A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Mark 12:18-27 on Sunday 17 February 2019.
A man, his wife, and his mother-in-law went on a holiday to Israel. While they were there, the man’s mother-in-law passed away. The undertaker told them, “You can have her body flown home for $10,000, or you can bury her here in Jerusalem for $150.”
The man thought about it but told him that he’d just like to have her body flown home.
The undertaker said, “I don’t understand. Why would you spend $10,000 to fly your mother-in-law home, when you could bury her here in the Holy Land for only $150?”
The man replied, “A man was buried here 2,000 years ago, and three days later he rose from the dead. I can’t take the chance that it won’t happen again.” He was, of course, talking about the power of God.
Four weeks ago, in our last message on Mark’s Gospel, we met the Pharisees and the Herodians who laid a trap for Jesus. The Pharisees were the custodians of the law, determined to obey the law in every tiny part of life. The Herodians were collaborators. They had decided that joining the Roman overlords was the best way to become rich and powerful. These two factions had their own reasons for wanting to get rid of Jesus. The Pharisees thought Jesus was a blasphemer, a breaker of the law who led the people astray. The Herodians thought Jesus was a rebel, a terrorist, a trouble maker and threat to their grab for power.
So they had joined forces against Jesus to ask him, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” The Pharisees hoped he would say Yes, pay taxes to Caesar, and make himself look bad in front of the people. The Herodians hoped he would say No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar, so that they could get him in trouble with the Romans. Do you remember how brilliantly Jesus evaded their trap? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”
This morning we are looking at a different kind of trap laid by the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the ruling priestly party in Jerusalem. They saw themselves as traditionalists, true conservatives, dedicated to the most ancient traditions of Israel. They didn’t accept new-fangled books like the Psalms and Isaiah and Jeremiah as Scripture. Books that were only written hundreds of years ago. Only the first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – only these five books of the Law of Moses were the Word of God. They didn’t believe in prophesy. They didn’t believe in angels. And they didn’t believe in an afterlife. God had promised in the law of Moses that his faithful people would enjoy a long and prosperous life. To want an afterlife on top of it was foolish and greedy. It was the poor and the weak who wanted an afterlife, a heaven, to make up for their misery. The Sadducees thought that it would be better for those wretches to accept that their misery was a curse sent by God for their sin.
I am not saying that they were right. I’m just saying what they thought. After all, who was more wretched, more miserable than our Lord Jesus on the cross. If he was cursed, it was for us, not for anything he did. But the Sadducees believed that the best that we can hope for is to live a long and happy life and to have many children and grandchildren. To live on in them. We live our best life now, not in some life after death. Or so the Sadducees thought.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Sadducees were rich and powerful. The rich and powerful always want to believe that their material blessings are God’s seal of approval on their way of life.
These Sadducees came to Jesus with their own kind of trap. First they quoted the Bible. Of course it was their Bible, from the first five books of Moses. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children his brother must marry the widow and have children for him.”
The first child born from this marriage was considered to be the dead brother’s child. This was very important for a group of people who didn’t believe in an afterlife and who hoped to live on in their descendants. To die without children, only for your brother to marry your widow to have children for you, was the Sadducees’ kind of resurrection. It was like life from the dead.
Then the Sadducees told their story to Jesus.
“Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, they asked, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
Their story is deliberately ridiculous to show Jesus just how ridiculous they thought his teaching of a resurrection was. What was Jesus doing, going around telling people about a kingdom of heaven that was near, of a judgment that would lead to heaven or hell? Judgment was now, in this life, made clear in the blessings and curses that God sent for our obedience or our sin. There was no way, they thought, that Jesus could answer their question. Seven men all married to the same woman. What an awkward moment that would be in his so-called heaven. Which one would get to take her home? Or would they all have to share? Their question was designed to put Jesus in his place in front of all his followers.
“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead – have you not read what God said to you, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Jesus pinpointed their error to two areas. They did not know the Scriptures. And they did not know the power of God. They accepted the law of Moses, but they were deaf to the words of the prophets, and so they had closed their hearts to the poor and weak. They had called them cursed, when Jesus had called them blessed. And because they were deaf to the prophets, they were blind to the mission of Jesus which came in fulfilment of the prophets. As the one who would set his people free from their bondage. They thought they had the Scriptures. They did not know the Scriptures in all their fullness, and they did not understand the heart of the message of the Scriptures. And so they did not understand the world or Jesus place in it. They were deaf to what God had promised. And they were blind to what God was doing.
And they did not know the power of God. They imagined that death had the last word to say on a person’s life. That our lives are defined by the good or bad things that we experienced in life. That God could not swallow up death in the victory of his life and wipe away all our tears.
And so in return, Jesus quoted them Scripture in order to prove that they taught the resurrection. His quote couldn’t come from Isaiah or Jeremiah or Daniel. It couldn’t come from the Psalms or the Proverbs or the book of Job. For the Sadducees to believe him, for them to accept what he said, he had to quote from one of the first five books of the Bible. It had to come from the Law of Moses. And so Jesus quoted from Exodus chapter 3 in which God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
Not that he was the God of Abraham. But that he is the God of Abraham. That Abraham is still alive. We do not live on in our descendants. We do not live on in their memories. We do not live on in their hearts. Otherwise those without children would have no hope. Otherwise those with children will have no hope when their children die.
Let me put this another way. Each of you here had four grandparents. Each of you had eight great grandparents. These eight people lived and loved three generations ago. Together they make up who you are. So can you tell me, what are their names? Can you tell me all eight? Seven of them? Six? To be honest, I can name you three of my great grandparents and two of my great great grandparents. But if the rest of them were looking forward to living on in me, I’ve seriously let them down.
No, we don’t live on in our descendants. We don’t live on in their memories. But we will live. God is my God. He has claimed me for himself in the death and resurrection of his Son. He was my God, ever since he planned and made me, ever since my mother taught me to pray. And when my mortal remains return to the ground from which they came, and my descendants have all forgotten me, he will still be my God. I will live. My life in the kingdom of God will not be defined by my wealth and health in this life. A caterpillar does not go into its cocoon and come out still a caterpillar. It has been transformed into a butterfly. In the same way our lives in the kingdom of God will be transformed into the image of Christ. My life there will be as different from my life here and now as my life now is different from the time I was a baby in a cradle.
In the face of death and misery, it can be hard to believe that God has a better answer. But our faith in God and in his plan for the future can be strengthened by the fact that Jesus believed in the future of God. That death and decay and non-existence are not our fate, but that our life is safe in God. And we will not just float around like a ghost or an angel in an afterlife in the clouds, but that we will be raised in new bodies to live a new human life in a renewed and transformed world.
This is not just something that Jesus believed, but it drove and guided his decisions and actions. He himself walked the path to the cross knowing that pain and death would not be his end, but a new beginning. And he died with the words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
And so the decision to follow Christ and to face all of life’s challenges for his sake, not only must be driven and guided by the same faith in God, but it also can be driven and guided by this faith. By the Spirit of Jesus, we may know that faith will triumph over unbelief, that love will win over hate, that hope will beat despair and that the life of God will swallow up death. This is God’s power. To put right all wrongs. And to renew all things.
In conclusion, the Sadducees were in error because they did not know the Scriptures and because they did not know the power of God. Do you know the Scriptures which clearly proclaim Jesus Christ as alive, as exalted, as Lord, and which call us to follow him through death into life, to carry our own cross for his sake, that we may commit our spirit into our heavenly Father’s hands, and that we can give our all for the sake of others and we have not lost a thing? Do you know the power of God who holds your fragile life in his strong hands? Jesus believed in the resurrection, in his own resurrection, and in yours as well. So you can believe in it too.