27 October 2010

Seven brothers, a bride, and questions about eternal life

Seven brothers … tables outside the Seven Brothers Taverna in the old Venetian harbour in Rethymnon

Patrick Comerford

Luke 20: 27-38

27 Προσελθόντες δέ τινες τῶν Σαδδουκαίων, οἱ [ἀντι] λέγοντες ἀνάστασιν μὴ εἶναι, ἐπηρώτησαν αὐτὸν 28 λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, Μωϋσῆς ἔγραψεν ἡμῖν, ἐάν τινος ἀδελφὸς ἀποθάνῃ ἔχων γυναῖκα, καὶ οὗτος ἄτεκνος ᾖ, ἵνα λάβῃ ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ τὴν γυναῖκα καὶ ἐξαναστήσῃ σπέρμα τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ. 29 ἑπτὰ οὖν ἀδελφοὶ ἦσαν: καὶ ὁ πρῶτος λαβὼν γυναῖκα ἀπέθανεν ἄτεκνος: 30 καὶ ὁ δεύτερος 31 καὶ ὁ τρίτος ἔλαβεν αὐτήν, ὡσαύτως δὲ καὶ οἱ ἑπτὰ οὐ κατέλιπον τέκνα καὶ ἀπέθανον. 32 ὕστερον καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἀπέθανεν. 33 ἡ γυνὴ οὖν ἐν τῇ ἀναστάσει τίνος αὐτῶν γίνεται γυνή; οἱ γὰρ ἑπτὰ ἔσχον αὐτὴν γυναῖκα.

34 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου γαμοῦσιν καὶ γαμίσκονται, 35 οἱ δὲ καταξιωθέντες τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου τυχεῖν καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως τῆς ἐκ νεκρῶν οὔτε γαμοῦσιν οὔτε γαμίζονται: 36 οὐδὲ γὰρ ἀποθανεῖν ἔτι δύνανται, ἰσάγγελοι γάρ εἰσιν, καὶ υἱοί εἰσιν θεοῦ, τῆς ἀναστάσεως υἱοὶ ὄντες. 37 ὅτι δὲ ἐγείρονται οἱ νεκροὶ καὶ Μωϋσῆς ἐμήνυσεν ἐπὶ τῆς βάτου, ὡς λέγει κύριον τὸν θεὸν Ἀβραὰμ καὶ θεὸν Ἰσαὰκ καὶ θεὸν Ἰακώβ: 38 θεὸς δὲ οὐκ ἔστιν νεκρῶν ἀλλὰ ζώντων, πάντες γὰρ αὐτῷ ζῶσιν.

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’


This is the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday after next, the Third Sunday before Advent (Sunday 7 November). There is an old Hollywood musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, starring Jane Powell and Howard Keel; there are any superstitions about the seventh son of a seventh son; I even know a restaurant in the old harbour in Rethymnon in Crete called “The Seven Brothers.”

But this reading about seven brothers and one bride is primarily a story about questions about the resurrection (for parallel readings see also Matthew 22: 23-33; Mark 12: 18-27). How does this relate to the approaching Advent theme?


Where do the events in this Gospel reading take place?

Last week, we were in Jericho, where Jesus dined with Zacchaeus. I spoke of the pace of Luke’s narrative was now being geared up, for Jesus is on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem. We are being built up to anticipate the climax of the Gospel.

By this week, we are in Jerusalem. The closing verses of the chapter before this reading, which have been skipped over in the allocation of lectionary readings, tell us that by now Jesus is teaching in the Temple every day (Luke 19: 47), and that the religious and secular authorities – the chief priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people – “kept looking for a way to kill him, but they did not find anything they could do ...” (Luke 19: 47-48).

2, Could you make connections with the widow who plays a prominent part at the beginning of the next chapter (Luke 21: 1-7)? Does it matter to this widow or to Christ who she was married to? Are those who are widowed easy prey? Surely this is not how they are to be seen in the Kingdom of God?

Looking at the reading:

Verse 27:
The chief priests and the Temple leadership were mainly Sadducees, who regarded only the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, as authoritative Scripture. Not finding any mention of life after death in these books, they rejected its existence. The apostles had a similar encounter with the Sadducees when they were preaching the Resurrection (see also Acts 4: 1-4), as did the Apostle Paul when he faced the council (see 23: 6-10).

Verses 28-33: The Sadducees, in an effort to trap Jesus into speaking against the Law, ask him a question about levirate marriage. This is not about the marriage of Levites, but comes from the Latin word levir, meaning a brother-in-law. There was a sense in which a man was seen to live on in his son. So, if a man died without sons and heirs, his brother was required to marry his widow and give her a son, thus continuing the family line (See Deuteronomy 25: 5-10; see also Genesis 38: 8).

Verses 34-36: Luke makes the same point as Matthew and Mark, but in somewhat different language: human relations in the home do not exist in the same way beyond death. Jesus distinguishes two ages and kinds of existence. Mortals are part of this age by the fact of physical birth, and of the age to come by resurrection verse 36; Romans 1: 4).

Verse 34: “This age” (verse 34) is the current era; “that age” (verses 35-36) is the era to come, when Christ returns. In God’s kingdom, marriage will no longer exist. Those who are admitted into eternal life for their faith (“considered worthy of a place...,” verse 35) will all be “children of God” (verse 36). This will be their family relationship. They will be immortal (“cannot die anymore”) and will be like “angels,” who, in the time of Jesus, were considered to be sexless.

Verses 37-38: Jesus argues for life after death, and for the resurrection, from the Pentateuch, the very five books to which the Sadducees limited their understanding of what is Scripture. In the story of the Burning Bush, God tells Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham ...” (see Exodus 3: 6). Because God says is (not was), Abraham is alive now. He died, so he must have been brought back to life, resurrected. God is truly “God ... of the living” (verse 38). God is not frustrated by physical death (verse 38).

Making connections:

How would you make connections with the other readings for this Sunday:

Haggai 1: 15b to 2: 9 – this too is a pre-Advent reading, with the promise of God’s future plans for heaven and earth being fulfilled. However, those who are using the paired readings will find the Old Testament reading (Job 19: 23-27a) makes more obvious connections with the Gospel reading: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth” (verse25).

Psalm 145: 1-5, 18-22 – which can help to make good connections with the Old Testament reading;

II Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17 – talks about eternal comfort and good hope (verse 17).

2, What happens afterwards?

Verse 39: Some scribes, who are believers in resurrection, are pleased with Jesus’ argument. Verse 40 says that the Sadducees “no longer dared to ask him [Jesus] another question.” Jesus has evaded the trap that was set for him. What does this say about how we should deal with those who question and challenge the Christian faith?

3, The Gospel reading for the following Sunday (the Second Sunday before Advent, 14 November) is Luke 21: 5-19. Pointing out that the reading we have been looking at is located in the Temple may prepare people for the next Sunday’s reading.

4, Can you think of other Gospel parallels? How about the story of the Samaritan woman at the well? How does this reading compare with those stories in which Jesus uses the wedding banquet as an illustration of the Kingdom of God?

Some pastoral questions:

Death and November: How would you approach this reading in the context of November, which is often associated with remembering the dead, including All Saints’ Day (1 November), All Souls’ Day (2 November) and Remembrance Day (11 November)?

2, What response to this reading might you expect from people in your parish who are widowed, or in difficult or broken marriages, or people who have never married? How would that shape and influence any sermon you write?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 27 October 2010.

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