Jesus had a great deal of patience. He was so often confronted by people who wanted to trip him up with clever questions in the hope of gaining an advantage or proving that he was teaching something which was in conflict with the Bible. On one occasion it was the Sadducees who had a go at this by telling him a rather far-fetched story about a woman who ended up marrying seven brothers, being widowed while still childless each time, before dying herself. Who was she married to in heaven? Interesting question! To which Jesus gave an interesting answer.
At our Sunday noon service the readings were Psalm 17:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-end, Luke 20:27-38. My reflection follows:
I have friends who are philosophers. I don’t object to that but I somehow don’t think my mind works like theirs. I probably tend to be a bit more concrete in my thinking than they are. There are some questions which a philosopher might try to answer which I have also mused about. ‘Can we travel in time?’ is one such question. I like science fiction books and Star Trek and time travel often features in these. Sometimes, with Pontius Pilate, I have asked, ‘What is truth?’ I’ve pondered whether we have free will.
I’ve never wondered whether no one witnessing an event means it didn’t happen. Or whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if there is no one to hear it. I’ve certainly not considered the ‘is-ness of a piece of string’ though I believe that philosophers might do just that. I doubt if many have concerned themselves with how many angels will fit on the head of a pin, which seems to be a famous example of a philosophical question.
Actually, that last question seems a bit like a question asked purely for the sake of asking it. The question asked by the Sadducees appears somewhat similar. There was a law in the Old Testament which prescribed ‘levirate marriage’. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 says: ‘If brothers dwell together, and one of them has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duties of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.’ It was in the spirit of this law that Boaz married Ruth, with their first son becoming heir to his grandfather’s estate and also grandfather to King David. The law can be seen to have good intentions but the Sadducees were using it to create a ridiculous question to ask Jesus.
It must have been plain to Jesus that the Sadducees were setting out to trick him. They mostly belonged to the priestly class or from the aristocrats. They were content under Roman rule. Unlike the Pharisees, they did not believe in the resurrection, angels or spirits but only in the material world. Their religion was formal, conservative and based only on the five books of Moses. Within those they could see no evidence of the resurrection at all, hence their lack of belief in it. There is some suggestion that they used this question of the woman who married seven husbands as a way to catch the Pharisees out. Perhaps having caused confusion to the Pharisees, they thought it would be good to challenge Jesus with it.
Jesus could have dismissed the question for idle speculation but he treated it on face value and used the moment to teach more about life after death. People on the other side of death will face a different reality. Things will not flow on seamlessly as though nothing had happened. Here in our earthly life we face limitations – we are constrained by space and time; death and sin are ever present realities. These will not be problems when we move beyond death. Other aspects of our lives will be different and one of those will be the way we relate to other people. Everything will be on a higher level in relationships beyond death. We are likely to be able to know one another much better than we do now. All the masks we wear will drop away as they are essentially a form of dishonesty. We will be capable of relating well to many people rather than just to a special person such as a marriage partner. We are likely to feel totally at ease with who we are and not need special affirmation from one person who loves us. Love will be the world we live in, as God is love.
Having answered the question of the Sadducees on its face value, Jesus looked deeper and addressed the issue of whether there is any existence after death. Knowing where the Sadducees took their beliefs from, Jesus used the Pentateuch to support him. In the book of Exodus Moses approached the burning bush and God said to him, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ For God to still be the God of the patriarchs implied that they were still alive. If they were still alive, life persists after this earthly life. The resurrection is a fact.
Of course, the issue of the reality of resurrection did not stop with that one question. When Jesus was crucified and buried many did not believe that he had risen from the dead. Many explanations were circulated to try to explain away the resurrection. The Roman soldiers moved the body. The Jewish authorities removed it. The disciples removed it. Jesus wasn’t dead at all but revived in the cool of the tomb and rolled the stone away before convincing people that he was alive again. All the arguments can be demolished without too much difficulty. The greatest evidence for the truth of the resurrection is the huge change in the disciples, their boldness and willingness to die for what they believed.
St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:14 that ‘if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” Jesus rose from the dead and proved what he told the Sadducees that day. He conquered death to prove that we too can be physically resurrected. If Jesus didn’t rise we are without hope, sin has not been conquered and we have no future to look forward to. It means that those saints we remember often in our church calendar, those departed loved ones we think of on All Souls’ Day, are just memories, nothing more.
There will always be modern day Sadducees who wish to tell us that there is nothing more on offer than the life we see here. Beyond this is extinction. Paul knew that false teachers would come along to those he had led to faith. He knew that they would be tempted to let go of what they had been taught and follow the false teachings. And so he urged the disciples in Thessalonica to stand firm and keep a strong grip on the truth that they had been taught by Paul and others.
God and Jesus have loved us and through Jesus’ death and resurrection have given us everlasting hope. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. As John said in his first letter: ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’