual enjoyment and love as an indication of moral depravity. It is interesting that Luke has omitted Mark’s story in which Jesus affirms sexual joining, apparently without procreation in mind (Mark 10:5-9). Did Luke not approve or had he forgotten about sexual union as something blessed by Gen 2:24?

Incidentally such an understanding of the life to come was relatively widespread in the Christian movement from early days and probably explains why some chose to live in the present the way they would live in the age to come. Jesus and Paul are careful not to generalise the option into a requirement (see Matt 19:11-12; 1 Cor 7), unlike others who demanded sexual abstinence with slogans like: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman’ (1 Cor 7:1).

Some will want to continue today with the vision of a sexless utopia. It is an ‘answer’ which raises a large number of questions of its own, even though these are incidental to the passage. Some might want to deal with these in their preaching (they certainly need dealing with somewhere, because people are often confused in the church about sexuality). Then a critical, canonical approach which brings such texts into dialogue with Genesis and with holistic understandings of relationships and sexuality in such relationships is called for.

The main focus of the passage, however, is God. God is the certain detail which hope has. The rest one might add is speculation or the brushstroke of imagination. Ultimately it is faith in a God who loves which forces the issue, despite the intellectual difficulties which are no less today than then. Somehow God continues to care so that there is also no end to being the focus of that care. Such a theology forces an agnosticism about death. The same theology needs to re-engage issues of sexuality and the values which have controlled it.

Epistle: Pentecost 25: 6 November  2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17