Summary: The Sadducees try to ridicule Jesus with a stupid question about what happens in heaven. The answer of Jesus is not about the how but they why. If we don't believe in a life after death, we will have no purpose for our life on earth.
People sometimes ask stupid questions. They know it is stupid; but they ask them anyway. When somebody asks a stupid question, we can assume that either they are too naïve, or they are sarcastic. And most of the time they are not naïve; they are trying to make us look foolish trying to answer their question. The best way to answer them is to ask them another stupid question. That’s what I usually do.
Well, that’s not what Jesus does. The Sadducees ask him a stupid question. They are not naïve; they are very clever and learned people. They ask the stupid question to ridicule Jesus. How can one answer that question? It kind of undermines all that you believe in heaven or in after life. Imagine the scenario of seven brothers sharing a wife in heaven! Isn’t that ridiculous? That is the point of the Sadducees: to show how ridiculous the idea of heaven is.
When this action takes place, Jesus was already in the third year of his public ministry. As a matter of fact he was only a few days away from his crucifixion. By this point in His ministry, the spiritual leaders of the time - the Sadducees and the Pharisees - had quite enough of Jesus. He had humiliated them because of their rigidity about their religious beliefs and practices. He had proven them to be wrong. In their eyes, he had stolen many of their followers with his “romantic” ideas of what Judaism is really about. So they finally decided to attack him with this last round of questions to try and nail him to the wall.
The Sadducees thought they had the perfect scenario. It was based on a provision called Levirate Marriage. Levirate Marriage stipulated that if a man died childless, his brother was under obligation to marry his widow and have children in his brother’s name. So their scenario had the same woman marrying seven brothers, with all of them dying. Now, “whose husband would she be in heaven?” Here’s their logic. One man can marry one woman according to God’s Law. This law provides for one man to be married to one woman at a time. But if there’s a resurrection, that all gets messed up - because then all of the brothers would be alive, and she will be wife to all of them. What an impossible situation! The Sadducees envisioned Jesus having a hard time trying to solve this problem.
Well, Jesus does not fall into their trap. He does not answer their question directly. He understands that their question is not really about how things are in heaven; it is really about if there can be a heaven. It is not really a how question; it is a why question. So the response of Jesus has to do with the why of the resurrection. There is a resurrection because God is God of the living. God has created us for life and not for ultimate extinction. God does not blow us into life like bubbles, here today, gone tomorrow. No, God gifts us with life even after this earthly existence is over.
The story is told of an American tourist who paid the 19th century Polish rabbi Hofetz Chaim a visit. Astonished to see that the rabbi’s home was only a simple room with a few books, a table and a bench, the tourist asked, “Rabbi, where is your furniture?” “Where is yours?” replied the rabbi. “Mine?” asked the puzzled tourist. “But I’m only a visitor here. I’m only passing through.” Then Hofetz Chaim said. “So am I”.
This is the point St Paul is making in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes: “We know that when this tent we live in— our body here on earth— is torn down, God will have a house in heaven for us to live in, a home he himself has made, which will last forever”. So our body is just like a tent, temporary and limited. It is only meant to help us during our stay on earth. And when that body dies, St Paul says, God will welcome us to our home in heaven.
We live in a culture and at a time when many people don’t care about God or about a life after death. I read in a recent news report that in London the atheists have paid advertisements on the sides of buses, saying, “There is no God, and there is no hell. Relax and enjoy your life”. I wonder how it is like not to believe in God or in a life after death. In one sense, I guess they wouldn’t have to worry about eternally frying in hell. That would be nice for some. But what hope would they have for the future? And what would be their real purpose in life? Just eat, drink and make merry? What a sad state of existence it would be if we didn’t believe in a life after death.