This is a continuation of Trapping Jesus – Part 1: The Pharisees Ask About Taxes.
After their frienemies, the Pharisees, failed to trap Jesus with a political question about Jews paying Roman taxes, the Sadducees decide to take a more sophisticated approach. Quite confident that they can outperform the bungling Pharisees, the Sadducees sidle up to Jesus a short while later with a perfect theological stumper. As was typical for Jewish commoners, Jesus has bought into the Pharisees’ ridiculous notion of a resurrection. What kind of dingdong believes in an afterlife? The Sadducees are quite convinced that there is nothing beyond death. After all, they pride themselves in being experts on the Torah—which they say are the only valid Scriptures—and the Torah certainly doesn’t support any guff about rising from the dead. So since Jesus has so foolishly allowed His theology to become corrupted by those ridiculous Pharisees, He’s sure to find Himself embarrassingly stumped by the “what if” scenario the Sadducees have cooked up.
Three of the Gospel writers cover this account of the Sadducees trying to trap Jesus on the topic of resurrection (see Matt. 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, and Luke 20:27-40). They lay the groundwork for their trap by reminding Jesus of a particular law from Deuteronomy 25:5.
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (Mk. 12:18-23)
Ha, ha, ha—figure that one out, Jesus! The Sadducees find the whole notion of resurrection to be utterly ludicrous, and this situation they’ve just described proves the point. If Jesus believes in resurrection, then how does He resolve the issue of consecutive marriages? Is He going to say that Yahweh approves of polygamy in Heaven? Certainly that would be absurd, for Yahweh obviously wants a man to have only one wife at a time.
Now to justify why the woman in their story is getting remarried so quickly, the Sadducees whip out Deuteronomy 25:5, which is a law that is designed to help protect widows from financial hardship. In a society in which the money and property was passed down only through male heirs, a widow with no son could easily find herself in a grim economic situation. To help protect widows, Yahweh ordered that single men must intervene when some woman was widowed by their brother. A man was to not only marry his dead brother’s lonely wife, but he was also to get her pregnant right quick so that the woman could have heirs.
Now for all of you independent women who feel that this system is some gross infringement on your personal rights, you need to realize that the cultural climate you were raised in has had an enormous influence on your personal values. It is our cultures which teach us whether we should put a higher value on hormonal surges or economic stability. In America, singles feel it is some terrible rip off to have to marry someone who they aren’t panting after with lusty infatuation. Well, it’s not hard to argue that such a mindset is quite immature and short sighted. Real love is largely a matter of soul choice and has very little to do with raging hormones. So, no, Yahweh wasn’t forcing heartbroken women to marry abusive jerks with this law in Deuteronomy. For all of their emphasis on freedom of choice, Americans have proven themselves to be very bad at picking good marital partners, so let’s not be so hasty to judge. There was great merit to Yahweh’s system, and it got a lot of widows out of some miserable situations.
Now in the story the Sadducees are inventing, Yahweh’s system isn’t working the way it’s supposed to because none of these brothers are able to give the widow heirs. Once a woman has kids of her own, this marital law doesn’t apply. It’s because the woman is without husband and childless that she has the legal right to claim the next available brother as her husband. And since the Jews put a high value on kids, they tended to have large families, so a seven brother family isn’t bizarre. What is bizarre is how all of the men in this family are dying so fast. How do we know they are dying fast? Because none of them are having the chance to get their own wives before the one woman is widowed again.
Well, after mowing through all seven of the brothers in this short lived family, our widow dies childless. The Sadducees are keeping kids out of this equation, because they want to focus on the marriage issue. It isn’t going to bother anyone if Jesus says a woman’s children will still be her children in Heaven, regardless of how many different men those children were fathered by. But everyone will be bothered if Jesus tries to make Heaven out to be polygamy central by saying this one woman will find herself with seven husbands in the netherworld. The whole notion is so ridiculous that Jesus will have to admit that His resurrection theory is a bunch of hooey.
Jesus answered them, “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of Yahweh.” (Matt. 22:29)
Jesus starts His comeback with a harsh insult. He not only accuses these top theologians of not knowing the Scriptures, He also says they’re numskulls when it comes to understanding what Yahweh is capable of. Ouch.
“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.” (Matt. 22:30)
Marriage won’t be a concept in Heaven—that’s why this woman’s seven husband situation will be a non-issue. Family units are a concept of earth. Down here, it really helps us divvy up the responsibilities of taking care of each other by grouping up into biological and legal units. But in Heaven all of this will be gone. There won’t be husband or wife, parent or child. We’ll all just be individuals, like the angels are.
But wait a second—where is any of this written in the Torah? How can Jesus speak so authoritatively about what human relationships will be like on the other side? He’s God, that’s how. When Jesus says how something is, He sounds like He knows what He’s talking about because He does. But since these Sadducees are trying to play verse wars with Him, He whips out a very famous line from the Torah to throw back in their faces.
“Now concerning the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read what was spoken to you by Yahweh: ‘I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ [Ex. 3:6]? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
And when the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. (Matt. 22:31-33)
Four times in the book of Exodus, Yahweh refers to Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What’s remarkable about Him saying this is that by the time of Exodus, those three men were long dead. Yahweh doesn’t say “I was the God of Abraham.” He says, “I am the God of Abraham,” and according to Jesus, that language makes it clear that Abraham is still very much alive somewhere. Jesus essentially says, “What’s wrong with you clowns? Are you trying to say that Yahweh refers to Himself as a God of corpses—of people who no longer exist? Of course He doesn’t. Yahweh is the God of the living, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were very much alive at the time He referred to Himself as being the God of them, so obviously that proves that we will continue to live on after death and that resurrection is real.”
Since Jewish commoners got the majority of their theological education at local synagogues, and since the Pharisees were the ones who invented and controlled the synagogues, the Jewish commoners who are listening to Jesus right now would already be favorable towards a resurrection, since that’s what they’ve been taught by the Pharisees. But they probably would have felt very stumped by the Sadducees’ tricky question, which is why they’re so impressed with Jesus’ comeback. Jesus points out things that no one has thought of before—like Yahweh using the present tense when He refers to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Plus Jesus throws in details that the Scriptures don’t touch on—such as marriage being non-existent in eternity. And of course it’s more than a little impressive to watch Jesus in action, because He’s so incredibly confident in the face of the intimidating Pharisees and Sadducees.
Jesus verbally duking it out with Israel’s pompous spiritual leaders is a prevalent theme throughout the Gospels, but what good comes out of it? We know that most of the people watching these showdowns are just in it for the entertainment value. Once it really starts costing something to side with Jesus publicly, most of these people are going to ditch Him and join the throng that is shouting for His crucifixion. After the Sadducees fail to win this debate about resurrection, Matthew tells us that the Pharisees gather together to try and come up with another attack plan.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. (Matt. 22:34)
How very tiresome. It seems like none of these people will ever repent out of their rebellion and actually benefit from their interactions with Jesus. But just when we think there is no hope for these hardened hearts, Mark changes our mind. In his account of the post-resurrection debate, he describes a scribe (an expert in the Torah) from the Pharisees’ camp showing a genuine interest in Jesus.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus replied, “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ [Deut. 6:4-5]
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev. 19:18]
There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, Teacher,” the scribe replied. “You are right in saying that Yahweh is one and there is no other but Him. To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. (Mk. 12:28-34)
We’re always telling you that God judges you by your soul attitudes, not by your external actions. Well, this is what this scribe just said to Jesus. He said that it’s not what people do that matters (such as bringing Yahweh sacrifices), it’s their internal attitudes (like sincerely loving God) which Yahweh cares about. This is why Jesus responds so positively—because this particular soul is demonstrating a mature understanding that he could only get if he was being receptive to God’s convictions on a soul level. You see, the Pharisees and Sadducees taught that actions were far more important than soul attitude. The Sadducees taught that there was no afterlife, but the Pharisees said that salvation had to be earned and maintained through good works (see Jesus vs. the NT Jews: What it Means to Please God). And by the way, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee, which is why he also insists on good works in his letters. Even though Paul is widely quoted as saying that salvation is acquired through faith, when we yank just a few of Paul’s words out of context and don’t let him finish his thought, we misunderstand him. Paul’s teaching on salvation is extremely works oriented. It is from Paul that you get the notion of being “a new creation in Christ,” and by that he means that any true Christian will be behaviorally perfect (see Salvation According to Paul: If You Sin, You’re Damned (Romans 7-8)). If you’re really saved, then you won’t sin—this is what Paul, James, and John all teach (see Salvation According to 1 John). This was very popular theology in New Testament Israel, but it’s also dead wrong and not at all what Yahweh taught in the Old Testament. Here in Mark 12, this scribe who is talking to Jesus is demonstrating a mature understanding of Yahweh’s requirements which was very rare in New Testament Israel. Mature insights continue to be rare in the Church today, but if we sincerely seek God’s wisdom in life, He will help us understand His truth regardless of how unpopular it is.
As Jesus’ encounter with this insightful scribe demonstrates, not every religious “expert” in Israel was beyond hope. A few were listening. God always has someone who is listening to Him, and those souls will end up being greatly rewarded for their wise soul choices.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Understanding Jesus: Many Will Try To Enter But Won’t Be Able (Luke 13)
Know Your Bible Lesson 48: Blaspheming Sabbath Day Violator
Know Your Bible Lesson 62: Woe to the Pharisees