Can You Lose Control?

Most of the time when Jesus is arguing with someone in the gospels, it’s the Pharisees. But this time, he is confronted by a group that we only see once in the Gospel of Luke: the Sadducees.

The Sadducees were a group in the upper social and economic strata of Jewish society who jockeyed for power with the Pharisees. They are known in our story today for what they don’t believe: that there is such a thing as resurrection.

It’s a cold and strange life to contemplate, living with the idea that our souls are as finite as our bodies.

The positive part of it for the Sadducees is that it makes them emphasize that what we do on Earth really matters because it is our only chance to make things right. There is no pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by for the Sadducees. You have to take responsibility for your life and your society now because there is no afterlife.

But it’s clear that at least this particular group of Sadducees in this particular moment are not exactly focused on “living your best life now.”

They are concerned only with tripping Jesus up on orthodox Torah interpretation so they can humiliate him and threaten his power and his standing with the people. And so they create this bizarre hypothetical scenario in which a childless woman has to marry a series of seven brothers as each of them dies without leaving an heir.

They think they’re so smart with their tricky question.

But Jesus doesn’t engage with them because he needs to show them and the crowds how misplaced their priorities are.

The law gives lip service to protecting the childless woman by having her marry her dead husband’s brothers, the idea being that she will be more economically stable with a husband.

But I can guarantee you that in this hypothetical scenario, it does not occur to any of the Sadducees to ask this woman if she wants to be passed along through seven men like a party favor.

Can you imagine anything worse than having to marry all six of your husband’s brothers?

It would be awful in and of itself, made worse because it’s really only happening simply to preserve his property in the family line. And that’s not to mention how terrible it would be to be widowed and grieving seven times over, while dealing with the pain of being unable to conceive a child.

But the Sadducees don’t care.

Their only priority is scoring rhetorical points against Jesus.

So they ask this question about a resurrection they don’t even believe in to try and manipulate and trip him up.

What would make them so callous to not only the life of this woman, hypothetical though she may be, but also make them go out of their way to confront Jesus about a doctrine they don’t believe in?

Fear, power and control, the trinity of bad motivations that leads us all astray.

Whether or not our souls have eternal life is a really high-stakes doctrine, and the Sadducees know they are by far in the minority in their belief.

They need to be right.

They need to be right to preserve their economic and social standing in their society, they need to be right to justify their own decision-making that does not take into account an afterlife judgment process, and they need to be right to assuage their own fear of death.

If God does judge human beings, but only in our current lives because there is no afterlife, the Sadducees, by virtue of the fact that they are rich and powerful, consider themselves walking proof of God having judged them righteous in the here and now.

What we need to consider is how often our own fear and our need for power and control blind us to what should be our true priorities.

How often do we fall into the trap of the Sadducees?

They are trying to set a trap for Jesus, but instead fall into one themselves when their callousness is exposed.

How often can we not see the need and suffering of someone right in front of us, like this woman who is losing husband after husband, because we’re trying to score points in some meaningless war of status and rightness with others?

It becomes clear that we need resurrection in so many ways in our lives. We need Jesus to resurrect our inner goodness and concern for others every day, bringing to life our better selves to love and serve others.

When we think of resurrection, most of the time we think of ourselves as individuals.

We cherish the stories of near-death and out-of-body experiences, hoping for every shred of evidence we can get that we are headed somewhere good and beautiful and peaceful, that our loved ones await us in the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

But that is the perspective of a people rich and powerful, the perspective of people who are comfortable in our freedom, autonomy and prosperity.

Commentator Richard Swanson points out that the resurrection holds a group-oriented justice focus for people who are oppressed and persecuted.

Resurrection is important in terms of “the ultimate justice of the world. The Sadducees understood this world to be the only world in which God would act as a keeper of covenantal promises; Pharisees understood that God would keep promises and enact justice even (maybe even particularly) beyond the boundaries of this world, which was a good (and necessary) thing because Rome quite clearly controlled this one and was clearly not going to be paid back for its injustices.

This appears to matter for Luke both because he is telling the story of Jesus, who was killed by the Romans, and because he is telling his story (in the form we now possess) around the year 100 of the Common Era (CE). He is, therefore, telling his story of the Roman abuse of power to audiences who remember Rome’s crushing of the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE) and Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Some ancient sources set the Jewish death toll in that defeat at around one million. That is surely too high, but the defeat was devastating, and I can understand why Luke would insist that it would take a general resurrection of the dead for accounts to be properly balanced. Rome held this world under its brutal power, and Luke was not willing (nor were the Pharisees, nor was Jesus) to let Rome have the last word when it came to God’s Creation and God’s promises.”

The resurrection matters not as much for what will happen to us individually, but for the knowledge that the going forth of God’s plans far into the future will ensure that there is time for God to bring justice about in the end.

It is also an intriguing perspective in that instead of punishing wrongdoers with everlasting torment, justice is brought about instead by the resurrection of those unjustly killed.

Rather than evil being punished by the imposition of more darkness and pain, the cosmic scales of justice are brought even again and tipped over to the side of good by an overabundance of resurrected life, the raising up of the faithful souls to everlasting peace and glory with God.

The idea that God meets and defies death with an overwhelming tide of resurrected life is a perspective we need more than ever in the wake of the news this morning that there are twelve hundred confirmed dead in the typhoon in the Philippines and it is feared that the final death toll may top ten thousand.

Our broken and hurting world needs resurrection not in some hazy afterlife with pearly gates and angels playing harps.

We need resurrection in our lives here and now.

But we must ask ourselves once again if we are living like Sadducees.

Are we living as though the resurrection is real and true or not?

Could anyone look at our lives and our priorities and know that we believe in resurrection?

Or have we been so beaten down by grief and tragedy and the everyday grind of life that we are functional Sadducees?

How sad it must make God to see us walking around as though death is winning.

How sad God must be to see us live as though God does not have the power to raise up new possibility and opportunity in our lives at any moment, if only we are looking for it and have the faith and courage to act upon it.

Because in the end the final problem goes beyond apathy and goes right back to fear, fear of loss of control.

In a world that seems to be spinning apart at times, we have to comfort ourselves with an illusion of control, control of our current lives and our future.

Believing in resurrection requires a relinquishing of control.

Resurrection is not a process in which we can be in charge, in the driver’s seat.

Resurrection is a process that must be surrendered to with profound and courageous faith, because we have to die to experience it.

And if there is one fear we cannot get control of, it is our fear of death, not just our own personal biological death, but the death of our power, the death of our wealth, the death of our self-imposed limitations, the death of our excuses.

But being willing to die, to die to our fears and our shame and our sin and our selfishness, to die to our illusion of control, is what opens up the door to resurrection.

Jesus calls us in our gospel today “children of the resurrection.” We are so liberated by the power of resurrection in our lives that we are free to run around and play in God’s kingdom as God’s children, safe and happy and secure in the knowledge that we are beloved.

But if we want to live not as Sadducees but as people who have real, concrete experience of resurrection in our lives, we have to trust that God is on the other side of whatever death we are being asked to face in our lives.

If we can muster the courage to let ourselves start dying, then we can begin really living.