Theological arguments can be fun. Get a bunch of religious people together, it doesn’t matter if they are well schooled in their particular theological bent or not, having a fanatic in the group is always more fun, and bring up any one of a number of un-answerables. “Are we pre-destined or do we have free will”, “What does it mean that Jesus was fully human and fully God”, “What is heaven.” Throw one of these incendiaries into the group then sit back with a nice glass of red and watch the sparks fly. In the end, the only answer we can rationally have to these and dozens other theological questions is “we don’t know.” Our reading this week was an attempt at one of these debates, but not for fun and frivolity, or even for deep soul searching and honest truth seeking, but to discredit and ridicule Jesus and his followers.
The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. Their theological world stopped at the end of the first five books of the bible (the Pentateuch). Anything and everything else was heresy. Their question was not an honest query into how matters are sorted in the after-life, but rather aimed at ridiculing a belief held by the Pharisees (and one which the Jesus group also believed).
Levirate marriage, practised by the Israelites and many other ancient societies, committed a man to marry and bear children for a brother’s widow, generally but not always when there were no children. Common amongst ancient societies, this was a way of protecting both a family’s bloodline and also the very vulnerable widow. It was based in part on keeping bloodlines “pure”, that there was a “risk” that a widow may re-marry outside the family. By having a law that she was to be married to her deceased husband’s brother this possibility was ruled out. It was a very parochial and somewhat racist view of the world, but did at least ensure the potentially young and very vulnerable woman would be looked after.
This story is told in both Luke and Mark. Mark’s version is a little shorter and to the point- it seems the writers of Luke saw the need to add to the explanation (possibly because the problem put forward was a little diabolical). Both Mark and Luke use the phrase “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” For me, this is the message of the story- the rest, a bit like a discussion of predestination and free-will, is better left un-said. You can go into Luke or Marks attempted explanation of the rules of the afterlife, but really, the answer is “we don’t know.” The reason Jesus chose to use the Moses and burning bush story is that it is found in the Pentateuch which the Sadducees believed was holy and without error. The argument given was that God proclaimed that He “is” the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (current tense), not that He “was” the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (past tense). Jesus is arguing that God, in the Pentateuch, proclaimed that these three patriarchs of the Israelites are still alive and existing with God. This was an attempt to close down the argument of the Sadducees by sitting them back on their heels. Verse 39 states “And some of the scribes answered and said,”Teacher, You have spoken well.” I think it’s safe to assume that these approvals came from Pharisees and not Sadducees.
What will happen to us when we meet our end? Well it could be this and it could be that, but ultimately the answer is we don’t know, and anyone who tells you otherwise is delusional. I am heartened though by Jesus reassurance that God is God of the living and not of the dead. I’m encouraged in my journey to think that God is more than a God of “three sore and ten,” that there is potentially something more than what we now see. What that something is is the great mystery that awaits us. In the meantime, I will continue to walk with the God of the living.