The closer we get to the 2020 election, the more omni-present it all becomes in our daily lives, through campaign commercials, public appearances, fundraising, polls, endorsements, name-calling, and debates. Interestingly, today’s gospel features yet another debate! This one is not between presidential candidates, but rather between representatives of the Jewish Sadducees and Jesus of Nazareth.
The Sadducees were a conservative, religious-political group that accepted as theologically authentic only what was written in the first five books of the Bible, the books known as the Pentateuch. Since explicit belief in the resurrection developed much later in Old Testament Jewish writings, the Sadducees denied that there is a resurrection, as we are told at the beginning of today’s gospel. (That’s why they were “sad, you see.”) Belief in the resurrection just wasn’t in the portion of the Bible they accepted… and they couldn’t see beyond that. The Sadducees seem quite willing to play with fire when they start their juggling act with the law of Moses in the presence of Jesus—hoping he will offer an unpopular answer to the crowd and become discredited.
The Sadducees were fierce opponents of the Pharisees, who believed in resurrection. In an effort to support their denial of the resurrection, some Sadducees used the tactic of ridicule in their debate with Jesus. They conjured up this far-fetched story of seven brothers who, one after another, married the same woman… and then promptly died. (She must have been a rough spouse to live with…) To understand this story, you must know about the ancient Jewish law of “levirate marriage”, levir meaning “brother-in-law” in Latin. This law said that if a man’s brother dies with no children, he is obligated to father a child by his dead brother’s widow, and the offspring would be counted as his dead brother’s descendents. This preserved the dead brother’s name and lineage, which was a matter of extreme importance in their culture.
They were hoping to make the belief in resurrection look ridiculous by their trick question. But Jesus responds cleverly to the Sadducees. He says that in the totally new order of existence in the resurrection after death, there will be no need to marry. All things will be new. While on earth, locked into a world of time, he says, we simply cannot grasp details of eternity. Human thoughts and words are grossly inadequate to express this reality, and its fullness is beyond our human understanding. The thing to know about our existence after death is simply that God is there. Any attempt to transpose one’s picture of this life to the next, keeping the details and possessions and presumptions the same, is likely to be incomplete.
And so, it is not critical to know whether we will have pets in heaven, or whether we will play harps, or whether we will all have a full head of hair. When these are our concerns, we have trivialized the great mystery and grace of the resurrection. How does the butterfly describe flight to a caterpillar? How does a professor describe college to a three-year-old? How can Jesus describe the afterlife to those who only know this life? It is enough to know and trust that God is there, the God we know through Jesus, the God who alone is powerful enough and loving enough to prepare a place for each of us which is as much beyond our imagination as it is beyond our deserving.
This gospel serves to remind us that we must be careful not to impose our ideas about life and eternity on God. The Sadducees were doing this when they fussed about what would happen in the resurrected life to the woman who had seven husbands. They wind up standing there before Jesus like the coyote in the Warner Bros. cartoon, burned to a crisp by their own devices. I remember someone once quipping: “In the beginning God created us in his own image, and we’ve been returning the compliment ever since”. We have our notions of how God should act. We often expect God to follow our will, rather than vice versa.
The Sadducees underestimated the power of the divine word to achieve its end, which is the proclamation of the truth. Two thousand years later, we have to make sure we do not make the same mistake. The word of God is not a game to be played in order to win at some agenda. This holy and powerful word is the force behind creation—made flesh in the person of Jesus—rendered as testimony by martyrs—and continues to speak truth to power in every age. That is why we assemble here week after week to listen to the word. If we use it for any other reason—to score points in an argument, to control people, to consolidate our authority, or to intimidate and shame—then we are no better than the devil who used scripture to similar ends once in a desert conversation with Jesus. And we will prove to be as successful as the Sadducees at that game, left holding the match as they smolder in disbelief.
Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in the second reading: “Brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified, as it did among you, and that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people—for not all have faith.” The early Christians had a very dynamic and exciting view of how God’s word was glorified. They believed that the union of the community with God would occur at the end of time– which they thought was at hand. But they also knew that this union with God was occurring right now, because for God, every moment is now. It’s a great image to think about: heaven coming down and transforming the earth, rather than just hovering above the earth waiting for us to get there.
Every time we assemble like this to celebrate the Eucharist, we are rehearsing our life in the Kingdom—we are listening to the word so that it may be glorified in us– we are imagining a world free from divisions and enmity– and we are experiencing oneness with the Lord. Our communion today leads us to experience the eternal life of God… even now.