Trick Questions

The readings for Sunday, November 6, 2016, Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16—3:5; and Luke 20:27-38.

After Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus (last Sunday’s Gospel reading) in the city of Jericho, Luke points out that the end of the Journey to Jerusalem is almost at hand. Then he inserts the parable of the talents as a final teaching before Jesus enters Jerusalem. Why this parable at this point in the journey? One reason would be that the parable speaks of a king and his subjects, faithful and unfaithful. The faithful subjects in the parable took risks and were rewarded. The unfaithful were punished. A teaching point may be that those who would follow Jesus as king must take risks. He is about to be received and rejected as a king in Jerusalem.

The cleansing of the temple follows. Near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel Jesus told his parents rather boldly, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in the house of my Father?” He has now officially taken charge of his Father’s house, “and was teaching there daily.” As Jesus was teaching in the temple, he was repeatedly confronted with various groups of influential critics, “By what authority do you do these things?” A counter-question of Jesus, which they refuse to answer out of fear of self-indictment, leaves them frustrated and looking foolish. Some scribes (scholars of the Torah) approached him with a trick question about paying taxes to the hated Romans. His wisdom demolishes their test of him. Next come the Sadducees. The Sadducees were mostly of the high priestly clans and their wealthy supporters.
Their object is not only to make Jesus look foolish, but also to make fools out of their Pharisee colleagues on the High Council, the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees in general did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. This important teaching was held by the Pharisees and by Jesus. The Sadducees accepted the authority of the Torah only, that is, the first five books of the Bible. They claimed they could not find in the Torah a teaching proclaiming resurrection of the dead. To make fools out of the Pharisees and Jesus they propose a question. They flatter Jesus by calling him “Teacher … Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man (the surviving brother) must take the wife and raise up children for his brother.”

The reference is to Deuteronomy 25:5. “If brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead brother shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and do the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” The first son born of this union became the dead husband’s heir. The purpose of the law was to prevent the remarriage of an Israelite girl to an alien and also to provide for the welfare of the widow.

In the story presented by the Sadducees there were seven brothers. One after another took the wife of the first brother who died, but one after another they also died without having begotten any children from their dead brother’s widow. Then this “serial widow” also died. Here’s their “gotcha.” “In the resurrection therefore, whose wife will she be, since she was the wife of all seven?” We can imagine that there were triumphal chuckles in the background, “We got him now!” But they did not. To these non-believers in resurrection of the dead, the story was meant to be unsolvable. Not to Jesus. To solve the dilemma he has to respond from the Torah itself, that is, from Moses the supposed author of the only Scriptural authority they accepted. First the Lucan Jesus distinguishes between marriage in this world and marriage in the hereafter. In the latter they “will neither marry nor be given in marriage” because no one will die and therefore procreation is no longer needed.

Jesus compares the resurrected to angels, bodiless spirits. Marriage from a human point of view requires a body. The resurrected are “children of God.” “Children of God” is an Old Testament name for angels. Jesus’ punch line is from the Torah. “That the dead are resurrected, Moses himself revealed in the story about the burning bush, (Exodus 3:6). There he refers to the Lord as God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.” And the conclusion, “God is not God of the dead but God of the living, for to him they are all alive.” Some learned scribes paid Jesus a sincere compliment, “Teacher, you have spoken well!”