Our Lord was a great teacher, probably the greatest of all time, not just because of his supreme wisdom, but because of his ability to speak to people at their own level, in their language, on their own ground. So, when speaking to crowds of ordinary folk, he told parables based on daily life, appealing to shepherds losing sheep, or a woman who has lost a coin and needs to search for it. Then there are the fishermen sorting fish in their nets and farmers sowing seed. The unemployed day labourers are not forgotten as he tells a story about men waiting all day long in the marketplace hoping to be hired.
In this way, Jesus speaks of a God who is to be found in the daily round, no matter where people find themselves.
Jesus is also well able for more specialised groups, the religious experts such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, who are hostile to his message and are always trying to catch him out. Such is the case in today’s gospel text, where a group of Sadducees challenge him about his belief in life after death or resurrection.
Who were these people?
They were wealthy aristocrats, many of them priests, who were the de facto leaders of the people of Israel at this time. The Sadducees cooperated with the Roman colonisers in maintaining a level of peace and were concerned about upstarts like Jesus who could cause trouble with the Roman authorities. Thus, it was the High Priest Caiaphas, a Sadducee, who had Jesus crucified because, as he put it pragmatically, “Better that one man die than that the whole people suffer.”
These men held very narrow traditional views of religious doctrine based on the first five books of the Scriptures, which they claimed represented the Law of Moses. Doctrines arising from later books, such as the prophets were not considered binding. Based on this position, the group had no time for belief in the Resurrection of the Dead or the coming of a messiah, since there was no mention of these ideas in those early books. No wonder then that they were opposed to Jesus and his message.
In the gospel today, the Sadducees try to embarrass Jesus with an example which would show that life after death gives rise to absurd consequences, such as a woman married over time to different husbands each of whom dies. Who will she be married to in the next life?
Now Jesus shows his wisdom and skill in arguing by confronting his opponents on their own ground. He doesn’t refer to the first reading of the Mass with its story of martyred brothers going bravely to their death in the belief that God will raise them to new life, since this biblical book is much later than Moses and has no authority for the Sadducees. So, Jesus brings them back to Moses and reminds them of the encounter with God in the Burning Bush episode.
Note how God introduces himself as “I am who am,” the very origin of life and the ongoing preserver and promoter of living things. Then to underline the point, Jesus goes on to quote the claim by God to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob here and now, not simply in the past. God doesn’t say “I was the God of Abraham when the old fella was alive.” No, he is the God of these heroes of the faith, as they are alive in God. The proof of life after death is based, then, on the very nature of God, who is the fullness of life. And Jesus summarises this conclusion with those stirring words, “for to him all men are alive.”
In this controversy with the religious conservatives of Israel, we are reminded by Jesus of the dangers of a scriptural fundamentalism where people follow the letter of scripture literally and miss out on the deeper meaning of God’s revelation. There may be no explicit mention of life after death in those early books, but Jesus points out that a reflection on what God says about himself implies that those he loves must live on.
But Jesus does not conclude his argument here. He continues by warning his listeners to avoid making out the risen life to be simply an extension of this earthly condition and its pleasures. He refuses to give any details about the logistics of heavenly existence, except to say that is essentially relational. In heaven all focuses on God and his love.
Marriage does not exist, since all children of God are brothers and sisters, though how that works out in detail must remain a mystery. Here we need to fall back on those words of St Paul: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the mind of man what things God has prepared for those who love him.”
Of course, for Christians, the ultimate proof of future glory lies not in the Hebrew Scriptures but in the New Testament record of the death and resurrection of the Lord. There is the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus in his risen body which make up our Easter faith. But before this, there is even on the cross a glorious promise made to a repentant thief who hears the marvellous promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
And the emphasis must lie on those relational words, “with me” for that is what paradise is – to be with Jesus and the Father through their loving Spirit. Surely our loved ones who die in the peace of Christ hear those words on their dying day comforting them, inviting them home. This is our undying hope in the month of November for the dear departed. This very day you will join me in heaven. Do not be afraid!
Kieran Cronin ofm