[Jesus answered the Sadducees] “…as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching. (Matt 22:31-33)
I knew it would happen eventually: having committed myself not just to daily lectionary reading but to daily reflections on what I’d read, I would soon run into a passage and feel like I have nothing to say. Which brings us to Matthew’s account of Jesus debating the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead…
Usually, this gospel has the Pharisees debating and testing Jesus, as in the famous verses right after today’s text. But as we get closer and closer to the Crucifixion, the Sadducees now show up to ask which of the seven men a woman had married in life she would be bound to when the dead are resurrected — a Jewish doctrine the Pharisees affirmed but the Sadducees denied.
Right away, I knew I was in over my head. I mean, I know enough biblical odds and ends to know that the Sadducees are using a story from the apocryphal Book of Tobit, in which a woman was married to seven men, “and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives” (3:8). But I don’t know nearly enough about Jewish history and theology to comment on either the Sadducees’ question or Jesus’ first response (“…in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven,” v 30). The Bible I’ve been using for this series was no help; its only comment on this chapter is reserved for the following verses: Matthew’s version of the greatest commandment. And when I dug into a couple of other commentaries, I found citations that go deep into rabbinical interpretations that I’ve never read.
So lesson #1: the Bible is humbling. Even if you studied it more consistently than I do, understanding might still prove elusive, for its truths emerge from layers of context that take careers to comprehend.
But lesson #2: if I won’t understand everything in Scripture, I can nonetheless understand what matters most.
After all, getting hung up on small details is precisely what the Sadducees are trying to do to Jesus. Just as the Pharisees are about to tempt Jesus to elevate one of the Torah’s 600+ laws above the others, the Sadducees focus on a single law — “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow'” (v 24) — that is itself the subject of debate. They’re alluding to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, which has often been contrasted with Leviticus 20:21 — “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity.” (And I only knew that because those verses are important to the start of the English Reformation. King Henry VIII had married Catherine of Aragon, his older’s brother’s widow, on the basis of Deuteronomy 25, but later deployed Leviticus 20 as part of his case to have the pope annul that marriage and let him wed Anne Boleyn.)
But there I go, getting caught up in something other than the central meaning of the story, which is undoubtedly this: God’s power is not that of a venerable, musty tradition that scholars parse endlessly, but that of living power over death itself. And Jesus would answer the Sadducees not just in this brief exegetical exchange, but still more powerfully by his own resurrection a few days later.
We call God the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and Moses — not simply because of their witness recorded in history, but because the Bible’s men and women of faith continue to point us “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2), who would endure the cross and disregard its shame… knowing that the empty tomb awaited.
Knowing, that is, that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Thanks be to God!