There is a conflict raging in Luke 20:27-38.
When you read the passage, you can hear an argument?
Does it remind you of any other argument’s you’ve listened to this week? Any conflict you’ve been part of? Any debates? Any heated differences of opinion?
Arguments, debates, conflicts are part of the stuff of life. It’s as we engage in ideas and sort through options that we communicate making choices and decisions about the way forward. But sometimes arguments can get stuck, trapped or side tracked from the key issue.
You can hear the argument in Luke’s gospel as the Sadducees try, yet again, to trick Jesus into theological debate. The topic today is resurrection. At that time, there were many different groups within the Jewish community who had different opinions on theological issues – indeed there have been theological debates in every religious tradition down through the ages.
In Jesus’ day, the Sadducees were one group. They were largely religious leaders who appear to have been the quite culturally sophisticated. Their followers tended to be among the leading priestly families and the aristocracy. Their approach to scripture was more conservative than that of the Pharisees. Many of their stricter interpretations coincided with those we find in the sectarian writings among the Dead Sea Scrolls, so much so, that some argue that these writings were from Sadducees.
The Pharisees were another group of religious leaders and they were more of the mainstream Jewish tradition. They were trained to interpret the law and act as the custodians of the tradition. One of the theological issues the Pharisees embraced was the idea of resurrection from the dead. You might hear a Pharisee say something like this:
Pharisee: ‘The resurrection puts flesh on hope, so to speak. We are living in a time when justice in this world seemed irretrievable. Our people are slaves to the Roman Empire, there is not much hope in this life. The promise of the resurrection gives us the hope we need that the righteous will surely be rewarded; they will sure be raised from the dead.’
The Sadducees on the other hand, did not believe in the resurrection at all. They thought it was a far- fetched notion and might respond to the debate like this:
Sadducee: ‘The notion of the resurrection is absurd. When you die you are dead and that is all there is to it.’
Pharisee: ‘Without an understanding of the resurrection, life does not make any sense. God promises that those who perpetrate injustice will be brought to account. It is clearly not going to happen in this life. So, when they will have to be raised from the dead they will be brought to trial. Resurrection from the dead and judgement are linked in the scriptures. God is a liberator and there liberation will come at the end of days.’
The was a debate raging at the time and the Sadducees wanted to draw Jesus into the argument.
Sadducee: ‘Hey Jesus what happens in the resurrection in the case of Levirate marriage?’
Levirate means brothers and Levirate marriage what when a man dies before his wife has given birth to any sons who would look after her, the man’s brother married the woman. It was a way of ensuring the family line continued, to manage property inheritance and also protect women, who without offspring or a husband had no social security support. The values reflect a male dominated society where marriage was a crucial element in maintaining stability. That stability was related to the family and extended family. You married someone in the extended family, not an outsider. Bearing children was important to sustain the family.
Sadducee: ‘Yes – so, Jesus - what happens in the resurrection to the woman who has been married to seven brothers? Whose wife is she in heaven?’
This argument happened on the Tuesday before the Thursday when Jesus was arrested and the Friday when he was killed on the cross. The religions leaders are out to trick Jesus, to catch him out, to trick him into saying something that they could use against him. This is a dangerous space for Jesus. What will he say, how will he respond? Will he take the bait?
Before we have a look at Jesus’ response, it’s interesting to note that this same debate about the resurrection is going on in the church today. There is a great website I like to read from time to time called Pathos. On the website people can engage in progressive conversations about life and faith. A number of prominent theologians run a blog page on the website where they post articles and invite online discussion. Over recent weeks there has been a debate about the resurrection on this website between a guy called Tony Jones who has written about the emerging church movement and Marcus Borg who some of you heard speak at the recent progressive Christian network conference. A few weeks ago Jones responded to someone’s question about whether the bible should be taken literally and in his article he said that the bible is not meant to be taken literally, but that he has some concern about theologians who start to take science literally and then can’t affirm some of the mysteries in the scripture like the resurrection. He quoted Borg who seems to be arguing that there is no material resurrection. I’ll quote Tony here:
Jones: ‘I had the pleasure of hearing the biblical scholar Marcus Borg speak recently, and in the question-and-answer session after his address, he was asked a question he’s surely been asked hundreds of times: “Professor Borg, what about the empty tomb on Easter morning?” After a bit of theological hemming and hawing, Borg responded, “If I were a betting man, I’d bet—my life or one dollar—that the tomb was not empty. Or that there was no tomb.”’
Tony Jones is saying that the material resurrection is central to Christian theology and he is concerned that Borg seems to be saying that there is no resurrection. But Borg, in his blog responded saying that Jones has misunderstood his comment.
I strongly disagree with the Tony Jones’ characterization of how I see the resurrection. His own view of the resurrection is clear: he believes that Jesus “materially rose from death” in a “physical” and “bodily” form. He describes my view as “Jesus’ resurrection only happens in the believer’s heart”. I have never said or written anything remotely like that. For decades, … I have consistently affirmed that Jesus was experienced after his death. According to the New Testament, those experiencing him included Mary Magdalene, Peter, the rest of the disciples, James, two travellers on the Emmaus Road, Paul, the author of Revelation, and more….Jesus lives: he is a figure of the present who continues to be known, not just a beloved figure of the past. Jesus is Lord: God has vindicated Jesus and made him both Lord and Christ.’
And so the argument continues with Jones saying that he believes in the resurrection:
Jones: ‘Borg is a bit coy about what he doesn’t believe. He simply says that he doesn’t agree with me that Jesus was actually, historically, materially raised. And he misrepresents me at least once, saying that I “insist” that this must be the case. I don’t insist, I believe. I think Jesus actually came back from the dead, and I believe it to be so.’
So, the argument about the resurrection continues and if you are interested in the debate you can join in yourself on the Pathos website. You may agree with Borg that the physical resurrection seems unbelievable and find it helpful to affirm the resurrection as a visionary experience. Or you might be with Jones and believe in the material resurrection because it is revolutionary and transformative and part of the mystery of our faith.
Well, you might enjoy this kind of argument or you might think it is not worth loosing sleep over.
If you want a systematic approach to Theology you can read up on the resurrection theories in an introduction to Christian Theology like the one by Alistair McGrath (1993) where he identifies a movement since the Enlightenment through different perspectives all of which have been explored, written about and debated:
The 18th Century Enlightenment Theologians with an emphasis on reason and the need for contemporary evidence of past events as intensely sceptical about the resurrection.
David Strauss who wrote in 1835 ‘life of Jesus’, describes the resurrection of Jesus as a mythical which developed to strengthen the conviction that Jesus is Messiah and a result of exaggerated recollection of the personality of Jesus himself. Strauss does not want to undermine the integrity of the gospels but describes the accounts of resurrection as ‘subjective vision’, which made sense in first century Palestinian culture.
Rudolf Bultmann shared Strauss’s basic conviction that in the scientific age it is impossible to believe in miracles, however, offered an alternative way of believing in the resurrection. He talked about it as an event in the experience of the disciples, and in this sense an event in the experience of believes down through the ages. Christ is risen because Christ is present in the life of the community of faith.
Karl Barth followed Bultmann in the 1920’s describing the resurrection as an historical event beyond critical inquiry. The empty tomb for Barth is an indispensable sign that leaves its mark on history and calls out believers to a decision of faith.
Wolfhart Pannenberg was concerned about Barth’s stance on the resurrection saying that the resurrection as a historical event must be open to critical inquiry. He views the resurrection in the context of the Christian eschatological worldview. That is to say, the Christian view that history is moving toward a time when all things will be restored into the unity of God. So, the resurrection of Jesus is a for-taste, of what is to come. It is the vision of a hopeful future breaking through into present reality.
If you asked me what the resurrection is about, I’d agree with Pannenberg: The resurrection points to a hopeful and transformative future breaking into our present reality.
On the Pathos website, regardless of differences, both Marcus Borg and Tony Jones also affirm the resurrection as entwined in the Christian story of hope and transformation. God is interested in the living, how we live, how our lives unfold and life in the Spirit beyond death. The story of Jesus life, death and resurrection describes themes destructiveness transformed, the hopeless restored, that which is dead, over and done, gone – finding a way back to life again.
When the Sadducees try to get Jesus to join the debate about the resurrection and present the classic argument about the brothers who all have the same wife, Jesus refuses to enter the argument.
Can you imagine his voice echoing around the temple with this quick and sharp response: ‘God is not god of the dead but of the living’
It is so like Jesus’ responses elsewhere in the gospels. At one level it is no answer at all, if you think the dead remain dead. But on another level it is about living and living beyond death.
Jesus is saying that the life beyond is not constituted as it is in the material world of our experience: ‘In the resurrection the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage because they are children of God….’ Luke 20: 26. We get a clear sense of Jesus laughing at the literal projection of a future life that is some kind of better, shiny version of this one. It’s like Jesus is saying that to ask about the mechanics of how resurrection really works is to ask the wrong kinds of questions. God is about living, about freedom, about justice and about new life.
This will come as a great relief to any women in who have been married to more than one husband and women who have never had any children. The life Jesus points to liberates from the bonds and assumptions of this world. Life as children of God is not limited to the social structures our culture imposes. Resurrection life for the woman in our story would surely bring freedom from the stigma of her childlessness and the infliction of seven husbands.
Surely, what we know of Jesus’ teaching points to a God who is primarily about living.
For Jesus, the debate about how the resurrection works is a distraction. What Jesus promises is that God is interested in living lives that cannot be defeated by death. So, the most important question is: what does a resurrection life look like? What shape do our lives take when we live as children of God?
Can you think of some examples of people who live resurrection life?
Consider what difference it makes in your life when you can live with awareness that you are a child of God?