Baiting Jesus

Luke 20:27-38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage;35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Baiting Jesus

Two days.  Two days left and it’s over.  I would guess that every adult in this room has watched at least one political debate during this election season.  I use that term loosely – “debate” I mean.  What I watched was far afield from the classical debate that I taught and coached with my high school teams.  

Classical debate begins with a statement – a proposition – that calls for a change in the status quo.  Resolved:  That public colleges and universities should be free for all eligible students.  Resolved:  That the minimum wage be raised to $18/hour.  Resolved:  That the death penalty be abolished nationwide. etc. etc.  By the rules of debate, the affirmative team always argues in favor of the change and the negative team always defends the status quo.  That’s the formula.  Each year, every team must prepare to argue that one agreed-upon proposition but they must be ready to argue it from either the affirmative or negative point of view.  So they spend lots of time gathering evidence.  Because it is on the basis of evidence and reasoning that the debate is won.  No name-calling, no attacks on their opponents, no propaganda devices.  Evidence and reasoning.

For real-life presidential debates, the underlying proposition is always the same:  Resolved, that America is in such trouble that we need to change policies, parties and people.  The incumbent president or party takes the negative position.  They argue for the status quo — that America is on the right track, and we need to continue and refine existing policies.  And each side of the debate comes out of his corner with a PLAN.  Of course this year, the proposition has been lost and the plans buried under lots of mud. And the debates have devolved into shouting matches with topics unfit for children’s ears.  

All of this is to say that debate is not a new activity.  Today’s text from Luke’s gospel picks up in the midst of a debate.    Jesus is the affirmative team, and the proposition is “Resolved, that there is life after death.”  The Sadducees, on the other hand, defend the status quo –that death is final; that’s all there is.   And who better to defend the status quo than the Sadducees?  

Who were these people?  The New Testament makes frequent mention of Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, and we generally lump them together as low-level enemies of Christ.  But the groups were different.  While the Pharisees were the more vocal rabble-rousers, they were also more open to new ideas and changing traditions within their faith. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were a community of conservative, placid Jews. Some of them were priests; all of them were wealthy and, in fact, they had become part of the Roman establishment.  In their beliefs, they were committed to the earliest written scriptures, the Torah, and rejected everything else. They did not believe in the resurrection because it was not in the Torah. Moses had never spoken of it.  They did not expect Jesus to change their minds, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to play with him.  So they constructed a question specifically designed to bait Jesus.  

So in the passage Noah read, the question that came from the Levirate Law: When seven different brothers had married the same woman, whose wife would she be in heaven??  (And I would suggest that she deserves to be left alone!)  The Levirate Law was the  Old Testament practice that was supposed to result in an heir for a man who died childless.  My Wednesday Night Old Testament scholars could tell you how it worked and why:  If a young man died without producing a son, it was a tragedy for the whole family.  There was no son to inherit his father’s land, and no man to care for his wife and daughters.  And there was no safety net.  In a system without welfare, Medicaid, or WIC, the wife and daughters would have no legal power, could not inherit the land, and had no means of even feeding themselves.  So there had to be some provision made.  

In a patriarchal culture, this was the system:  The oldest brother of the dead man would marry the widow, and would father a son who would then carry on his brother’s name and inherit his brother’s land.  And if that brother died before a son could be born, then the next brother would marry the widow, and so on and so forth.  

To us modern men and women– for whom marriage is a somewhat different institution –the custom is bizarre, but it worked for the ancient Hebrews.  It protected the family’s land and provided for widows and children.   

A thousand years later, this custom was pretty much obsolete, but the Sadducees knew it.  As I said, they studied, understood, and accepted the Torah as their only authority.  It was their “gospel.”

“So, Rabbi,” they challenge in today’s text, “ If there really is this so-called Heaven, this afterlife, how is this all going to sort out in Heaven?  Whose wife will she be when all those brothers wake up in Heaven? Can you answer that one?    

It is a trap.  They want to see Christ squirm.  But what they don’t understand is that the Son of God enjoys debate, he is quick on his feet.  This well-schooled rabbi knows the evidence as well as they do, and in expert fashion, he turns their argument on its head.

“Well, Jesus says, since people who are truly dead can’t think, feel, or reason, then people who are truly dead can’t have any god, right?”  The Sadducees nod their heads in agreement. “We’ve got him now, they think.  Let’s just keep playing along.”

“But what did Moses say in the scene with the burning bush?”  Jesus asks.  (And of course, they know the passage word for word.)  “Moses said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’  In other words, they are still ‘alive’ with me, and I am still their God.”  37The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed.  [God] is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

39Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.”40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.”  And so Jesus wins the debate — Affirmative 1; Negative 0.

As interesting as this may or may not be, there are several points to be made here.  

#1  Christ’s proposition of an afterlife is bold and hard to defend — even for those who know the gospel.   Evidence isn’t easy to collect — mainly because nobody comes back from Heaven.  Of course, we have those near-death experiences.  Patients whose hearts have stopped and then been brought back to life have claimed to experience that warm white light, an inviting glow, that is so magnetic they don’t want to be brought back to the hospital gurney.  But is the afterlife an hallucination caused by oxygen deprivation to the brain?  Many argue that Heaven is a comforting thought cooked up to lessen the sting of death and pain of loss.  

But Christ said otherwise:  I go to prepare a place for you, that where I go, you may follow.  I will come and take you there.  In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.  And in today’s passage, he tells the Sadducees that those who are worthy to attain resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels.  They are children of the resurrection.

And then, we have a reliable account of a resurrection –plenty of witnesses to Christ’s death by crucifixion, multiple witnesses to his dead body placed in a tomb, and –by some accounts– up to 100 witnesses who saw the risen Christ in the flesh, walking and talking and eating, three days later.  

And among the most convincing facts are the stories of Christ’s followers who were so convinced of his resurrection that these once-timid humans became fearless bearers of the Good News– willingly facing all manner of persecution and martyrdom. The Case for Christ

But what if you still can’t buy it?  Or it seems real when we attend a funeral, but not in the wee hours of the night when we lie awake, when we contemplate our own mortality.   Is there really a God?  What if this life is all there is?  Is Heaven real?  Just asking the  questions makes us feel guilty.  After all, we profess to be Christians?  Will we go to Hell for our very uncertain faith?

Take heart.  Today’s scripture says NO.   Jesus can take our questions; he can take on our doubt.  He enjoys debate.   It isn’t doubt that worries God; it is indifference that spells trouble.  As long as we keep asking, keep searching, keep reaching for God, then God keeps reaching for us.  

Can you picture for a moment Michelangelo’s famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  The one I am thinking about is the Creation of Adam.  The enormous figure of God, reclining among angels, with one arm wrapped around these cherubs, and the other extended downward.  Below and to the right is the naked figure of Adam, a younger mirror image of his creator, and in the same pose, his arm extended toward God.  They are only inches apart.  In God’s face, there is the intensity, even angst of a parent who just let go of his child.  Adam’s face is less wistful, his posture more relaxed.  He doesn’t know the danger ahead now that his hand is no longer in God’s.  The painting’s dramatic focus is the gap between their outstretched hands — the space between creator and creation that can never again be closed.  The painting tells us that since the fall, we are forever separated from God. The space between our hands is a chasm of disbelief and doubt. But it is also in that gap between God’s hand and Adam’s that faith resides.  Faith fills the gap.  

#2   God knows that we are mortal, that we have doubts.  He asks only that we have faith, that we trust him.  Paul writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.”  And Christ says with faith even the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain “be cast into the sea” and it will be done.  So despite our doubts, despite our questions, despite our dread that this life is all there is, we cling to faith.  And God understands and honors that.

#3 But one final point! When we doubt all this [gesturing to church, Bible, etc.] and prepare to debate God, we can take a lesson from the Sadducees.  No kidding!  Although their motives for challenging Christ were not very pure, they at least came to the debate with evidence.  They knew the scriptures.  

I sometimes hear people say, “I just can’t buy this God thing.  It just doesn’t make sense!”  But I happen to know they haven’t darkened the door of a church in 20 years, have never read the Bible for themselves, and speak from a point of ignorance. And a casual read is not enough. This book we hold sacred does not give up its wisdom easily.  

I think of a local TV evangelist whose show is called, “What does the Bible plalnly say?”  And I sometimes whisper myself, “Not much!”  

God’s word isn’t always plainly spoken.  It has been translated again and again.  It is told in parables, poetry, couplets, symbolism, and song.  Much of it is ancient history.   It is not written on a sixth grade reading level. The Bible takes study.  When I prepare a message for Sunday morning, I have to study. I need to understand it so that I can help you understand it.  So, we owe it to God to collect the evidence.  It is found in here [Bible], and in the lives of those who live in love and grace.  AMEN.