Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 6, 2016
Luke 20:27-38 Commentary
“And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
That must have come as a great relief to Jesus in that he had lately been pummeled with one tricky query after the next. Technically that line in verse 40 falls just outside the lection prescribed here, which ends in verse 38 (why it ends there is anybody’s guess). But you really need to see that last line in verse 40 to appreciate the effect of what Jesus said.
After all, if ever there was a group of people who were invested in the so-called “Gotcha” kind of question, the religious authorities of Jesus’ day were it. Sometimes today certain politicians—usually the ones who don’t do well in interviews—say that the reason they had such a shaky performance in the interview was that they were being set up all along with “Gotcha” questions designed to make them look stupid to begin with. Whether or not that’s always true is something one can determine only based on reviewing the interview—and the questions—but sometimes it does turn out to be true and you can tell just by watching. The reporter didn’t want an answer—she wanted a headline.
There wasn’t much doubt about the “Gotcha” nature of the questions filling up Luke 20. But the one in this particular Year C lection is a real capper! It’s also almost clunky in its obviousness. The point could have been made with just 2 brothers marrying the same woman, but just for effect (and to throw in a biblically loaded numeral while they were at it) the Sadducees crank up the scenario to seven grooms for one woman. It’s almost childish. It’s the kind of thing my kids would have done when they were about 9 years old, exaggerating the point just to get under your skin a little.
The question of the Sadducees was like this. If you think that someone has silly ideas or a stupid stance on a given issue, then one way to reveal your opinion is to construct an absurd scenario and try to force the other person to enter it while trying to answer your question. It’s a sinful thing to do, and it’s unfair. It is not for this reason, however, uncommon, even in the church.
The Sadducees thought the idea of resurrection to be silly. Maybe they had been influenced by Greek thinking, maybe they felt you could not build a good case for it based on the Scriptures. But they thought it silly and had come to the conclusion that Jesus believed in it. Since Jesus was a prominent teacher, they thought it would be fun and instructive to publicly humiliate him and so concocted their over-the-top scenario that exploited the old Israelite practice of levirate marriage to wonder what a woman who on earth had had seven husbands would do in the afterlife.
Jesus, of course, wriggles out of the question by undercutting its entire premise. The Sadducees wanted to make resurrection look silly by showing the impracticality of what to do with people who had been married more than once in this life. Jesus simply challenges their premise that marriage as we now know it would have anything to do with life in the kingdom of God as we will experience it then. Essentially Jesus said, “Who ever told you marriage would be part of the life in a post-resurrection existence?” That left the Sadducees with a mouthful of teeth, of course, in that they had to admit that they had only guessed that marriage as we now know it would be in heaven. But as a matter of fact, no one ever really said that—least of all Jesus—and so far from catching Jesus out with their cynical question, they themselves were shown to be out to lunch!
In preaching on this text, there is a temptation to make it some kind of primer on sexuality and marriage in the kingdom of God. It seems likely, however, that if we make too much of Jesus’ words here on marriage in the kingdom, we will be guilty of the error of the Sadducees all over again. That is, we will infer things that are not explicitly taught and extrapolate from relative silence in the text. We are probably better off saying no more than that what Jesus teaches here is that we should not neatly assume that life in the kingdom of God will be just like the life we know now only more so. Yes, there is good biblical warrant to the idea that the kingdom will include a new earth and so we should not always envision heaven (as we tend to do) as some ethereal, non-physical domain that will be devoid of mountains, rivers, clouds, and songbirds.
But even so, we need to remember that the mysteries yet to be revealed remind us that precisely what our bodies and existences will be like in the life to come is not clear. What we need to be content with is the line in Luke 20:36 where Jesus reminds us that we will be “God’s children” in that life to come. And if that is not enough for us, I don’t know what would be!
“And no one dared ask him any more questions.”
It probably was a relief for Jesus to get to that point. At the same time, there is tragedy here, too. After all, when the Son of God is standing right in front of you, it’s a golden opportunity (to engage in vast understatement!!) to ask really important questions. But those who are not really interested in learning or having a relationship with Jesus get to the point where all questions dry up. And that is a very sad point indeed.
The question of the Sadducees in Luke 20:27ff should indeed be connected to the two previous questions in this chapter. It’s almost as though the religious authorities—despite their own differences of opinion among themselves—are taking a tag-team approach to tripping Jesus up with clever questions. It’s also important to note to other textual features to the wider context of this lection: first, the Parable of the Tenants is plunked right into the middle of it all (and the religious leaders were sharp enough to perceive that that one zinged right into them!); second, once the leaders decide they dared ask no further questions (Luke 20:40) Jesus asks his own question in verse 41ff—a question that, like the previous Parable of the Tenants—is not exactly kindly disposed toward those who were intellectually trying to rough Jesus up in this portion of Luke.
In her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to a grandmother and her family who have an accident on an abandoned country road. Shortly after their car runs into a ditch, the family is approached by a band of three armed men, one of whom is The Misfit, a wanted killer whom the grandmother admits to recognizing, thus sealing their fate.
One by one The Misfit’s partners take the family members off into the woods and shoot them dead. Finally just the grandmother remains with The Misfit, pleading for her life and suggesting to him that he pray to Jesus. At one point, the old woman calls into the woods for her now-dead son. This prompts The Misfit to say, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.” The Misfit then goes on to say that if he could really believe Jesus had raised the dead, well then maybe he’d be a follower. But fact is, he wasn’t there to see it and so can’t really know one way or the other. Hence he figures that life is meaningless enough that you may as well do whatever you feel like with what little time you’ve got. When the grandmother tries one last time to reach out to The Misfit, he springs back and shoots her three times in the chest. “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” The Misfit concludes. But the story’s bottom line comes when one of The Misfit’s friends claims that all of this killing and such was “Some fun!” “Shut up,” The Misfit snarls, “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
I’m not really sure just what all that bizarre stuff means but the notion of whether or not Jesus raised the dead–and by extension, whether or not Jesus was himself raised from the dead–appears to be a kind of fulcrum in this story. If the dead are raised, maybe life would have some purpose beyond the moment. Maybe there could yet be pleasure in good things. But some think they can’t know. Yet the very idea that Jesus may have raised the dead is enough to throw everything off balance.
“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Maybe the meaning of that odd line is that it is only when confronting death and evil that we become sober and serious enough to ponder what we really believe. She had been all prissy piety before, urging The Misfit to pray and all. Yet in the face of this twisted and evil killer, at one point the old woman mutters, “Maybe [Jesus] didn’t raise the dead.” Perhaps that is another way of raising the question: what do we really believe and is that faith able to withstand the harsh realities around us? Does our belief in Easter occupy so central a place in our hearts that it has a shaping effect on everything else we do, say, and think wherever we go in life?
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