THIS SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 20: 27-38
THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection,
came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, Moses wrote for us,
If someone's brother dies leaving a wife but no child,
his brother must take the wife
and raise up descendants for his brother.
Now there were seven brothers;
the first married a woman but died childless.
Then the second and the third married her,
and likewise all the seven died childless.
Finally, the woman also died.
Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?
For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus said to them,
“The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die,
for they are like angels;
and they are the children of God
because they are the ones who will rise.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out ‘Lord,’
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”
With only three Sundays remaining in the Liturgical Year (C) and the Lectionary’s narrative of St. Luke, this is how the Gospel breakdown will play out. Today we have Jesus confronting the Sadducees, old guard Jews, on both the reality of life beyond the grave and the reward of everlasting life. Next Sunday Luke records Jesus’ description of the trials of the future in the “little Apocalypse,” in which he predicts the destruction of glorious Jerusalem and the persecutions of those who remain faithful to his name. The final Sunday of Ordinary Time (34th) is the solemnity of Christ the King, in which Luke portrays Jesus revealing the full coming of God’s kingdom: from the cross, he assures the good thief, “this day you will be with me in paradise.”
Next Sunday’s Gospel is set in Chapter 20, and the best adjective I can apply to this chapter is “nasty.” Jesus has now arrived in Jerusalem, and the Jewish authorities—who have obviously heard of and probably witnessed Jesus at work in the hinterlands—are eager to bring the battle to Jesus on their home turf. This chapter is comprised primarily of a challenge to Jesus: “by what authority do you do the things you do?” Jesus’ loyalty to the Law and the tenets of Jewish observance is brought under hard scrutiny— “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” –and his teachings are openly scorned. This is the case in today’s Gospel where the question of life after death comes to the fore.
One should never imagine that Judaism in Jesus’ day was a seamless garment of theological agreement. Outside of Jerusalem, in rugged solitude, the Essenes awaited the dawn of a new messianic age in monastic austerity. Extremist Jewish patriots, “the Zealots,” formed an active and at times lethal underground movement against the occupying Roman government. (It is interesting that one of Jesus’ Twelve is “Simon the Zealot.”) The Pharisees were a conservative bloc that resisted the encroachment of Greek modern thought into traditional Jewish norms and practices. Scribes were entrusted with copying and preserving the literal texts of the Law; one could refer to them as the experts of the Law, though Pharisees would contest that because they considered themselves the strictest and most detailed observers of the Law.
The Sadducees for their part represented the highest element, the aristocracy, of Jerusalem society. The Sadducees were entrusted with care of the temple, and my impression is that their major priority was stability—maintaining a status quo with the Romans and the Herodian puppet kingship. In Sunday’s Gospel Luke highlights one of the conservative beliefs of the Sadducees, denial of an immortal soul and life after death, both to set up the story and to illustrate the attempts of every segment of mainstream Judaism to somehow “take down” the credibility of Jesus. Joel Green points out that the focus of the battle here is not simply doctrinal—i.e., whether there is life after death—but rather, who is the legitimate interpreter of the Scripture, with Jesus invoking both Moses and the Patriarchs to buttress his argument.
Green contends that the Sadducees’ original question is whether Jesus believed the teaching of Moses, for they set up this tale of seven widowhoods, so to speak, as a logical consequent of Moses’ teaching. This is a trap: if Jesus holds to life after death, then Mosaic law would appear inadequate. Jesus’ response turns this narrative from a contest over who is most obedient to Moses, to who grasps the true understanding of Moses. (p. 718) The specific law raised by the Sadducees is Deuteronomy 25:5, but Green notes that the standard interpretation of the Law, now institutionalized, gave the widow no choice in the matter. The question put to Jesus raises another point: if they grant the idea of life after death, does the Mosaic Law apply even then, or would Jesus dare replace it with his own reckonings?
Jesus draws a contrast between the “children of this age” and those worthy of the age to come. This is Luke’s typical way of dividing the true believer in future glory from those caught up in the cares of this world. In this instance, the Sadducees would fall into the latter category. They would have no base of understanding of the new age of the Kingdom, and thus how inconsequential their marital scenario would be. Jesus then connects the true believers with the authoritative words of Moses himself, who in his encounter with the burning bush understands God to be the Lord of the living. Jesus’ argument is essentially that the Hebrew God is a God of life in the fullest sense, including beyond the grave. The Sadducee position is not only wrong; it is contrary to the mind and faith of Moses.
This episode is preceded in Chapter 20 by a direct question about Jesus’ own authority, a parable on Jerusalem’s unfaithful leadership, and Jesus’ attitude toward obeying Caesar. It is followed by a Jewish challenge to the Messiah’s authority, a condemnation by Jesus of the scribes, and then next week’s Chapter 21 regarding the end of the world. The stormy arrival of God’s kingdom, marked by travails and battles, is indeed at hand.