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).
All three synoptic Gospels have versions of this story – see Mark 12:18-27 and Matthew 22:23-33. The text from Luke gives us a window on the careful work that is done by scripture scholars: “Luke has derived this episode mainly from Mark 12:18–27, which he has at times cast into better Greek (cf. Matt 22:23–33). Lucan dependence on ‘Mk’ is especially clear in vv. 27–34a, 37, 38a. The Lucan modifications in these verses consist in the following: (a) the introduction of the ptc. proselthontes, lit. ‘coming up’ (v. 27) to eliminate the Marcan parataxis (12:18); (b) the use of a ptc. echōn, lit. ‘having’ (v. 28), and a compound adj. ateknos, ‘childless’, to avoid parataxis in the OT allusion; (c) the use of ateknos again in v. 29; (d) the abbreviation of v. 30 (cf. Mark 12:21), which is similar to—but not exactly—Matt 22:26; (e) the use of better Greek in vv. 31–32 (hysteron, ‘finally’, instead of eschaton [Mark 12:22]); (f) the omission in v. 33 of the redundant hotan anastōsin, ‘when they rise’ (Mark 12:23); (g) the casting of the OT quotation in v. 37 into the acc. (cf. Mark 12:26). Verses 38b–39 are clearly the Lucan conclusion to the story, composed by Luke and differing from Mark 12:27b. Verse 40 is a redacted form of Mark 12:34, which Luke moves up to this point, because he will omit the next Marcan episode. The problematic verses are 34b–36. T. Schramm (Markus-Stoff, 170–171) maintains that these verses, which betray a ‘heavy Semitizing phraseology’, certainly come from a variant source in the gospel tradition and have been substituted by Luke for the first part of Jesus’ answer in Mark 12:24–26a. This solution is not impossible, but unlikely. Luke eliminates Jesus’ accusation of Sadducees (that they err in interpreting Scripture) and puts the answer squarely on his own lips; he teaches the Sadducees. F. Neirynck (‘La matière marcienne’, 176–177) more plausibly ascribes these verses to Lucan redaction, ‘un elargissement personnel’, which, among other things, replaces the double reference to the error of the adversaries and alludes to the idea of immortality in 4 Macc 7:19. A variant tradition is unlikely. (See further G. Schneider, Evangelium nach Lukas, 404–405; J. Schmid, Evangelium nach Lukas, 298–299.)(Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J. The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 1299.)
This biblical scholarship – exegesis – is to be distinguished from lectio divina. The latter is a more personal reading of the text, listening for movements within, mulling over certain words and phrases, opening one’s heart to the Holy Spirit for guidance in the concrete reality of one’s life. The scholarship, however, provides us with some valuable limits to our personal reading of the text. It also signals a warning concerning facile or fundamentalist readings of the text.
Some Sadducees: This is the only occasion the Sadducees are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. He will however mention them again in Acts 4:1; 5:17; 23:6–8. Mark and Matthew include them in their versions of this story. “The Jewish sect took its name from Zadok, David’s priest (2 Sam 8:17). Josephus describes them as one of the ‘philosophical schools’ in Judaism. He says they belong to the wealthy aristocracy, and hold only to the written Scriptures, rejecting the oral tradition of the Pharisees (Antiquities 13:297–298; 18:17). Consequently, they were conservative in their belief, rejecting the existence of angels as well as of the resurrection of the dead (Antiquities 18:16; Jewish War 2:165). Since the Sadducees disappeared after the destruction of the Temple, they are treated rather shabbily in the rabbinic sources” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 312.)
resurrection: Belief in the resurrection developed late in the Jewish tradition. The Pharisees certainly believed in the resurrection. However, the Sadducees represent the older tradition – they refused to believe in the resurrection. This conflict of belief emerges again in Acts 23:7-10.
Moses wrote for us: This is a loose reference to Deuteronomy 25:5 concerning the ‘levirate’ or ‘brother-in-law’ marriage. The final phrase – ‘raise up children for his brother’ – echoes Genesis 38:8: “Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother’”.
whose wife will the woman be?: The assumption behind this question is that resurrection means return to the physical state as we know it. Jesus’ response cuts through this assumption and describes a new state of being: ‘they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection’. The response is ironic because the Sadducees do not believe in angels either.
they are like angels: ‘Like angels’ – the Greek is isangeloi – occurs only here in the New Testament but it echoes some Old Testament texts. Angels are like the ruah – the breath of God: “you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers” (Psalm 104:4). St Paul writes: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:35-44).
for to him all of them are alive: Luke has chosen to add this phrase. Its meaning is not entirely clear: “The difficulty comes in the dative of the pronoun ‘him’ (autǭ). Does it mean ‘for him’ in the sense of ‘in his eyes’ (so that the point is that God is eternal and all temporal realities are irrelevant—all past figures are present to him)? Or does it mean ‘in him’ (with the point being that those who die rise by his power)? The logic of the passage seems to demand the last option, but the first was certainly within Luke’s Hellenistic range. There is quite possibly also a parallel here to 4 Macc 7:19 and 16:25, where the Jewish martyrs are confident that they ‘like our patriarchs Abraham and Isaac and Jacob live to God (zōsin tǭ theǭ)’. Cf. also the phrase in Rom 6:10” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 314).
In the face of death we are condemned to believe one of two things: Either death is simply the end or death is a passing over to a new form of existence. For millennia, human beings have believed the latter. They have expressed that belief in varying ways. With the advent of modern atheism in the nineteenth century, the former belief has gained a good deal of currency. Neither belief can be “proved”. (Sitting on the fence is not an option. Your death is your end. It defines your life’s journey. For the sake of that journey, you must choose!)
The main character in Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel, Herzog, is a middle-aged man – Moses Herzog. He is in deep crisis, a tormented man, one who thinks and writes a lot of letters – which he never sends. At one point he reflects: “But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that period passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks – and this is its thought of thoughts – that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that” (Saul Bellow, Herzog, Penguin, 1964/2019, 304).
If death is simply ceasing to exist – what is the meaning and purpose of my life’s journey? “Death waits …. as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb …. and that is that”. Yes, of course, I may find some relative purpose and meaning in my career, family, even doing good deeds for others. But these are just part of a pointless journey and thus can have no more purpose or meaning than I give to them. The truth is, the dropping light bulb event of death gives all the meaning to my life if I believe death is simply the end.
The second belief makes more sense. Death is not merely something that happens at the end. Death is an integral part of the very journey of life. There can be no living without dying – repeatedly, constantly. Living and dying are inseparable and they beg for the recognition of something more when they have run their course. This much is a reasonable conclusion from human observation. However, as disciples of Jesus, we believe there is much more. And this belief is gift – pure gift. We believe that through baptism we are becoming one with Jesus Christ through our daily living and dying. Our final death will be our liberation, the fulfilment of our dying and rising in Him. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Today’s Gospel – Luke 20:27-38 – with those cynical questions thrown at Jesus, forces us to face the issue of death – our own death. Our lives are heading towards a final passing over. How does that define, implicitly and explicitly, the way I live?