by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The lord is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.” Luke 20: 27-38
While today’s gospel-reading looks to be fairly complicated on the surface, it carries a message of great hope and encouragement for all of us and, by implication, shows us how to live our lives with meaning and purpose. In the process, it discloses the insincerity of the Sadducees in formulating a question to Jesus that seems to be motivated more by sham and mockery than a desire for an answer to a genuine real-life issue. As is so often the case, an appreciation of context helps us in unravelling the complexity of this gospel-reading.
In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees were fewer in number than the Pharisees with whom they had differences of opinion on matters relating to the Law. Sadducees, for the most part, belonged to the upper classes of society and favoured literalist, fundamentalist and traditional interpretation of the Law. In their view, Torah and Moses were synonymous. They believed that the Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were all formulated and dictated by Moses himself. They had little time for the theological and legal explorations and debates engaged in by the Pharisees. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death simply because it was not specifically mentioned in the Torah. Moreover, in the time of Jesus the concept of life after death or resurrection was relatively new even in the thinking of the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in life after death but the Sadducees rejected it as totally out of hand.
The law to which the Sadducees referred in framing their question to Jesus was one that existed in other ancient cultures as well as in Judaism and was known as the levirate law, which derived its name from the word levir, meaning a husband’s brother. The levirate law stipulated that if a married man died leaving his widow childless, the dead man’s brother was to marry the widow and treat their first son as the son of the man who had died. There are references to this law in both Genesis (38:8) and Deuteronomy (25: 5). The purpose of the law was to ensure that family property remained in the family that generated and owned it. The kind of afterlife to which the Pharisees subscribed was that it was an improvement on the earthly life with which they were familiar rather than a completely different kind of life. Jewish men believed that the greatest blessing in life was to have sons who, in their turn, would keep the family name well and truly alive. Consequently, they saw the afterlife as a state in which they would have an endless array of sons. Some decades later. notable Jewish scholars reinforced this view of the afterlife in their teachings. Rabbi Gamaliel II asserted that, in the afterlife, “Women will give birth daily”. And a descendant of his, Rabbi Eliezer, stated: “Every Israelite will have six hundred thousand sons”. I wonder if Jewish women imagined that as their understanding of the afterlife. The farcical question which the Sadducees put to Jesus regarding the woman who married seven brothers in succession (all of whom died), entailed presenting the proposition that, even though Moses had promulgated the practice of the levirate law, he could not have subscribed logically to a belief in an afterlife.
In responding to the riddle the Sadducees put to him, Jesus described the afterlife as something like the life of angels – endless and very different from the life of human beings, a life in which marriage, conception and childbirth would not be necessary for the propagation of the human race. He made the point that God was capable of creating an utterly different kind of life, nothing like the kind of life humans experience. The rules, practices and customs of human life would no longer operate. Having said that, he then engaged with his questioners on their own ground, quoting to them from the Torah (the only Scripture to which they adhered) the section describing the encounter Moses had with God in the burning bush, in which God says: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Genesis 3, 6). This implies that, if God is the God of those Patriarchs, they are still alive. Moreover, the Sadducees knew well that God’s love is endless. Logically, then, they could only conclude that those whom God loves must still be enjoying some kind of life, different in kind from human life. In their efforts to force Jesus to provide textual proof of an afterlife, the Sadducees had forgotten to take into account the nature of God as eternal love for all whom God had loved into life.
The logical consequence of all this is that the God who has loved every human being into life, the God whose love is unconditional and eternal, continues to love all of us endlessly. We, in turn, know in the depths of our heart that we are made for love and that after we experience human death a different kind of life awaits us, allowing us to continue to experience God’s love. That surely leaves in the dust any theory that our lives are meant to be endurance tests in which we earn or forfeit God’s love through our efforts and failures.
In all of this, there is, I suggest, an implied corollary. I have long held the view that gifts reach their full potential only when they are shared. In that context, indelible in my mind is the memory of a comment made to me years ago by a young man who was dux of the College he attended. In conversing with him, I asked if other students came to him seeking assistance with their work. This was his reply: “I don’t give help to anyone. If I did that, they might get more marks than I in our examinations!” The most precious gift we have is life. The challenge for all of us is surely to live our lives to the full, sharing who we are and the other gifts with which we have been blessed to make our world a better place and to enrich the lives of everyone we encounter by the way we affirm, encourage and accompany them to grow into their best selves. Life’s journey is not a quest to get to heaven, is not about accumulating merit or brownie points to qualify for entry through the “pearly gates”. It is about living to the full the love that has been planted deep within us.