Jesus and some Sadducees
I suppose at first sight the passage before us this morning might seem irrelevant to us in 21 st century Britain. After all, we live at a time when fewer and fewer seem bothered about getting married and who on earth would feel under any sense of obligation to marry a dead brother’s widow?
The practice is known as levirate marriage – the word levir in Latin refers to a husband’s brother. It has been practiced in England for dynastic reasons to protect marriage alliances and to secure the social status of royal spouses and probably the best known example would be Henry VIII’s marriage to his brother Arthur’s widow, Catharine of Aragon. But, yes, that was a long, long time ago – more than 500 years in fact.
So what is the point of looking at something that is so dated? Is there anything to be gained at all?
Well, yes there is.
While the example of levirate marriage itself may not be the hot potato it once was we do have modern equivalents of the Sadducees still with us today.
So who were these Sadducees who came to Jesus that day with their question? And what were their chief characteristics?
Well, although they were influential leaders of the Jewish nation their influence and interest was much more political than spiritual. They were a party of wealthy and powerful rationalists and materialists. They didn’t have much time for the spiritual, it was the ceremonial aspects of religion that mattered to them.
A contemporary of ours of whom you’ve heard would be someone like Richard Dawkins. He is wealthy, he is a rationalist who denies the spiritual while at the same time describing himself as a cultural Anglican because he likes the familiar ceremonies of the Church of England without believing them to represent truth in any way.
These particular Sadducees who met with Jesus that day with their question were people:
With closed minds
Based upon a selective reading of the relevant information
And given to drawing wrong conclusions on the basis of the false assumptions they made
They failed to interpret Scripture properly while appealing to Scripture
Indeed I’m sure you’re aware that people like that are still around today. You’ve probably met some. You might even find yourself to be pretty much like them too!
These men had minds that were closed – that is, they had already made up their minds about what they were going to believe and they didn’t see any need to revisit their ideas. In this particular instance it refers to their rejection of the very idea of resurrection which, with its links to life after death, certainly does continue to interest our contemporaries.
They were selective too in their choice of information – instead of carefully sifting and weighing all the available evidence, which in this particular instance related to the law of Moses, they were quite happy to cherry-pick just those bits they felt justified their preconceived ideas.
They were convinced too that they knew a thing or two and anyone who didn’t see eye to eye with them was evidently wrong. But they drew false conclusions from the evidence they were prepared to consider. What was worse they assumed that others must have drawn those same conclusions and so they set up straw men which they thought they easily destroy with their cleverness. With such an arrogant conviction concerning their own perception they didn’t hesitate to treat views other than their own with mockery and scorn.
This is the first and only time that Luke mentions the Sadducees in his gospel. As important and influential members of the Jewish Sanhedrin they had doubtless been somewhat disturbed by Jesus’ growing popularity. They may well have enjoyed seeing their rivals the Pharisees fail in their attempts to catch Jesus out but now it was time for them to wade into combat.
They would have heard reports of some of the things that Jesus had said and that seems to have included his belief in resurrection and so thought they could make him look ridiculous now. It was a master-plan: not only would they make Jesus look foolish but they could put another one over on the Pharisees at the same time for they too believed in the spirit-world and in resurrection.
The question they ask Jesus did not proceed from any pressing concern to have an answer to a genuine problem. It was dishonestly put. This has been something of a feature hasn’t it? We’ve seen repeatedly how it is possible for men to ask Jesus their clever questions not because they want to learn from him but because they want to trip him up. Do make sure that your questions are genuine questions, honest questions, when you’re confronted by Jesus.
These Sadducees want to make belief in resurrection, and those who hold such a belief, look foolish.
We know this for at least two reasons:
They ask a question about what will happen at the resurrection when they do not believe in it in any case.
They exaggerate their selected example in order to make the whole scenario appear ridiculous – after all the much more likely case of just two brothers dying would have raised the same issue but speaking of seven smacks of over-egging the pudding.
With characteristic patience Jesus responds to the question. He doesn’t give a direct answer because the assumptions that the Sadducees have made are all wrong. So, instead, he first explains the nature of their mistake before going on to give them more information which they should have taken into consideration before they closed minds to the very idea of resurrection and for this he also turns to something that Moses had said
In this Jesus shows us how we should approach and interpret Scripture.
They think they’re so clever
The Sadducees had a certain respect for the writings of Moses. And it was Moses who had given the instructions concerning levirate marriage. But, they didn’t realise he had spoken about resurrection too! Instead the Sadducees dreamt up their little story about 7 brothers and one childless woman.
They begin nice and politely respectfully addressing Jesus as "Teacher" – how often the soft soap treatment is adopted to try to lull others into a false state of security!
You can almost see their smiles develop as they add detail to detail in their story.
How preposterous this notion of resurrection is, they thought to themselves, for it would lead to such utterly impossible scenarios – it just can’t be true.
But their assumption was all wrong and Jesus explained why. He pointed out the folly of trying to base an argument on circumstances that you really didn’t understand at all! It is not necessary to jettison the idea of resurrection but it is necessary to think properly about it and the change of circumstance that are associated with it.
The Sadducees had made a dreadful mistake of assuming that life after the resurrection would be the same as life before and they had no grounds whatsoever for making such an assumption. And a groundless assumption makes for a very poor argument indeed. In putting their question as they had done the Sadducees had simply shown that they didn’t know what they were talking about!
So a dumb question gave Jesus the opportunity of giving us some clear teaching concerning the future, concerning the resurrection. Let’s list out the truths he makes clear at this particular time:
Marriage and the giving birth to children is something that characterises this world, not the next.
In the age to come there will no longer be any need of marriage as new children will not need to be born to replenish the stock of human life. Men and women will live forever.
In this sense men and women will be like the angels. As sons of the resurrection men and women will be made sons of God, equal to angels.
This participation in the resurrection is not however for all without distinction. Jesus spoke of those who were "considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead."
Once again the Bible is thoroughly consistent. All humanity will be divided into two categories – those considered worthy and those who are not. In the light of the rest of Scripture this worthiness is not to be identified as some quality inherent in a particular individual, nor is it to be secured as the result of personal effort and work. Rather the worthiness is something that is attributed freely to an individual on the basis of faith.
Rom.4:3 "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness."
The worthiness of which it is question is all of God’s giving according to his riches in Christ – once this worthiness has been credited to us as believers it is our duty and goal to see our lives transformed to match the worthiness of the status already given to us.
As we listen to the way in which Jesus responded to the Sadducees we must not miss this element in his reply and we must ask ourselves the question:
"Will I participate in the resurrection from the dead and so attain to life in that age?"
Only if you are found wholeheartedly in Jesus Christ may you know the answer to be "Yes".
Jesus thus explained that life in the coming age would be radically different from life in the current age and we are not surprised to find that further teaching in the NT developed in ways that were entirely in line with what Jesus had taught here. For example the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthian Church addressed a very similar issue when he responded to their questions about the nature of the resurrection body:
1Cor.15:35-38 "But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body."
On a more prosaic note I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw many years ago now. It contained one caterpillar talking to another as a butterfly flew past. The first caterpillar said to the second caterpillar while looking at the butterfly: "You’d never get me up in one of those things!"
Now Jesus having finished explaining the freshness of resurrection life continued to point out to the Sadducees that if only they had paid more careful attention to the writings of Moses which they professed to lay great store by then they would have understood that Moses himself had believed in resurrection and had written in a way that illustrated that fact.
The reference is to Ex.3 and to the incident where the LORD appeared to Moses at Horeb when Moses saw the remarkable sight of a bush that burned but which wasn’t consumed. When Moses drew near to take a closer look the LORD spoke to him and identified:
Ex.3:6 "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God."
Jesus went on to explain that the LORD was not claiming to have been the God of those patriarchs but that at the very moment of speaking with Moses he still was their God though they were long since dead.
Lk.20:38 "Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him."
Underlying Jesus’ answer is the absolute conviction that Scripture does not lie nor does it contradict itself. If the Sadducees came up with an explanation of a passage that did not fit in with another passage then it was the Sadducees who were wrong and they needed to revisit the Scripture until they could give truly harmonious explanations of God’s word.
I want to draw your attention to this for it is an important principle for us all. Our interpretation of any particular of the Bible is only accurate in so far as our understanding fits in with the rest of what the Bible has to say. And yet how willing some people are to cry out that the Bible is full of contradictions! But that is not Jesus view at all.
Following Jesus, Paul charged his young protégé Timothy with important words that should make every would-be teacher of God’s word sit up and take notice:
2Ti 2:15 "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth."
Consequently Protestant Christians have, in their wiser moments, always endeavoured to compare Scripture with Scripture rather than to set one text against another or to pick and choose.
In the 39 Articles, which sadly are no longer considered as important for Anglican clergy as they once were, the twentieth article contains words that put this in what is now admittedly old-fashioned language but nevertheless clear for all that:
XX. Of the Authority of the Church.
"it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
In short the Sadducees had asked such a silly question because they had failed to take God’s Word seriously enough.
Do you take God’s word seriously? Or do you prefer to cherry-pick? I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to have our favourite verses but I am saying that we need to take care that we don’t only pay attention to those verses that appear on the surface to back-up our own wishes and desires. We mustn’t allow our personal preferences to determine what we will accept as truth and reject what our prejudices don’t want to hear.
Yet again Jesus’ reply silences his detractors. The Sadducees, instead of making Jesus look foolish, have revealed only their own failure to rightly handle the word of God.
Some Scribes, experts in the law, were there and they had been listening as Jesus dealt so clearly with yet another trick question. They were impressed:
"Well said, Teacher" was their reply: "You have spoken well."
And no more questions came:
v.40 "For they no longer dared to ask him any question."
They couldn’t catch him out in what he said – they should never have tried to do so – but now they are silenced. If you have questions to put to Jesus make sure they are the wise kind and not foolish, irrelevant questions.
Ask him: "What must I do to be saved?" Ask him "Will you have me to be one of your disciples?" Ask him: "Will you forgive me my sins?"
Those are the fruitful questions to make sure you ask for he will tell you to believe, he will tell you yes, he’ll have you and he is faithful and just to not only forgive you your sins but also to cleanse you from all unrighteousness. He will make you worthy of attaining to that age and to the resurrection from the dead.
Many of us have already gone to him like that and we are so glad we did. How we would have you join us!
Acts 2:38-39 ""Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."