Those on Whom the Ends of the Ages Have Come

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Times 32
November 6, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: A group of Sadducees present Jesus with a challenge to the belief in a future resurrection. While Jesus' answer silences them, it doesn't actually prove that the dead will be raised. Later, when Jesus appeared alive to his disciples after his death on the cross, they began to proclaim the resurrection - not as a doctrine, but first of all, as Jesus himself. The risen Jesus Christ is the reality of resurrection, and all those in Christ will share it.

Our text from Luke's gospel is set during the week after Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, a few days before his death on the cross. Jesus is really speaking to two different audiences here. The first is a group of Sadducees who confront him with a challenge to the belief in a resurrection of the dead on the last day.

The Sadducee party consisted mostly of priests associated with the Jerusalem temple who had a conservative view of the Hebrew scriptures. They accepted as authoritative only the five books that were thought to have been written by Moses, and they found nothing there about life after death. Later writings, such as the books of Isaiah and Daniel, do speak about a future resurrection, but that didn't count for the Sadducees.1

The second audience to which Jesus' words are directed is the Christians for whom Luke wrote his gospel 50 or so years later. That means all the Christians who would read or hear this account through the centuries, and of course, that includes us! Those two audiences are different for several reasons. The most important difference is that those who hear Luke's account can know something important that the audience in Jerusalem didn't know.

Resurrection as a Doctrine

Today's gospel is Luke's first reference to the Sadducees. He mentions another group, the Pharisees, often. More progressive than the Sadducees, they accepted not just the books of Moses but other writings of the Hebrew scriptures as well, including texts that speak of a future resurrection of the dead. The gospels tell about disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees but Jesus agreed with them that there would be a resurrection of the dead at the end of history.2

Jesus gained a following during his Galilean ministry, and the Sadducees in Jerusalem would have heard about what he'd said and done. Throwing the money-changers out of the temple when he entered Jerusalem wouldn't have endeared him to members of that priestly party!3 So they decided to discredit him with a challenge they thought would demonstrate the idea of a resurrection to be absurd. Maybe they'd used it in earlier debates with Pharisees.

The challenge to Jesus was based on a provision of the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy4 that says that if a man died, leaving a wife but no son, his brother should marry the woman, and the first son of that marriage should be the heir of the man who died. The story of Ruth in the Old Testament is an example.5

Now the Sadducees asked Jesus about an unlikely situation that could arise. The first of seven brothers marries a woman and dies without leaving children, so brother number two is to marry her. But if he also dies childless, brother three is next in line to marry her. Rinse and repeat. Finally, brother seven dies childless, and the woman also dies. Then "In the resurrection," the Sadducees asked (perhaps with an intonation suggesting "this so-called resurrection"), "Whose wife will the woman be?" She had been the wife of each of them!

Jesus' reply indicates that the resurrection won't be a return to the conditions of the present world, but will be the life of God's new creation. Then he points to a text in the part of the Hebrew scriptures that the Sadducees accept, God's appearance to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus. There God says, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."6 Only living people have a God, Jesus says, so if God was the God of those ancestors after they died on earth, they must be alive to God.

What was at issue there was a doctrine - or what some might call a theory - about a possible afterlife. Some of the scribes said that Jesus had spoken well with his answer to the Sadducees' challenge. But if we think about that, it may seem that while Jesus made good points, he didn't really present an open-and-shut case for the resurrection of the dead.

The differences between conditions of life today and those in the resurrection shows that the Sadducees' story doesn't rule resurrection out. But the Sadducees could object that Jesus hadn't proved that there actually will be a resurrection in which conditions differ from those today. And Moses being told that God was still the God of the deceased patriarchs sounds convincing. But the Sadducees could ask why, if that really showed that the dead will be raised, Moses didn't say anything specific about such an important matter later to the Israelites.

Resurrection as a person

The situation was radically changed a few days later, after Jesus had died on a Roman cross. Within a few weeks, his disciples were proclaiming something new. It wasn't a doctrine or a theory about what happens to people after death. It was instead an announcement that Jesus who had died on a Roman cross was alive again and had appeared to and spoken with them.

A few weeks after that first Easter, Peter spoke to the crowd at Pentecost. He quoted a verse from a Psalm to show that God had intended for Jesus to be raised from the dead, but the heart of his message was that Jesus had, in fact, been raised from the dead.7

In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul addresses problems that he'd heard of in the congregation that he'd started there. In one long chapter, he speaks to members who he heard were saying that "there is no resurrection of the dead."8 Paul goes into detail about this and begins by reminding the Corinthians of what he had "handed on" to them: the testimony to Jesus' resurrection from disciples in Jerusalem that Paul himself had "received" from them. This is a very early tradition, from just a few years after the events in question. After speaking of Jesus' death and burial, Paul says:

He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. ... He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.9

There is a scene in John's gospel in which Jesus stands by the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus with Lazarus' sister Martha. He tells her, as one of the Pharisees might have, "Your brother will rise again." Martha replies, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day," and Jesus tells her, "I am the resurrection and the life."10

"I am the resurrection."

Discussions about the possibility of resurrection and Christian reasons to believe it are certainly appropriate. It's not helpful just to tell interested enquirers, "Take it or leave it." And doctrinal statements are needed to make Christian belief clear. But the basic Christian answer to the question, "Will the dead be raised?" is, "Jesus is risen." Christ is the resurrection, and all who are in Christ will share in his new life.

A radical change has taken place in the world between that day when Jesus spoke with the Sadducees in Jerusalem and the time after that first Easter. The common belief among those who believed in the resurrection was that it would take place, as Martha said, "on the last day," at the end of the world. If that's the case, and "If Jesus has been raised, then the end of the world has begun."11 We are, as Paul told the Corinthians, those "on whom the ends of the ages have come."12

That's very good news for us who follow Jesus.


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