In today’s gospel a group called the Sadducees – a small elite Jerusalem-based group, conservative both in religious and political outlook – challenge Jesus. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection and would have rejected entirely Jesus’ teaching about resurrection, and so from this opposing position they enter into a potentially confrontational encounter with Jesus. They have come with a prepared dilemma, aiming to demonstrate how ridiculous the idea of physical resurrection is.
The question of the Sadducees is in essence not a question but a trap. By presenting this absurd situation of a woman having been married to seven brothers their hope is that they will show that Jesus is not the Messiah but a false prophet, and that resurrection is an absurdity that can only be endorsed by fools.
Jesus, however, doesn’t dismiss the Sadducees quickly, or hurtfully, instead going towards them, and meeting them where they are. He listens to their question, engages with it and with them, and acknowledges the importance of marriage on earth, not dismissing the law as written in Leviticus, to which they refer.
He then seems to engage with them in exploring the law, using the traditional Jewish approach to this known as Midrash. The Berakhot (an early written record of these explorations which were not permitted to be written down before the 1st century CE) asserts that ‘in the world to come there is not eating or drinking or marrying or envy or hate’.
Jesus seems to echo this by asserting that, whilst the laws governing conventions of marriage (or other parts of life) may be valid in this life, they are not really applicable in relation to life after death, where we will have bodies fitted to heaven; they will be heavenly bodies.
The Jewish oral tradition of midrash was a way of responding in community, and in safety, to questions that arose from Jewish scriptures. Jesus would have grown up surrounded by debates and conferences seeking to explore more deeply the laws, ethics and theology presented in Jewish scripture, placing the unchanging holy scriptures alongside new lived realities and experiences, and seeking understanding.
There’s almost a feeling when reading this passage that Jesus is teasing out his arguments as he speaks. He is learning, discovering, and gaining understanding through the encounter with the Sadducees. We could almost say that this is a passage that demonstrates midrash, and in keeping with this tradition, Jesus turns to other Scripture to help understanding; in this case the book of Exodus, one of the five Mosaic books in which the Sadducees were firmly rooted. Jesus speaks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as continuing to be alive to God. He is not saying they are already resurrected, but that they are alive in God’s presence, awaiting their final bodily resurrection.
The Sadducees’ question is unanswerable. Such questions are, of course, never straightforward, and so by definition there cannot be a straightforward answer. Jesus, the man who lived in Galilee in the 1st century, had no human experience of life beyond earthly life. And being fully human, and fully divine, it is hard to understand to what extent (if any?) he had knowledge beyond that available to humanity. (Another unanswerable question!)
Nonetheless, we do ask these questions about what happens when we die, as we all surely will: is there an afterlife?; what will it mean to be ‘me’ if there is?; and what will my relationship actually be to those I love here and now?
These are universal human questions that continue to be pondered over academically by philosophers, neuroscientists, and theologians, as well as those of us simply trying to live our lives as best we can. Perhaps they are particularly acute at this time of the year, a time of remembrance through the church festivals of All Saints and All Souls, and in our commemorations on Remembrance Sunday next week.
Indeed, I noticed yesterday in the window of The Next Chapter, a social enterprise therapy centre and bookshop on William Street, that every one of the books on display relates to death, dying, grief, and how we live with the questions around these concerns.
What do we do with such mysteries; what do we do with unanswerable questions? Doctrine, faith and tradition can help inform us as we debate unanswerable questions, but can such questions ever be answered?
As a society, I sense that we have lost touch a bit with the idea that engaging in discussion and debate together, with others, helps us as we strive towards understanding that we do not yet possess I wonder whether new understandings become more possible when our intention is changed from seeking to reach a final definitive answer, and instead becomes a willingness to engage in creative thought and some risk-taking?
Jesus often taught not what to see, but how to see; sought not indisputable, unchanging answers, but ongoing discoveries of depths of meaning that may change with time and place. He often responded to questioning not with answers but with reflection and invitations to new questions.
This is a gospel passage of courageous conversation. In fact it is the only episode in the gospels describing a meeting between the Sadducees and Jesus. Courageous conversation can be scary, and threatening for all parties, and we often avoid it, because we might discover that we haven’t got all the answers, and that those with whom we would normally disagree just might have something worth hearing.
We might discover that there isn’t an answer to be got! But one thing we can be sure of is that there is, always, more to be discovered.
As the Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letter to a Young Poet
‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’