Sunday November 10, Proper 27, 2019.
Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 17; 2 Thessalonians 2:13—3:5; Luke 20:27-40
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a child, I enjoyed brain teasers. I still do. One of the classic brain teasers is a riddle in the form of a poem: “As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven sacks. Each sack had seven cats. Each cat had seven kits. Kits, cats, sacks, and wives – how many were going to St. Ives?” Those of you who have heard this before know or may remember the answer. It is simple, once you know the trick. The poem starts out with the phrase, “As I was going to St. Ives …” Only one person in the poem was going to St. Ives. Since the teller of the poem met the Kits, cats, sacks, and wives they must have been headed away from St. Ives. All of those characters, the kits, the cats, the sacks, and the wives, were merely distractions to get you confused about the real nature of the problem. There are thousands of little brain teasers like that.
Most brain teasers use some sort of verbal trickery to distract us from finding the easy way to the real answer. When I tell you about the wives, sacks, cats, and kits that were leaving St. Ives, you have a natural tendency to think these things are important to the problem at hand. The wording deceives you into thinking that it is the wives, sacks, and so forth that are going to St. Ives. Brain teasers get you all interested in something that has nothing to do with the solution so that you will go about solving the wrong problem or trying to find an answer to a question that no one asked.
Magic works the same way—misdirection and diversion. Distract the audience away from the deception so that they participate in the trick. It’s all part of the fun of watching the show and no harm is done because we know the performer is fooling us. We actually enjoy seeing (or not seeing) the performer’s skill at pulling off the deception.
It’s all fun and games when it is just entertainment and part of the show, but that all changes when these same tricks are used against us in real life. That is what the Temple rulers were doing with Jesus in the verses that come before today’s Gospel. Jesus is in the Temple and a parade of Temple rulers came before Him. They were asking questions and hoping to verbally humiliate Jesus and take Him down a notch or two. They were trying to make Him look bad in front of the people. Today’s Gospel tells us about the attempt that the Sadducees made when it was their turn. They suggested a hypothetical situation.
Instead of a man with seven wives, they suggested a woman with seven husbands who happen to be brothers. Each of these brothers takes his turn as this woman’s husband, then dies and leaves the woman childless. This is an extreme example of Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was a civil law in ancient Israel and much of the rest of the Middle East. Basically, if a married man died and left no children, the nearest male relative would marry his widow. This near relative would care for the widow and their first son would become the legal child of that first husband who died. This child would inherit the dead husband’s property, money, livestock, and so forth. The Sadducees proposed a situation where this happened seven times, but no one produced any children.
The Sadducees scenario is pretty improbable, but it is mathematically possible. Then the Sadducees wanted Jesus to tell them who the woman’s husband would be after this life, in heaven. There is a trick to the Sadducees’ question. The trick is so devious that even the Sadducees may not have known that it was there. The Sadducees had made an assumption about the nature of heaven. They assumed that people would be married in heaven in the same way that they were married on earth. Their assumption was wrong. The Sadducees came up with this incorrect scenario because they didn’t believe in the resurrection.
Remember what Scripture tells us about the Sadducees in contrast with their rivals, the Pharisees. This comes out when Paul is tried before the authorities in Jerusalem: “Now when Paul perceived that one part [of the council] were Pharisees, he cried out to the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.’ And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.”
Hard though it is for us to understand them in these terms, the Sadducees were the religious conservatives of the day; they held that only the first five books of Scripture (the Torah) had any validity or authority for everyday life and belief. The Pharisees taught that all of Scripture, Law, Prophets, Psalms and other writings, were authoritative. So, in their encounter with Jesus, this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, the Sadducees wanted very badly to demonstrate how ridiculous the idea of life after death, the resurrection, and heaven and hell all were. They wanted to back Jesus into a corner so that he had to admit that the whole idea of life after death is ridiculous. They thought they had Jesus right where they wanted him. Of course, Jesus picked up on the false assumption immediately.
The Sadducees’ scenario was not ridiculous because the afterlife is ridiculous, but because they had made the ridiculous assumption that life in the next world is the same as it is in this world. They assumed that people would still be married in the next life. Jesus told them this was not the case. He said, “[They] neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
Our culture today also has its false assumptions just as the Sadducees did. Today’s culture often uses false assumptions in its opposition to Christianity. In today’s world, we often hear questions like, “What gives you the right to tell us what is right and wrong,” or “How can you say your religion is any better than the others?” There is a false assumption in these questions and in questions like them. The assumption is so deceptive that most people don’t know it is even there. The unspoken assumption behind these questions is that religion is a product that we manufacture. It is something that we make up.
The popular notion is that all people have a source of spiritual power within themselves and people must develop that power in their own special way. This gives rise to the popular notion that people should believe in whatever works best for them. It also gives rise to the idea that we should allow anyone to believe anything. It gives rise to a world like the world in the book of Judges when, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
We Christians can have confidence in our faith because it does not come from inside of us. Our faith, our righteousness, our salvation is not something that we do. It is something God does for us. God the Father loves us so much that he sent his only begotten Son into the world. God the Son loves us so much that he took our place under the law, keeping it perfectly and then enduring the penalty for our breaking of the law on our behalf. God the Holy Spirit loves us so much that he works faith in us through Word and Sacrament. Our salvation comes from God, not from ourselves.
When the world asks us its questions, we can say, “You are right. We do not have the right to tell you what is right and wrong, but God does. We do not have the right to tell you what to believe, but God does. And we have not worked out a plan for your salvation, but God did.”
The Sadducees in today’s Gospel tried to make the resurrection of the dead seem ridiculous and they failed. Jesus not only showed them a flaw in their argument, but he then made a point of his own. Jesus said, “[God] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” Jesus not only made the point, but he demonstrated it. On the Friday after Jesus had this debate with the Sadducees, he carried our sins to the cross and there paid the penalty for them with his very life. The following Sunday, Jesus himself rose from the dead and paved the way for all who believe in him to join him in the everlasting paradise of heaven. The world can make all the false assumptions it wants to, but no other faith has a God who serves his own to the point of offering his life on the cross in their place. No other faith has a God who says, “I have saved you and so you do not have to save yourself.”
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.