Summary: In Jesus’ confrontation with the Sadducees concerning the resurrection, Jesus shows from the Sadducees own Biblical authorities that God has always been the God of the Living, not the dead.
Matt. 22:23-33, Lk 20:27-40, Mk 12:18-27
The event in today’s gospel lesson actually occurred within three days of Jesus crucifixion. Therefore, you would think this lesson appropriate for some Sunday during near the end of Lent, or during passion week. But, its subject matter makes it entirely apt for this season of the year, the Sundays after the resurrection and prior to the Day of Pentecost. It was during these weeks that the disciples were reprocessing so much of what Jesus had told them, so much of what he had taught them which they had not believed, or because of disbelief, they had not understood. What Jesus said on this occasion would have fresh and compelling meaning for those who were coming to grips with Jesus’ resurrection, and not only his resurrection, but also those of hundreds of others. Matthew records in the 27th chapter of his gospel that “52and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
What prompted this encounter between Jesus and his enemies was their attempt to catch Jesus in a trap. The Pharisees had been doing this for some time, plying him with questions designed to trip him up, or to make him unpopular with the disciples of this rabbi or that rabbi. The Pharisees hadn’t succeeded, and so it was now the turn of the Sadducees.
A proverb says that politics makes strange bedfellows. Surely that was the case here, for the Pharisees and the Sadducees were very much opposed to one another. The Sadducees were the descendants of Zadok, whose lineage can be traced back to Eleazar, son of Aaron. After the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, these descendants of Zadok formed the nucleus of the priesthood that served in the Jerusalem Temple. The word Sadducees derives from the term for the descendants of Zadok – the Zadokites.
From our point of view, it is very odd that the Sadducees were considered to be the arch-conservatives, while it was the Pharisees who were the liberals. The Sadducees were the conservatives insofar as they insisted that the only doctrine which they would assent to had to be explicitly taught in the Books of Moses – the first five books of the Old Testament. And, they said, there is nothing about a resurrection from the dead in those books, so they denied that there would ever be a resurrection of the dead.
On the other hand, there is a provision in the Law of Moses for the situation that arises when a man marries and dies before his wife bears a son to be his heir. The provision is called levirate marriage, and it laid upon the dead man’s eldest brother to take the widow as a wife, to sire a son by her, who would then inherit his deceased father’s property. This provision in the Mosaic Law helped to preserve family integrity and longevity, it helped to conserve property in a family, both for the welfare of those who were living and to pass it along to those who would should follow.
What these Sadducees attempted to do is to challenge the idea of a resurrection by a device known to students of logic as reductio ad absurdam. You take as a starting point some idea, and you draw logical inferences from it, until you reach a conclusion that is manifestly absurd and false. Having done this, you therefore demonstrate that the original starting point was, in fact, false.
In this case, the Sadducees never think of questioning the Mosaic provision for levirate marriage. But, they set it alongside an idea which they flatly reject – that there is a resurrection of the dead. So they say, *IF* there is a resurrection, then how are you going to decide which man is the true husband of the woman in the scenario that they lay out? Clearly, it will be impossible for all of them to be her husband, BUT all of them married her. Therefore, professing a belief in the resurrection of the dead leads you to an absurd result. And so, the implication is irresistable – according to the Sadducees – there CANNOT be such a thing as a resurrection of the dead.
I am sure the Sadducees had smug smiles aplenty after they put their question to Jesus. Not only were they relishing Jesus’ discomfort when attempted to answer what they were sure could not be answered, they had also publically put down those idiot Pharisees who were also standing around.
Back in my younger days, I took a philosophy course from a German professor named Helmut Girndt. Dr. Girndt is forever branded on my memory because of a paper which I wrote for him at the end of a course on phenomenology. It was a very ambitious paper and I was quite pleased with myself when I turned it in. When I got it back a week later, I was shocked to find the margins full of comments made in red ink. But, my shock was a trivial thing when I began to read the comments. One of them – about midway through the paper – captured the sense of all of them. He had underlined an entire paragraph of my paper, and beside it had writte in large capital letters “This is Exactly Wrong.”