Some Sadducees approached Jesus (Sadducees, by the way, deny the resurrection). ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘Moses wrote for us that “If a man’s brother dies, and leaves a wife but no child, the brother should take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.” Well now: there were once seven brothers. The first married a wife, and died without children. The second married the widow, and died without children. The third did so as well, and so did all seven, still without leaving children. Finally the woman died too. So: when they rise again in the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven had her, after all.’ ‘Where you’re going wrong’, replied Jesus, ‘is that you don’t know the scriptures, or God’s power. When people rise from the dead, they don’t marry, nor do people give them in marriage. They are like angels in heaven. ‘However, to show that the dead are indeed to be raised, surely you’ve read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, what God says to Moses? “I am Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God and Jacob’s God”? He isn’t the God of the dead, but of the living. You are completely mistaken.’
James stared at the machine doubtfully. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Looks quite clever, but I can’t see how it can ever actually work.’
His brother, who had spent all winter building the new machine – they were farmers, and needed a better way of harvesting their crop – turned to him with a smile. ‘You’re forgetting one thing,’ he said. ‘The new fuel they’re producing. It’s much lighter than diesel or petrol. Yes, it would never work with the old stuff. But you just wait. With the new fuel, it’ll do everything we need and more.’
The missing ingredient. Actually, in Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees there were two missing ingredients. In addition to the power – God’s power, which they had conveniently left out of the equation – there were the scriptures.
But didn’t the Sadducees know the scriptures? Weren’t they the official guardians of the whole ancestral tradition, the aristocracy who were supposed to be looking after the very heart of Judaism? How come they were – from Jesus’ point of view – so far off beam?
To answer this will also answer the question that some might ask: why does this odd little story appear at this point in the first place? Mark 11 and 12 are not just a collection of debates that Jesus happened to have in his final days in Jerusalem. They all relate, in one way or another, to the question of the kingdom: just what was going to happen when God became king, and how would this relate to the world they were living in at the time?
Here’s the clue. The Sadducees were the powerful elite in Jerusalem. Like most elite groups, they hugged power close to themselves, and were deeply suspicious of any radical movements that suggested that things were going to be changed, turned upside down. That’s why they opposed the teaching of the resurrection, which was very popular with the Pharisees: because ‘resurrection’, God bringing dead people back to life again to people his new world, meant a root-and-branch transformation of the whole world. There was no guarantee that those presently in power would retain that power in the new world. In fact, as Jesus had been saying frequently, there was every likelihood that those in the front would end up at the back, and vice versa. If people start believing that sort of thing, the Sadducees reckoned, there was no knowing what they might go and do.
So the Sadducees did what people today will do when they want to rubbish an idea they are frightened of. Tell silly stories to show how ridiculous it is. (That went on, by the way, into the time of the early church. The great second-century teacher Tertullian tells of people who, sneeringly, ask what would happen if a cannibal eats a Christian and then the cannibal himself converts and becomes a Christian. At the resurrection, who will have which bits of body?) So the Sadducees produce their story about the woman with seven husbands. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?
They have forgotten the missing ingredient: the scriptures and the power of God. The whole point of the resurrection, Jesus insists, is that it isn’t just a coming back into the present life, with its marrying and childbearing. In God’s new world, those who rise from the dead will be, in this respect (but only in this respect), like the angels: they won’t need to marry, because there will be no more death, and no need for more children. (That doesn’t mean, in case you were wondering, that there will be no more joyful and intimate human relationships. The greatest of our present human delights is a mere signpost to the far greater, presently unimaginable, joys of living in God’s new world.) God is the creator; he is not limited by the possibilities of the present, corruptible world.
This, too, is taught in the scriptures, if you know where to look. The Sadducees, deeply conservative as they were, were suspicious of all the ‘later’ books of the Bible, and concentrated only on the first five. Very well, says Jesus, let’s go there. What do we find? We find God declaring to Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and we know he is the God of the living, not of the dead.
What does this mean? That Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have already been raised from the dead? Certainly not. ‘Resurrection’ never meant ‘going to heaven’ or ‘living on in the presence of God’. It meant new bodies. But if people were going to be given new bodies, that meant that between their death and their eventual resurrection they were still, in fact, alive in some sense in the presence of God. Jesus, like the Pharisees in this respect, taught a two-stage ‘life after death’: first, a time of being ‘with God’, alive in his presence but not yet re-embodied, and then, after that, the newly embodied life of resurrection itself.
This is a stunning piece of teaching, as the legal expert who now approached Jesus (verse 28) realized. It not only reaffirms the great truth that God has prepared for his people a far more glorious future than most of them ever imagine. It also strongly reaffirms the rightness of what Jesus was doing in the Temple. God was launching, through Jesus, his sovereign, saving rule, and everything was indeed going to be turned upside down by it. The Sadducees’ power base – the Temple – was going to be overthrown, and God was going to set up Jesus himself, and his followers, as the new, radical alternative. This would be a bit like ‘resurrection’ in advance: God’s new life, on earth as in heaven.
Sounds a bit dubious? You’re forgetting the missing ingredients: the scriptures and the power of God.
Give us faith, heavenly Father, to believe in your power, and to celebrate your world-changing promises.