Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and 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. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:27-38 – NRSV)
We find similar texts in Mark 12:18–27 and Matthew 22:23–33. Both Luke and Matthew depend on Mark.
This is the only mention of the Sadducees in Luke’s Gospel, although he does mention them in Acts – see Acts 4:1; 5:17; 23:6–8.
Joseph Fitzmyer writes of the Sadducees: “The descendants of Zadok (bĕnê Ṣādôq) were granted the privilege of officiating as priests in the Temple after the return from the Babylonian Captivity. These ‘Zadokites’ formed the nucleus of the priesthood staffing the Jerusalem Temple. 1 Chr 5:30–35 [6:4–10E] traces the lineage of Zadok back to Eleazar, elder son of Aaron. Cf. Sir 51:12 (Hebrew; lacking in the Greek and Syriac versions). The Sadducees of first-century Palestine (B.C. and A.D.) were related to this Zadokite priestly line, but they had become a tightly closed circle, no longer exclusively a priestly group. They were priestly and lay aristocrats, considerably Hellenized. Of them Josephus writes, ‘The Sadducees have the confidence of the well-to-do only and no following among the people’ (Ant. 13.10, 6 § 298). ‘This teaching [of the Sadducees] has reached but few people, yet these are men of highest esteem’ (Ant. 18.1, 4 § 17). Though they appear only here in the Lucan Gospel, they emerge again in Acts 4:1; 5:17; 23:6–8. In the Matthean Gospel they appear with more frequency (3:7; 16:1, 6, 11, 12; 22:33, 34). Like the Essenes, they practically disappear from history with the destruction of Jerusalem, though references to them do occur in the Talmud.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1302-1303.)
The Sadducees stuck strictly to the written word of Torah and would have nothing to do with oral tradition. Since there is no explicit mention of resurrection in Torah, the Sadducees rejected it as a tenet of Judaism. Later Judaism – represented by the Pharisees – began to accept the resurrection. In Acts 23:7–10 Luke writes of the occasion that Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin and declared that he was a Pharisee and believed in the resurrection. It was a ploy that Paul knew would have the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Sanhedrin arguing. It worked!
We should note in passing that in the very next verses – 39 & 40 – Luke tells us that “some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well’”. This may suggest that different sectors of the religious authorities were trying to use Jesus to promote their own interpretations of Torah. Joseph Fitzmyer believes “the problem (posed by the Sadducees) is theoretic, possibly even a stock question customarily put by Sadducees to Pharisees”. (Fitzmyer, op cit, 1299.) Jesus belongs to no particular party.
This episode clearly pre-dates the first Christian communities, as Fitzmyer notes: “there is in this part of the pericope no specific Christian element. The reference to angels and to Exod 3:6, instead of any appeal to Jesus’ own resurrection, argues against the formation of this episode in a Christian matrix.” (Fitzmyer, op cit, 1300.)
Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies: This is a reference to Deuteronomy 25:5-6: “When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel etc.”
raise up children for his brother: This phrase seems to refer to the statement of Judah to Onan in Genesis 38:8.
whose wife will the woman be?: The Sadducees are presenting a reductio ad absurdam. In other words, who would be so stupid as to believe this? Interestingly enough, Matthew 22:29 and Mark 12:24 both level strong accusations against Jesus. For example, in Mark we hear the Sadducees say: “are you not on this account deceived, since you do not know the scriptures or the power of God?” Luke omits the accusation.
those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection: Luke has Jesus do three things in his response. Firstly, he exposes the fact that the Sadducees are making an incorrect assumption: they assume the institutions, cultural customs and religious interpretations with which they are familiar or which fit their worldview, will pertain beyond the grave. Secondly, he makes it clear that God is in charge of “that age” and thirdly, the life/existence there is radically different from life/existence here. The resurrection makes all the difference.
Divine Revelation occurs in and through history. Put more concretely, the revelation of God’s loving intentions comes to us through human events and stories. This is an ambiguous truth, at once stunningly wonderful and tragically dangerous. The wonder of it is the closeness of the Transcendent God, the source of all love, truth, goodness and beauty. “I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Jesus says: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). The danger of it is that, instead of finding God’s story being revealed in the human story, we mistake one or other human story for God’s story. And we get stuck rather than liberated.
Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is instructive: “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7). The birth of God takes place amidst straw and mud, the bleating and braying of dirty animals. God enters the world in an entirely unexpected, unsuitable and un-Godly way! It takes a lot of love – the kind a mother typically has for her first-born – to keep our eyes on God who is being born – daily, everywhere. It is all too easy to be distracted by the straw and mud, the bleating and the braying that are – against the odds – sacraments of God’s Presence.
And so God seeks to be revealed in and through any and every aspect of our cultural, ethnic, political, religious and social lives. Our opportunity and challenge is to be alert enough to see and hear the Word of God’s love in the cacophony and the smoke and mirrors of human existence. Listening and hearing are primary skills for the disciple.
In today’s Gospel we have a very particular instance of the cacophony within which Jesus struggles to be heard. Human beings have been entering into procreative relationships – “marriages” – since they walked this earth. The Jewish Scriptures contain some interpretations of marriage that we find strange. One of them is the so-called levirate marriage: “The custom of such marriages (a brother-in-law begetting children by intercourse with his brother’s widow, to continue his brother’s house) was widespread in the ancient Near East ….” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A) Yale University Press, 2008, 1300.)
Jesus did not set a definitive ritual or interpretation of marriage – in this instance or anywhere else. Is it possible for us to listen and hear today’s Gospel story in a way that allows God’s word of love, coming to birth in the mangers of our world, to reach our hearts, beyond the cultural, ethnic and religious din?