Commentary on Luke 20:27-38
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Though the historical origins of this question aren’t exactly clear, a traditional explanation is that this question emerges from centuries-old theological debates. The apparent absurdity of the question is part of the point. One could argue, well, if angels are spiritual and not corporeal (or embodied) beings, then the answer is infinite. But why does it matter? Why is it relevant? When would I ever need to know this? Who even cares?
At face value, the question that opens this Luke passage is precisely the sort of ridiculous hypothetical you might expect while hanging out with friends. The bond of friendship often allows us to entertain frivolous, silly things for their own sake. Who doesn’t need a bit of silliness amid life’s seriousness? The Sadducees, however, are not close personal friends with Jesus. They are not companions around a campfire entertaining themselves with trivial banter. They are people of political and religious influence who are skeptical and concerned about Jesus’ provocative ministerial activity. To be clear: we should not make blanket assertions about the Sadducees, Pharisees, or any of the various Jewish religious and political groups. Nevertheless, the actions of this subset of interrogators invite us to consider their underlying intentions.
The whole of Luke 20 is a series of contentious encounters between Jesus and the various Jewish leaders in and around the temple. This setting is important because the temple represented the seat of moral and spiritual authority for the Jews. For Jesus to command a hearing and an audience in this space meant something. Namely, it meant that his rapport with everyday people was strong. He commanded respect not by virtue of title, but by way of his ability to communicate with deep wisdom and integrity. The ongoing questions presented to Jesus were direct attempts to undermine his credibility before the people.
The layers of this dialogue are telling. First, the author intimates to readers that this group does not believe in resurrection. This sets them at odds not only with Jesus but also with the Pharisees, whose teachings supported this idea. Hence, there is a clear theological conflict at play. Second, the Sadducees appeal to the laws of Moses as written in the Torah. The insinuation is that their question is validated on these grounds. However, their ability to cite the letter of the law regarding Levirate marriage is simply a setup for an elaborate scenario meant to force Jesus into a compromised answer.
Ironically, given their nonbelief in the resurrection, the Sadducees’ question suggests an assumption that resurrection is simply an extension of life as they know it. They anticipate a theoretical problem without realizing that resurrection implies a different set of priorities and concerns. Jesus’ response hints at this distinction. Marriage is a concern of the present world. But life in the resurrection is about a spiritual communion that surpasses earthly bonds. The Sadducees’ question reveals at least two things:
1) their ability to imagine tricky theological situations, and
2) their inability to visualize something beyond present interests.
Their line of inquiry is a matter of temporal debates as opposed to ultimate concerns. Jesus’ response is masterful for the way he embraces the very prophet which the Sadducees revere. Jesus situates his message and meaning within the tradition of Moses, making a case that if the God of their ancestors is indeed the God of the living, then those ancestors are certainly alive in God’s presence.
This dialogue also underscores an attitudinal difference about the power and purpose of the law. Jesus’ words demonstrate his profound respect for the law and the prophets. What makes him subversive is not a rebellious dismissal of Jewish traditions and customs. He values these no less than his opponents do. However, his actions, both in this passage and throughout the chapter, model a particular relationship to tradition. Jesus seems to perceive the anxieties and concerns that underlie these questions. He does not apply the law as a means of gaining leverage or ascending a moral high horse. Rather, his application of the law is oriented towards what is good, just, and beneficial. The law is not a tool at our free disposal, but a guide meant to enrich daily life.
The famed African American poet Langston Hughes wrote a sublime piece that captures the richness of life’s matter. In “Note in Music,” he writes
Life is for the living.
Death is for the dead.
Let life be like music.
And death a note unsaid.1
If life is like music, we could say there is more to it than simply hitting the right note. Music is about the relationship between the notes, the dance of the sounds in the air and across our ears. It is lively, moving, and beautiful. We might think of the law as sheet music, as the guide that provides structure and order to the musical piece. As a musician, I know the value of music theory for helping to clarify our understanding of what we hear and play. But when it comes down to it, you must play with your soul, not just with your hands. The Sadducees undoubtedly have a handle on the “sheet music” of the law. But Jesus reminds them to consider how the music lives and breathes, in this life and the resurrection. It is fair to ask, how can the law point towards a living God if it does not live?
What won’t be resurrected are the petty squabbles and theological quandaries of our times. They will be relegated to the realm of dead things, the notes unsaid. Resurrection does not come without death, but it leaves dead things in its wake. It does not fret over dead husbands and wives. On the contrary, it rejoices that the dead can die no more. May the God of the living continually draw our attention to this life beyond the limits of our imagination.
- Langston Hughes, “Note in Music,” eds. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics, 1995).