As a person goes through their day to day routine, there are a variety of questions that a person can get asked. Simple questions in passing, such as “How are you doing?” that can begin a conversation on life’s joys and tribulations, or it can be answered simply, “Fine.” Or the kind of question that has a relative definite answer, like “How long does it take to drive to Portland?” Depending on the number of potty breaks, usually around four hours. There are also the questions that are asked to find out what side of the fence you are on politically or religiously. The person asking is trying to determine if you are on his or her side of the argument, if you are one of the good guys or bad guys. Are you for gun control? What do you think of Obamacare? Do you say tomato or tomaato?
Then there is the kind of question that Jesus is asked this morning in the passage we just read. The Sadducees already knew what side of the resurrection fence Jesus was on. He believed it and taught it. But to fully understand their question and what they were trying to do to Jesus in asking it, we have to understand who the Sadducees were. They were the temple elite, the priestly class, and wealthy, and in the 1st century Jewish world, they would have been labeling theologically conservative. Scripture for them only consisted of Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. No teaching was considered authoritative if it wasn’t given in these five books and they found no doctrine of the resurrection there. In fact they found no teaching at all about an afterlife. Death had the final say for them in the matter of life.
The other primary Jewish group at that time was the Pharisees. They were the teachers out in the small town synagogues and were the ones we usually see Jesus butting heads with in the Gospels. They considered Torah as authoritative, but also included the prophets and the oral traditions as having the same level of authority. It would be what we call the Old Testament plus the traditions handed down all the way from Moses to that day. It is in the oral traditions and prophets that spoke of the day of the resurrection that would take place somewhere far into future. One day, God would raise the dead and give them a new glorified body. It was not considered a resuscitation of the former physical body but a new form of existence.
Resurrection was hotly debated between these two camps, and it is because of this debate, Jesus is asked a question that comes straight from the heart of Torah. “Based on the rules of marriage found in the Law of Moses, if a man dies leaving his wife with no children, his brother must marry her. If this happens a total of seven times, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” The reason for this kind of question is to make Jesus re-think his position, because they ask it in a way there are only two possible answers, answers that prove the Sadducees right and Jesus wrong. Answer A is she is married to seven men in the resurrection. This violates the law and God wouldn’t have a separate set of rules of marriage in the life that is found in the resurrection as there are now. If Jesus can’t go there, opening the door to allow this woman to have seven husbands, then he must close the door completely, which is Answer B, there is no resurrection. From the Sadducees point of view, it is the kind of question that will force Jesus to agree with them or be silent.
But Jesus does answer them, but not how they expected. His answer is two fold and I believe it points to the heart of a Christian hope for the future. It’s important to look at what he says and what he doesn’t say as we explore his answer. The first part of his response simply points to the inappropriateness to the question, given the difference between this life and the life to come. We live in a world where death is a reality. We will all die. That’s a point both the Pharisees and Sadducees could agree on. And because of the fact we all die, marriage and perpetuation of life in the family becomes essential while we live. But in the resurrection, we are given the gift of life everlasting so there is no need to marry or a need to have children. The Torah laws regarding marriage and family no longer hold sway in the resurrection because we belong to a new family, the family of God. Any Pharisees who were in ear shot of this part of Jesus’ answer would have been nodding in agreement as they heard Jesus’ words.
In the second part of his answer, Jesus uses the scriptures that the Sadducees see as authoritative to reveal an implicit reference to the resurrection in Torah. The resurrection of the dead is found at the heart of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. God did not say from the burning bush, “Once upon a time I was the God of Abraham, was the God of Isaac and was the God of Jacob, and now I miss them all dearly.” God says, “I am their God. Now, right now, in this very moment, I am their God.” God is a God of the living and not of the dead. It follows then, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living, not dead, and in the presence of God. And when Jesus points to this passage as support for the resurrection, he means Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are bodily in the presence of God. Ironically, this response probably would have got the attention of the Pharisees, too. Resurrection day was somewhere in the future, not something that was already being experienced by the dead.
Now here is where Jesus response to the Sadducees gives us hope for the future. Now the hope isn’t only for those who grew up in a dysfunctional family or experienced divorce and can say, “Thank God I don’t have to spend eternity with him!” nor does this passage remove the hope that we will be in the presence of loved ones when we die. But this passage refocuses our hope in God. God is a God of the living first and foremost because we have a living God who calls us into relationship with him. God is not some spiritual force that flows through the universe that our spirit leaves at our birth and returns to in our death, but a personal triune God who created us in love in his image and declared us and all of creation good. And this God who breathed the breath of live into us calls us into relationship from the day of our birth to the day we die. This doesn’t mean we don’t take death seriously. It destroys life and relationships. Paul even calls death the last enemy of God. But death isn’t stronger than God. We know that because in God we find life. God takes life so seriously that that he sent the Son into the world so we could experience eternal life with him, both body and soul, in this life and next. And Jesus died, really died, experiencing agony and suffering on his way to the cross. And God’s love of life broke out of the tomb that first Easter morning when God raised Jesus from the dead for us.
It is in his resurrection we get a glimpse of what the resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even our own resurrection is like. His disciples recognized him, but he was not a disembodied ghost. He walked and talked, he ate and drank, and the disciples touched him. He had a body, but it was a different body. Sometimes those who knew him best didn’t recognize him. He could vanish or show up in rooms where all the doors were locked. He was the same person in a different way. In the resurrection, we don’t lose who we are by being dissolved into some universal spirit like a drop of rain being lost in the ocean. As Shirley Guthrie puts it, “In an unimaginably different and better way we will still be the individual human beings we are now, with the ability to have genuinely personal relationship with God and other people in the eternal “communion of the saints.””
Sometimes talking about the resurrection raises more questions than it answers, the kinds of questions that just might not have a clear answer. A question like how can Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be bodily present with God when we can go visit their tombs today? You know, I don’t know. Scripture just gives us small glimpses here and there, but I trust and hope that in the words of Jesus to the thief of the cross that something happens that only can be described as a gift from God. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” At the point of our deaths, we enter God’s time, eternal time, and we will be raised to be with Christ and God will claim us as his children. Even when we don’t have all the answers, we can trust in his promises that in this life he will be with us and that we will be with him in the next. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God and God’s love. Because he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is God of (pick 3 names of people sitting out there). And he is the God of Bonnie, of Gene, and of Gordon. He is God of the living and in him we find life. Amen