The Sadducees who are mentioned in this story were a priestly group in Judaism. They were very conservative; they followed only the first five books of the bible. But they were also the group who had in many ways collaborated with the Romans to ensure some freedom of religion in Palestine.
In the reading Jesus speaks of this age and the age to come. This age was the time in which he lived. The age to come is the age where God's kingdom has begun to come into being on earth. The reading makes it fairly clear that life does not go on just the same in the age to come.
27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
In this reading, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. It's a bit like an election campaign today: everyone is out to disrupt this new face who is promising to change the World. And in the middle of all that arguing a group of Sadducees decide to have a go at making Jesus look a bit stupid.
Sadducees were the theological conservatives of the day. If it wasn't in the first five books of the bible— Genesis to Deuteronomy— they didn't believe it. Those books appeared to say nothing about resurrection, so they didn't think any such thing happened.
The Law said that if a man died without children, then his brother had to have children with his wife to carry on the brother's family line. So the Sadducees came up with the example of 7 blokes who all died without having children. They had all had this same wife, trying to provide children for the first brother. And the Sadducees say triumphantly to Jesus, "In the resurrection, whose wife would she be then?" Aha... that shows what a dumb idea resurrection is— why do you believe in it Jesus? It sounds a lot like boys arguing in the schoolyard, thinking they're being really clever.
Essentially, Jesus tells them they're being dills. They're assuming that life in the resurrection, in the age to come, will be the same as it is now, in this age. In fact, life in the age to come will be of a different order. People in the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage, he says, and they do not die anymore because they are like angels and the children of god.
And he has a little dig at them, which probably delighted the people who were listening. These guys were the Fundamentalists of their time. You can't change anything in Scripture, they said, so Jesus puts a little challenge in front of them. Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac— the fathers of the faith, had been dead for centuries by the time of Moses. But God did not say to Moses, whom the Sadducees understood had written their bible, that He had been the God of those three men. He said I am the God of Abraham. I am the God of Jacob. I am the God of Isaac. They're not dead, but raised. How can you not believe in the resurrection, Jesus says!
It's not an argument that carries any weight for us, or even makes much sense to us, but if you were a Sadducee being put on the spot in a public place, it meant people would laugh at you: Because you reckoned you were the ones who had really mastered the Bible. You knew what was right and wrong. Your theology was pure. And yet here Jesus is, making you look a bit silly with an argument that you haven't got an answer for.
The key thing in this passage was not that Jesus won a schoolyard argument. The key thing is a verse that Luke leaves out, for some reason. Jesus said one other thing to the Sadducees which Mark and Matthew tell us. The beginning of Jesus' answer to the Sadducees is a blunt repudiation of them. He doesn't argue with them at all. He simply says, "You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God." And that statement is as true today as it was then.
What he means is that Scripture is not a thing we master, despite what the Sadducees thought. Scripture masters us. We can become proficient in understanding the way people wrote about their experience of God, but Scripture is always reading us as we are reading it. It provokes us. It is God breathed; it probes us. It invites us deeper into God's life and closer to the Kingdom.
One of the marks of fundamentalism is that it tries to freeze scripture; it tries to say, "It means this." But as soon as we take control of it, it is dead; it is as inspired as the user manual for a fridge.
Scripture is alive. It is revealing the God who is completing creation. It is teaching us, and freeing us from our violence. It is the record of the Holy Spirit breaking into human lives, and changing people across the history of Israel. It's the story of human growing, and human healing, and human fulfilment.
To say this is what it means, or that nothing changes, is to quench the Spirit. It is to say God has nothing new to teach us, and that Creation is already complete. So you can see why Jesus said the Sadducees did not understand Scripture.
He also told them they did not understand the power of God. And this might speak to people today who deny that there is any such thing as resurrection. Often people say something like this: "You believe in God, or in resurrection, because of wish fulfilment. You can't face the fact that you're going to die."
Historically, they're got it wrong. In ancient times, everyone knew that we die. And that dead was dead. The richness of life consisted in having a good life while you lived, and in the fact that your children lived on after you. Even the Sadducees knew that's why you had children for your brother: so that his family line could go on, and he could live on in his children. That was as good as it got. There was no resurrection.
But historically, as people began to learn more of the love of God, they dared to say, "Surely God is better than this!? Surely God has more in life for us than this!" As people learned more of God's love and power, they thought surely God could do more than give us this short and bitter life. "Surely there is some justice in the world for those who die young, or who are killed by unjust men." And so the idea grew that eventually God would raise all those who have died, and those who had lived well would live on in a New Earth, in a place without death. People began to understand that God was Lord even of death.
Of course... this was a hope. You couldn't prove it. The early Christians who saw that Jesus was raised from the dead understood that his being raised was a sign and promise that the hope of resurrection was real. Christ was the first born from the dead, they said, (Col 1:18) with full expectation that they would follow him. But again, it wasn't a proof in a scientific sense— Jesus might have been a... a one-off, unique. Or they might simply have been mistaken.
So what proof have we got, 2000 years later? We have two things: We do have the constant and unchanging witness of the church, and its scripture, which tell us he was raised. This includes the witness of the apostles who had known him, and understood that his resurrection meant they (and we) would also be raised.
The problem with relying only on that witness is it there is always some Sadducee fundamentalist telling us we have our facts wrong. Or the voice in our own heads telling us we're being ridiculous.
But the second thing we have is an invitation to experience resurrection. Jesus invites us to follow him. He says, essentially, if you will live as I have lived; compassionate, generous, giving, risking life for the love of others— then you will be begin to know resurrection. He offers us a vision for a new kind of life. He offers us vision for life where death has no power.
There's a place in the New Testament, in Philippians where Paul says
to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I am hard pressed [to choose] between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. (Philippians 1)
He's not being pious. He's telling us of his experience of beginning to live already in the resurrection. Death is losing its power over him. This is what the Gospel promises us.
Living a life of love opens us to the Spirit of God. It lets God into our life so that we can be changed, and see and experience everything differently. It lets God turn us upside down and remake us— complete us, indeed! Which can be turbulent and terrifying as we realise how different the Kingdom of Heaven is from the empires of the world.
There is still no scientific proof. Nothing of the human spirit that is worth having can be proved like that.
Instead, there are two great gifts. One is the rich experience of a life which is being recreated. It's not necessarily easy: Someone was telling me the cost of not living as the world lives. It's cost them a lot. I asked, "But would you have any other way?"
"Of course not," she said. She has begun to find a new life.
The other gift is to be captured by the vision of resurrection.
Do you hear what I am saying? — captured...
We're not given something to own. We're not given a fact that we can tick the box for, or control. We are captured by something; it owns us. When we follow Jesus, when we give our lives— even only as imperfectly as we can manage that— something happens. I think it opens us to the Spirit of God. It opens us, and there are days and weeks when the vision of resurrection holds us, and cups us in its hands.
And when the atheist next door, or the atheist who lives in our head, indeed... tells us that resurrection is ridiculous, and that we have no proof of this, then... on those days, it doesn't matter. Because we know. We are held in the vision.
Understand me! The power of God will not ride roughshod over our mind and cultural conditioning. God will not force— cannot force, intellectual understanding upon us. We cannot reason ourselves into this; we cannot convince ourselves. We can only trust the witness of Jesus that resurrection... is. We can only give ourselves to him— forgetting resurrection, really— we can only give ourselves with the kind of love and following that would follow anyway... without hope of resurrection... simply because the love and compassion of the kingdom of God is... Good. Simply because... it reflects God.
When we do that resurrection can rise up and catch us. We can begin to live in it even without answers or proofs.
Follow him. He is all we have. Amen
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!