Elijah-Cross-Moses Tenth Sunday

He is God not of the dead, but of the living. Matthew 22:23-34

INTRODUCTION

Different groups of people had discussions with Jesus on the issues of faith. Some, like Nicodemus and Samaritan woman, had good intentions during their questioning of Jesus and they got convinced by his answers. However, others like Pharisees and Sadducees, questioned Jesus to trap him. The interrogation of the Sadducees on the life after death benefitted the bystanders who could hear from Jesus some truths about the afterlife. Jesus revealed that life after death is different from the life in this world. Those who are chosen will be like angels in heaven. Let us look forward for such a sublime life and strive for that by making use of the resources and blessings God give us in this life.

BIBLE TEXT

(23) On that day Sadducees approached him, saying that there is no resurrection. They put this question to him, (24) saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ (25) Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. (26) The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. (27) Finally the woman died. (28) Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.” (29) Jesus said to them in reply, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. (30) At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. (31) And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, (32) ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (33) When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

INTERPRETATION

(23) On that day Sadducees approached him, saying that there is no resurrection. They put this question to him,

Before the confrontation of the Sadducees with Jesus, the Pharisees had tested Jesus by sending their disciples along with the Herodians on the issue of paying tax to the Roman emperor. (Matthew 22:15-22). Jesus successfully answered them saying: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt. 22:21). Then came the turn of another Jewish sect called Sadducees to test Jesus with another question.

Sadducees were a priestly sect of the Jews that was active during the public ministry of Jesus and flourished around two centuries before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Though their origin and early history is not clear now, their name derived from the Zadok, the high priest at the time of Kings David and Solomon. Zadok was also a descendant of Aaron from the tribe of Levites. (1 Chronicles 27:17).

Zadok’s descendants controlled the temple service and administration. Eventually the Sadducees came under the influence of Greek culture and tied up with the Roman rulers of Palestine to keep up their position. They became money obsessed and became a rich priestly class by generating income from the Temple. They were rivals with another dominant Jewish sect of the time, the Pharisees. However, Sadducees had controlled the Temple and its priesthood. St. Luke records that when the apostles were brought for trial in front of the Sanhedrin, “the high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the party of the Sadducees.” (Acts 5:17).

The Sadducees focused their belief and teachings on Torah, the first five books of the Bible. They did not accept other books of the Bible including prophets and other writings. Thus, unlike the Pharisees, they denied the oral traditions, immortality of the soul, bodily resurrection after death, and the existence of angels. Acts 23:8 states: “Sadducees say that there is no resurrection or angels or spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all three.”

Though conservative, their greed for wealth, made them compromise with Roman administrators to keep up their authority. So, the common people hated their approach. The Sadducees had a significant role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Since Sadducees were associated with the Temple worship, that group disappeared from history with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

The background of the hypothetical question of the Sadducees was because of their disagreement with Jesus on his teaching on the resurrection of the dead and the life after death. They denied a life after death because resurrection was not clear in the Torah which was their only officially recognized Holy Scripture. They developed a imaginary question that they thought would make Jesus to stop his teaching on resurrection. They might have raised the same question to the Pharisees who could not give a satisfactory answer. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus who came down from heaven could answer because he was sure on the nature of the life after death.

(24) saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’

The Sadducees were referring to the law of Levirate Marriage given in the book of Deuteronomy. The word levirate derives from the Latin word “levir” meaning “brother-in-law.” According to this law, “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 come to her, marrying her and performing the duty of a brother-in-law. The firstborn son she bears shall continue the name of the deceased brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel. But if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, ‘My brother-in-law refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel and does not intend to perform his duty toward me.’ Thereupon the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists in saying, ‘I do not want to marry her,’ his sister-in-law, in the presence of the elders, shall go up to him and strip his sandal from his foot and spit in his face, declaring, ‘This is how one should be treated who will not build up his brother’s family!’ And his name shall be called in Israel, ‘the house of the man stripped of his sandal.’” (Dt. 25:5-10). The purpose of this law was to continue the family line and property of a deceased person.

(25) Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. (26) The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven.

According to Biblical numerology number seven represents completion. In this made-up story, the Sadducees presented seven brothers who all married the same lady one after another and none of them had any child from her. Though she was wife to all, six were marrying her on behalf of their elder brother or brothers. All the six kept the Levirate Marriage Law. But their attempts were in vain.

(27) Finally the woman died.

Even though the woman married all the seven brothers, she died childless. If she had a child from one of them, she could be counted as the wife of that brother. This made the puzzle difficult to answer.

(28) Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.”

Though the Sadducees did not believe in the life after death, they presumed that Jesus and others like Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, were considering the same state of marital relations in the life after death. Because of that false presumption, they were asking Jesus who would be considered the husband of the woman who married all the seven brothers one after another. All of them had equal rights on her and she could not be wife of all the seven brothers at the same time. Though some men in the Bible had more than one wife at the same time, no woman was allowed to have more than one husband simultaneously. The reason was that a woman was under the law of her husband until he died. (1Cor. 7:39).

(29) Jesus said to them in reply, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God.

Jesus’ answer to the question of Sadducees was a comment that they were mistaken for two reasons: Their lack of scriptural knowledge and their deficiency in understanding the power of God. They limited their acceptance of the Holy Scripture to Pentateuch and made their own assumptions rather than being open to understand the message of God. They also should have realized that God is all-powerful and could have a perfect world in the world to come, different from what we have in the present age. Jesus was giving a direct blow to them who were in high rank as  priests and members of the Sanhedrin. 

(30) At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.

The life after the resurrection is different in nature and purpose. Marriage along with family responsibilities in this world is a heavenly design on the earth to take part in the loving relationship of couples ("It is not good for the man to be alone.” Genesis 2:18), procreation (“Be fruitful and increase in number.” Genesis 1:28) and growing up of children (“Train up a child in the way he should go.” Proverbs 22:6).  This setup is necessary to perpetuate the mortal human race. The risen life would not be a continuation of this world. It is a world of perfection, immortality, and no more procreation.

According to Jesus, the life after resurrection is different and will be close in nature to the existence of angels. There are differences between humans and angles. Though God created both angels (Colossians 1:16) and humans, only humans are recorded as created in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:26). Humans and some group of angels sinned. Jesus died for the salvation of humans. So, only they can be forgiven and not the fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4). Only humans marry and generate children. The angles have “superior strength and power” (2 Peter 2:11). They exist in heaven which is a higher level of existence than the physical universe. (Matthew 18:10, Rev. 5:11-12). Thus, Jesus affirmed that the humans who are saved will be in a higher level in heaven than their life and relationships in this world. Jesus confirmed the existence of angels to Sadducees who did not believe in angels.

(31) And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, (32) ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

When God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, He said: “I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6). When God told this to Moses, centuries had gone after these forefathers had died. However, God acknowledged their existence even after their death. Though the verse did not specify the resurrection of the dead, it implied their survival after death. Sadducees could not deny any quote from Pentateuch because they adhered their belief in the first five books of the Bible. 

God is the source and master of life. Death is only a byproduct of sin. By the resurrection of Jesus, he gained victory over death. Even during his public life, Jesus raised three people from the dead: Daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:22-43), a widow’s son in the town of Nain (Luke 7:11-15), and Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Jesus’ discussion on the resurrection was held on Tuesday of the Holy Week. So, Jesus had his resurrection also in mind when he spoke this. After his death, Jesus descended into the lower regions of the earth. (Ephesians 4:9). He preached the gospel “even to the dead that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God.” (1Peter 4:6). So, God continues his relationship with His people even after their death. Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead by his appearing and his kingly power. (2 Timothy 4:1). Jesus promised eternal reward for those who serve him. “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29). So, God continues to be the master of those who live after death.

(33) When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

Unlike the Pharisees, who also believed in the resurrection and angels, Jesus could answer the Sadducees persuasively because he came down from heaven. The Pharisees and others who held the same belief could very well appreciate the apt answer of Jesus. No one had given such a clear and convincing answer as Jesus did. That made the listeners to express their amazement at the appropriate response and teaching of Jesus.

MESSAGE

1. The intention of Sadducees in questioning Jesus was to trap him rather than to learn from him. Some people raise religious questions to express their skill or to put down the preachers. Questioning on faith matters will benefit the enquirer only if it is done with a good intention.

2. Sadducees believed that the wealth of this world was gift of God based on His covenant with their ancestors. “But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” (Deut. 8:18). Though this is true, according to Jesus, those who make themselves poor for the glory of God are rich in heaven. (Luke 6:20). Sadducees were blessed with wealth. But they used it for their own enjoyment without any consideration for the underprivileged because they considered the poor as the least cared people of God.

3. Sadducees failed to look beyond the happiness of this life. Since they did not belive in the life after death, they did not try to gain any virtue by works of charity. Jesus asked us to consider our resources like wealth, time and capacities as talents God entrusted to us to take care of others who are also children of God, and as such our brothers and sisters. We also shall not be stuck with the temporal happiness of this life. Our goal shall be eternal joy for which we should be willing to sacrifice the temporal goods and happiness just like the apostles who gave up everything for the Kingdom of God.

4. Jesus criticized Sadducees for their misunderstanding of the Word of God. Let us ask God’s grace for a clear understanding of the Bible rather than manipulating it to justify our evil deeds.

5. Jesus disapproved Sadducees for their misunderstanding of the power of God. We also should acknowledge the power and wisdom of God who would reestablish a new heaven and new earth of perfection. “See, I am creating new heavens and a new earth; The former things shall not be remembered nor come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17).

6. Life after death is a mystery and beyond our human comprehension. From the words of Jesus we know that it is far perfect and different from that of this world. Jesus said: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” (John 14:2-3). Let us be hopeful and strive for this world of perfection where we will live like angels.