Download or listen to The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, “Not Blotted Out” (Luke 20:27-40)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The question that the Sadducees ask Jesus probably seems as absurd to you as the resurrection of the dead seemed to them. Why would anyone raise this question? I imagine most of us have a hard time thinking about the situation the Sadducees raise: seven brothers marrying the same woman? Our idea of marriage is one of free choice. What if the woman doesn’t want to marry any or all of those brothers? What if they don’t want to marry her? But let’s lay all those questions aside for a moment; let’s lay aside the absurdity of the question and let it stand. Let the law in Deuteronomy 25 stand: that if two brothers live in the same house, and one of them is married but dies without having any children, the unmarried brother should marry his dead brother’s widow and produce an heir for his dead brother. And all of this is so that the dead brother’s name, his line, would not be blotted out of Israel. That’s the point. So the Sadducees take this law to its extreme and imagine seven brothers living together and marrying the same woman to carry out the law. But they use this for their own purpose of proving that the idea of the resurrection is absurd. Maybe this hypothetical situation had worked well against the Pharisees, who did believe in the resurrection of the dead. So now they try it against Jesus. See, Jesus? What if these seven brothers were all married to the same woman? Then, when they all rise from the dead, whose wife will she be, since they were all married to her? See? Ridiculous.
But Jesus says, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re out of your element. You don’t know anything about this creation or about the new creation; about this age, or about the age of the resurrection. People get married in this age because they die. In the age to come, those who are counted worthy to attain to the resurrection are not married or given in marriage because they do not die. That law did not exist for the sake of the age to come, but for the sake of this one.”
The strange thing about this law, though, is that there are only one or two places in the whole Old Testament where it is actually carried out. As far as we can tell, it seems that this law was hardly ever needed. It’s only mentioned explicitly once, and maybe hinted at once more. It is hinted at in the book of Ruth, when Boaz marries Ruth and their firstborn son is like Naomi’s son, an heir for her family when she had none. His name was Obed, the grandfather of David, who is the ancestor of Jesus. And the only other time this law is mentioned is in Genesis 38. There is a man named Judah, who is one of the twelve sons of Jacob, of Israel. Judah has a son named Er, and Judah finds Er a wife named Tamar. But Er, Genesis 38 says, is wicked, and God kills him. So Judah tells his son Onan to do his duty under the law and give his brother an heir. But Onan is not happy that his firstborn will be his brother’s heir instead of his, so he avoids doing his duty. (If you want to know how he avoids it, read Genesis 38. I’m trying to keep this PG here!) But Onan refusing to do his duty is wicked before God, and so God kills him, too. Judah has another son, but he’s getting a little nervous now that two of his sons who were married to Tamar have died. So he tells Tamar to wait a while until the third son, Shelah, grows up. So Tamar waits, and waits, and waits as a widow in Judah’s house. But after a while she realizes that Shelah is old enough to be married, but Judah still hasn’t done what he promised. So she gets tired of waiting, and after Judah’s wife dies, Judah goes out with some friends. And Tamar takes off her widow’s clothing and disguises herself as a cult prostitute, and sits where she knows Judah is going to walk by. Judah does and hires her—though he doesn’t know it’s Tamar—and, as a pledge for payment, gives her his seal and the cord it’s on, and his staff. Later, when Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant, he’s going to have her put to death for adultery. But she produces his seal and his staff, and Judah says, “She is more righteous than I am, because I did not give her my son Shelah.” Tamar gives birth to twins, and one of them is named Perez. And if you look in Luke 3, you will find both Judah and Perez in the genealogy of Jesus. So the only two times in the whole Old Testament where this law is carried out, the result is ancestors of Jesus.
Why are people married and given in marriage? Because they die. Because you and I die. Because our ancestors have died. Because Er and Onan died. Because brothers die childless, and their names must not be blotted out of Israel. We die because we sin. Death is the wages paid out by sin to sinners. Because we die, we all try to preserve some legacy. We try to pass something on to our children, to make the world a better place. A lot of people who don’t believe in anything after this life, like the Sadducees, have only this life to try not to be blotted out of history. But none of it works; none of it keeps us from dying, and the vast majority of us are forgotten, even by our own descendants. What’s worse, infinitely worse, is that the Scriptures say that sin will blot us out of the eternal presence of God. And there’s nothing we can do about it.
But God doesn’t want you blotted out. Because we die, the genealogy must be preserved. And so He put an obscure law into Moses’ mouth that led to the births of two men that history has all but forgotten: Perez and Obed. And eventually their bloodline leads to Jesus, who is neither married nor given in marriage. He takes the whole history of the world and His own genealogy into His own flesh and blood. He takes up the wickedness of Er and Onan, the sin of Tamar and Judah, and He works it to His own purposes. And He has done no less for you. I know that some of you have ancestors of whose sin you are ashamed. You are shocked at their sin like you’re shocked at the sin of Tamar and Judah. You may wish they were blotted out of your genealogy! But they’re there. And you are joined to them by sin and death. Of course, we’re never shocked at our own sin; we’re barely even surprised. We’re only shocked at the sins of others. But God is not shocked by any sin, not even by yours. He takes it as His own. He takes it into His own history, into His own flesh and blood. When you are baptized, you are grafted in to Israel, to Jesus’ genealogy. You are adopted and washed clean, and instead of being blotted out of Israel, your sin is. Now you are sons of God, which means you’re sons of the resurrection. Now you cannot die because you are joined to Jesus, who Himself cannot die. Now not even your death can blot you out or separate you from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. The only qualification for being counted worthy of the resurrection is that you be a sinner. Because only sinners die, and that means only sinners are raised again. And in that day you will sing with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, with Judah and Tamar, Perez and Obed; with all your ancestors who have died in the faith. For Jesus’ sake, your name has been written in the Lamb’s book of life; for Jesus’ sake, you will never be blotted out of Israel.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/9/13