What I said on Sunday

In the name of the Living God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Job 19.23-27; Luke 20.27-38

It’s always been the same. People like to identify with groups, or factions, or gangs, or whatever you want to call them. And of course it’s much more fun if there’s another group of people that you can disagree with – violently if necessary. Wherever you look in history, they’re there, some more influential than others. Normans and Saxons at the Conquest. Roundheads and Royalists, in the Civil War. Mods and Rockers in the Sixties. English and French, for 900 of the last 1000 years. Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or the Sharks and the Jets in the musical version West Side Story. It was just the same in the Jewish society of Jesus’ day – only then it was Pharisees and Sadducees. We tend to refer to them together and assume that they were really much the same. Far from it. Pharisees and Sadducees were two quite distinct and often diametrically opposed parties.

Take today’s gospel reading. This is often read as an attack by the Sadducees on Jesus – trying to catch him out as the Pharisees often tried to do. But take a closer look at the reading and you begin to see that this wasn’t really the case. They are trying to get one over on the Pharisees and what they are doing is attempting to manoeuvre Jesus into their corner by getting his support. So how did they plan to do this?

One of the age-old human questions is: do we live again after we die? Job, whom we heard from in our first reading, asks that very question earlier in the book: If mortals die, will they live again? (Job 14.14) Well, one of the key differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was their answer to this question. The Pharisees believed that after death you were raised back to life to be with God. The Sadducees believed that there was no such thing as resurrection. And to understand what is going on we need to go back a bit into the history of Jewish understanding of life after death.

At this point belief in an actual resurrection was a fairly recent development in Jewish religious thought. The traditional belief was that when you died you lived on in your descendants. This was why, given the patriarchal nature of Jewish society, it was vital for a man to have children. Without them he wouldn’t live on. So, in order to give him the best possible chance of having children, the law stipulated that if a man died childless, his brother had a responsibility to take his widow as his own wife and father a child on behalf of his brother. It was also a way of ensuring that property stayed within the family and that the widow was cared for.

Remember, the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection. And to them the Law was important. So they come up with this story of a woman whose husband dies childless, so she has to marry his brother, who also dies – and so the story goes on. She marries seven brothers, all of whom die with no children. So, at the resurrection, they ask, whose wife will she be?

This is actually an attempt by the Sadducees to show how ridiculous the Pharisees belief in resurrection is – the idea, they are suggesting, that this women can have seven husbands at the resurrection shows how resurrection is just a joke. No intelligent person, they are trying to say, could possibly believe in such a ridiculous concept!

Jesus, though, is far too insightful to be drawn into the argument, and turning the tables on the Sadducees he shows them how it is they – not the Pharisees – who have got things completely wrong. There is no marriage in the resurrection, Jesus points out. Those who take part in the age of the resurrection neither marry nor are given in marriage. And then he goes on to tackle that question of Job’s: if mortals die, will they live again? It’s a question we cannot answer  from reason or experience alone, but it is a question we all want an answer to. And the answer that Jesus gives is a resounding yes. And the way that he does it is to refer the Sadducees back to their own Law, the Law that they held so highly, the Law that their whole belief system was grounded in.

And he goes back to Moses whom the Sadducees have already claimed as their own at the beginning of their question. Moses, when he encounters God in the burning bush, hears God say, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3.6) When God speaks to Moses, he makes it clear that to him Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – though dead to this world – are alive to him. So, Jesus says, resurrection is clearly a reality. As Jesus might have put it to the Sadducees: “the Scriptures that you cite as the basis of your authority say that the Lord is [present tense] the God of the patriarchs, whom we know to have died. How could God be the present-tense God of dead people, unless they are alive in the resurrection?” (Quoted from New Proclamation Year C 2010 – Fortress Press – page 273)

Jesus actually says almost nothing in the gospels about what the resurrection will be like. But he does assure us that it is real, that we have something to look forward to beyond the physical constraints of this world. The Sadducees had no hope of life after death – that’s why they were sad you see. Death, Jesus tells them and us, is not the end. Like Job, we can answer that question: if mortals die, will they live again? Like Job, we are able to say: I know that my Redeemer lives … and after my skin has been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God. (Job 19.25f)

The Bible teaches us that life comes from God. And Jesus shows us that for those who respond to the love of God, God has provided for life after death, a gift from him for all those who have accepted his love and entered into relationship with him. We can all look forward to that time when, beyond the uncertainty of death, we embrace the certainty of being, as Jesus puts it: children of God … children of the resurrection.