Last time we had front row seats to the Pharisees sparring with Jesus. Now it is the Sadducees turn.
Now I’ve mentioned before that we can tend to think of Jesus as defying all theological constructs we might put on him, but to first century Jews He was probably a Pharisee. He was not given to their hypocritical self-aggrandizement, but theologically they had plenty in common. Matthew’s next chapter will record Jesus’ withering denouncement of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, but not without the preamble: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” (Matthew 23:2&3)
So the Sadducees view Jesus as outside their theological camp. While the Pharisees were a more populist movement of trying to make adherence to the commandments of the Hebrew Bible doable, the Sadducees were a smaller sect of Judaism, though with as much or more authority than the Pharisees as they had many adherents among the priests and particularly the ruling priests, the Sanhedrin. The major theological distinction between the two groups was that while the Pharisees view of the Hebrew Bible would largely line up today with what most Christian call the Old Testament, the Sadducees gave such priority to the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, that everything else was essentially less than Scripture. Among the many differing theological conclusions to which this led them, foremost was this: There is no afterlife. No heaven. No hell. No resurrection. There is no mention of this in their “Bible” so it must not exist.
And it is at this point, they decide to challenge Jesus.
Their theological dilemma about a man whose wives keep dying (does that sound suspicious to anyone else?), is a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” setup. In fact, it is very similar to the Pharisees’ recent ploy, with a shift from a political to a theological arena.
If they can get Jesus to deny one of Moses’ laws (about taking care of widows through remarriage), then GOTCHA!!! If they can get Jesus to deny the resurrection, then He is seen as supporting their camp theologically. But by this point, we should almost be expecting what Jesus says next: the unexpected.
“At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead–have you not read what god said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Jesus portrays the resurrection in terms wildly unfamiliar to the Sadducees. Either they have misconstrued Pharisaical theology or Jesus is throwing them a curveball. I favor the latter view. And He backs up His point by an appeal to grammar (I think I can hear every English, French and Greek teacher I’ve ever had cheering). Jesus quotes God’s statement to Moses regarding God’s relationship to Moses’ ancestors and He speaks it all in the present tense, as though these fellows are standing there with Him.
And so Jesus takes us in a completely new direction. A lot of religious and theological debate focuses on what happens to you after you die. Jesus is laser-focused rather on how you live. His Heavenly Father is the God of the Living and He is the Prince of Life.
So what about you? Are you holding your breath for heaven? Or are more interested having a living God? Having a living relationship with a living God? I think most of all Jesus is trying to steer us clear of useless GodTalk–talk that orbits the subject of God and His kingdom without ever landing to make first contact. Rather, as always, He invites.
Lord, I am excited to have a relationship with you. It is messy, vexing and unexpected. But where else can I go? You have the words of life.