Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Four)

What is the status of marriage in the age to come? As we’ve noted previously, this question will occur to many of our listeners this week. And both the question and answers will bother and even upset some of our listeners. This isn’t the primary issue in our text. Nor does it appear to be a major concern for Jesus. Yet, this question motivates the text and can, perhaps, assist us in our interpretation.

Is marriage a divine creation or a human institution? Spoiler alert – I think the answer is “yes,” but leaning heavily toward “human institution.” While marriage may not be a central concern in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, marriage is certainly present in the texts. In the first creation account, the emphasis is on human beings made in the divine image. And human beings are to be fruitful and multiply on the face of the earth. No marriage there.

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In the second creation account, we learn that it is not good for human beings to be alone. God wondered if one from among the animals might remedy the situation. But a fit partner was not found there. Therefore, God made a fit partner for the man. The translation of “helper” for the Hebrew word “ezer” is not helpful – not unless we recall that the other one called “ezer” in the Hebrew scriptures is God.

There is no subordination of the woman to the man in either of the creation accounts. In fact, what subordination we do find in the text comes as a result of the Fall. Therefore, that sort of power relationship was not intended in God’s creation. It may be some sort of accommodation to human sin. Or it may simply be outside of God’s intention. In either case, however, the subordination of women to men is not a feature that will be carried into the age to come.

Some readers might point to Genesis 2:24 as the basis for a divine institution of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The word translated as “therefore” in this verse is actually two Hebrew words. The sense of the phrase is “because of” or “as a result of.”

Because the Lord made a fit partner for the man, and because the man recognized the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” human beings (at least those who held these texts as sacred) took a customary course of action. There is nothing in the text that suggests this course of action was designed or decreed by God. The outcome, that they become “one flesh,” is certainly consistent with the man’s experience. But the text does not describe marriage as specifically designed or directed by God.

I don’t wish to denigrate marriage between a man and a woman. Nor do I wish to deify it. Marriage can be an important way to organize one sort of human connection. But as marriage exists in human experience, it is a construction rather than a “natural” state. The sheer diversity of marriage customs, practices, laws, and rules in human societies gives testimony to this fact. Relationships between human beings can be organized in an astonishing variety of ways. That diversity means that the organizing structures have been built by human hands.

This gets more complicated when Jesus is challenged to interpret divorce regulations in the Torah and the first-century practices that come out of those regulations. In Matthew 19:7, some Pharisees point out to Jesus that the Torah allowed for men to divorce their wives. Jesus returns to the creation accounts. It’s always interesting to me that Jesus quotes from both of them.

In the light of God creating men and women and allowing them to join as “one flesh,” human practices should reflect those realities. It’s clear that the Torah constructs ways to manage those practices for Jews. And further teaching and practice continue to build additional stories on to that ground floor. The additional construction must reflect the nature of the foundation, or the structure will collapse under its own weight.

The Torah begins with sexual differentiation, the need for procreation, and the need for human community. We human beings have built all sorts of stories, practices, assumptions, and institutions on those few “facts” of creation.

What we have constructed will not be necessary in the age to come. Sexual differentiation will likely be a continuing reality because the new bodies we have will still be “our” bodies. But that differentiation will not be particularly important because we will be “like the angels.” There will be no need for procreation since life with God will not come to an end. And human community will be part of the gift of the community of all creation, the “new heaven and the new earth,” as it is described in the book of Revelation.

So, I think our text urges us to hold on to our constructions lightly, not tightly. We humans slip too easily into assuming that what we build is, in fact, “natural.” When we do that, we are usually creating a story that gives life to ourselves and takes life away from others. Whatever gives and sustains life will find its way into the age to come. Whatever takes and destroys life will not.

For some perspective, let’s think about “race.” In biological terms, there is the human race. All other senses of “race” are social constructions. They are not genetic realities. Human beings show up in this life with a variety of phenotypes (how we express our genetic endowment as individuals). We have small variations in our genotypes (the genetic information we carry with us). But there is very little relationship between the variations in genotype and phenotype.

In biological terms there are no “races.” Yet, the power of racialized constructions is the power or life and death. We White Europeans have spent five hundred years constructing stories about “racial” differences that advantage us in every way. We have built entire cultures, polities, and economies on the fiction of “natural” differences between the races. In those stories, the White people are always the best, the most deserving, the winners.

When we construct such stories, we typically reverse cause and effect. For example, Victor Ray gives this brief assessment of the eugenics movement in the United States. This movement, not coincidentally at its height during the Jim Crow era, sought to root the racist system in America in “natural” differences between people.

“Eugenicists who attributed differences in life expectancy and literacy rates to biology,” Ray writes, “were laundering social prejudice through scientific jargon, by providing a defense of and justification for racial inequality, not an explanation of underlying causes” (page 10). The constructed system, by intention, produced differential outcomes. Then that system used those outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between White and Black people.

The same critique can be made of the patriarchal system at work in our text and still in our own culture. We see differential outcomes for women when it comes to average earnings, healthcare outcomes, and opportunities for advancement. The patriarchal system is designed to precisely produce those differences. Then the system uses the different outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between men and women. Of course, those differences don’t really exist. But the system does.

Therefore, even though “race” as a biological reality is not real, “races” as social constructions are very real. Yet, what has been built can be unbuilt. What has been constructed can be deconstructed. I’m not suggesting that this is easy or simple. We White Europeans have invested five centuries or more in building and sustaining the system of White Supremacy around the globe. It may take that many centuries to dismantle this damnable system.

I think that our text reminds us to hold our human constructions lightly. The moment those constructions take life rather than give it, destroy life rather than sustain it, those constructions must be attacked and abandoned. If the Temple system, for example, becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If human government becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If our theological system becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If the way we organize the relationships between men and women becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go.

One could argue that we’re comparing apples and oranges in comparing race and gender. However, that’s not the case. I’m not suggesting that phenotypical differences are an illusion. They are not. Nor am I suggesting that sexual differentiation is a mirage. It is not. What we do with those differences, however, makes all the difference. “Race” is a social construction. So is gender. What has been constructed, can be deconstructed.

And what is constructed are structures, not merely individual actions. “Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray writes. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). A similar description can be offered for patriarchal systems of power and privilege. And when such systems are combined, for example in the lives of Black women in the United States, the life-denying power in those individual lives is devastating.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims can bring a particular analytical lens to life, if we’re willing to apply it first to ourselves. We humans tend to build things that benefit us. Then we worship those things and pretend that things have always been this way. That’s called idolatry. That’s what is really at stake in our text and in this section of the Lukan account. What things have we built and then turned into deities? Will we let the Holy Spirit challenge and change those realities in our systems and in ourselves?

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Random House, 2022.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Three)

“In the resurrection, therefore,” the Sadducees ask, “whose wife will the woman be?” She won’t be anyone’s wife in the resurrection, Jesus replies. That’s a revolutionary statement. In the first-century Mediterranean, a woman was usually defined by her relationship to a man. She started out life as a man’s daughter. She got married and became a man’s wife. If she bore sons, she would become a man’s mother. Her identity as a person was derived from her connection to a man.

It’s not that there were no “independent” women in the ancient world. We know about Lydia in the book of Acts, the dealer in fine purple cloth. While the text is mum about her marital status, there is no mention of a man in her life. A number of women, as we read in Luke 8, underwrite the costs of Jesus’ preaching tour in Galilee. One is married. At least some of the others are not.

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Widows in the ancient world occupied a liminal space. Widows had once been married and now are not. I can tell you, from experience as a widower, that this in-between experience of the formerly married is not limited to the ancient world. Widows were stereotypically regarded as in need of male protection and resourcing. They were often portrayed as economically and socially vulnerable. They were viewed as living on the edges of “normal” male/female relationships.

Childless widows would be particularly vulnerable. They were probably beyond the protection and care of a father. They had lost the connection to and identity with a husband. They did not have the “social security” of children duty-bound to provide for them in old age. Thus, the system of levirate marriage (assumed in the thought experiment proposed by the Sadducees) was intended to provide both some measure of security for the widow and a way for the name of the deceased husband to continue in Israel.

All that being said, we need to also remember that in ancient Israelite legal theory, marriage was first and foremost a property relationship. Therefore, for example, adultery was a property crime. It was the theft of one man’s “property” (the sexual function of the wife) by another man. The property of the family was owned and controlled by the husband and his family.  Of course, that is familiar to some of us as well. I can clearly remember the days when my mom couldn’t have a checking account or credit card without the co-signature of her husband.

Whose wife will the woman be? The socially conservative Sadducees presume a property understanding of marriage. “Whose” is a possessive pronoun. And the wife, in this question, is a possession of each of the seven brothers. More than that, she derives her position, status, and identity from that connection to a man. If there’s no man, whose is that woman? And who is that woman? In the resurrection she is, Jesus declares, isaggeloi – “like the angels.”

“This story, properly understood,” Anna Beresford writes, “emphasizes the equality of men and women in God’s sight, the love of God, the power of the kingdom, and the qualities of the resurrection life” (page 6). The woman will be a child of God and of the resurrection without the need for a male anchor in the scheme of existence. She will not require the validation of connection to another human being for that status. She will be seen and valued for herself and not for the sake of another.

Beresford notes that the Lukan author portrays an ambiguous picture of women in the gospel account. She suggests that this treatment of women is part of the Lukan strategy to subvert existing social relationship for the sake of the Kin(g)dom without posing a radical threat to the established authorities who might cause trouble for the Lukan community. “Rather than silencing or sidelining women,” Beresford writes, “Luke used them and their plight to highlight the historical inequalities of the time and make a theological point” (page 7).

Beresford argues that the Lukan author tells the story of the nameless widow in our text to demonstrate “the disconnect between the worldview of the Sadducees and the economy of God’s kingdom” (page 7). The Sadducees, as the representatives and guarantors of the established order, were not interested in any doctrine or practice that might threaten to upset that order.

It’s clear as we read Luke 20, that many folks saw Jesus as a threat to that established order. The questions Jesus fields in this section try to show him as a problem for the Temple system, the economic system, and the political system. Beresford notes that our text immediately follows the question about paying taxes to the Emperor. “To whom does this coin belong?” is the previous question. “To whom does the woman belong?” is the current question.

According to Beresford, Jesus’ answer is the same in each case: “just as the coin is imprinted with the emperor’s image and so belongs to the emperor, men and women both reflect the maker’s mark. They are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27) and belong to God alone.” This identifying mark, for the woman, is not dependent on a property relationship to a man. “The reason they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection,” Beresford argues, “is that, in the resurrection, women, make in God’s image, shall cease to be property” (page 10).

Instead, the woman (like the men) shall become “like the angels.” This doesn’t mean that dead people “become” angels. I write that with a certain amount of trepidation, no matter how much I know it’s true. In our time, many people are quite certain that their dead loved ones have become their “guardian angels” who watch over them from heaven. That’s not what our text says. “Like” the angels in immortality and ceasing to marry is not the same as being angels.

I want to digress for a moment in this regard. I am not saying that I think our deceased loved ones cease to have a relationship with us who are still in this life. I take great comfort from the image in the book of Hebrews of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on from the heavenly bleachers in the stadium of the New Creation. I have experienced connections with deceased loved ones at important moments of my life. I believe in the communion of saints, and I think that communion transcends the boundaries of space and time. It’s just that this doesn’t make my deceased loved ones into “guardian angels.” That job, in Christian tradition is already taken by, well, the guardian angels.

The angels live in the presence of God and have their life from God. So, too, Jesus argues later in the text, do those patriarchs (and matriarchs) upon which he bases his exegetical argument. “God’s relationship with people does not end when they die,” Beresford writes, instead, the relationship is everlasting and personal. And, as Jesus’ words implied,” she continues, “that relationship is not limited by a person’s gender. Both men and women are made in God’s image, so all have equal standing before God” (page 11).

As Beresford notes, the Sadduceean thought experiment portrays numerous features of their worldview. The ownership of women by men is assumed. Women have no choice but to acquiesce to the needs and directives of those men. The age to come would differ little from the present age (if there was any age to come at all). Things might be a bit different but not much. And death seems to be more powerful than God.

Jesus’ reply describes a different worldview, as Beresford summarizes. Death cannot destroy God’s relationship with God’s creatures. Men and women are equal participants in the age to come. That age has come near in Jesus and is beginning to unfold in the here and now.

I would add that Jesus reverses our frame of reference. This age is not the standard by which we judge the age to come. That is the Sadduceean perspective. Instead, the fulfillment of God’s creative intent in the age to come is the standard by which we are called to evaluate and change this age.

For example, how we do marriage now does not tell us what relationships in the age to come should be like. Instead, what we can discern of the age to come should tell us how our relationships in this age are to be – at least for Jesus followers. If the fulfillment of creation is that we should be like the angels, then we are called to start acting more “angelic” in the here and now.

Marriage should not be defined as property and power but rather as partnership. Human status and position don’t confer identity. God does. Marriage can be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the quality of relationships among all people in the age to come. But that can only be the case if marriage reflects the quality of relationship we can discern in the age to come. The current status quo cannot be used to judge the nature of the age to come. Rather, the age to come provides the standards by which to judge the current status quo.

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Two)

What is Jesus’ argument here? Let’s look at his interpretive conclusion in Luke 20:38. This is going to be a bit nerdy and grammatical. But bear with me. I always want to read the text as it is written rather than how I think it’s written. I think Jesus roots his conclusion in the character of God. And I think a focused reading of the text produces this understanding.

A literal translation of that verse goes something like this. “But [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living to him.” The final prepositional phrase is a dative and can be translated in a variety of ways. I want to argue that it is a “dative of means.”

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“The dative substantive is used to indicate the means or instrument by which the verbal action is accomplished,” Daniel Wallace writes. “Before the noun in the dative, supply the words by means of, or simply with” (page 162). As the NRSV renders the phrase, we get the sense that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all “in the presence of God’ as living.

But I think Jesus says more than that. He wants to show that God raises the dead (verse 37). “If they are still alive in the future,” N. T. Wright argues, “they will be raised in the future. Nobody supposed, after all,” Wright continues, “that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had already been raised from the dead…The patriarchs are still alive,” Jesus argues, “and therefore will be raised in the future. Prove the first,” Wright concludes, “and (within the worldview assumed by both parties in the debate, and any listening Pharisees) you have proved the second” (page 425).

Life comes from and belongs to God, the Creator. It is in the Creator’s character to create and sustain the living. Jesus argues that we find that character of God in the very texts which the Sadducees would argue preclude such an understanding.

So, Jesus’ conclusion goes something like this. “But even Moses showed, based upon the [burning] bush that the dead are raised, as he says, ‘the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob;’ [God] is not the God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living by means of [God]” (Luke 20:37-38, my translation).

It’s easy to write off this argument as an example of arcane rabbinic exegesis which no longer means anything to us in the twenty-first century. I’m not persuaded by that dismissal. Levine and Witherington spend some time on these verses and this exegesis. I think it’s worth discussing their work here.

They quote John Nolland in summarizing Jesus’ argument. “God will not have continued to advertise himself as God of the Patriarchs,” Nolland writes, “if he had finished with them and abandoned them to the grave” (Levine and Witherington, page 555). What is at stake here is God’s faithfulness, not merely the postmortem continuation of human lives and institutions. Does death derail God’s promises?

This is the foundation of Jewish and Christian theologizing about the resurrection of the dead. While I think it’s a wonderful idea that I will continue in a better way after I die, that’s not God’s goal in the resurrection. My individual continuation (whatever that actually means) is an outcome of God’s goal, a fringe benefit to me of God’s faithfulness to all of Creation.

The question that resurrection answers, Levine and Witherington argue, “is not, ‘Will I have life after death?’ but rather, ‘Has God given up on his promises to his people?” (page 555). They suggest that Jesus stands in line with some of the Jewish thinking of his time – that the patriarchs and others from the past are alive in the present, awaiting the general resurrection of the dead.

Levine and Witherington refer to the imagery of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus at this point as well. They suggest “that Jesus believed that God preserves the righteous dead in a place of glory, where they await the resurrection” (page 555). I think that may be a theological bridge too far. It appears to me that the parable relies on the imagery of Sheol from the Hebrew bible more than it does to any conception of a resurrection from the dead. Be that as it may, Jesus is concerned about the restoration of divine justice after life in this world is over.

“The evidence suggests,” N. T. Wright argues, “that by the time of Jesus…most Jews either believed in some form of resurrection or at least knew it was standard teaching (Son of God, page 129). The Sadducees were among the minority who held to the view that a general resurrection of the dead from the dead was not a valid teaching based on authoritative Jewish scripture. However, Wright continues, it is not accurate to see the Sadducees as theological radicals. Instead, they were the conservatives (page 131).

Josephus reports, in The Jewish War, that the Sadducees reject the idea of “the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards” (see Wright, page 134). For the Sadducees, when you’re dead, you’re dead. And that’s that. They are at least accused of believing that there is no “age to come” when God’s faithfulness would set all things right. The way things are is the way things will be.

Of course, that’s an excellent theology for those who see themselves in charge and who don’t wish for things to change. “The real problem was that resurrection was,” Wright notes, “from the beginning a revolutionary doctrine. For Daniel 12,” for example, “resurrection belief went with dogged resistance and martyrdom” (page 138). If God intends to turn everything right-side up in the end, then those who are on “God’s side” can and should be in the business of turning things right-side up in the here and now.

The Sadduceean problem with resurrection “was that they realized that such beliefs threatened their own position. People who believe that their god is about to make a new world, and that those who die in loyalty to him in the meantime will rise again to share gloriously in it,” Wright continues, “are far more likely to lose respect for a wealthy aristocracy than people who think that this life, this world, and this age are the only ones there will ever be” (page 138).

It is, therefore, no accident that the synoptic writers put this exchange in the “challenge the authorities” section of the narrative. Our text is, as Wright puts it, “in a highly polemical and adversarial context, where the issue is emphatically not abstract debates about the finer points of theology or belief about a future life, but the immediate political meaning of what Jesus has just done in the Temple” (page 419). The debate here is about politics, not metaphysics.

The resurrection of the dead, in the New Testament, is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is not the opiate of the masses, designed to calm down the dissatisfied with promises of a final reward. “Resurrection is precisely concerned with the present world and its renewal,” Wright argues, “not with escaping the present world and going somewhere else; and in its early Jewish forms right through to its developed Christian forms, it was always concerned with divine judgment, with the creator god acting within history to put right that which is wrong” (page 138).

Therefore, Jesus argues to the Sadducees, from the beginning it is the character of God to give and to sustain the living. God makes promises of life to the living. God will not allow death to derail such promises, because God is faithful. That faithfulness to the promise of life will always be a threat to forces that depend on the power of death. “Resurrection,” N. T. Wright observes, “depending as it did on a strong belief in justice and the sovereign power of the good creator god, was always bound to be a revolutionary doctrine” (page 139).

At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this revolutionary doctrine meant two things to the majority of Jews. It referred to the restoration of Israel. We can see that expectation in the question of the disciples in Acts 1:6 – “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And it also referred to the general resurrection of the dead for God’s people at the end of the present age.

“But nobody imagined that any individuals had already been raised,” Wright reminds us, “or would be raised in advance of the great last day” (page 205). That reality would have to wait until the first Easter morning. “Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, in fact, does point towards the refocusing of the resurrection hope which was to take place later,” Wright concludes, “not the least through the work of Paul” (page 426). But we aren’t there yet – at least not in the Lukan narrative.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.