Throughout his ministry on Earth, Jesus walked among the people talking about the things that troubled them. His miracles and teachings were answers to real needs. For healing, for protection against unjust accusations, to know how to live for God.
One very important teaching was that of eternal life – the promise that God keep a place in heaven for all who believe. This belief is at the very core of our faith as Christians.
As we know, throughout the gospels, these teachings of Jesus upset various people of the establishment, and in this week’s gospel it was the turn of the Sadducees.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke about the Pharisees, how in their day they were pillars of society, albeit rather conservative. Well, if the Pharisees were conservative, the Sadducees were really off the scale! They had very strict views based almost entirely on the Torah, which is the law as laid the first five books of what we now call the Old Testament. The law was pretty much all that interested them, even if it was no longer socially relevant. The idea of the resurrection of the dead originated from later prophets, so they didn’t accept that teaching and, of course, didn’t accept the teachings of Jesus, so they set out to try and catch him out. They invented a story about a woman who had been widowed several times and never had any children.
So why were they interested in a dead woman? Were they concerned about the harshness of her life , or her desperation through her barren years? Were they filled with sorrow at a family who had such a tragic story?
No, of course not! They were simply trying to catch Jesus out on the doctrine of life after death.
To see where they were coming from, lets put this into the context of the time and the attitudes towards marriage back then.
Infant mortality was high, so it was essential that every young man in a tribe fathered a large number of children so that at least one boy would survive into adulthood to care for his parents in their old age and ensure the continuation of the tribe. When a boy came of age, his parents would pay a substantial sum of money to buy him a wife who appeared capable of bearing plenty of babies.
So far I’ve been speaking about boys in the tribe, but it was expensive to bring up a daughter, so in return for their investment (for want of a better word) the parents claimed a high price for selling their daughter to a new husband.
Marriage was a financial contract concerned with producing babies. Love may have followed, but was certainly not a requirement.
If a man died before having any children, the law of the Old Testament – The Torah – demanded that the widow should marry one of his brothers, even if he was already married, because if she remarried someone else, the property of her first husband would be taken out of the family.
So, they confront Jesus with the story of a hypothetical widow to try and prove him wrong on his teaching of the resurrection by saying “Who’s she going to be married to in heaven then, eh? Gotcha!”
The problem with this scenario they gave Jesus is that they were totally bogged down with the ancient law of the Torah. The idea that they rejected was that of a purely bodily resurrection where all the dead bodies would be raised from their tombs and live for 1000 years in the earthly kingdom ruled over by the messiah. In that case, which of these seven men would the widow be married to?
Jesus was having none of this antiquated legalism – the world had moved on, the old laws were becoming irrelevant and that resurrection would be into a spiritual world where the buying and selling of brides was no longer a necessity.
We can almost hear the exasperation in his voice when he answers, explaining that on heaven we won’t be concerned about who is married to who because, as he says, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living”.
So what did the Sadducees believe about what happens to us after death?
In the Old Testament, up until the time of Jesus, the Jews believed that everyone who died went to a place under the earth known as “Sheol” also known by its Greek translation “Hades”. Some English translations of scripture incorrectly translate Sheol as “Hell”. There are a couple of references to the unrighteous being punished in Sheol, but for the righteous, it was a place of sleep. Sheol simply means place of the dead.
I once saw it described as being like a railway terminus on a foggy day with no trains running. Great confusion with people wandering around, lots of people arriving but not going anywhere,so looking at it like that we can understand why the teaching of Jesus, that God welcomes into heaven all that repent, was seen as good news to those who heard it and why it was so unpopular with the Sadducees who saw it as going against what they believed.
Of course, when a loved one dies it’s natural to be sad and to feel alone. Marriage nowadays isn’t just a financial contract, but a lifelong commitment between two people. You can’t just tell someone grieving the loss of a partner to just “snap out of it” – it takes time to work though those feelings, but we can share with them the message of Jesus that we’ll rise again in heaven, a spiritual domain full of loving individuals who have been reunited.
There’s no material buying and selling of spouses in heaven, but the experience of being loved there must be much deeper than the most romantic love affair on earth, because we are