Job 19:23-27a          Psalm 17:1-9         2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17           Luke 20:27-38

Today, Jesus confronts Biblical literalists, courtesy of a group of hostile Sadducees. 

 

The Sadducees were the upper class in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.  They were wealthy and on good terms with Rome.  While the Pharisees were generally better educated and more religious, the Sadducees claimed to be more blue-blooded, and until Jerusalem was razed by Rome in 70 AD the Sadducees controlled the Temple.  It was a matter of prestige and standing.

 

The Sadducees had very conservative religious views, too.   They didn’t have much use for the oral traditions and teachings in Judaism and they tended to believe that only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, had any value because they believed that Moses wrote them; the others were written by ordinary people.  The Sadducees were harsh in dispensing justice, interpreting literally the lex talionis, or law of retaliation, ‘an eye or an eye’ to use Bible language.  They often invoked the death penalty for relatively minor infractions of the law. 

 

These were influential, important, and dangerous people… AND they were laying a trap for Jesus.  Since they didn’t believe in resurrection or any other kind of life after death, the whole silly question (and it WAS a silly question) of who owned that poor woman passed down to 7 husbands, was simply a means of creating an argument. 

 

Notice that.  The question was who owns the wife.   It was not about the afterlife, because the Sadducees didn’t believe in any such thing. Instead, they had a Biblical precept to hammer out, and a troublesome rabbi to discredit. 

 

The practice of marrying a widow off to her husband’s brother is known as levirate marriage, and it wasn’t uncommon in tribal societies around the world.   It had to do with taboos about marrying outside the tribe, and about the transfer of wealth in bride prices.  For the Jews, if the new marriage produced a child, the baby was declared to be the heir of the dead brother even if that was biologically impossible – if, for example, the baby was born a year and a half after the first husband’s death.  If the surviving brother refused to marry her, the widow was supposed to confront him in front of the elders, to spit on him and smack him with her sandal, marking him as a public disgrace.  It’s all spelled out in Chapter 5 in Deuteronomy, one of the books that the Sadducees and Pharisees agreed were important - although they argued ferociously over how the laws should be carried out.  But understand that there were financial consequences around inheritance, implied by Jesus’s answer to the Sadducees’ question.  Ownership of the woman had to do with ownership of other property, which made it worth picking a fight with the upstart prophet who was stirring up the mob.

 

Again, it was a trap, built out of literal interpretations of Scripture that were generally intended to protect women and safeguard the family’s assets, not to make someone’s life miserable.  But as a trap, it seemed flawless.  If Jesus indicated He believed in resurrection He risked alienating the Sadducee half of the crowd, and if He denied the resurrection He would alienate the Pharisee half.  And while people could imagine a man with 7 wives, a woman with 7 husbands was inconceivable.  The scandalous nature of the question was bound to rile the crowd that had assembled to hear Jesus.

 

He wasn’t having it.  So Jesus addressed the other part of the question, the part that the Sadducees didn’t actually ask.   He talked to them about resurrection.  So let’s talk about it too.

 

There are a few different ways to think about life after death.  The traditional view of resurrection is that the person dies and ‘sleeps’ until the general resurrection  Another  viewpoint is an adaptation of Greek thought, that at death human souls escape from weak, sinful bodies into immortality.  There are those that believe an amalgam of both, that immortality is now, and resurrection is in the future.  The best way I can describe that is to say that the whole business is outside of time, and that past, present, and future are illusions since we exist in eternity.  That one’s kind of a brain cramp, but if you remember that God created time for humanity‘s benefit so that everything isn’t happening simultaneously, it helps.   Depending on where you look in Scriptures, you can get the impression that any of these are, well, mostly right  It’s not entirely clear how they hang together.


We will say the Nicene Creed in just a few minutes, when we will proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  The problem is that we don’t  know exactly what we mean by that.   The easy out, and the one that preachers often take, is to claim that the next life will be just like this one - only better.  An extension of all we held dear in this life, with all the problems and messiness sorted out.  Our loved ones nearby, our favorite pastimes ready, nobody to fight or struggle with, no disease, no pain, no death. 

      

The harsh reality is that this what we tell ourselves when we’re facing a tragic loss.  There is grief so terrible that almost the only way we can stagger through it is to keep insisting that it’s temporary.  While I DO believe that we will be reunited with our loved ones, it’s a not at all certain the parts of our lives that made us happiest will be magically handed back to us as our heavenly reward, nor that we will all be assigned wings and harps and a cloud to sit on.  In fact, it seems that we will find ourselves in totally new surroundings.  I have scriptural evidence for that:

 

Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and there was no more sea.


Isaiah 66:22  ‘For just as the new heaven and the new earth endure before Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘so your descendants and your name will endure.’


2 Peter 3:13 But in keeping with God’s promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. 


Please don’t misunderstand.  I’m not saying that we won’t see our loved ones or be happy.  I’m saying that we don’t have any guarantees that it will all look familiar.  If there’s a new heaven and a new earth, the next life won’t be more of the same of THIS life, everything will be new.  Including us.

 

This is also where we bump into the concept of time again. Moses spoke of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the God of the living, not the God of the dead.   For the first Christians, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth was about salvation, and what Jesus and the disciples and apostles were doing when they were healing people or opening prison doors or rescuing the shipwrecked or whatever was anticipating the REAL salvation, the one that matters, the eternal salvation that overcomes space, time and matter.  The one we call the resurrection. The future rescue that God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present, and the followers of Jesus were right in the middle of it.

 

Salvation, it turns out, is not simply pie in the sky, by and by, but also here and now, and it has everything to do with resurrection.   The new heavens and new earth are not on hold until God gets around to it.  Resurrection is for loved ones who have gone before us, and salvation for us earthbound disciples here who are struggling with this life while waiting for a better life to get here.  Salvation and resurrection are what all our efforts – the prayer, study, self-denial, works of mercy and justice – are fitting us for.

 

But more than that.   We are called to do our part in creating the new heavens and new earth.  Just like the early disciples and apostles, we are responsible for creating real salvation for real people, real-time.  We need to carry out our own healing and rescuing of others.  Not eventually when God will finally wipe away every tear from our eyes, but today, when we see people who are suffering and struggling.

 

The point of following Jesus is NOT going to heaven eventually after you die, however the mechanics of resurrection work.  We confidently expect that to happen but it isn’t the point, because that’s a selfish point and not what God calls us to.   The POINT, beloved brothers and sisters, is to live in God’s Kingdom, both now and in the next life, and to build that kingdom up for other people to share.


Since God is the God of the living and the dead, the new heaven and new earth is both now AND in the future, and our salvation and resurrection are independent of time.  We are cocreators with God on this side of eternity and forever, building the new Jerusalem.

 

With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all our own loved ones. For in Him all of them are alive. He promised, and so we believe.    

AMEN.

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