May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Gospel reading this morning* details a debate which took place between our Lord and some Sadducees. Sadducees were religious leaders who were very powerful in Jewish society; one of their main roles was the maintainable of the Temple in Jerusalem … which of course would explain why the group essentially died out after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year of our Lord 70. They had a different theological perspective on a number of religious issues to other groups with Jewish society such as the Pharisees. One of these was that they only held a very small number of books of Sacred Scripture to be authoritative – the first five books of the Old Testament, in fact, what is also called the Pentateuch, to whom Tradition ascribes authorship to Moses. They also did not believe in the Resurrection of the dead, as our reading mentions,
It is this latter belief, in fact, that they wish to debate with Jesus. And they decide to do so by employing the rhetorical technique of reductio ad absurdum – which is taking an idea and arguing it to its logical extreme and exposing by doing so the flaws that lie at the heart of the idea against which one is attempting to refute. It is a perfectly good way of winning an argument. A good example of it would be someone playing cards saying that their lucky rabbit's foot is going to help them win the next hand; to which an on-looker might respond that it hadn't done the rabbit much good – and if it really works, why waste it on a hand of cards – why not use it to buy a lottery ticket, cure all they dying down at the local hospital, and bring about world peace? The Sadducees are essentially trying to make Jesus' promises concerning the Resurrection of the dead and eternal life in heaven look foolish.
So they use the idea of a woman who has had seven husbands. They could have simply left it at that; but given that they found the five books of Scripture I already mentioned authoritative, perhaps this is why they drew from the law of Moses also concerning the practice of Levirate marriage. This was where when a man died before any children were born to the marriage it was the duty of his brother, or nearest male relative, to marry the widow and beget an heir for the dead man in his place. Presumably for the Sadducees the idea of seven brothers having to take turns being the husband of the same woman only added to the humorous effect they were trying to achieve.
Jesus refutes their attempt in two ways. First he explains to them that their argument is based on a false premise, the idea that at the Resurrection something like marriage will matter. But it will not, for marriage is something for this age, but not the age to come. And this makes perfect sense for, as the example the Sadducees themselves chose about Levirate marriage shows, marriage has as a very important part of it the procreation of children. At the end of time God's plan will have been fulfilled, there will be no necessity for the begetting of new life, and therefore their will be no need for marriage. Whatever the relationship between the woman and the seven brothers will be in that age, it will not be that of husband and wife.
And then, to completely undermine their position, Jesus decides to prove to them from Scripture the truth of his claims concerning the Resurrection. And because they only take seriously the five books of the Pentateuch he draws his proof from there, the words spoken to Moses himself by God out of the burning bush. There God identified himself as being the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, and the God of Isaac. And he spoke of being their God in present tense, not the past. He said 'I am' the God of these men, not 'I was.' He is still their God, even though they have perished from this life; and therefore their lives must have continued beyond the earthly one.
Jesus has turned the tables on them; and the ones who were trying to make him look foolish now look foolish instead. The scribes who were present were impressed with the manner in which Jesus did so; the Sadducees, as we may well imagine, were not. However, Jesus has done more here than merely win an argument. He has once again assumed the role of being the supreme arbitrator of what it is that Scripture truly means. This is, of course, to speak with divine authority. And he has also made some very specific promises about what life after death entails. The Resurrection of the dead is sure; after it we are immortal, as the angels are, and are children of God. (It is important to note here that we will not, as people lately have a tendancy to think, be angels – for angels are pure spirit and at the Resurrection we will be united with our bodies and therefore not be pure spirit.) Earthly concerns are left behind; and they are replaced with life in heaven. And he has affirmed that right belief is important; something for us to consider when the heretical notion of indifferentism is so prevalent, the notion that all religions are pretty much the same and it doesn't really matter what any one believes. This can not be true – otherwise why would Christ have taken such trouble to correct the Sadducees on this point – and run such risks to do so also? For it was incidents like this that caused them to hate him and conspire against him to take his life.
But our Lord thought right belief – orthodoxy – was more than just important, it was essential … for he did not come to win arguments with sects that have long since died out but to save souls so that they might be with him in heaven for all eternity. And knowing and believing the truth that he taught was needed so that on the day of the Resurrection all people – including you and me and all those we love – will be immortal like the angels and never die and be forever children of God. A joyful thought, for which we, along with the angels and saints in heaven, ought always give thanks and praise to the one God who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.