Filling in the gaps

For many years I have “plugged away” at writing commentaries that are not overly technical, but help to give more depth and context to the verses being considered. Sometimes the daily Mass readings reveal “gaps” in my coverage of a particular gospel writer. Today’s gospel is one of those occurrences. So… I filled in one of the gaps.Questions about Resurrection

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, ‘If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman but died childless. Then the second and the third married her, and likewise all the seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.” Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise. That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” Some of the scribes said in reply, “Teacher, you have answered well.” And they no longer dared to ask him anything. (Luke 20:27-40)

Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). He has finally arrived. An outline of the events from the entrance to Jerusalem until Holy Week is below.

  • The “Palm” Sunday events (19:28-40)
  • Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (19:41-44)
  • Jesus cleansing the temple (19:45-46)
  • The beginning of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple (19:47-48)
    • The question of Jesus’ authority (20:1-8)
    • The parable of the wicked tenants (20:9-19)
    • The question about paying taxes (20:20-26)
    • The question about the resurrection (20:27-40)
    • The question about David’s son (20:41-44)
    • The denunciation of the scribes (20:45-47)
    • The widow’s offering (21:1-4)
    • The Apocalyptic Discourse (21:5-36)
    • The coming wars and persecutions (21:5-19)
    • The destruction of Jerusalem foretold (21:20-24)
    • The coming of the Son of Man foretold (21:25-36)
  • The Conclusion of Jesus’ Teaching in the Temple (21:37-38)

As this outline indicates, summary statements about Jesus teaching in the temple form “bookends” (19:47-48; 21:37-38) to the major section of this outline. These summaries reveal several things:

  1. Jesus taught in the temple
  2. He taught every day.
  3. There were two responses to Jesus’ teachings:
  • “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him” (19:47)
  • “All the people were spellbound by what they heard” (19:48) and they got up early in the morning to listen to Jesus!

In the smaller context, our text is part of a conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. This conflict is partly indicated by four questionings as indicated in the outline above:

  1. the chief priests, scribes, & elders question Jesus about his authority
  2. they [scribes & chief priests from v. 19] question Jesus about paying taxes
  3. Sadducees (v. 27) & scribes (v. 39) question Jesus about the resurrection
  4. Jesus questions them about the Messiah being David’s Lord

The Sadducees

This is the only occurrence of the Sadducees in Luke. However, they appear a few times in Acts (4:1; 5:17; 23:6, 7, 8). They appear in the parallels to our text (Mt 22:23; Mk 12:18). In all the other instances in the gospels (which are found only in Matthew), they are connected with the Pharisees in opposition to Jesus (3:7; 16:1, 5, 11, 12; 22:34).

It is stated in a number of these passages that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. A variant reading (in my Greek text) of v. 27 indicates that they “speak against” or “oppose” the resurrection (antilego rather than lego). Acts 23:8 also indicates that they didn’t believe in angels or spirits.

It is generally thought that their name came from Zadok, who was the high priest under David, or possibly a later Zadok. The group by this name first appeared in the 2nd century BC and disappeared in the 1st century AD after the destruction of the temple in 70. There would be no need for temple priests if there were no temple.

According to Josephus as reported by the Harper’s Dictionary of the Bible, “the Sadducees are said to reject the immortality of the soul, to attribute all human activity to free will and none to fate (or providence), and to reject other traditions, especially those of the Pharisees.” The article goes on to state:

The Sadducees were influential with only a few wealthy families and not with the people, who followed the Pharisees’ interpretation of the law…. [they] were boorish in their social interactions,… they encouraged conflict with rather than respect for their teachers, were more stern than the Pharisees in recommending punishments for crimes, and … aroused Herod’s suspicions because they supported the Hasmoneans against him. From this data many commentators have surmised that the Sadducees were mostly priests and wealthy, powerful community leaders who sat in the Sanhedrin, were greatly hellenized (i.e., influenced by Greek culture), and cultivated good relationships with the Romans. [p. 891]

In contrast to Matthew’s presentation of Pharisees and Sadducees working together against Jesus, Rabbinic literature (as well as Acts) pictures these two groups as opponents. Part of this opposition arises because the Pharisees accepted the authority of the oral tradition as extensions and proper interpretations of the Law and the Sadducees did not.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible expands on the Sadducees traditional view of the Law and their rejection of the resurrection.

Jews had long believed that so long as Israel obeyed the law then God would rule over them and reward the righteous and punish the wicked in this life. Belief in the resurrection, on the other hand, was linked to beliefs that the present age was in the grip of dark powers, so that in this life the righteous would suffer, although God would ultimately vindicate them. Those who had died would be raised so that they too could receive their due rewards (Dan. 12:2). To reject belief in the resurrection and, indeed, possibly also in demonic powers who controlled this world in the present age, was then also to reject the belief that this present age was radically corrupted; in fact, from the Sadducees’ point of view, those who argued the contrary view may have appeared to deny the continued existence of the covenant between God and Israel. This may also explain their denial of fate. They believed that Jews were free to influence their destiny; if they obeyed the Law and repented and made due restitution when they sinned, then all would be well….

This may suggest a further reason why the Sadducees disappeared after 70 CE. Not only was their position as the Temple aristocracy fundamentally destroyed; their belief that the maintenance of the Temple cult would suffice to stave off real disaster for Israel had also been proven false. [p. 668]

The Levirite Rule: The word “levirite” comes from the Latin, levir = “brother-in-law.” According to Culpepper (Luke, NIB), such laws are found in Ugarit, Middle Assyrian, and Hittite codes as well as in Deut 25:5-10 (cf. Gen 38:8; Lv 18:16; Ruth 3:9, 12-13). For the ancient Israelites, before a belief in the resurrection of the dead, “eternal life” was understood as producing heirs who would continue the family’s ownership of their land. If a husband died before producing sons (Dt 25:5), it was the responsibility of his brother to “perform his duty” to her to produce offspring to continue the name of his brother.

The Sadducees are correct in stating the law that had come from Moses. It really isn’t the law that is under question, but the reason for the law. That is, to give eternal life to the deceased brother. They also seem to have the assumption that life after the resurrection (which they don’t believe in) is the same as life prior to the resurrection, e.g., being married.

Jesus’ First Response: First of all, Jesus makes a contrast between “this age” and “that age”. He has made similar distinctions earlier, e.g., when Jesus seems to praise the dishonest steward (Luke 16:8) because he acted shrewdly. Going on to note that the “children of this age” are more shrewd than the “children of light.”  In Luke 18 Jesus tells the disciples that what they will receive in the “age to come” is far more than what they might lose or give up “in this age.” The contrasts of the ages that Luke presents are

  • children of this age vs children of light
  • possessions and relationships of this age vs. eternal life in the age to come
  • children of this age vs. of that age = resurrection from the dead

It appears that the question of marriage and procreation was raised in the early church (see especially. 1 Cor 7:1-16). The belief that one lives forever through the resurrection negates the need for children (more properly, sons,) to have “eternal life” as previously understood. This would change the reason why Christians would marry and bear children from a traditional view – at least the view held by the Sadducees.

Children of “that age” who are raised from the dead, do not need to marry or be given in marriage. That is not where their “eternal life” is to be found.

In this first response, Jesus deals with the Sadducees’ assumption that the resurrected life is like one’s earthly life. So when the Sadducees inherently assume a similarity between this life and the next, Jesus focuses his response on the differences. Where the Sadducees are arguing for the Levirite rule to ensure “eternal life.” As Culpepper (p.390) later suggests, it is best to keep our speculations about life on the other side of the resurrection a mystery. Yet, he also offers this counsel: “Jesus’ words can thus be approached from a positive side. The God who created human life, including the institution of marriage, has also provided for life after death for those who have cultivated the capacity to respond to God’s love. The biblical teaching is that life comes from God. There is nothing in or of the human being that is naturally or inherently immortal. If there is life beyond death, it is God’s gift to those who have accepted God’s love and entered into relationship with God in this life.”

Jesus’ Second Response: Jesus next uses the Sadducees’ sacred text (only the first five books of the Old Testament) to respond to their anti-resurrection beliefs. It is a simple argument. From the burning bush God declared: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” (Ex 3:6); these people were all dead. If the dead no longer exist, if they have become nothing, then God would be declaring: “I am the God of nothing.” So, if God is to be the God of something, those people must be alive to God (even though they are dead to us). Thus, there must be a resurrection of the dead. Jesus essentially reveals to the Sadducees that God has declared resurrection from the dead in the Sadducees’ own scripture.

After saying this, Jesus takes up again the issue of the teaching of Moses with which the questioning began (v. 28). He shows that even Moses believed in a resurrection life when he spoke of God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who are still alive before him. Jesus’ rebuttal of the Sadducees arouses the admiration of some of the scribes (probably Pharisees), but this was surely more of a political applause than a real adherence to the teaching of Jesus. As before (v. 26), Jesus’ answer to their question has reduced his opponents to silence.

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