Synopsis: When the Sadducees try to “stump” Jesus with a scenario that would surely prove the Pharisees’ belief in the resurrection ridiculous, Jesus teaches them a lesson on duality.
Scriptures: Luke 20:27-38
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Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
When I was a kid, I remember my pastor joyfully talking about how he believed the Lord’s second coming would happen in the year 2,000 – and how utterly terrified I felt. I remember calculating that I would be only 32 years old in that year, and I found it eerie that I would be around the same age Jesus was when he was crucified.
I was also angry. I thought to myself, “It’s no problem for the pastor to believe Jesus will return in the year 2000; he’s old! He’s ready to retire!” I wanted to go to college and become a teacher, and I was afraid the Lord would come before I was ready. I had lots of plans for this life.
I felt like a Sadducee. Like me, they didn’t want to believe. The Sadducees were Jews back in Jesus’ time who did not believe in a future age where the dead would be raised. In our gospel reading for today, they went toe-to-toe with Jesus about this, and we can learn a lot from his response.
Jesus had already made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and he caused quite a stir. People were asking, “Who’s this guy everyone’s yelling “Hosanna!” over? Jesus immediately cleansed the Temple by driving out the merchants and money-changers. Then people started asking, “Who does this guy think he is?” No one knew his true intentions because no one understood his spiritual mission of redemption.
While Jesus was in Jerusalem, he frequented the Temple, from where he taught whoever would listen – even those who stood around hoping for a way to discredit or condemn him. The chief priests and scribes saw Jesus as a serious threat to the survival of their nation, so they were trying to get him to say something that would justify arresting him.
One day, while Jesus was teaching at the Temple, the chief priests, scribes, and elders came and asked him, “What gives you the right to drive out the Temple money-changers?” In his usual style, Jesus answered their question with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” After responding that they didn’t know, Jesus said, “Well then, I’m not going to answer your question.”
Then he told the Parable of the Wicked Tenets, where he spoke out against the chief priests and scribes. He identified himself as the beloved son of the vineyard owner and them as the wicked tenets who killed the son and lost the vineyard.
The chief priests, scribes, and elders were enraged by this, so they started sending spies to try to trap Jesus by asking him questions that might get him into civic or religious trouble if he didn’t answer right. First was a question about paying taxes, which they thought would force Jesus between a rock and a hard place.
Because if Jesus answered, “don’t pay taxes,” he’d get in trouble with the Romans. If he answered, “pay taxes,” he’d lose credibility with the Jews, who hated paying taxes to their Roman oppressors. After asking his questioner whose head is printed on a denarius and receiving the obvious answer, “the Emperor’s,” Jesus brilliantly responded to give to the Emperor what is his and to God what is God’s.
That brings us to today’s scripture reading. The Sadducees now take the opportunity to question this master because they have a theological ax to grind with the Pharisees.
The Sadducees and Pharisees differed in their theological viewpoints. The Sadducees believed in following the Law as found in the Torah and only as found in the Torah – the first five books of the Bible. They considered anything else immaterial, including the Pharisees’ many “Traditions of the Elders,” which the Sadducees felt served only to complicate the lives of the Jewish people.
Jesus agreed with the Sadducees on this point. In Matthew chapter 15, the Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus in Gennesaret and asked him, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” Jesus responds by accusing them of ignoring God’s commandments in favor of their traditions.
Later in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus says to his disciples and the crowd in Jerusalem, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. They believed that the only life we have is this world right here and now, and it’s our responsibility to follow God’s Laws. If we don’t, we suffer. That’s all there is to it. There’s no “other world” of a future time where God will bring dead people back to life and bring justice down on their oppressors.
Luke clearly points out the hypocrisy of those asking Jesus this question about the resurrection when they themselves do not believe in the resurrection. They are simply trying to “stump” this master teacher with their brilliant scenario that they think surely makes the Pharisees’ doctrine of the resurrection ridiculous.
If Jesus is stumped, then their theological position denying the resurrection is bolstered. Their scenario probably wasn’t new to the Pharisees. We can image them rolling their eyes: “Oh, for crying out loud! Here we go again. “‘Now there were seven brothers ….’”
The Command the Sadducees are referring to can be found in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. The purpose of the Mosaic law commanding the brother of the deceased to take his widow as a bride was to protect the nation by ensuring that every family and tribe would continue. No one’s family name would be lost.
We can understand how important it was for the Jews since it was believed that the Messiah would be born of a woman from the tribe of Judah, of the line of David.
It seems the Sadducees felt that Moses didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead because of this law. They figure he must have believed that the only way to be “immortal” (in a non-literal sense) was to keep the family name alive through descendants. If he believed in the resurrection of the dead, why did he create this law?
The Sadducees didn’t believe that the Kingdom of God would arrive at some future time; it’s here now. If it’s here now, then it’s not any different from now. So, people would get married just like they do now, and if the dead are resurrected, that would create quite a problem for a woman had to choose a husband from among seven brothers.
It seems like a logical argument on the surface, but Jesus quickly points out the flaws.
Their first is an application error. They are applying a law from “this age” to “that age.” This is Not That. Jesus essentially says to them, “People die in this age, so they must get married and have children to carry on the family name. People don’t die in that age, so getting married and having children isn’t necessary. Moses created the law for this age, not for that age.”
Their second error is confusion about natural law, which lead to them making their first error. It’s clear that we live in a world of duality – of opposites – of this and that. If there’s “this age,” then there has to be “that age” because it’s impossible for anything to exist without its opposite. Its opposite must exist at the same time, so the Sadducees were correct on this point: the Kingdom of God (that age) is here right now, existing simultaneously with this age. How is that possible?
In the Taoist religion of the East, there a wonderful symbol that expresses this idea: the Yin and Yang symbol. Yin exists relative to Yang and vice versa: light is light relative to darkness. Without darkness, we can’t experience light because we need light as a reference point. Yin and Yang also transform into each other; day turns to night and night to day in never-ending cycles. These opposing forces complement each other nicely because they are in perfect balance.
We westerners might have trouble relating to an eastern symbol, so I brought a symbol we can better relate to: a coin. This coin contains a this and a that. Two opposites – heads and tails. Heads is not tails and tails is not heads. They are opposites; yet, they exist at the same time – united in one object.
We can think of this age as “heads,” and that age as “tails.” Heads is this age of time – and tails is that age of eternity. They are total opposites, yet they exist simultaneously. We experience whichever side is up. The other side is hidden, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
I don’t agree with the Sadducees that “that age” does not exist. They are ignoring the fact that in a dualistic world, if there’s a “this,” there must be a “that.” If there is this age, there must be that age. If we must marry and have children in this age of time because we die, then we must not need to in that age of eternity because we don’t die.
This is Not That.
Another error the Sadducees made is to focus only on the parts of the Scriptures that bolster their argument and not looking at the Scriptures as a whole. Common mistake, right? Jesus says in verses 37-38, “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.”
The Sadducees didn’t believe in angels or Spirits. According to them, there is no such thing as a spiritual world: what you see is what you get. We know more now then the people of Jesus’ time. Science has revealed to us that everything in the universe is made up of either matter or energy, and just like day and night, they transform into each other in never-ending cycles.
In this age of time, we experience ourselves as this body made of matter but on the flip side, in that age of eternity, we experience ourselves as something like energy. If we’re part of this never-ending cycle of transformation, from flesh to spirit and from spirit to flesh, maybe that’s why to God, we are all alive.
Everything in creation is subject to the law of duality – the balancing of opposites. Within us, we have two opposites: we have our human nature and our spiritual nature, and one transforms into the other in never-ending cycles.
Sometimes we exist on the heads side, in the world of time and form, and we have a human nature. Inevitably, we transform and enter the tails side, the world of eternity and spirit, where we have a totally different nature because …
This is Not That.
Jesus proved the Sadducees wrong, and some of the scribes responded, “Well said, teacher!” They must have been scribes who believed in the resurrection. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pharisees were also very happy with Jesus’ response, thinking to themselves, “Finally, he agrees with us on something!” Truly, Jesus argued with the Pharisees quite a bit throughout the New Testament.
But neither the Sadducees nor the Pharisees were totally right or totally wrong. When it comes to the Great Mystery of Life, we humans have many philosophies, but no one has it exactly right. We have only ideas that may be closer to the truth than others, but until something proves our theories correct, we simply don’t know. That’s why we need faith.
We certainly do know and understand more now than people did back in Jesus’ time. Yet, the more we learn, the more we scratch our heads and realize how much we don’t know about the Great Mystery of Life. Nevertheless, we love to debate what we think we know.
That’s why Luke included this debate in his Gospel. It’s critical to the gospel message because if there is no resurrection, then Jesus didn’t resurrect from the dead, and there’s no salvation. Yet throughout the Old and New Testaments, God promises salvation for people of faith who wait on him.
The Sadducees believed that it is our human responsibility to follow God’s laws in order to live right. There are people today, like the humanists, who also believe that it’s up to us to save ourselves by following natural laws.
I believe they are correct. God gave us this world of duality to help us learn how to properly balance these opposing forces. That is our responsibility. Most people’s energy is too focused on the “heads” side – this age, the world of form, the world of time, our human nature. The problems we experience in this world reflect this imbalance.
The two things that keep us stuck on the heads side are fear and desire. We cling to this age because we fear death, believing that this is all there is or because we desire the things of this world.
If we are part of this never-ending cycle of transformation, then we don’t need to fear death. We don’t die; we transform. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of our bodies. We are all here for a purpose, and we can’t fulfill that purpose very well unless we keep our physical vehicle healthy.
As humans beings we also naturally have desires, but it’s our responsibility to keep our desires properly balanced. We must be willing to let go of everything that belongs to this age.
The Buddhists are really good at teaching letting go. Richard Rohr is an American Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970. In his YouTube video, “How Buddha Helps To Be a Better Christian,” he talks about how helpful it was to humanity that the Buddha essentially said, “I don’t know the nature of God, so I’m not going to debate about that.”
His refusal to dwell on the nature of God freed him to focus on something more practical. He observed how we humans process our life experiences. He observed what goes on up here (head) and in here (heart). He concluded that we suffer because we are attached to this transient world, and he provided a way to find balance.
We can use his insights to become more self-aware, which can make us better Christians. We can use Buddhism to discover how to let go and find balance. Don’t worry: we can safely practice Buddhism and keep our doctrines, but we might understand them in a new way.
We must be ready to let go of everything that is of this age to prepare for that age. You see, Mother Earth is part of this never-ending cycle of transformation too. And one day, she will pass from this age into that age. I don’t believe it will happen by some cataclysmic event; it will happen slowly over time.
She is transforming now, as gently as she can, with as little loss of human life as possible because she wants to take us all with her. But we have free will, so it is our responsibility to choose to let go. Perhaps the ones who can let go are the ones Jesus was talking about when in verse 35, he said, “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age.”
May we all be worthy by being ready to let go.
Let’s pray together: Lord, you taught us to be in this world, but not of it. Help us to learn this lesson deeply now as we prepare ourselves to let go of this age and resurrect into a new age. Amen.
Deffinbaugh, Bob. “One Bride for Seven Brothers (Luke 20:27-40).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/63-one-bride-seven-brothers-luke-2027-40
Rohr, Richard. “How Buddha Helps to be a Better Christian.” YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZS9bvxVp6Y