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Luke 20:27-38 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 19:28 – 20-47. CONTROVERSIES IN JERUSALEM
Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in 9:51, and finally arrives there in 19:28-40. He weeps over Jerusalem (19:41-44), cleanses the temple (19:45-46), and teaches in the temple while the chief priests, scribes and leaders of the people look for a way to kill him (19:47-48).
Religious authorities ask Jesus three questions:
• First, the chief priests, scribes and elders ask, “Tell us: by what authority do you do these things? Or who is giving you this authority?” (20:2).
• Second, the chief priests and scribes (or their spies—see 20:20) ask, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (20:22).
• Finally, in our Gospel lesson for today, the Sadducees ask, “Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them will she be? For the seven had her as a wife” (20:33).
None of these questions are honest inquiries for information. All three are attempts to ensnare Jesus—to compromise his authority.
Chapter 20 closes with Jesus asking a question of “them”—whether Sadducees in particular or religious authorities in general is unclear (20:41-44). Jesus then denounces the scribes for their pride and avarice (20:45-47). It is interesting to note that it was the scribes who commended Jesus for his answer to the Sadducees only a few verses earlier (20:39). Most likely these scribes were Pharisees who opposed the Sadducees. They commended Jesus, not because they approved of him, but because of his besting of their opponents, the Sadducees.
LUKE 20:27-33. WHOSE WIFE WILL SHE BE?
27Some of the Sadducees came to him, those who deny that there is a resurrection (Greek: anastasin). 28They asked him, “Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man’s brother dies having a wife, and he is childless, his brother should take the wife, and raise up (Greek: exanastese—related to the word anastasin in v. 27) children for his brother. 29There were therefore seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died childless. 30The second took her as wife, and he died childless. 31The third took her, and likewise the seven all left no children, and died. 32Afterward the woman also died. 33Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them will she be? For the seven had her as a wife.”
The original version of this story is found in the Gospel of Mark (12:18-27), the first of the four Gospels to be written and one of Luke’s primary sources for his Gospel. See also Matthew 22:23-33.
“Some of the Sadducees came to him, those who deny that there is a resurrection (anastasin)“ (v. 27). We tend to lump Sadducees and Pharisees together as opponents of Jesus, but the two groups are quite different:
• Sadducees get their name from the priest, Zadok (see 2 Samuel 15 ff.). They are members and supporters of the high-priestly family (Nolland, 964), and tend to be wealthy and politically well connected. They accept only the Torah as authoritative scripture, giving the writings of the prophets a lower place in their system and rejecting oral tradition altogether. They reject the idea of resurrection, because it is not found in the Torah. They emphasize free will instead of determinism. Interestingly, scholars agree that Sadducees do not believe in angels, but angels are found in the Torah (Genesis 16:7; 21:17; 22:11, etc.). I don’t profess to understand why they don’t believe in angels.
• Pharisees are more religious and less political. They accept both Torah and Prophets as authoritative scripture, and rely heavily on oral tradition to understand scripture. They believe in resurrection, a concept not fully developed in the Old Testament and not mentioned in the Torah.
“who deny that there is a resurrection” (v. 27b). The Sadducees accept only the Torah as scripture. They refuse to believe in the resurrection because the Torah does not explicitly teach it.
In early parts of the Old Testament, people assumed that they would live on through their children—i.e., God’s promise to Jacob that his seed would be like the dust of the earth (Genesis 28:14).As time passed, the Jewish people developed a belief in resurrection, in part, because they believed that God would vindicate good men and women who died without having enjoying the fruits of their goodness. The word resurrection does not appear in the Old Testament, but the beginnings of the concept are found in Job 19:26; Psalm 16:10; 49:15; Isaiah 25:8; 26:16-19; Daniel 12:2; and Hosea 13:14. Ezekiel 37 tells of dry bones rising to life, but the image is that of the Jewish nation rather than individuals. The idea of resurrection is further developed in the apocrypha (see 2 Maccabees 7).
Christians often fail to distinguish between resurrection (God raises a person from the dead after a period of time) and immortality (life continues after death with no lapse of time), so it is worth considering the following the following three beliefs:
(2) The Greek understanding of immortality and
(3) The Biblical understanding of immorality
(1) The Christian belief in resurrection is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, and is an essential belief of the Christian faith. The New Testament teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead (Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:6: Luke 24:5; John 20:1-18) and that those who believe in Christ will be raised like him in a general resurrection at the end of time (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:12-57; 2 Corinthians 4:14; etc.). Belief in the resurrection is an essential tenet of the Christian faith. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
(2) The Greeks, led by Plato, held to a dualistic system that considered the spirit to be good but physical things, such as the human body, to be bad. They could never accept the resurrection of the physical body, because the ideal, from their perspective, was a spirit freed from the physical body. The Greek understanding of immortality, then, is incompatible with the Christian understanding of resurrection, where body and soul are bound together.
(3) While the resurrection is the central tenet of the Christian faith, the New Testament also speaks of immortality. In the New Testament, immortality and resurrection intertwine in a “now” (immortality) and “future” (resurrection) relationship.
The “now” dimension (immortality) is portrayed in various New Testament verses:
• For instance, Jesus gives a “now” dimension to the phrase, eternal life (which we usually categorize as “future”) in his high priestly prayer: “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). That prayer is very “now” oriented, and it seems clear that Jesus is saying that eternal life is a matter of relationship with the Father—something that will be fully realized only in the future, but that has its beginnings in our lives now.
• In his classic resurrection chapter that is almost totally future-oriented, Paul speaks of immortality: “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible will have put on incorruption, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then what is written will happen: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory'” (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).
• Jesus incorporates both the “now” and the “future” dimensions in a single sentence when he says, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life (“now”), and I will raise him up at the last day” (“future”) (John 6:54) (Myers, 520).
• In our Gospel lesson for this week, Jesus gives us a “now” perspective when he says, “Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him” (v. 38; see comments below on that verse).
Paul speaks of this as a mystery (1 Corinthians 15:51), and it is, indeed mysterious. I must admit that my understanding is very tentative. With that disclaimer, I will suggest that immortality and eternal life begin at our baptism when we are “united with him (Christ) in the likeness of his death” (Romans 6:5)—but their promise will be fully realized only in the general resurrection at the end of time when we will be “united with him in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:5).
“Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them will she be? For the seven had her as a wife”(v. 33). The levirate marriage law (Deuteronomy 25:5-6) requires a man whose brother dies without children to marry the wife of the deceased brother to enable the woman to bear children. The firstborn child of that union is to bear the name of the deceased brother so that his lineage might continue. This law also benefits the widow, whose circumstances would be considerably diminished without a husband.
The Sadducees address Jesus as Teacher, but only to set him up—asking a trick question designed to stump rather than to enlighten—attempting to embarrass Jesus—to undercut his authority as a teacher—and to demonstrate that there can be no resurrection. They invite Jesus into the no-win territory between the no-resurrection Sadducees and the resurrection Pharisees—a place where he is bound to alienate half the crowd. If he says that all seven brothers will be the woman’s husbands, he will alienate everyone. People can imagine a man having seven wives, but not a woman having seven husbands.
The Sadducees pose their question “by a pun on resurrection. In verse 27 anastasis (resurrection) is used to identify the Sadducees. It appears again in verse 28 as the duty of the brother (exanastese: raise up a child)” (Henrich, 444).
LUKE 20:34-36. THOSE WHO ARE WORTHY OF THE RESURRECTION
34Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry, and are given in marriage. 35But those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage. 36For they can’t die any more, for they are like the angels, and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
“The children 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” (vv. 34-35). Jesus first highlights the fact that the question asked by the Sadducees considers resurrection as an extension of life as we know it. He then outlines the radical discontinuity between earthly life (“this age”) and resurrection life (“that age”). Sexual procreation is necessary to sustain the human race in “this age”—a world where people die. It is not necessary in “that age” where people are like angels—no longer subject to death.
It is natural that we should ask questions about resurrection life, but we should not expect to understand it fully while living in “this age”. The book of Revelation, for instance, uses familiar language (gates of pearl and streets of gold) to help us visualize something completely beyond our experience. Such language can serve only as a metaphor to help us appreciate the wonders of a kingdom that we are not yet able fully to understand. Trying to explain resurrection life to an earthbound person is rather like trying to explain the color red to a person who was born blind and has never seen colors.
In his comments to the Sadducees, Jesus does not address other needs, such as sex and companionship, which are met by marriage in this life. Presumably, barriers that separate person from person will evaporate in that sin-free environment, and needs for intimacy will be met in a broad range of relationships—the primary one being with God. Again we are speaking of things beyond our ability to understand or fully appreciate.
Frankly for most people the thought of life without marriage and sex does not seem very attractive. The gain of a face-to-face relationship with God does not seem to compensate for the loss of marriage and sex. We should expect, however, that resurrection life will be full of joys that we are not fully equipped to understand, just as a small child is not equipped to understand the pleasures of the marriage bed. What seems yucky at age six can seem just fine at age twenty-six. Just so, we are not equipped fully to understand the joys of “that age”, but should expect them to be far different and far more enjoyable than our “this age” joys—more enjoyable than our “this age” experience allows us to imagine.
“For they can’t die any more, for they are like the angels” (v. 36a). The Sadducees don’t believe in angels, which is surely why Jesus mentions them here.
“and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” (v. 36b). Paul deals with resurrection life in 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. His language is full of poetic imagery that gives us a glimpse of that which we cannot really see and helps us to understand a bit of that which we cannot really know while bound to this earth. “It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is also a spiritual body” (15:42-44). Beautiful imagery, but far from a detailed, scientific description! Paul goes on to say that the resurrection life is a mystery (v. 51), something that can be understood in this life only by divine revelation. Two chapters earlier, Paul said, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). A wonderful description of mystery!
LUKE 20:37-38. HE IS GOD NOT OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING
37“But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he called the Lord ‘The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him.”
“But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he called the Lord ‘The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 37). Sadducees accept only the Torah as authoritative, so Jesus argues from the Torah—Exodus 3:6, 15. At the time of Moses’ encounter with God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long-since dead, but God spoke of his relationship with them in the present tense as if they were still living.
“Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him” (v. 38). “In what sense are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob alive? Did Jesus (and Luke) mean that their ‘souls’ were with God, i.e., they were immortal? Or did he mean that although they were not presently alive they would be on the day of resurrection and that because of God’s covenant with the patriarchs a resurrection was necessary? …For both Jesus and Luke the resurrection of the dead was clearly a future event (14:14; Acts 23:6; 24:15, 21). Nevertheless in some way they believed that the patriarchs were alive at the present time. Jesus and Luke believed both in a conscious life immediately after death (cf. 16:19-31; 23:39-43) as well as a final day of resurrection” (Stein, 500).
“for all are alive to him” (v. 38). The covenant-relationship, in which God blesses the patriarchs, is still in force.
With regard to the present-immortality vs. future-resurrection dichotomy, the New Testament clearly emphasizes future resurrection. However, this verse sounds as if the patriarchs are alive now, even though they have not yet experienced resurrection.
Josephus notes that Pharisees hold that life continues after death for both good and bad people. They believe that the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished (Fitzmyer, 1302). It is clear that belief in immortality has a place in Jewish thought—and that the distinction between present-immortality and future-resurrection is somewhat blurred.
LUKE 20:39-40. A PAT ON THE BACK BY THE SCRIBES
39Some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you speak well.” 40They didn’t dare to ask him any more questions.
These verses are not included in the lectionary, but are a fitting conclusion to the Gospel lesson and add only seconds to the reading. They emphasize a central point of this story—that Jesus speaks with authority (see 20:2).
These are probably scribes of the Pharisees who believe in resurrection, but they might also be the scribes who had tried to trap Jesus with the first two questions (20:2, 22).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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