This week’s gospel lesson won’t make much sense unless we understand two basics about the Jewish culture of the day. First, we need to know something about the Sadducees, namely that they rejected the concept of an afterlife. They paid no attention to the psalms or the prophets, having decided that the only books of the scripture that mattered were the Torah, the Pentateuch. Finding in the Pentateuch nothing about heaven or an afterlife, the Sadducees had concluded that all justice that occurred would occur in this life. Aside: my old friend Jim Robey kept me straight about the Sadducees and the Pharisees. “The Sadducees didn’t believe in heaven, so they were sad, you see.”
The second basic is about Levirate marriage. It’s described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, part of the significant body of the Pentateuch that never appears in our Revised Common Lectionary. Levirate marriage required that if a married man died leaving a childless widow, the dead man’s brother should marry the widow and help her produce children who could then succeed to the name of the widow’s deceased husband.
So when the Sadducees confronted Jesus with this strained hypothetical, they were trying to demonstrate how absurd the idea of resurrection would be. One can just imagine the glee with which they had plotted and planned their question to confuse this upstart carpenter who presumed to lecture the learned scholars of the faith. Their use of the term “teacher,” or rabbi, is thinly veiled sarcasm. This is not a respectful exchange; it’s the opening salvo in an intended rhetorical smackdown.
The implacable Savior dismisses their question with a theological shrug, basically telling them their question is nonsensical. Those worthy of the afterlife, Jesus says, are above earthly concerns like marriage and death. They are like angels, forever equal in God’s eyes, forever with God.
As with so many other scriptures, the risk we run when we study this passage is that we assume it conveys all relevant information about resurrection; it doesn’t. It does provide a useful perspective, though, on which we can reflect as we seek to understand more of God’s ultimate plan for humanity.