Jesus in Jerusalem (1)

Jesus in Jerusalem (I) Luke 20 : 27 - 47

Today we look at incidents from Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. Who were the Saducees? One tradition suggests that they were a priestly political group who traced their lineage back to Zadok the Priest who anointed Solomon as King. 1 Kings 1: 39 - “Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. They sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted ‘Long live King Solomon’. And all the people went up after him, playing flutes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound”. Some of you will be familiar with George Friedrich Handel’s coronation music for George II of Britain in 1727 which is called ‘Zadok the Priest’ and based on the text just quoted.

The Saducees were not very nice people apparently. They were rude and liked a fight and an argument. They belonged only to the wealthy class in the time of Jesus. They were also literal interpreters of the Bible. For example, the law ‘an eye for an eye’ had come to be interpreted by scholars to mean that you calculated the value of an eye and paid that in compensation. But the Saducees insisted that it actually meant that an eye should be damaged or pulled out in return for an injury committed. Many temple priests were Saducees but all Saducees were priests, especially of the most powerful priestly families. 

In the time of Jesus the Saducees dominated the Sanhedrin, the Jewish parliament. They opposed and were opposed by the Pharisees, who, surprisingly enough, were more liberal and humane in many aspects of Judaism. Above all, Pharisees represented ordinary people. Both John the Baptist and Jesus expressed their faith in the tradition of the Pharisees although both went far beyond its limitations. The Saducees were afraid of the power of the Pharisees and of the people they represented. They were on one sense like the aristocracy in Britain. They knew that they were vastly outnumbered and tolerated rather than admired. 

Saducees held only to the first five books of the Old Testament and rejected later theological developments and insights. So, for example, they denied the existence of souls, and of eternal life and resurrection. They did not believe in rewards or punishments or in angels or demons. They based everything on individual and collective free will, decision-making, responsibility and consequences. They rejected the visions of the great prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The story of Jesus’ birth would have been fanciful to them. In that context they were like Moderates and liberals in the Church of Scotland who rely on human reason rather than divine revelation. When Paul was being investigated before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and it looked like he might be sentenced to death, he started a riot between the Saducees and the Pharisees by shouting “It is for the hope of the resurrection that I am on trial” (Acts 23:7,8). The Pharisees tribal loyalty leapt to the defence of one of their own and they would not agree to hand him over the Saducees. 

So - when the Saducees came to Jesus, they did not come in friendship. When they asked him questions, these were hostile in nature. They raised with Jesus the issue of what was known as Levirate marriage. This is based in Deuteronomy 25:5,6 which says, “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel”. 

This was not common practice among Jews in the time of Jesus. But it was binding for strict Saducees. The question was a trick question. It could have been said to have been a mockery. It is an extreme example. One bereavement would have been enough to make the point. Seven was a joke. The second aspect of the trickery was the inclusion of resurrection. Saducees rejected any resurrection. So it was the resurrection that the Pharisees believed in that the Saducees were making fun of. Note the great chauvinism also. The poor woman was forced to have seven husbands after a succession of bereavements. What they expected from Jesus we do not know. He did however give a satisfactory answer according to the debating principles of rabbis and disputants at the time.

He gave clear and unequivocal teaching that our resurrected body is not the same as this gender conditioned body that we have on earth. Just as Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 taught that the body dies like a seed put into the ground and rises like a beautiful flower or plant or tree, Jesus indicated that the essence of how we are survives but in a higher state than this physically conditioned and temporal life. His own resurrection was like that. He was still Jesus but He was transformed. He was not limited by our time and space. So Jesus lifted the argument out of the comic level and into a serious discussion of the nature of eternal life. He taught, preached and evangelised these Saducees on the subject they had brought to him. Today we in thraldom to transgender issues. Gender is held to be fluid and children are being taught this in primary schools. That is not what Jesus was saying. It is our physical corporeal flesh, bone, sinew and blood that belongs to our time on earth. It does not belong to eternal life. Therefore gender and procreation is for our time here and not for our time hereafter.

Marriage between men and women occurs in human society on earth but it does not take place in heaven. “A marriage made in heaven” may fairly describe faith that God has guided two people to be together to share life on earth. It does not mean that marriages happen in heaven. They do not, says Jesus. But you may ask then, does the love relationship - the personal relationship that marriage is based on last into eternity? There is no specific answer to that question. Does the friendship aspect continue? Do we recognise one another as former husband and wife? If our resurrection is anything like that of Jesus then of course we must and the answers are ‘Yes’ to these questions. We will recognise one another. But our spiritual state will be above and beyond what confines us on earth.

Jesus answered well on another important point. The Saducees did not believe at all in the resurrection. To that extent they were like so many agnostics, secularists and atheists today. If you took a straw poll of Church of Scotland mebers on this subject you might be surprised at how many think like the Saducess did. An enbarrassing number of church goers have no confidence in their own salvation. But Jesus pointed out that when Moses saw the Burning Bush, God said to him, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). God did not say, “By the way, I was also the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” - in their day”. The indication is that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are very much alive in the resurrected life. “God”, says Jesus, “is not the God of dead historical characters”. Our God is not the God of Caesar or Genghis Khan or Field Marshall Rommell”. Our God is God not of the dead but of the living, said Jesus. 

This was a stylising of academic argument. It was a bit philosophical in nature like Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein the Cambridge philosophers arguing whether there was an elephant in the room. One wanted to test the other’s reasoning and deductive powers. You can argue that black is white if you persevere. And so some of those present recognised that Jesus had won the argument and had skilfully wrong footed his opponents in the public debate that had just taken place. But for Jesus this was the essence of his life and ministry. For Jesus these were real live spiritual entities. He already to a certain extent lived the resurrected life on earth healing terminal illnesses and blindness from birth, for example. The Saducees did not enter into that life. For them - these were academic pointers and little more. That was what Oxford was like when I attended there. Fun and fashion in theology no seeking and commitment. There used to be a term for church goers - ‘sermon tasters’ in the days of the great preachers. Edinburgh folk would dress up and go in their hundreds to St George’s West to hear sermons. It was in the days before television. St George’s West declined rapidly, was closed and then was sold by the Church of Scotland to Charlotte Chapel Baptists who have filled it again.

Jesus asked the next question - like a bowler sending a googly or a slow spin ball. You could not predict where the ball would go when it hit the ground. It was about the type of Messiah that the Jews wanted and expected. But it was Jesus asking the question. “How is it that they say that the Messiah will be the son of David?” He quoted Psalm 110:1. David calls the Messiah “My Lord”. The essence of the riddle is that the Messiah cannot be David’s Lord as well as being his son. So - the fact that the Jews looked for a Son of David to be the Messiah with the restoration of David’s middle east empire was their mistake and wrong-headedness. This is one of the texts in the Old Testament which is claimed to prophesy the coming of Jesus and to show Jesus’ pre-existence before being incarnate by birth from Mary. Jesus then - belonged to an order of existence far beyond what Jews thought they wanted in a Messiah and that was the point that Jesus was making in this question.

Jesus then warned his disciples not to be too taken in and impressed with the public faith leaders of the day. In fact, he offered the most severe criticism of them. That they wanted to be thought righteous and be admired and recognised. They were status seekers rather than living examples of piety and humanity. And also - they had their snouts in the troughs. They used their positions for wrong personal gain, like some Members of Parliament and corrupt lawyers who embezzle clients’ accounts.

Make no mistake Jesus hates that as much today in his Church as he ever did in Palestine. We have to try to be and to show the best of Christianity not the worst of ourselves. The Church is supposed to be where we do not go on ego trips but try to be helpful and understanding to everyone. So in these dialogues with those who were looking out for Jesus we learn something about the nature of life after death. We learn something about the high spiritual status and nature and purpose of Jesus before and during his incarnation. And we are challenged not to seek attention for ourselves in our Church but to help one another with grace and humility.

Robert Anderson 2017

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