Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jesus 3, Sanhedrin 0

Life of Christ 156

The rural Pennsylvania cemetery
where my daughter is buried
          It is Tuesday morning. Jesus will die tomorrow afternoon. He and His Apostles are spending the forenoon in the Temple taking on all comers. The Sanhedrin openly took a stab at Him once, but having been vanquished they have now resorted to sending out surrogates. The first of the surrogates, The Pharisees, sought to trap Jesus in a question about tribute money. Naturally, they failed miserably. Today’s story reveals the Sadducees to be the next antagonist.
          Jesus had historically tangled far oftener with the Pharisees. This is because the Sadducees were less numerous amongst the common people. The Sadducees were the party of the rich and of the politically connected, and Jesus had had limited interaction with such men thus far. However, they too have a vested interest in stopping this religious upstart as Jesus threatened all of Israel’s leading parties of the day.
          The Sadducees most well-known theological position was a rejection of the afterlife. Similar to the Samaritans, they accepted the Torah (the books of Moses) and rejected as canonical the Old Testament prophets. They also rejected the Pharisees’ Oral Torah (the ‘fence around the garden of the Torah’). This Oral Torah is what we commonly know as the Mishnah section of the Talmud. It embraced all manner of extra-biblical rules and insisted on a hyper-literal minute observance of thousands of rules. The Sadducees limited embrace of only the books of the Moses was the foundation for their rejection of the afterlife. After all, to them the afterlife was not clearly referenced in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy.
          To the Christian this is startlingly ridiculous. Heaven is spoken of often in Scripture, and together with the fact of Christ’s resurrection is a great comfort to our hearts. But the Sadducees rejected the rest of the Old Testament, Christ’s resurrection was still five days away, and the New Testament had not yet been penned.
          But to the Sadducees of Christ’s day this was an altogether reasonable proposition. This was especially true when set in contradistinction to the pharisaic approach to the afterlife. The rabbinic Pharisees had garnished the doctrine of the resurrection to a fare-thee-well. Edersheim reports they held that ‘in order to secure that all the pious of Israel should rise on the sacred soil of Palestine, there were cavities underground in which the body would roll till it reached the Holy Land, there to rise to newness of life.’ Faced with such ridiculous assertions the Sadducees held their position to be the reasonable one.
          Jesus, of course, had already proclaimed Himself to be the resurrection and the life. (John 11.25) He had raised several people from the dead including Lazarus a mere two miles away a few weeks ago. Yet the Sadducees cared nothing for this. And if they could somehow box him into a corner, verbally, and leave Him gasping for conversational air they would win points not just against Jesus but against the Pharisees as well.
          They open their attack by spinning an improbable story. 

Luke 20. 27  Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him,
28  Saying, Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother die, having a wife, and he die without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
29  There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children.
30  And the second took her to wife, and he died childless.
31  And the third took her; and in like manner the seven also: and they left no children, and died.
32  Last of all the woman died also.                     
33  Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife.

          They had the barest shadow of support for this story since the Torah commanded a brother-in-law to marry a childless widow in order to ensure the family inheritance remained intact. (Deuteronomy 25.5-6)
          Jesus on this Tuesday morning is being displayed to us in a different light. He is hoisting His opponents on their own verbal petard time and again. He is holding nothing back. He is going for the jugular each time. He does the same here as well.
          His response goes back to the sole authority the Sadducees will permit – the Torah alone. Quoting Exodus 3, Jesus says But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (Matthew 22.31-32)
          His answer hinges on the grammatical tense of ‘I am.’ If Abraham were currently (in the timeframe of Exodus 3) dead God would have told Moses ‘I was the God of Abraham.’ But God did not. God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham.’ Clearly then, an Abraham dead for five centuries by Moses’ time was actually still wonderfully and vitally alive – in Heaven – which means the resurrection and the afterlife are both true. And this was provable from the Torah alone.
My daughter's grave
          All of this not only vanquished those Sadducees on that far off day in the Temple two millennia ago, but it also lends to us in our day a very real and comforting truth: everyone whom God is the God of is still alive. In other words, any human being who ever placed their belief in Jehovah alone is still very much alive – even if their body currently graces a cemetery space. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him. (Luke 20.38)
          Beloved, you have buried your own loved ones as have I. But those we have buried who fell asleep in Christ are still very much alive. And there is comfort enough to last a lifetime long until we are once again re-united with them in Heaven.

           …and if you are scoring along at home it is now Jesus three, the Sanhedrin zero.

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