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More than Meets the Eye
a sermon based on Luke 20:27-40
                by Rev. Thomas Hall

I think given a choice, most of us would prefer questions to answers. Questions raise new possibilities for understanding, open the doors to exploration, pique our interest, and rouse our curiosity. Maybe you’ve discovered the joy of questions by sitting right where you are this morning—in a worship service. We’ve heard enough sermons that give us the answers: this means this . . . the Greek has it this way . . . in those days . . . we need to, must, ought . . . But every once in awhile the precious question makes a cameo appearance in the sermon: Now why would Jesus do that? What could have prompted Paul to say that? And before we know it, we’ve teamed up with that question and are racking our brain to come up with our best answer. In the process—and guided by a good communicator—we can a new discovery and leave with new insight.

In spiritual formation, a spiritual guide will often mentor their disciples through questions. How might you think differently about that behavior? What is the deepest part of your life saying to you about this? What do you think God is saying to you through all of your successes?

Questions can lead us to new discoveries and truth. Right in the middle of our passage this morning stands a bold question. The question stands at the end of an intriguing "what if" story told by Jesus’ interlocutors. According to the ancient levirate marriage code in the Torah, if a man died with no firstborn son to leave his land and wealth to, his surviving brother was required to marry the deceased brother’s wife. Basing their story on this ancient family code, the Sadducees launch in to their story. Suppose there were seven brothers and the oldest of them died married, though without children. And taking for granted that the levirate marriage code is followed so that one of the brothers would marry her. All good and fine so far. But what if that brother too, died unexpectedly and every single last one of them left no children. Finally, the woman dies too. (Now get ready, here comes the punch line question!) "So, Jesus, ahem, which of the brothers will be her husband in the resurrection?" the Sadducees ask.

The question seems innocent enough—whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven had her. These leaders certainly raised a good question and provided a context that honored Moses and the Torah. As to the levirate marriage code, what could be better among ancient tribal peoples than to provide a way to protect the family from disaster in times of death of the primary bread winner? The law was clearly watching out for single parents and wanted the family system to care for such families during tragic moments in life. Nothing wrong with watching out for each other.

Just an aside here. Such an action was truly selfless. Rather than abrogating the widow’s property for his own, he was under societal pressure to marry the widow and have children through their union so that she and her son could inherit her late husband’s property.

But what if some brother decided that one spouse was enough? "No, I’m not going to marry my brother’s wife—oh I’ll throw her some money once in awhile and do some house repairs when she needs it, but I’m not going to get involved with this marriage stuff."

Enter the deadbeat dad stigma.

If a brother refused to honor the ancient levirate marriage code, the widow would—in front of the whole town that had gathered—take the man’s sandal off his foot. The sandal symbolized walking over a piece of land as a sign of ownership. So the removal of the sandal meant that the owner of the sandal had not shown proper regard for his brother’s family and property. Then before watching eyes, the woman would be allowed to spit in this brother’s face like a llama! Holy humiliation! From that point on, you might has well hang the shingle on that guy’s door: Deadbeat Brother Lives Here. So most brothers reluctantly or not, probably obeyed the code of the land.

Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven had her! Look closely at the question. Job posed a similar question a long time ago: If mortals die, will they live again? Is there life beyond death, he wonders, and if so what will it be like? That question is at the heart of a question that we hear raised by the Sadducees. Yet, do you get the impression that there’s more than meets the eye in their question? Just in case the casual reader might miss this misshaped question, Luke supplies us with a hint: the Sadducees were a group of Jews who say there is no resurrection. Questions are supposed to pique our interest, supposed to open new doors for discovery. Questions imply that we are open for new thoughts, new ideas, new possibilities. Yet, this question seems to be at a dead-end. This question comes from mind-hardened belief; from minds that know only fossilized answers; this question only comes into story as a way to demean any belief other than their own about the resurrection.

It must have been impossible for these guys, who were already convinced of their theological position on the subject of the resurrection of the dead, to ask such a question with a straight face. I imagine a stately figure telling the story and then posing this ludicrous question with a sneering smile. Just behind him one of the Sadducees is doubled over, pinching his nose and holding his breath, trying to keep his laugh from exploding. Yet, I can imagine that within seconds one of them loses control and the floodgates break open in loud, eye-tearing laughter. They are laughing at the ludicrous idea of resurrection—of any possibility of life beyond the grave.

It’s not hard to understand how this group came to their conclusion that death ends all. First, according to the historian Josephus, the Sadducees were a group who honored only the Torah. Everything else was "tainted" by the exile. And where in the Torah, they wondered, was there any talk about anyone surviving death? Where did Moses ever talk about surviving death?

No wonder the Sadducees chose such a Grimm’s Fairy tale about the woman and the seven brothers—the levirate marriage code was the closest thing to resurrection they could get. In a sense we live eternally—they reasoned—through our children; with our children we pass on something of ourselves. But that’s it. We don’t really survive death as individuals—we survive death only through our connection to the community.

That’s not such a far cry from the views that a lot of us still embrace today. We call it by various names, but mostly we call it materialism, the idea that we are simply globs of matter with no soul, no eternal part. And that this life is all we get; when we die, we cease to exist. At the very least we exist only in memory.

When we are gripped by such a view of life, it can have disastrous impact on the few short years we life on this earth. Wayne Cordeiro, a favorite corporation consultant, imagines s a huge steel cable that stretches before his audiences. "With a sharp pencil," he instructs, "make a little scratch on the cable." Okay, fine. "Now," he says, "that little scratch is You! You could have been born in 1015 bc or maybe sometime into the future. But the fact is, you are here now, right now on this long continuum that stretches both backward and forward into time." Cordeiro goes on to describe what people do with their "scratch." Some folks try to stretch it, others build beautiful homes on that scratch, some horde that scratch and defend it with everything they’ve got. "The gospel of Jesus Christ has great plans for your scratch," he says and then adds with a gleam, God so loved the world that he died for that scratch—and rose again—so that your scratch would have real purpose in God’s plan."

The average Sadducee (Sad, You See) thinking this life was all there was, probably tried to squeeze as much enjoyment into that little scratch as they possibly could. That’s what many people do who really believe that this life is all we have. If you have only this life, you might want to go for the gusto—nice car, companion, lots of money, designer clothes, etc. Josephus describes how their view of death impacted their view of life. Not sure about whether they wore swatches or not, but these individuals were among the wealthiest of the population. They apparently dressed extravagantly, they loved exotic art—they were lovers of Greek culture—and to maintain their lifestyle, they collaborated with the Roman government in exchange for money and other amenities.

Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven had her! Jesus uses this question as a great teaching opportunity. He politely explains that marriage is a this-side-of-heaven kind of invention. Life on the other side of the dust-to-dust-ashes-to-ashes is very different. But life it is. What is absolutely amazing is that Jesus begins in the very parts of Scripture that they insist has nothing to say about the resurrection.

"Let’s go back to Moses since that’s where this whole conversation started," Jesus says. "Okay, now remember the burning bush incident. "Yeah," the Sadducees acknowledge, still wiping tears from their joke from their eyes. "Did you happen to notice the tense of the verbs there?" Eyes become wide, shifting uneasily as they glimpse one another in their peripheral vision. "Anyway," Jesus continues, "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who had in their lifetimes trusted God, suddenly are spoken of by the God of the burning bush, as still surviving." Isn’t that interesting?

"God says ‘I AM the God of . . .’ not ‘I WAS the God of . . .’ So if they’re not dead after a thousand years, what are they? Where are they?"

"Well said, Teacher," one of them responds or someone else who has been listening in.

In a few well-turned, thoughtful words, Jesus moves the questioners to a new way of thinking about life, death, and the resurrection.

What does this suggest about our marriages, our eternal state, and the possibility of resurrection? We don’t have in our hands this morning all the answers, but we do have some new questions to ask: have I been living my life as if I were a Sadducee? Can I trust God’s love for me enough to believe that God truly has a life for me that only really begins after this life? How can I live more faithfully now in view of God’s long-term love for me?

"The God who created us, who ordained marriage in this life, has also provided for life after death for those who have cultivated the capacity to respond to God’s love. If there is life beyond death, it is God’s gift to those who have accepted God’s love and entered into relationship with God in this life: they are children of God, being children of the resurrection" (Luke 20:36).

Our understanding of this world and our questions about what lies beyond this life may never be answered; yet we see in Jesus and in the records of God’s action in the world enough evidence of God’s love and faithfulness to be able to entrust our lives to him.

In the meantime we are on the porch; it’s a beautiful June evening. We’re sitting back in our Adirondack taking in the sheer joy of the moment—having a great conversation, watching the sunset, drinking our favorite beverage. Such a way to enjoy an evening is very different, however, to the little grand daughter who is also on the porch. Her pleasure comes not from ennui and tea, but from running to catch fireflies and playing hide and seek.

Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity . . . there are three things that will endure—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. Amen.