Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 20.27-38
Proper 27 - Year C

Other texts: 


Since early in the summer (Proper 8 C), Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). He has finally arrived. An outline of the events from the entrance to Jerusalem until Holy Week is below. It is adapted from Culpepper's outline.

As this outline indicates, summary statements about Jesus teaching in the temple form "bookends" (19:47-48; 21:37-38) to the major section of this outline. These "summaries" indicates:

1. Jesus taught in the temple
2. He taught every day.
3. There were two responses to Jesus' teachings:

a. "The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him" (19:47)
b. "All the people were spellbound by what they heard" (19:48) and they got up early in the morning to listen to Jesus! (21:38 -- hmmm, is that something that should be stressed on Sunday morning?)

In the smaller context, our text is part of a conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. This conflict is partly indicated by four questionings as indicated in the outline above:

1. the chief priests, scribes, & elders question Jesus about his authority
2. they [scribes & chief priests from v. 19] question Jesus about paying taxes
3. Sadducees (v. 27) & scribes (v. 39) question Jesus about the resurrection
4. Jesus questions them about the Messiah being David's Lord


This is the only occurrence of the Sadducees in Luke. However, they appear a few times in Acts (4:1; 5:17; 23:6, 7, 8). They appear in the parallels to our text (Mt 22:23; Mk 12:18). In all the other instances in the gospels (which are found only in Matthew), they are connected with the Pharisees in opposition to Jesus (3:7; 16:1, 5, 11, 12; 22:34).

It is stated in a number of these passages that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. A variant reading (in my Greek text) of v. 27 indicates that they "speak against" or "oppose" the resurrection (antilego rather than lego). Acts 23:8 also indicates that they didn't believe in angels or spirits.

It is generally thought that their name came from Zadok, who was the high priest under David, or possibly a later Zadok. The group by this name first appeared in the 2nd century BC and disappeared in the 1st century AD after the destruction of the temple in 70. There would be no need for temple priests if there were no temple.

According to Josephus as reported by the Harper's Dictionary of the Bible, "the Sadducees are said to reject the immortality of the soul, to attribute all human activity to free will and none to fate (or providence), and to reject other traditions, especially those of the Pharisees."

The article goes on to state:

The Sadducees were influential with only a few wealthy families and not with the people, who followed the Pharisees' interpretation of the law.... [they] were boorish in their social interactions,... they encouraged conflict with rather than respect for their teachers, were more stern than the Pharisees in recommending punishments for crimes, and ... aroused Herod's suspicions because they supported the Hasmoneans against him. From this data many commentators have surmised that the Sadducees were mostly priests and wealthy, powerful community leaders who sat in the Sanhedrin, were greatly hellenized (i.e., influenced by Greek culture), and cultivated good relationships with the Romans. [p. 891]

In contrast to Matthew's presentation of Pharisees and Sadducees working together against Jesus, Rabbinic literature (as well as Acts) pictures these two groups as opponents. Part of this opposition arises because the Pharisees accepted the authority of the oral tradition as extensions and proper interpretations of the Law and the Sadducees did not.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible expands on the Sadducees traditional view of the Law and their rejection of the resurrection.

Jews had long believed that so long as Israel obeyed the law then God would rule over them and reward the righteous and punish the wicked in this life. Belief in the resurrection, on the other hand, was linked to beliefs that the present age was in the grip of dark powers, so that in this life the righteous would suffer, although God would ultimately vindicate them. Those who had died would be raised so that they too could receive their due rewards (Dan. 12:2). To reject belief in the resurrection and, indeed, possibly also in demonic powers who controlled this world in the present age, was then also to reject the belief that this present age was radically corrupted; in fact, from the Sadducees' point of view, those who argued the contrary view may have appeared to deny the continued existence of the covenant between God and Israel. This may also explain their denial of fate. They believed that Jews were free to influence their destiny; if they obeyed the Law and repented and made due restitution when they sinned, then all would be well....

This may suggest a further reason why the Sadducees disappeared after 70 CE. Not only was their position as the Temple aristocracy fundamentally destroyed; their belief that the maintenance of the Temple cult would suffice to stave off real disaster for Israel had also been proven false. [p. 668]

I've presented probably more information about the Sadducees than our text deserves, but one may explore contemporary beliefs that may be similar: denial of the resurrection of the dead; we control our own destinies through our proper actions; the world has not been corrupted. One may expand on this and include other common beliefs that are thought to be Christian, but stray a bit from orthodox Christianity, e.g., "God helps them who help themselves."


The word "levirite" comes from the Latin, levir = "brother-in-law." According to Culpepper (Luke, NIB), such laws are found in Ugarit, Middle Assyrian, and Hittite codes as well as in Deut 25:5-10 (cf. Gen 38:8; Lv 18:16; Ruth 3:9, 12-13).

For the ancient Israelites, before a belief in the resurrection of the dead, "eternal life" was understood as producing heirs (sons?) who would continue the family's ownership of their land. If a husband died before producing sons (Dt 25:5), it was the responsibility of his brother to "perform his duty" to her to produce offspring to continue the name of his brother.

The Sadducees are correct in stating the law that had come from Moses. It really isn't the law that is under question, but the reason for the law. That is, to give eternal life to the deceased brother. (Is that something we want to promote as "biblical family values"?)

They also seem to have the assumption that life after the resurrection (which they don't believe in) is the same as life prior to the resurrection, e.g., being married.

Another sermon topic that could come out of this section is that of properly interpreting and/or using scriptures.


First of all, Jesus makes a contrast between "this age" and "that age". He has made similar distinctions earlier:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. (16:8)

Jesus tells them, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life." (18:29-30)

The contrasts of the ages that Luke presents are

It appears that the question of marriage and procreation was raised in the early church (see esp. 1 Cor 7:1-16). The belief that one lives forever through the resurrection negates the need for children (more properly, sons,) to have "eternal life". This would change the reason why Christians would marry and bear children from a traditional view -- at least the view held by the Sadducees.

Children of "that age" who are raised from the dead, do not need to marry or be given in marriage. That is not where their "eternal life" is to be found.

What does it mean that "for neither are they able to die" (v. 36 literally)? One way of approaching this is to define "death" as separation from God. Children of God, like the angels, cannot be separated from God -- not even through the ending of their physical life in "this age".

In this first response, Jesus deals with the Sadducees' assumption that the resurrected life is like one's earthly life. It is different. A question that is not quite answered by Jesus' response is "When does this 'future life' begin?" Are we not children of God now? Are we not part of "that age" now? Don't we have a never-ending relationship with God now?

One approach to this section is to say that as believers, who are assured of eternal life through the resurrection of the dead, we do not need to be married and produce offspring to have "eternal life." The necessity of children for "eternal life" seems to have been the thinking of the Sadducees (and perhaps others).

Does this mean that Christians shouldn't get married and have children? Whereas that might have been the ideal (see 1 Cor 7:1-16), it wasn't widely practiced. This section of the text could give one an opportunity to talk about marriage and children from a Christian perspective. For much of our society, the "norm" is to be married and have children. For some, that is where they get their identity (which may not be too much of a stretch from the Sadducees' understanding that one's [eternal] life comes through procreation). It is clear from scriptures and practice that God calls some people to live as celibates. There are also married couples who, by choice or biology, do not have children. These are certainly acceptable life-styles within the faith community -- even though they may not receive such positive affirmations from society.

Green (The Gospel of Luke) has a lengthy comment on marriage:

Although typically represented as passive verbs, the instances of the two verbs translated "are given in marriage" (NRSV) actually appear in the middle voice: "to allow oneself to be married." the focus shifts from a man "taking a wife" (vv 28, 29, 31) to include the woman's participation in the decision to marry. This is important because the basic concern here is with a reorientation of human relations through a reorientation of eschatological vision. One sort of person is aligned with the needs of the present age; such persons participate in the system envisioned and advocated by the Sadducees, itself rooted in the legislation governing levirate marriage, with women given and taken, even participating in their own objectification as necessary vehicles for the continuation of the family name and heritage. The other draws its ethos from the age to come, where people will resemble angels insofar as they no longer face death. Absent the threat of death, the need for levirate marriage is erased. The undermining of the levirate marriage ordinance is itself a radical critique of marriage as this has been defined around the necessity of procreation. No longer must women find their value in producing children for patrimony. Jesus' message thus finds its interpretive antecedent in his instruction about family relations of all kinds: Hearing faithfully the good news relativizes all family relationships (cf., e.g., 8:1-3, 19-20). [p. 721]

Culpepper raises two concerns about the issue of marriage and resurrection:

For those who have lived through violent, abusive marriages, the pronouncement that in the resurrection we will neither marry nor be given in marriage may come as liberating good news. On the other hand, those who have enjoyed lifelong intimacy and companionship in marriage may well object that God has invested so much in establishing faithful, loving, and fulfilling relationships in this life that it is unthinkable that such relationships would be terminated in the resurrection. One approach to interpreting this saying is to recognize that it is set in a time when marriage was viewed primarily as an arrangement of a man's rights to a woman and a woman's right to male support. In heaven there will be no need for such arrangements. Leaving aside the physical side of love and marriage (which belong to the flesh), there will be no need to restrict love, intimacy, or companionship to a monogamous relationship. [p. 389-390]

It may be best as Culpepper later suggests, to keep our life on the other side of the resurrection a mystery. It is unknown to us. Yet, he also offers this counsel:

Jesus' words can thus be approached from a positive side. The God who created human life, including the institution of marriage, has also provided for life after death for those who have cultivated the capacity to respond to God's love. The biblical teaching is that life comes from God. There is nothing in or of the human being that is naturally or inherently immortal. If there is life beyond death, it is God's gift to those who have accepted God's love and entered into relationship with God in this life. [p. 390]

If we who have very positive feelings towards God's gifts of marriage and family are going to have to give that up in the resurrection, we have to believe that God's gifts to us at that time will have to be so overwhelming superior to the best we have experienced in our relationships in this life that we will be willing to trade in the very good for something even better. What that might be is a mystery to me.


Jesus next uses the Sadducees' sacred text to respond to their anti-resurrection beliefs. The assumption that Jesus makes is that God is "A God not of the dead but of the living." He seems to assume that that is also the belief of the Sadducees.

When God from the bush declared: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," (Ex 3:6); these people were all dead. If the dead no longer exist, if they have become nothing, then God would be declaring: "I am the God of nothing."

So, if God is to be the God of something, those people must be alive to God (even though they are dead to us). Thus, there must be a resurrection of the dead. The actual voice of God has declared it in the Sadducees' own scripture! (Luke has also presented Abraham as being alive in 16:23 when, after their deaths, the rich man sees Lazarus standing with Abraham.)

I wonder: If God is the God of the living, does that imply that worship of this God has to be "lively"? that worshiping, serving, relating to this God has to be life-giving rather than life-draining? I ask these questions, because I have often seen or heard the opposite: Worship services are described as "being dead;" church volunteers complain of being drained of their life in their activities for a church -- and we let that happen.

Proclaiming that God is the God of the living, I think, has to mean more than just something positive for those who have died or for our future life. It should affect our lives on this planet, in this age, today.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364