By Wes Howard-Brook & Sue Ferguson Johnson, a commentary on this weekend’s Gospel text, re-posted from November 2016
There is nothing more radical than resurrection.
From the time Daniel 12 apocalyptically announced that God raises the dead, the intellectual elite in Judea rejected it. Sophisticated skeptics have always scoffed at the notion that life extends beyond the bounds of death, because such a belief threatens to undermine the status quo from which they benefit. Consider, for example, this from Ecclesiastes, a text likely written before Daniel:
The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun. (Eccles 9.5-6)
Our passage from Luke this week (20.27-38) presents the Sadducees as representatives of this skepticism. Curiously, this is their only appearance in Luke, who generally uses the more “liberal” Pharisees as a foil. But they return in Acts to embody the same resistance to resurrection (Acts 4.1-2; 23.6-10). In the Gospel, their question about marriage in the resurrection is found amid a series of challenges from Jesus’ opponents, who are trying to trap him publicly in order to turn him over to the Romans for execution. Luke is adapting Mark 11-12 here. While he presents the Sadducees query in almost identical terms to Mark’s version, Luke changes Jesus’ response to fit his own goals. Let’s look at them “side by side” to observe Luke’s editorial work:
24 Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?
25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?
27 He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”
34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage;
35 but 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.
36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
37 And 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.
38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
First, Luke omits Mark’s critique of the Sadducees’ biblical illiteracy. Next, he reframes the resurrection question as one that distinguishes “this age” from “that age,” i.e., the messianic era anticipated by Daniel (Dan 12.1ff; see also Lk 18.30). He then adds that those “worthy of a place in that age” are not only like angels, but are “children of God, being children of the resurrection.” Finally, Luke concludes not by accusing the Sadducees of being wrong, but with the positive affirmation that to God, “all of them are alive.”
These changes put the emphasis not so much on the flawed theology of the Sadducees, but more on Jesus’ proclamation of the power and nature of God. The God whom Jesus embodies puts to shame the pretentions of the intellectual elite to divine knowledge and authority. As Jesus rejoiced earlier in Luke, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to the simple (Gk, nepioi)…” (Lk 10.21). It is the same apocalyptic worldview we hear in Paul’s word to the struggling church in Corinth: “For it is written (Isa 29.14), ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1.19-20). Two chapters later, Paul returns to this theme: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written (Job 5.13), ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again (Ps 94.11), ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’” (1 Cor 3.18-20).
To this day, the “wise” of the world scoff at resurrection, including esteemed biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman. It is indeed a scandal to the rational mind and to a status quo that appears to mock the justice of God. The notion of resurrection emerged among those yearning for the end of the reign of imperial “beasts” and for the revelation of “one like a human being” who would truly reign with God’s own authority (Dan 7.9-14).
The apocalyptic text of Daniel was embraced by the Pharisees but rejected by the Sadducees, not only for its proclamation of a divine justice that extends beyond the grave, but also for its belief in angels and spirits (Acts 23.8). Paul, under arrest in Jerusalem, uses this as a wedge to divide his accusers, proclaiming: “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23.6).
Yet perhaps surprisingly, Luke’s Jesus does not engage the Sadducees on resurrection by quoting Daniel, but instead goes to a text not otherwise associated with resurrection: the Exodus encounter between Moses and YHWH at the burning bush. Luke, like Mark, knows that an appeal to the Sadducees from Daniel would fall on deaf ears. So instead, both evangelists have Jesus go to the authority that the Sadducees claim to rely on: the torah of Moses. This not only challenges them on their own home turf, it also underscores Luke’s own perspective that the Word of God Jesus announces is not “new” but is actually ancient (cf. Luke 5.36-39). Resurrection is not a recent idea, Jesus claims, but has been part of God’s “plan” (Gk, boule, Lk 7.30) from “the beginning.” The God who forged humanity from topsoil and God’s own spirit (Gen 2.7) has always had the power and plan to transform death into new life. As Paul testifies before the Jewish puppet king, Agrippa,
I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors, a promise that our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship day and night. It is for this hope, your Excellency, that I am accused by Judeans! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (Acts 26.6-8)
The dazzling revelation of YHWH from the bush connects with Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, itself a glimpse of resurrection (Luke 9.29; 24.4). Just as Moses experiences God’s glorious presence, so Jesus’ disciples see him and the resurrection witnesses shining like the brightness of the sky (Dan 12.3).
All of this is lost to the Sadducees and their successors across the centuries. The reality that all who have ever lived are alive in God is outside the approved “wisdom” of the intellectual elite. But for the poor and other victims of imperial oppression, resurrection is the hope that vindicates God’s justice and brings about God’s peace. As Oscar Romero (see Robert Lentz icon above) famously said amid the death squads and disappearances that plagued El Salvador for a decade, “ I do not believe in a death without resurrection. … A bishop will die, but God´s church, which is the people, will never perish.”
We who claim Jesus as Lord, as Human One, and as Savior, live now in “that age,” the kairos in which resurrection is made manifest and defeats imperial claims to ultimate power and authority. May our trust in the Living One never be weakened by the cynicism of the world’s wise ones. In and through this trust we walk in the Joy that the world can neither give nor take away. It is indeed so.