St. Louis University Scripture professor Frank Cleary once remarked that today’s gospel pericope contains the only biblical mention of Jesus confronting the religious conservatives of his day and age: the Sadducees. Frank contends the historical Jesus seems to have written off those whose faith revolved around the “old time religion.” As an itinerant preacher, the Capernaum carpenter refused to get involved in religious nostalgia.
Jesus was a Pharisee. He belonged to a movement rooted in the 6th century BCE Babylonian Exile. For more than 50 years, Jews living away from the Holy Land couldn’t take part in Temple worship - a mainstay of Jewish belief and practice. (Of course, even those Jews still living in downtown Jerusalem at this time couldn’t take part in such services. The Babylonians had wiped the temple off the face of the earth in 586.)
During this “no-temple” interval, some pious, exiled Jews began to meet regularly to read, study and comment on the 613 laws of Moses. Even if they couldn’t practice their faith in a traditional temple-oriented way, they could still follow and adapt Yahweh’s laws in a new, foreign environment. (The places in which they met would eventually be called synagogues.) The movement these religious progressive began would later be a God-send to Jews between 70 and 1967 CE when the temple area was not in Jewish control.
This tendency to concentrate on the Mosaic Law still continued even after the Babylonian-conquering Persians permitted exiled Jews to return to the Holy Land in the 530s, eventually developing into Phariseeism by the time of Jesus’ ministry. Those who were counted among their number a century before Jesus’ birth not only stressed the development and adaptation of their laws, but also developed a belief in an afterlife.
Jesus certainly had problems with some of the tenets of his fellow Pharisees - especially their tendency to often regard laws to be more important than people. But he seems to have discovered that their progressive frame of mind made many of them receptive to the message he preached. (Notice how often our evangelists mention Jesus preaching in synagogues.)
On the other hand, Sadducees were grounded in the good old days. They refused to accept any books in their Bible except the first five: the Torah. And since there’s no mention of an afterlife as we know it in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they didn’t believe in it. Led by the temple priests, these arch-conservatives would never agree with the faith proclaimed by the seven martyred brothers in our Maccabees reading. “. . . The King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”
From the answers Luke’s Jesus gives the Sadducees in today’s gospel pericope, it’s clear he’s asking them to take their faith beyond the way things are here and now, to conceive of a different world, an existence in which humans “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” He expects his disciples to have the same evolving faith.
Jesus and his followers relate to a God who, not a God who was. This seems to be why he brings up the burning bush narrative in which Yahweh proclaims, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Though these three patriarchs had died more than 500 years before Moses’ Sinai experience, they’re still alive.
Precisely because Christians have committed themselves to relate to a God who is constantly doing new things in their lives, we must follow the advice of the author of II Thessalonians to trust a God who “encourages your hearts and strengthens them in every good deed and word.”
As a pastor, I envy the historical Jesus. Most of the time he could pick his audiences. He didn’t minister to a parish made up of progressives and conservatives. But it’s a big support to my progressive psyche to remember which group accepted Jesus’ faith and which group rejected it, and why.