Whose Wife Will She Be?

Ordinary 32C

Luke 20: 27 38


If anything "turns people off" reflecting on spiritual matters, it is sterile debate on speculative ideas which seem irrelevant and rather stupid! This reading would, in some people's opinion fit that description. The debate does seem ridiculous and a waste of time. We shall see, however, that despite the absurdity of the proposition put by the Sadducees, our Lord makes good use of the occasion to provide his genuinely devout followers with guidelines for the future.

For a more detailed introduction and background to the reading, click here.

Some Notes on the Text

Verse 27

It is safe to say that the only certain thing which we know about the sect of the Sadducees is that they denied there was any such thing as resurrection, or angel, or spirit (Acts 23: 8). It is often quoted that they considered only the first 5 books of the Old Testament as binding them, but some scholars question this.

A group of Sadducees were finding Jesus more than a little disturbing and thought the best way to silence his teaching was to discredit him in front of his followers, and make him look incompetent. Knowing by now that Jesus regularly referred to life after death, they tried to engage him in a debate which he couldn't win.

Verses 28 33

The Sadducees, giving special emphasis to their interpretations of the first 5 books of the Old Testament, focused on Deuteronomy 25: 5 and Leviticus 18: 16 (See also Genesis 38: 8).

The situation is: A Man dies without any children. His brother is therefore obliged by Divine Law to marry the deceased brother's wife so as to provide children. This brother dies, still leaving the woman childless, as do the brothers who follow.

The question put to Jesus (allowing for their implied ridicule) is: "You are always going on about life after the resurrection of the dead; well, when that happens, which of the seven will be the woman's husband, since they all married her before they died?"

(For Sadler's commentary on this absurd question click here.)

Verses 34 36

Our Lord patiently listened to the arrogance of those who would not only try and make a fool of him, but who would betray their true lack of respect for the Holy Word Of God. When they came to the end of the nonsense, Jesus commenced his reply, which was gracious in its acceptance of their challenge, but far more studious and scholarly than they had expected or could cope with.

The first part of Jesus' answer (verses 34 — 36) demonstrates the serious basic error in the argument of the Sadducees by distinguishing two ages of existence (according to Eugene LaVerdiere whose commentary we follow here). In the first age, which includes human history in this world, the question of marriage is pertinent. In the second, however, which follows the consummation of history, marriage is irrelevant. There are thus two modes of human existence. In the first we live according to the conditions of physical birth.

In the second, arising from rebirth in the resurrection, our life and relationships are comparable to those of the angels.

We note our Lord's indication in verse 35 that one will "take part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead" only if "considered worthy".

The Sadducees must have taken a knock here because Jesus showed how they had completely misrepresented life in the resurrection by assuming it would be a continuation of ordinary earthly life and relationships. In fact Jesus has exposed their lack of scholarship and true authority as well as careless attention to detail. But they were in for worse yet.

Verse 37 and 38

The Sadducees held that since Moses, one of the greatest Patriarchs, did not believe in the resurrection, why would anyone? In the second part of his reply, Jesus shatters their ungrounded confidence with stunning simplicity! Since they would take notice only of proofs from the first 5 books of the Old Testament, Jesus gives it to them. He quotes Exodus 3: 6 i.e. "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob".

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had long died but God did not say "I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when they were alive", or "I am the God of three dead corpses." He says "I am the God of .."

Jesus then adds, with simple logic, and utter dependence on the Law of Moses alone, that, therefore:

"He is not the God of the dead but of 

the living, for to him all are alive."

This is indeed a challenge for the proud Sadducees who had met more than their match and were out of their depth. The reply of Jesus demonstrated that resurrection cannot be explained as merely the resumption of former historical life just as it would not be seen merely as an event that would occur some time in the distant future.

Verses 39 and 40

These two verses are not part of our present Gospel reading. However they tell us two interesting facts. First, that the Sadducees knew when they were beaten and did not dare to challenge Jesus again.

Secondly, some of the Scribes, associates of the Pharisees, came up to Jesus and congratulated him without hesitation. "Well spoken Rabbi", they said, "very well spoken!"


Blaiklock has written, "The Sadducees exemplify the perennial fault of man to conclude that there can be no reality outside the competence of his five senses to apprehend." This has to be one of the key lessons for us today as we come under very strong pressure to conform to contemporary pagan philosophy. But the problem is nothing new. The Pharisees struggled to resist it in Jesus' time, and often "got it wrong". That was not what concerned Jesus so much as the fact that they became obsessed with their own achievements. The Sadducees seemed even harder for our Lord to reach out to. This account is a warning from our Lord that even his own followers could, by pride, and separation from the teaching authority of his Church, come to develop and defend absurd beliefs, and reject truth.

Sadly, evidence of this abounds, for it is now not unusual to hear of groups who choose themselves which Scriptures they will declare non-binding and those they would emphasise or quote out of context to support some new belief. Ironically this is following in the steps of the Sadducees. Much modern-day Christian teaching and practice is as bizarre and grotesque as was theirs.

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