I wouldn’t be surprised if you could not make head nor tail of the Gospel reading. It is as if we have been led into the deep, impenetrable forest of the Jewish world and become lost, losing our way among the do’s and don’ts. A woman having to marry her dead husband’s brother and if he dies having to marry another brother and so on, until she has made her way through the family of brothers. What in heaven’s name is it all about?
Strangely the situation of a woman marrying her husband’s brother if he should die still exists today in central Asia, in China, Indonesia, amongst the Kurds, in Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya and other countries, it is called Leviate marriage. It is designed to protect the woman if her husband should die (she is not penniless, unsupported, cut-off), any children of the marriage are recognised, they are not disinherited, monies and land stay in the family/tribe, it creates a certain order.
A tricky question is put to Jesus by way of this situation: if you are claiming, they say to Jesus, that there is a resurrection, there is heaven, that people can expect a life after death, who will she be married to in in the after life having married all these men. It’s a wrecking ball, it’s a question that pulls the rug from underneath, it’s a question which seeks to make the claim of an afterlife look ridiculous.
You might think this is strange discussion as the Sadducees are arguing against heaven. In our terms they sound like a Richard Dawkins who argues against rather than for God. These Sadducees are surely the guardians of the Old Testament. Do they not believe in heaven? The short answer to that is No, not in terms that we would understand.
Let me try to explain it a bit to you. There were three religious authorities in Israel at the time of Jesus: the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Essenes. We hear in the Gospel of 2 of these groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees weren’t very flexible when it came to the Law but the Sadducees were even less so. They believed only in the first 5 books of the Old Testament, what they called the Torah, and no others. They regarded themselves to be the elite and occupied the places of prominence at the temple and in civic society. They were very conservative theologically, if it wasn’t in the first 5 books of the Old Testament then it was not to be taken seriously, this was the law to be followed, the Torah. Nothing else mattered
Here is what they believed happened when people died. In the first 5 books of the Old Testament, when people die everybody goes, good or bad, to a place called Sheol, a dark place where souls listlessly wait around. It is only slightly developed later that in Sheol the righteous may be in a different place from evil doers.
Among the Sadducees it is clear that they have no idea of people going to heaven or any form of resurrection. It simply doesn’t exist, astonishing as it is to us. This clearly brought them into disagreement with Jesus but also the Pharisees who had a much more developed theological understanding through the other books of the Old Testament that allowed them to think of things differently. The book of Maccabees which is the first reading is one of the latest books of the Old Testament and here they are developing different ideas of the after life from what is contained in the first 5 books of the OT, a place of reward for trials here on earth, a place where God rewards the sufferings of the just – the Pharisees will take this up in open debate with the Sadducees, which is hinted in the new testament.
This passage then is all about a theological dispute between Jesus and the Sadducees. The Sadducees who on the one hand don’t believe in a resurrection, don’t believe in heaven for anybody, don’t believe in a place where you are rewarded; but at the end of life people good and bad are dispatched to a place where they are dead realities, lifeless, languishing in the shadows. Then there is Jesus who joins people who seem to be proposing something different.
By this passage we are transported into the first century and we are listening to a dispute, a fundamental disagreement between 2 forces over what is to be believed, what can be known, what can be expected.
The Sadducees seek to trip Jesus up with an example. If it is a place of the living, who will a woman be married to if on earth she has been married to a number of different people in life. It’s a wrecking ball, it’s a question that pulls the rug from underneath, it’s a question which seeks to make the claim look ridiculous. They seek to stump Jesus, to spike his argument. But Jesus responds by quoting from 1 of these same five books of the Old Testament so important to the Sadducees, where God says he is the living God and he is God of people who were once dead but who are now alive – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead of being undone, Jesus turns the tables. The end of it all, Jesus says, is not a place of shadows, a place where people languish good and bad, but it is a triumph of life, it is more like the Father’s home where there are very many rooms, than a place of sadness, its a place of green pastures and living waters, or a feast in which everyone is sat down – these images speak about life and eternal life (gushing water, bursting harvests, barns full, green pastures) abundance, and satisfaction and those who have finished the race and have run it well.
The debate over what happens after death is as old as time itself. Where do we end up going? Is death just like a light going off, a machine stopping? Do we join all of the other elements in the universe, nothing really dies, you just become something else. Is the universe just like a big re-cycling plant? Are we re-incarnated, do we become a dog or a cat, or a cow in another life?
As many as the stars in heaven are theories about what happens after death.
Between the Old and the New Testament there is an argument. You might not have thought that, but there is a clear disagreement. The Sadducees don’t believe in a resurrection, a heaven or a hell, they believed in some kind of ante-chamber where you went good or bad and languished forever. That is a million miles from what the Christians came to believe – Jesus was going to heaven and they were going with him
So what Jesus is saying is new, radical and ground breaking, intolerable to the ears of the Sadducees. That God wants to give life even to those who are dead like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all who come after. He seems not to have created things to die.
So how can we think of all of this not in first century terms but in 21st century terms.
To be connected to Jesus is to be connected to the power source. To be connected to him is the thing that gives life. To be connected to him we are alive, strong, hopeful and full of purpose. When we become disconnected we manage for a while but the battery and the energy soon runs low. He never wants us to be disconnected from him and in the end this is heaven: being connected with him in a union in which death is a power surge which lights us up and the lights which never goes out.
November is not a just a month of dying leaves or a time for hopeless thoughts about those have died. It is a month that makes us think about big things for ourselves and those who have gone before us. Its about the joy of life, its about the wind that is in our sails, its about the large vista that opens before us when we come to the top of the hill and look over, its about a sea still to be travelled. There is so much more, an infinite amount of it and we call it eternal life, it is that which we are called to.