A Question of Faith

Sermon preached on Sunday 6th November 2022 based on Luke 20:27-38

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question’. Now they say that there are no stupid questions, thank goodness, but I wonder – are you someone who is willing to ask a question if you don’t understand something? Or would you keep quiet rather than admit ignorance and potentially appear stupid? Or would you rather stick with the answer you already think is correct? The trouble is, not asking a question can often lead us to try and come up with our own answers

Well, the Sadducees have come up with a hypothetical question, to which they already have their own answer, of a woman apparently having to marry not only one man from a rather large family of sons, but to be passed on to each of his brothers in turn in the hope of producing offspring to carry on the family’s bloodline. Although you’d have thought by the sixth brother, he’d have got an inkling of what his fate was likely to be.

They were obviously all portrayed as god-fearing, righteous people who would end up in heaven at the resurrection, unsure as to who had the best claim on their marital status.

For me, as for many, that throws up a lot of questions for me to ponder on. What will we look like in heaven?  Do we get the 21- year-old version of us or the body we died with?  Can we chose? Will I recognise my loved ones? The mind can really start to wander as you ponder the implications of the Sadducees question. What if you are widowed and have married twice and you dearly loved both your husbands or wives?  Is heaven going to be socially awkward?  I hope not.

Of course, the Sadducees didn’t really want an answer, it is a question designed to make the whole idea of resurrection look stupid. The idea of bodily resurrection was already controversial in Jesus’ day. This was a relatively new idea to Judaism, just a couple centuries old, and probably imported from elsewhere, and the Sadducees were defending tradition and having none of it.

The Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament Anything not in the books of Moses, was not scripture to them. However, as Christians we have added to those scriptures, with the notion of the immortality of the soul and a transformation of our bodies. One of the most vivid examples of what is to come is from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. ‘Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed

Jesus, of course, points out in today’s gospel, that the resurrection changes everything. It exists not with earthly conventions of birth, marriage and death, but with complete transformation of mortal flesh into what would seem immortal angel-like creatures. However, whilst I have a lot more questions about life and resurrection, I have more questions about what the Sadducees question throws up about marriage.

The practice the Sadducees are referring to in their question is known as levirate marriage, a social convention that had nothing to do with protecting women, but everything to do with protecting the family name. If she was to produce a son, then he would inherit the family name and property, because family hierarchy was everything in that world; who your father was, and your birth order defined you as a man and who your husband was defined you as a woman. The dilemma would then be whose property was she to be in heaven, which brother would she serve?

Is all this human hierarchy to be preserved in heaven? Will all the screwed-up gender relations and injustices persist in eternity?  Imagine the look on the faces of Jesus audience when he tells them that this theoretical woman, so humiliated and worthless and passed around in this life, will not belong to any of these men in heaven.  She will enter the next age of the resurrection on her own power as her own person, because she is not defined by these human institutions and relationships.   

If heavenly relations are to define earthly ones, what does this mean for marriage on earth?  Could it be that there are bigger theological issues than if our bodies are raised?  Jesus is saying that we are raised with God in the resurrection, but that our flawed human institutions are not coming with us.

The Church of England at this time is facing huge theological questions over what marriage is here on earth. With the Bishops having met together last week to discuss, to pray and to discern what the Churches response might be to the Living in Love and Faith project. It is a culmination of the chance that we all had to listen, to learn, to study, and above all to ask questions on the issue of same sex marriages.

When Jesus says marriage will not exist in heaven, he is telling the Sadducees that marriage is just how we have organized human and family relationships here on earth, but in
heaven it is going to be completely different.

Where did Jesus get such a radical notion?  It could be that Jesus just read the Scriptures and observed how marriage changed over time, with polygamous patriarchs and kings having wives and concubines.  The idea of one man and one woman mating for life is a later development, and for those who point to Genesis being the convention, it should be remembered that both this book and the other four of the Pentateuch were said to have been written by Moses, or even written in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, hundreds of years after Moses is supposed to have lived.

Perhaps Jesus read stories about Abraham, who tried to pass off his wife as his sister to get favour with Pharaoh; or Hagar, his maid, being impregnated by Abraham only to be cast out when his wife Sarah became pregnant. 

So, Jesus, simply reading the scriptures, could see marriage was an evolving human institution. that went through changes between Genesis and Jesus, and marriage has continued to evolve over the centuries.

We still have a lot of questions to ask, but we shouldn’t be afraid to ask them, and we shouldn’t be afraid to listen to other’s points of view, to be prepared to be challenged, to reflect and to come to our own understanding, whilst fully respecting the views of others.

This is not exactly where I expected to end up when reflecting on the Sadducees trick question, but the point is that sometimes we don’t ask questions because we are afraid that the answer may be difficult for us. When we ask questions only to justify our previous beliefs, we will probably be confounded and discover the limits of our point of view.

Faith can sometimes feel as though it has to be protected from various dangers or challenges. In reality though, trusting ourselves to God’s lordship means not getting bogged down in our own narrower concerns and expectations. After all, is there anything beyond God’s reach and concern?



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