Luke 20: 27-40
What kinds of questions are important to ask? There are questions about the color of the sky. Questions about where we came from. Then in this text today, there are questions about the resurrection, where we will be forever.
First a word about the Sadducees: They denied the resurrection of the dead since it is not mentioned in the Books of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament — the only text recognized by them as authoritative). They held a “hyperconservative” (as one commentator describes it) attitude toward both religion and politics They had, in spite of this conservative stance, found it possible to accommodate themselves to a way of living that fit fairly comfortably into the kind of life pressed upon the Jews by Rome. Because of this wholehearted cooperation with Rome, they maintained an aristocratic position in society. For that very reason, however, they were despised by many of the Jews who thought their association with Rome to be contemptible. Nonetheless, as primary members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, they held considerable power and authority.
This is the only time Luke mentions the Sadducees in his Gospel although they are mentioned in the other Gospels a bit more frequently. In this incident, however, several questions are all wrapped up in one when they ask the “gotcha question” concerning whose wife the woman would be after having had seven husbands. A brief review of the chapter in which the question takes place will help see this.
The chapter opens with a basic inquiry posed to Jesus as he taught in the temple: “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” The people have been impressed by this “authority” with which he taught. His popularity seriously challenged the authority of the chief priests, scribes and elders who posed the question, though. It is this theme of “authority” that now runs through the entire chapter as it unfolds.
Jesus counters the initial inquiry with a question of his own concerning the baptism of John – was it “from heaven or from man”? (20:4) His questioners were stymied. “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” (20:5, 6) So they refuse to answer and Jesus, in his turn, refuses to tell them the origin of his authority. This “gotcha” standoff befuddled Jesus’ accusers!
Then Jesus told the story of the wicked tenants who kept beating the servants sent to collect the rent until they finally killed the owner’s son who came to claim his father’s due. Through this parable he asserts his own sonship, claiming it on the basis of a quote from Psalm 118. This is evident to his listeners. Luke tells us “The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.” (20:19, 20) All questions are now suspect!
They make a “trial run,” asking about the legitimacy of the Jews’ tax payment to Rome. Perhaps they could get Jesus tangled in a civic dispute that would get him out of the hair of the religious authorities. Jesus, calling for a Roman coin, suggested through it that Rome had an earthly right to govern. They should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (20:25) Again an unexpected “gotcha” standoff.
It was, however, an increasingly dangerous standoff. Was it this or something else that suddenly brought the Sadducees into the picture? Remember – their position was based on the place Rome gave them as positions of civil authority. Whatever the case, they intervene in such a way that one could imagine they wanted to direct the confrontation away from this risky debate concerning civil authority that might endanger their own position and direct it back again to a discussion of religious authority. That is where the text enters the picture.
The law to which they refer about a brother providing a child by a deceased brother’s wife is, indeed, found in a Book of Moses (Deuteronomy 25:5 ff.), and they, very likely with malicious intent, raise a question designed to “corner” Jesus on at least two different levels. ( 1 ) Did Jesus take the laws in the Books of Moses as ultimate authority? Or would he invoke a passage(s) from the prophets to challenge or even (perhaps on his own authority!) go contrary to the Books of Moses? ( 2 ) Would he side with them in denying the resurrection or agree with the Pharisees who believed in the resurrection? At any rate, it was one of those “gotcha” questions designed to either embarrass Jesus or else to challenge his claim to authority altogether.
Jesus fully asserts his authority, telling the Sadducees straightforwardly that they were entirely on the wrong track. Life after death is very, very different from life here on this earth. The law to which the Sadducees referred had to do with the propagation of a family name on earth, but in heaven there is no such need to propagate names in the same way. There is an entirely different level of existence in the life to come and present earthly arrangements fall by the wayside in heaven.
So far as the resurrection is concerned, he points out that from the time of Moses (the author whom the Sadducees so revered) the resurrection has been in the shadows all along. At the burning bush where Moses had been called as God’s instrument for freeing Israel from Egypt, God had identified himself as the God of the patriarchs who had lived four hundred years before Moses – not as though he had once been their God when they were alive but also still at the time of Moses. He identified himself, in fact, as the God of those who lived – and that included all his people of all time, not just at the time when the Sadducees lived. “For all live in him,” Jesus said. He does not create and give life to destroy it. He creates and gives life in order that the life of this earth might be magnified many times over in the age to come! Thus he both claimed to fully accept the Books of Moses and the teaching of the resurrection all at the same time! The Sadducees “gotcha” question had turned on them in fullest measure.
Then he pushed the question of his own authority to its limits. The scribes, Luke tells us, were pleased that Jesus had put the Sadducees in their place, but those around him “no longer dared to ask him any question.” He refused to let the issue lie, though. Jesus made a strong assertion about his lordship as the very next thing we read after our text! He quoted Psalm 110:1 which says “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” This Jesus, of the line of David, said of this psalm text, “David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?” (Luke 20:44) He could not answer those who had asked him to “tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority” (20:2) with much greater clarity. He claimed his authority on the basis of his being the one whom David, long ago, had called Lord. This was the ultimate claim that eventually led to the cross. He proceeded immediately after making this claim to warn his disciples “in the hearing of all the people” that they should “beware of the scribes” who loved the seats of authority and all the honor that went with those seats. They, in fact, “devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (20:47)
The “gotcha question” was now completely turned on the questioners . . . and the questioners, now thoroughly irritated and humiliated, being sure he was nothing more than an arrogant usurper, plotted the path to the cross in earnest.
THE QUESTION OF AUTHORITY
By this time it is clear that the text, while on the surface revolving around the question of the resurrection, is actually a text about Jesus’ claim to having authority.. We are, therefore, confronted with that question today: In what way does Jesus exercise authority in our lives and on what basis does he do so?
To speak about authority even in broad, general terms in our day is a tricky thing. What is its origin and how is it to be exercised? In many ways it is a crucial question among us, for underlying many of the major problems in our present world is the inability to adequately address this issue.
The source of authority is identified in a number of different ways. It is common in our day, e.g., to think of authority as an individual thing – each person is an authority unto him / herself. That idea, of course, is extended by saying that the individual who makes the strongest assertion of his or her will results in the power that we call “authority.” Dictators are authorities of this sort . . . and there are plenty of big and little dictators running around today, whether over nations, within communities, or within a family!
At one time (and in minor forms this idea is still held in some circles today) the right to exercise authority is passed down from generation to generation as a family heirloom – an inheritance of authority. This idea lies behind families of royalty in a nation through dominant figures in a family tree.
Perhaps a more common way of thinking about authority in today’s world has to do with its being assigned by others through appointment or election. Our national government functions that way, but surprisingly many other institutions as variable as companies and church bodies also function in this way.
A common mutual community assent is the source of still another kind of authority . . . an identification of a person or people with particular gifts and abilities is / are recognized and accepted as being those in whom the welfare of the community out of which they have arisen is entrusted.
Why rehearse all this? What does it have to do with the text? It has more to do with the text specifically and our faith in general than first meets the eye! Since we have such difficulty identifying how authority arises, how it is exercised, and to what extent we are subject to it we have great difficulty in identifying or understanding either the authority of Jesus in particular or of God in general.
Even in his day the scandal of Jesus was that he asserted his authority apart from any human appointment, any “testing ground” as to whether he deserved to have such a position or not, or that he in any other way had been “approved” by those over whom he exercised his authority. To use the terms of our day, God is not up for election. God is God! Gpd does not exercise divine authority because someone appointed him as an overlord . . . he is himself the authority! And the scandal of Jesus was that he asserted the same thing for himself. That was the making of his cross! It is hard to find better words to describe the difficulty the people of his time must have had in accepting this self-appropriated authority better than the words of Isaiah: “He grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:2, 3) What kind of authority could such a man have? Who would follow such a man as though he had any authority at all?
The disciples did, of course – although it was quite clear that they did so with a certain tentativeness. They did not want to go where he wanted to lead them – to Jerusalem – for they sensed the danger that lurked in that city. That which he openly embraced they fled from with fear. They knew they should follow him, for they felt the power of his authority in their bones. Yet they could not understand him, found it difficult to go where he went, and when the chips were down they fled from his shadows. So it was with the crowd that could cry “Hosanna to the Son of David” on Sunday and “crucify him” on Friday.
His words and his ways were both marvelously magnetic, drawing people to himself right and left – and at the same time they were scandalous and repelling when he asked people to give up their lives in order to follow him.
His authority was exercised in this way, though: he gave up his life for us and for all people of all time! What a strange assertion of authority! His authority was asserted at precisely the place where it seemed to have gotten away from him – on the cross. There the word went out from beneath the cross, “If you are who you say you are, come down and we will believe in you,” “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One.” His unspoken response came from that very same cross in return: “I shall not leave this impalement for which I came. Were I to save myself I would not be able to save you – and if I am to save you, as I have come to do, I cannot save myself.” Paul said it so well: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-9) His authority was derived from eternity. The Father had sent him to live among us and he was obedient to his Father’s will, giving up his own earthly will to live (which he most certainly could have exercised) in order to die for us. This was the authority he exercised over his very life. It was his own decision to give his life for us. That was his authority. He exercised that authority in behalf of us! There is the wonder!
This is the kind of authority we have a hard time understanding in our day. We are prone to think of power, of strength of arm, of control over others – or control over our own lives, of commanding presence, of muscle flexed, of pronounced dominance over others when we speak of authority.
It is true that when we speak thus, we do, indeed, speak of exercising authority over our own lives . . . taking our own future into our own hands. In our own hands, however, there is no real future – and we all know that from history – our own personal history as well as world history! As a test of this I simply ask you how well your asserted authority over your own life has gone? Do you – can you – “restrain” it as you will, direct it as you will, give it to others as you will, exercise strong control over it in the face of sin? We need not deceive ourselves on that level. Such authority over self is at best tentative, certainly self-delusive and always short-lived in the long run of history, never sure lest or before one stronger than we appear on the scene. It is the “gotcha” question of the smiling evil one as he grasps our self-control from our hands: “Do you really control your own life after the fashion that you like to think you do?” But God asks the same question. And both God and the evil one insist that we be honest with our answer!
Here, though, one stands before us today with nail marks in his hands and feet and a spear mark in his side with a crown of thorns now shining with the jewels of eternity, beckoning to us to come and follow him. He calls us to give up our lives to him as he has given up his life for us – to devote ourselves to the glory and honor of God and to the welfare of our neighbor. This is the “authority” he gives us – the authority to be a “little Christ” to those around us. He calls us to “look not only to [our] own interests, but also the interests of others,” for this is “the mind of Christ.” He stands before us, nail and spear marks clearly visible, as one whom “God has highly exalted and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:4, 5, 9-11)
The crucified one, risen from the dead, spoke his last earthly words over his disciples according to Matthew’s account, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) The one who exercised his authority over sin has driven its ultimate power out of our lives by sending his Spirit upon us in our baptism and has called us to represent him in all the earth. The one who exercised his authority over death, driving it from its dark shadows by the glory of his resurrection, comes to us in bread and wine as nourishment for the path of life.
We can trust him, for in him all authority in heaven and on earth has been vested. His was the ultimate “gotcha” when he subdued Satan, sin and death . . . and there was none who could respond to him. He had the last word . . . and he is the last word!
A Message from Rev. Hubert Beck brought to you by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain View, Arkansas. For prayer or more information, contact Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected]. A Pass it On Project