2 MACCABEES 7:1-2, 9-14 | 2 THESSALONIANS 2:16-3:5 | LUKE 20:27-28, 34-38
In all honesty, I completely understand if you think that this is a “who cares” gospel passage. Jesus and the Sadducees (whoever they are) are arguing with Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus finds a way to shut them up, and this makes the scribes (whoever they are) happy. Basta! Let’s move on to the next chapter. But I see an opportunity here to learn more about the world Jesus lived in and had to negotiate.
Also, what Jesus is teaching is pertinent today. I know quite a few Catholics who don’t believe in an afterlife. Think of the Catholic cultures that carry out lifelong mourning customs. A good example is the millions of widows who wear black for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t give testimony to a joyful afterlife with God. Let’s find out who the players are in this scene. Who are the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes?
The Pharisees weren’t a political party. They were content with any government that allowed them to carry on with their religious observances. When it came to doctrine, the Pharisees accepted all the scriptures, the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, and the writings of the prophets. They also accepted as doctrine the thousands of regulations and rules that had been passed on orally over the centuries. They held on dearly to the ceremonial laws such as the sabbath regulations and hand washings. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels and spirits. They hoped for the coming of a messiah who would begin a golden age for Israel.
The Sadducees were the rich aristocrats of the Jewish world. Many of them were also priests. To maintain their wealth and social status they collaborated with the Roman occupation. They rejected the thought of a coming Messiah because it would certainly have overturned their privileged life style. Religiously, they accepted as doctrine only the Law of Moses, not the prophets. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, no spirits and no angels.
The scribes were the professional lawyers. It was their
duty to know the scriptures – every chapter and verse, and memorized the oral tradition. They drafted legal documents such a marriage contracts, divorce decrees, loans, inheritances, mortgages and the sale of property. They literally copied the law, and during the time of the prophets also served as personal secretaries. If anyone had a question about the law, they asked a scribe for an answer. Philosophically, they tended to link themselves with the Pharisees.
In today’s gospel passage we see the Sadducees ganging up on Jesus, the latest messianic figure to appear in Israel. They brought up an outdated, and no longer practiced law, Deuteronomy 25: 5-6. “When brothers live together, and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family; but her husband’s brother shall go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, that his name not be blotted out from Israel.”
They contrived a situation in which seven brothers were forced to marry their deceased brother’s widow, but each of them died before providing the widow with a son. Their question, attacking the notion of an afterlife, asked which of all these brothers would be the widow’s official husband in heaven. The question was meant to be a mockery of the thought of afterlife, but Jesus decided to answer them. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.” He then backed up what he said with a reference to the book of Exodus (Ex 3:6) in which God identified himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for in him all are alive.” I hope that my short explanation of the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes will be helpful when you read the New Testament. It’s important to understand the religious and political tensions that surrounded Jesus. It helps us achieve a deeper insight into his teachings. Also, I encourage you to think about Jesus’ message to the Sadducees. What’s your understanding and beliefs regarding resurrection and afterlife? As we move through Fall, the Sunday liturgies give us many Gospel passages that encourage our reflection on death and afterlife. In today’s passage, Jesus said that we become children of God when we pass over. He also said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” But what do teachings like these mean to you, personally?