Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 6, 2022
Luke 20:27-38 Commentary
It is interesting that the Sadducees are the ones to pose this particular question to Jesus because they did not believe in a heaven. Using this story about a wife of seven brothers, they believe, will show the absurdity of the concept.
To put it in its most basic summary form, the Sadducees believed that the soul died and ceased to exist along with the human body, meaning all that we humans have is what is here on earth. To them, the closest thing to not dying was to have your name and your legacy carried on by your children. This is not an altogether foreign concept in the human psyche, is it?
So as they try to think about something they do not believe in (heaven), they apply the closest thing they have to it (legacy). They then extrapolate the same means of pursuit here on earth to those in heaven. If we pursue purpose and legacy through our offspring, then how will what was started on earth by the first husband, then the second, and the third, and so on, be completed in heaven? Like much of the culture around them, the patriarchal mindset is strong among the Sadducees: it’s all about the men and their offspring, and it’s in “heaven” as it is on earth…
Jesus, on the other hand, separates the two settings, heaven and earth, describing them as “this age” and “that age.” And, not surprisingly, Jesus shows us a better way of doing theology. Starting with God’s self-revelation, Jesus reorients the foundation of human existence. To apply the Sadducee understanding of legacy, instead of the most important thing being our legacy, it is being God’s “legacy,” otherwise known as being the children of God, that is most important.
The children of God are resurrection people. They live in the present tense because of a future promise: that the dead are raised and are made so that they can never again die the way it is experienced and known in this age.
And how do we know? Jesus explains that it is because God revealed it when he revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God didn’t say God was the God of the patriarchs, God said he is their God. The simple use of the present tense nature of God’s identity revealed something to us about human existence: as God’s children, we are always alive to God.
Jesus’ words here also make clear that God makes it so that we are always alive to him, and that “aliveness” is not just what we understand here on earth, in this age. As pointed out in the textual point below, “the dead are raised” is a present passive verb, whispering what the Scriptures elsewhere shouts: God does the action of raising us to eternal life, God is a resurrecting God, we are children of his resurrection power.
Whereas the Sadducees started with something that they believed to be important as human beings to make their point, Jesus based his argument on God’s revelation. This makes a fundamental difference for our practice of theology; it shows how we can be talking about the same thing but mean fundamentally different things with very different consequences. Further, it shows what happens when we don’t have a good foundation and build our theological house on the sandy mounds of human experience alone instead of on God’s everlasting character revealed to us, not only with his “words” (now kept for us in the Scriptures) but also in his actions. In other words, it is not that our experience does not matter, it is just that we cannot look only to ourselves if we want to know something—anything—about God.
We are very good idol makers, and we are very good at keeping our idols in our blindspots. Maybe it isn’t legacy, but like the Sadducees, it is very well possible that if we were to consider our understanding of heaven, we’d identify our idols and the things we’re living for in this age.
Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t even say the word “heaven” in his response? Maybe he doesn’t use the term because the Sadducees don’t believe in it anyway. Maybe he doesn’t use the term because it has a saturated meaning that carries too much baggage. Or maybe he doesn’t use it because he wants to focus our attention on a different, more important focal point. Luke Timothy Johnson describes the Sadducees as having a “closed-horizon religion.” Their view of heaven was small and formulaic because their view of life on earth was small and lacked the generative, transformative power of God.
After all, Jesus makes clear that this age is nothing like the one that is to come, that we will belong to it in ways that are fundamentally different than the way we move and have our being in this age. And, those who belong to that age are the heirs of God, God’s children, children of change and transformation of being, children of the resurrection.
The power that raised Jesus from the dead—and will raise us up in the last days of this age—is already alive in us. Just as the resurrection is a present tense reality for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is a present tense reality for us as well. To know that things can be different, to know that things will be different and to be faithful to pursuing things as the way they ought to be, is the way that the children of the resurrection exhibit being God’s children in the here and now.
This does not mean that we view heaven in light of life and experience on earth, as though heaven is simply a continuation of our way of being now. No, it means that we view heaven in light of God, making the most important piece of it God’s very experiential, unending, tangible presence. For because God is, we continue to be.
The transformed nature of human existence post-resurrection is on full display in this passage. Jesus says that the children of God, also known as the children of the resurrection, are no longer able to die, nor do they marry or are given in marriage—all of these descriptions are in the present tense. The “dead are raised” is in the passive present tense, and God is said to be the God of the living (a present participle), “for to him all of them are alive” (present tense again).
As we consider that we are people of the resurrection already now, what does this change for us? In the Reformed tradition, it has led to the pursuit of living the “already and not yet” in this life: seeking the good values and ethos of the eternal age already now as the Kingdom of God breaks in and takes root in this age, which is not yet what is to come. By doing so, we pray and pursue “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Did you know that Amazon has a subsection of books in its Religion and Spirituality section on “Near-Death Experiences”? There are over 7,000 titles. And in the Christian books category, you’ll find loads of writings about heaven under the heading of “Eschatology”. There are over 10,000 books in that category (though they are not all about heaven per se). Clearly, we are a curious people about what comes next.
But are we asking the right kind of questions? And, why do we want to know? These modern books about heaven reveal a number of motives, ranging from wanting to prove heaven’s existence, to wanting to feel better about the life to come, to being infatuated with God’s powerful judgement that will usher in the new age. It’s easy for the good questions about heaven to get lost in the piqued curiosity about the supernatural—just as the revelation about the resurrection God made with his own name, spoken to Moses so very long ago, got lost amidst other concerns and pursuits and the desire for powerful displays.
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