I’ve known people who often try to make you or others look like a fool. They ask questions meant to trap others. Or they come back with a retort meant only to wound a perceived opponent. It’s easy to become flustered around them, or to fight fire with fire, but that often just scorches the landscape.
Jesus is approached by some Sadducees who want to trap him with a far-fetched story about some brothers, a woman and the resurrection. He responds by pushing their beliefs and calling them — and us — to something more.
A Sermon Based on Luke 20:27-38
An expert witness has just been called to the stand, but the DA is trying to prove the witness is not at all knowledgeable. He says, “Now, Ms. Vito, being an expert on general automotive knowledge, can you tell me… what would the correct ignition timing be on a 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet, with a 327 cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor?” She looks at the DA with a cocked head and replies, “It’s a [trick] question.” The DA retorts, “Does that mean that you can’t answer it?” “It’s impossible to answer, “she exclaims. “Impossible because you don’t know the answer!” “Nobody could answer that question!”
The DA turns to the judge and says, “Your Honor, I move to disqualify Ms. Vito as a ‘expert witness’!” The judge looks down at Ms. Vito and asks “Can you answer the question?” “No,” she says, “It’s a trick question!” The judge pauses momentarily and then asks, “Why is it a trick question?” To which Mona Lisa Vito replies, “’Cause Chevy didn’t make a 327 in ’55; the 327 didn’t come out till ’62. And it wasn’t offered in the Bel Air with a four-barrel carb till ’64. However, in 1964, the correct ignition timing would be four degrees before top-dead-center.” And that scene, in my mind, sealed the Oscar for Marisa Tomei in the film “My Cousin Vinny.”
Trick questions sit dead center today as the Sadducees create some cockamamie story in order to make Jesus look like a fool. You have to wonder how long they spent dreaming up this scenario. The begin by reminding Jesus of the command in the Torah for a man to marry his widowed sister-in-law if his brother has not fathered any children. Then they start turning the screws. “Jesus,” they slyly begin, “There are 7 brothers. And the oldest is married, but dies childless. So the second marries the widow, but he also does childless, and so on, all the way to last brother. And then the woman dies too. So, at the resurrection of the dead, whose wife is she since they all married her?” The shoot each other smug glances all around figuring they have just trapped Jesus.
But Jesus, seeing the snare, answers in a way that deflates the question immediately. “While people marry in this life,” he tells them, “in the resurrection they will be like the angels because they cannot die anymore and will not need to be married.” You may have missed it, but Jesus just zinged the Sadducees, who as Luke reminded us, don’t believe in the resurrection, nor do they believe in angels. (Which is how I learned to tell them apart from the Pharisees. The didn’t believe in angels or the resurrection, that’s why they were sad, you see?) But then he goes on, turning back to Moses because these religious types only took the Torah—the 5 books of Moses—as authoritative. “And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the burning bush. God tells Moses that the Lord is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” God did not say to Moses, as one commentator put it, “‘Once upon a time long ago, I used to be the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, but now they are dead and gone, though I remember them with fondness.’ No, God speaks in present tense to announce that God was, is and continues to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and, Jesus concludes, ‘For to [God] all of them are alive. ” God is the God of the living.
Two things bubble up for me in this text. First, Jesus calls us to life, not only in the age to come, but in the here and now. If you were given just a few months to live, I suspect you wouldn’t focus on trying to trap your neighbor in a philosophical question about politics or religion or even, dare I say it, church politics. I bet you wouldn’t focus on the trivial in life, but in ordering your affairs and seeking to connect and restore relationships. You’d make time for ones you love and go take see the ocean or that place you love. You’d cherish meals with family. Listen to that Bach Concerto again, or read that book, or write a few letters. You’d think about the legacy you’d like to leave—a legacy of love and generosity of spirit, and, if you had them, finances. It comes down to relationships, with God and others. Truly living with gusto and delight.
But we like trick questions and philosophical debates because they make us “right” or the center of attention or as a way to focus on ourselves and make others look foolish. So we have a penchant for grumbling and looking for the fault lines in another person’s way of thinking or life and try to use that to our own advantage. And living in that way only leads to destruction. It makes us petty and dour and among those who walk this life half-dazed never really seeing God’s hope or love nor delighting in God’s goodness. When we live like that we are more among the walking dead than the living, something I think Jesus subtly pointed out to the Sadducees as well.
Second, I am painfully aware that for those who have lost a beloved spouse this text sounds nothing like good news. If you have experienced a deep love in this life and have lost your partner, for Jesus to proclaim there is no marriage in the next life sounds more like hell than heaven. In Jesus’ day, it is good to remember, that wives were seen more as property than as equals—shown, of course, in the set up story of this woman being passed from one brother to the next showing she had no say in the matter. (What if she thought brother number five was a real dud? No recourse could come her way; she had to marry him.) In the age of the resurrection, such relationships will cease in part because we will experience true equality and not need to depend on one another for financial security nor for the security which children provide as we enter old age.
Additionally, and more important, Jesus does not say that we will not see those we love, or even be in relationship with them, but that we will not be married. Our understanding is limited to this time and place, and God, who desires all good things for us, will give us something far greater in the age to come, something completely beyond our imaginations. Heaven will fully embody our truest and most noble longings, and love will reign supreme.
As we gather to baptize a number of children this morning, the invitation we give, and the vows we make, point us to live fully. To connect with others—and especially with those whom we have a tendency to avoid. To love deeply and honor each other in all our relationships. To follow Jesus as Lord. To look for God’s goodness and joy in all the areas of our lives. For we serve the God of the living, and we are called to be among the living ourselves, experiencing the profound beauty of the resurrection all the days of this life. Amen.
 Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4, pg. 287.