“The Hope of Resurrection”
Sunday 10 November 2019
The context of today’s gospel reading is that Jesus has just told the parable of the Wicked Tenants which had clearly been directed at the scribes and chief priests who then wanted to we are told ‘lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people’. Instead, they sent spies we are told in order to trap him by asking a curly question about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.
Jesus deftly batted that question aside and so we read today that the Sadducees tried to trick him with a question. The Sadducees were the Jewish party who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. The chief priests whom Jesus had earlier offended were by and large members of this party.
The question that they put to him was designed to make the notion of life after death seem absurd. We should remember that in the honour/shame culture of the times, a successful way of defeating one’s opponents in an argument was to shame them in public. By making life after death seem ridiculous, the Sadducees intended to shame Jesus because he was known to promote the notion.
The question that is posed is based on a text from Deuteronomy where Moses advocates what is called Levirate marriage – marriage of a brother-in-law by a widow. This is detailed in Deuteronomy 25.5-6. Levirate marriage seems to have had two purposes – one was to artificially maintain the line of the dead husband. The firstborn son would be seen to be the continuation of the dead husband’s line. The other purpose appears to have been to provide some security for the widow.
The scenario in the Sadducees question is designed to try to make life after death appear to be a complete nonsense. In other words, if Jesus were to fall into the trap of trying to decide whose wife the woman would be after death, then he would shame himself because the Sadducees would have made him seem stupid.
However, the Sadducees had made a trap for themselves in a sense because they had made the large, and erroneous assumption, that life after death, as Jesus understood it, was simply a repetition or extension of life in the present time.
Firstly, Jesus points out that “they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of the resurrection”. You see, philosophically, you only need sex difference where you have death. Consider a single cell creature like an amoeba. It does not die because it is constantly splitting and creating new cells and new creatures. In a very real sense, an amoeba in a puddle today is part of the original amoeba that was the first amoeba cell to split. Creatures that die, like humans, have to create new life by combining sex cells from a male and a female. That’s what humans do. That’s what dogs, cats and every other complex animal we know of do. It is because of death that two creatures have to supply half of the genetic material for a new life to be born. If we did not die, there is no reason for procreation.
I am sure Jesus did not know about amoeba, but his argument is sound. Because there is no death after death, there is no need for sexual difference to create new life and so it is absurd for the Sadducees to speculate about who is husband or wife of whom.
His second rebuttal of their assumption is that God told Moses from the burning bush that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The description implies a continuing personal relationship with these patriarchs. If God is in relation with them still, they cannot be anything but alive after death. Biblical scholar Brendan Byrne points out that: “The relationship God seeks to forge with human beings here and now is one that transcends death; otherwise it would not be truly personal” (The Hospitality of God, p160). And so, with a second argument, Jesus makes the shame rebound onto his opponents. So much so that we are told that: “Some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well’. For they no longer dared to ask him another question”.
The episode is a little complex to interpret. What might the main point be?
– the flimsy argument of the Sadducees to prove the notion of resurrection silly?
– the astuteness of Jesus’ argument in turning the shame back onto his opponents?
– the information it provides us about Jesus’ understanding of resurrection?
If we think about our own times, there are certainly people who are keen to rubbish our belief in the resurrection of the dead by the use of sarcasm and ridicule. Perhaps this incident can be instructive for us in how we might respond to such arguments.
I suggest that the most common form of attack by opponents of the gospel is to parody what exactly may be involved in resurrection. This line of attack can often use as its straw men for argument notions of resurrection involving floating around on clouds playing harps or meeting St Peter at the pearly gates or similar. Of course, these notions of what is involved in resurrection are as wrong-headed as the notions that the Sadducees raised with Jesus.
If we are to respond to these sorts of ill-conceived arguments, we need to have in our own minds a very clear understanding of what we can understand about resurrection from the Bible. Here, we have to be honest and admit that we don’t have an exact blueprint. After all, how could the glory of resurrection, a mystery of the highest order, be contained in words?
However, we do have some guideposts in the Bible and we know from them that the parodies of resurrection sometimes tossed at us are just that, parodies, and not the real thing.
Some of you undertook the faith formation program ‘Surprised by Hope’ earlier this year. You will be able to identify some of the biblical markers of resurrection elaborated in that program by the scholar Bishop Tom Wright. I strongly recommend his book of the same name, ‘Surprise by Hope’, for anyone who wants to gain a biblical understanding of resurrection.
Key biblical texts for us in gaining an understanding of resurrection are 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21.
It is beholden on us to develop our understanding of articles of faith so that we can speak cogently to those who would trivialise them. We are encouraged to do just that in 1 Peter 3.15b-16a where it is written: “Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”.
We might sit for a couple of moments and reflect upon what the hope of the resurrection means for each one of us so that we will be prepared to give that account any time it is asked of us. And I encourage you to explore 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21 in the near future.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen