As I’ve said, widows play a prominent role in Luke’s Gospel. They were the most vulnerable of society. Without a husband to provide for her, a widow was left with very few opportunities. Luke indicates that a society’s treatment of its widows is a sign of their benevolence. Of greater importance, the care of widows is a sign of a society’s commitment to the covenant of God.
Here again, we come to the story of a widow. Her first husband had died then each of his seven brothers married her but all left her again widowed. Beyond not having a husband to provide for her, she had no son to provide for her. The Sadducees look beyond her living and looked to her death.
I should take a moment to explain why she married 8 brothers. In the Old Testament, the Law stipulates levirate marriage. Levirate comes from the word levir meaning “brother in law”. Deuteronomy 25: 5 – 10 sets the parameters for a levirate marriage which sought to preserve a family’s name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother. Here’s what Deuteronomy 25: 5 – 10 says:
The brother-in-law’s duty
5 If brothers live together and one of them dies without having a son, the dead man’s wife must not go outside the family and marry a stranger. Instead, her brother-in-law should go to her and take her as his wife. He will then consummate the marriage according to the brother-in-law’s duty. 6 The brother-in-law will name the oldest male son that she bears after his dead brother so that his brother’s legacy will not be forgotten in Israel. 7 If the brother does not want to marry his sister-in-law, she can go to the elders at the city gate, informing them: “My brother-in-law refuses to continue his brother’s legacy in Israel. He’s not willing to perform the brother-in-law’s duty with me.” 8 The city’s elders will summon him and talk to him about this. If he doesn’t budge, insisting, “I don’t want to marry her,” 9 then the sister-in-law will approach him while the elders watch. She will pull the sandal off his foot and spit in his face. Then she will exclaim: “That’s what’s done to any man who won’t build up his own brother’s family!” 10 Subsequently, that man’s family will be known throughout Israel as “the house of the removed sandal.”
Odd little rule. There’s evidence of this type of marriage in the Biblical story of Ruth. Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi returned to Israel from Moab after all of Naomi’s sons had died. There was no brother left to marry Ruth, so the women were left without men to take care for them. When they arrive in Israel, Naomi has her husband’s piece of land that she cannot legally own. Another man in the family must “buy” the land and care for her and her daughter-in-law.
There are 2 possible men to fulfill the duty of the levirate marriage. The first in line cannot afford to take on the land and the 2 women. Boaz was next in line of relatives who should marry Ruth and care for her and Naomi. Because Boaz is wealthy, he can afford to care for the 2 women and take over Naomi’s husband’s land. Ruth and Boaz’s story is worth a read because it illustrates levirate marriage and Ruth and Boaz are the great-great-great-great…grandparents of Jesus.
Back to the Sadducees and the widow. The Sadducees want Jesus to tell them which man the widow will belong to in the resurrection. “The question is hypothetical, meant to take an ancient practice to the extreme in order to show that the whole idea of resurrection was foolish.” After all, in such a situation, who would care for the woman in Heaven. The Sadducees mean to trip up Jesus.
The Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection. The Pharisees did, but the Sadducees did not. The Sadducees only held the first 5 books of the Old Testament as authoritative. The Pharisees held the whole testament as authority, including the Law and the prophets. The Sadducees stuck with the Law. According to the Sadducees, there was no evidence of the resurrection in the first 5 books or what they called the books of Moses.
So, the Sadducees’ question about the widow in the resurrection is meant to stump Jesus about the resurrection. The idea of the resurrection is silly to them and so Jesus couldn’t give a satisfactory answer to their question. Instead, Jesus’ answer has nothing to do with the woman’s ownership in the resurrection.
Rather, Jesus’ answer says that marriage isn’t important. Marriage is for this life and there won’t be marriage in the next. When the dead are raised, we will be like angels and not given in marriage. That’s not to say that we won’t recognize our loved ones in Heaven; however, it tends to indicate that our relationships with people will be different.
The Sadducees are thinking that the resurrection will lead to more of this life. The resurrection isn’t necessarily an immortal continuation of the current life. The resurrection will be different. In this life, we quantify our lives by years and milestones in our lives, such as marriages, births, graduations, retirements, and deaths. But, we won’t keep track of our eternal life by such milestones for time will be different. The resurrection will not be an extension of this life, but will be wholly different.
The answer that Jesus gives about the resurrection is almost lost on us. Jesus says that Moses, who is believed to have been the author of the first 5 books of the Bible which they consider to hold authority alone, was told about the resurrection by God at the burning bush. At the burning bush, God introduces Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God didn’t say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” This indicates that there is some ongoing relationship between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, if there is an ongoing relationship that God continues to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then the men must still be living in some way.
Jesus doesn’t say much about the resurrection. He says that there will be a resurrection and there won’t be marriage. In the Gospels, this story appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is all Jesus has to say about the resurrection other than predicting His own resurrection. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says twice that there will be a resurrection but doesn’t say anything else.
So, what are we supposed to believe about the resurrection? What the resurrection will be like may not be the point of this text. I’ve already talked about Heaven, Hell, purgatory and all that lately. I’d like to instead focus on the debate in this text.
The Sadducees had an honest question for Jesus, one that we could easily ask. The question is simple, “Is there a resurrection of the dead?” It would have been very easy for the Sadducees to ask the question. They could have asked the question with an open mind and been ready for intelligent dialogue with Jesus.
But, that’s not the route they took. The Sadducees wanted to make Jesus look foolish with His belief in resurrection. They presented Him with a puzzle, something they thought He wouldn’t be able to explain. They thought He’d be stumped and would have to recant His belief in the resurrection.
We often approach difficult topics like the Sadducees. I think one of the problems of the Church, I mean whole Body of Christ, not necessarily just this church, is that we’ve lost the ability to have a debate. Perhaps, we lost it around the time that Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door leading to a split in the Church. Perhaps, it has gotten worse. It seems every time there is a difficult issue for the church, rather than open-minded people having a conversation, we draw lines and part ways.
We don’t need to come to every debate with the goal of disproving our opponent and leaving them looking stupid. We can approach difficult topics with a willingness to see the other side and gain the understanding of another’s perspective. I don’t mean that we have to walk away agreeing, but we can walk away with a new respect for the other’s conviction and the freedom to remain steadfast to your own.
I think the difficult issue facing the Church today is the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. It has come up in conversation a few times here. I know we will someday need to have the conversation of whether or not they will be allowed to serve in leadership roles or whether or not they can be married in our sanctuary. I don’t think now is the time to have that conversation. But, I hope when we do we can be open-minded and civil and not try to make each other look unfaithful or ignorant.
The thing I value most about being a Disciple is that we find our common ground in our confession that Jesus is the Christ and from there allow ourselves the liberty to think differently. The Disciples’ motto is: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. That’s what the Sadducees missed. They missed giving Jesus the charity or tolerance of His different belief.