Well we do have some good arguments in the Church, and it’s kind of reassuring to read in the Bible that religious people have always been fairly good at that. Mostly in the Gospels it’s Jesus scoring one off the Pharisees but in today’s reading, surprisingly, there are on the same side. Actually, I think the Pharisees get a raw deal in the Gospels. They are made to seem rigid and hide-bound and unimaginatively tied to lists of do’s and don’ts. The Pharisees – so the Christian tradition often supposes – completely miss the point of God’s love and of the stunningly free gift of grace. And I guess we hold this opinion of the Pharisees because Jesus argued with them so much. Well, but I’m not so sure. What if Jesus argued with the Pharisees because they were worth arguing with? What if they argued a lot because they agreed about a lot?
In any case in today’s Gospel reading it is the Pharisees – and Jesus – who represent the radical, fresh, smarty-pants new thinking – and who are coming under fire from the old school, the sect of the Sadducees. Because both Jesus and the Pharisees believe in the resurrection from the dead. That when you die you don't die into nothing but live in God. Actually, Jesus agreed with the Pharisees about quite a lot, for example they agreed about the Golden Rule which the great teacher of the Pharisees, Hillel the Elder, had coined a hundred years before Jesus as: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."
Well, in Jesus’ day there seems to have been a bewildering array of different Jewish sects and splinter groups all arguing ferociously amongst themselves, and in the early Church as well there was also fierce argument between different traditions and communities some of whom – as St Paul complains – saw themselves as followers of Apollo or followers of Paul or even – some of them – as followers of Christ. It’s good for us to bear this in mind when we think about the divisions in the Church in our own time. The reality is that disagreement about what God is like and what God expects us to be like is as old as religion itself! The Sadducees believed in the good old-fashioned books of the Bible, the first five called the Pentateuch. God had spoken through Moses and that according to the Sadducees was that. The Sadducees didn’t hold with the idea that God was still speaking to God’s people, didn’t like the idea of letting newer writings like the prophetic literature into the Bible, and certainly didn’t accept that God could be revealing new truths through outsiders or upstarts like Jesus. There was nothing in the Pentateuch about heaven or eternity, and like good religious people everywhere it became very important for the Sadducees to prove how ridiculous their opponents were - and so in today’s story they come up with a hypothetical example as a way of demonstrating how this new-fangled belief in resurrection leads to an impossible contradiction.
Well, we should probably pause at this point and feel sorry for the poor woman in the story who gets passed along from brother to brother like a sack of potatoes, and certainly we need to notice that the hypothetical situation revolves around the Levirate marriage system which was designed to ensure the continuity of families in a society where there was no such thing as social welfare. A patriarchal society that more or less treated women as possessions. But the real point that is being made in today’s Gospel story is about God.
At this point in the history of the Jewish people, belief in life after death was very new-fangled. Belief in resurrection had started to creep into Jewish thought just a few centuries earlier, when the people of Judah newly released from exile began to re-establish their religious practices under the cultural and political influence of the Persian Empire. Like the belief in angels, the idea of personal immortality was a fairly recent import into Judaism from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Empire. And new sects like the Pharisees picked it up and embraced it and thought yes, that makes sense. That’s how God would be, that makes sense of God’s perspective on justice, especially when we live in a world where justice is so often denied. A belief in resurrection seemed natural to a people who had lived through the destruction of the Temple and long years of exile. And so the hope of liberation, that is at the very bedrock of the religion of Israel, began to also mean a hope that at the end of the age, everything that keeps men and women imprisoned and oppressed would be transformed. And so the righteous would surely be raised from the dead. Life, they thought, just wouldn’t make sense otherwise. And Jesus, like the Pharisees, embodies this hope and belief in resurrection, this hope that all that we are is not lost at the end of our earthly life, but is somehow gathered into God and completed.
And so Jesus answers the Sadducees’ hypothetical question, and his answer makes a couple of things really clear. Firstly that he is on the side of those who think that God can and does keep speaking new words in new times, that faith is not tied to dusty old scriptures but also grows in response to new situations and new experiences. That our thinking about God needs to take account not only of treasured religious traditions but of new insights and ways of seeing the world. And that even in our own time, in the 21st century, we need to listen for the new word that God might be speaking in new situations.
And the second thing is – in just a couple of words – he tells us why we don’t just die into nothing. Which is surprising because at first glance Jesus answer looks a bit flaky. Not one of his very best arguments, you might be thinking. "Hey!", says Jesus to the Sadducees, "the books of the Pentateuch that even you accept describe God as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and everybody knows that God is the God not of the dead but of the living – so obviously Abraham and Isaac and Jacob must be not dead but living" … Well, um, OK.
But I’ve thought about this some more, and I think what Jesus is saying here is stunning in its simplicity. He is actually pointing out the obvious, which is that the only sensible way to talk about God - is as a God whose character and existence are made known in relationship. In relationship with actual men and women and in the unfolding of history. What it means is that God is not God by Godself – but only as God with us. God is love, God is the God of relationship. And if that is the case, if God is only and always God with us, and if God’s loving care of us continues eternally then even in death God is still God with us, and we are still with God. If God’s life is a sort of creative relationality – which is to say a relationship that brings us into existence – then our own identity and our own existence is constituted out of relationship with God. So as long as God remains God, then we remain in relationship with God. If God’s loving care for us never ends, then our relationship and our life in God never ends.
It’s a big claim, but it’s also a simple claim. We die into God’s love because of who God is, and because of who we are created to be. That’s good, isn’t it?
But then Jesus - or some later editor - pads out the argument with the observation that the Sadducees’ hypothetical situation can’t arise in any case because there is no sex in heaven. Which from the point of view of the exhausted seven-times married wife might seem like rather a relief - though the rest of us might not necessarily see it as such a good idea. It seems to come from the idea that because there is no more dying, there is no more need for babies – and of course owes much to the sort of over-religious values common in both Jesus’ day and also in our own that curiously overlook the blessing that God bestows on sexual union in Genesis chapter two. And in fact Jesus’ own theology of loving relationship that lies behind his answer to the Sadducees suggests that the meaning of our own lives is revealed not only in relationship to God but in relationship to one another – and that our human relationships are based on the foundational relationship we have with God – so without arguing the point perhaps we might also trust that not only our relationship with God but also the relationships we have with those whom we have loved throughout our lives might be fulfilled and completed in the life beyond this.
The point is simply that God is God. That we are formed and live out our lives in the creative context of God’s love, and that trust in the eternal God of love to complete and fulfill us in love in the life beyond this is surely not misplaced. And that even as we argue about what God is like, or about how God wants us to live, we realise that we belong together. In agreement and in argument.