“Battle of Wits”

stained glass flower

~ Luke 20:27-40 ~

We live in a world of competing agendas. Different ways of looking at the world, of how the world works, of how to work in the world. These agendas are in conflict—ongoing battles between agendas. And with these competing agendas is lots of  talk, rhetoric. Rhetoric designed to convince the public that each respective agenda is the right one for them. Battles of words – campaign speeches, debates, slogans, ads, misinformation campaigns, character assassination, and it goes downhill from there. And in these most divisive of days, the rhetoric drives huge wedges between us. The conflicts seem interminable.

Well, Jesus, as Luke presents him, is embroiled in conflict. Indeed, Jesus finds himself dealing with several competing agendas coming at him from all sides. He is embattled against several groups who are out to get him. And with these battles are lots of rhetoric. Arguments abound.

These arguments come in a form that was very common in the ancient world—honor challenges. In 1st century Palestine you won the battle of rhetoric by successfully challenging the honor of your opponent while defending yourself against his challenges. If you could shame your opponent in the public square by making him look silly, or trapping him in his own logical conundrum, you won and he lost. And you would know you won because the public would acclaim you as the winner. Hail to the victor! Public opinion was everything.

In these honor challenges it really helped if you had the well-honed skill of wit. Being witty was not about being cleverly funny at a cocktail party. Being witty was having the rhetorical skill to respond to a challenge with perception, good sense and keenness that rendered the challenger silent. It was being able to think in the moment and calmly respond with a devastating blow. Jesus was such a person of wit, par excellence. He always had his wits about him, as the saying goes, and thus he always seemed to win the war of words. The gospels are filled with challenge after challenge of Jesus’ honor. And every time, he came out on top. So, in the eyes of the public he never lost honor. Indeed, he gained in honor every time. He won those battles of wits. This is what drove his opponents crazy. And this is what led them to look for a way to arrest him and kill him.

Luke tells us about their desire at the end of chapter nineteen. Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and driven the money lenders from the temple.  Then Luke records these words:

Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard. (Luke 19:47-48)

So far in chapter twenty Jesus has successfully fended off two attempts to challenge his honor. Now a group of Sadducees approach him to ask him their question. This is the first time the Sadducees appear in Luke’s gospel. We really don’t know much about them. We do know that they represented the priestly class and thus were tied in with the temple. So they had power. And, according to Luke, they didn’t believe in the resurrection.

In trying to trap Jesus they came up with a question they themselves didn’t believe. It was based on a provision given in the Torah in Deuteronomy 25: If a man dies before his wife can give birth to a son (notice this is all about the men) the man’s brother should take the women to be his wife and the first-born son she bears will be given the dead brother’s name so his name will live on despite his death. So they devised this hypothetical situation of seven brother’s each taking the wife (and notice it is about “taking” her; she has no say in the matter) and then dying before she can bear a son. Because they assume life would have to go on as it is now they believe there can’t be a resurrection because which brother could lay claim to her in the afterlife. To them it presents an impossible situation. “So, Jesus, let’s see you wiggle your way out of this one.”

When it came down to it the practice of Levirate marriage, the law was mostly about protecting and perpetuating the patriarchal structures of wealth and inheritance. The Sadducees concern about whose wife she would be in the afterlife was not really a concern about moral chaos, but about maintaining their socio-economic status through the posterity of the seven sons. They are certainly not concerned with the poor woman who did not bear a male offspring, this being a condition of deepest shame for her. They were not concerned for her welfare. They just wanted to know who she belonged to.

In his answer, when Jesus envisions a “heaven without marriage” he is not saying that the “world” of God doesn’t include sexual differences and marriage, but that the Sadducees’ notion of patriarchal marriage is to be no more. Jesus isn’t just saying that there denial of the resurrection is wrong, but that their whole idea of the patriarchal system of domination is wrong. Thus, Jesus not only wins the battle of wits but undercuts their entire understanding of how the world works.

So where does Luke take us? Well, here, in chapter twenty, we see Jesus toying with his opposition, making them look like fools and silencing their silly attempts to entrap him. But these fools also have power. They are the leaders of the temple; the leaders of the national religion. They have the power to accuse and arrest. They have an “in” with the Romans. So in the end, you could say, they win. Jesus dies an ignoble, shameful death and they come out the winners. What good did Jesus’ wit do him on the cross?

OK, how to translate all this in today’s situation? I think it’s fair to say that religion throughout history – all religions – has a conservative bent. Even religions that started out subversive and anti-establishment have ended up being co-opted to help maintain the status quo rather than challenge it. Jesus gets arrested for subversion and is executed. The early church is declared illegal by the Roman government. In time it becomes the religion of the Empire. Maintaining that favored status has been a big motivator for how religion has conducted itself through the ages. It still seems to be the case today, making for a perverted and contradictory message.

So, I believe, it behooves us as religious people to be aware of how easily agendas of power can distort our engagement with the culture, with the political world. But also as important: We follow a Christ who liberates and includes, who frees the oppressed and cares for the dispossessed, who does not coerce with threats of violence. We follow a Christ who raises us from the dead, who dispels falsehood with the truth, who brings hope in the midst of despair. We look to Christ to lead us from hate to love and from war to peace. And so our prayer is that Christ’s peace will fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

These words are from the hymn known as the “World Peace Prayer.” It is a paraphrase of a verse from the Upanishads, the most sacred text of Hinduism. In 1981 this hymn was introduced at a service in Westminster Abbey on Hiroshima Day. It has since been translated into numerous languages and circulated around the world. And we are going to sing it now. Please turn to hymn #581 and stand in body or in spirit to sing Lead Us from Death to Life. We will sing verses 1 & 3.


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