Like the Angels

Like the Angels
Mark 12: 18 - 27

This is a fascinating passage of Scripture which resonates today because it begins with the statement 'Then the Saducees, who say there is no resurrection'. These were the agnostics of Jesus’ time, materialists, non-supernaturalists. They were lacking in spiritual sensitivities and rejected much of Israel’s spiritual history - such as for example we see in the Psalms with its personal faith. They based everything only on the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed in God of course but only for this human life. Today there is a strong body of secularists in contemporary Israel. This seems a great contradiction. But throughout the world there are many non-believing and non-practising Jews just as there are many non-believing and non-practising people who nevertheless like still to be called Christians.

The Saducees were wealthy and aristocratic and the families of high priests belonged to them. A good example today is the Aga Khan. Although we don’t hear so much of him on TV he used to be big news as a society figure associated with horse racing. In Peter Sarsted’s class pop song 'Where do you go to my lovely' there is a line You know the Aga Khan - an indication of being in high society. The Aga Khan is the hereditary title of the Imam of the largest branch of the Isma'ili followers in Islam. The title means noble commander in chief. The Imam is the leader of a Mosque or a Muslim community. Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, heir to the family fortune, is the present day 49th Ismaili Imam, claiming lineage back to Ali, cousin of Muhammad, and his wife Fatimah, Muhammad's daughter. Isma’ilism is the second largest branch of Shia Islam. Shia Islam is the second largest denomination of Islam who follow Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali as the rightful successor to Muhammad whose own sons did not survive to adulthood. Sunni Islam is the orthodox version of Islam which followed successors to Mohammad beginning with Abu-Bakr. The Aga Khan combines religious authority and wealth in succession - a bit like the priestly success of the Saducees in Jesus’ time.

In Christianity throughout the centuries there were always prominent families in every place. In Britain at the Reformation Henry VIII took to himself governance of nation and Church. Some of the aristocracy remained Roman Catholic and others became Protestants. Queen Elizabeth II is nominal head of the Church of England. In the Church of Scotland there have always been prominent and influential families such as the Torrances, the Douglases, the Steels and the MacLeods. Even here we have our influential families.

The Saducees collaborated with the Romans to rule and so retained their comforts and privileges. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Judges deal with issues of formation and survival of a historical people of God and not specifically with eternal life and so Saducees did not take this into account. Their question to Jesus was to use a particular Jewish custom to make nonsense of personal resurrection. This was called Levirate Marriage whose regulations are recorded in Deuteronomy 25 : 5 - 10.

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. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled'.

In speaking to Jesus, the Saducees omitted the words in Deuteronomy 25 : 5 'If brothers are living together'. They presented the case in general terms as it might affect anyone whose brother died. Brothers living together did not mean they were sharing a wife. It might simply mean living on a farm for example. In Seafield the Ritchies have family houses side by side. For Jews eternal immortality could only be gained through children. Not to have children meant the end of identity, personal history, lineage and name. Saducees were existentialists. They believed that this life was all there is to be. So that a man’s name may continue in Israel, a provision had been made that a brother had a duty to marry his dead brother’s widow. This was also a guarantor that family property would remain within the family. Our ideas of romance and love played no part in these arrangements. That is true also of many cultures today, especially those in Asia. Arranged marriages occur frequently in this country also especially within immigrant families and communities. Royalty and aristocracy practised arranged marriage for centuries and do so still in a limited way. We might think that the Bible’s tales are strange, but our own customs are not always a million miles away.

The Saducees gave an extreme example of a woman who lost seven husbands who were brothers and had no children by any of them. Their question to Jesus was 'If there is as you say and we don’t - a resurrection - whose wife will this woman be of the seven husbands she married?' The question was about the nature of resurrection not about the state of marriage. But they were having a laugh as Ricky Gervais says. They were smooth upper class city operators expecting to confuse Jesus and make him look stupid. They regarded him as an oik. David Cameron and George Osborne, Nick Clegg and some other members of the present government went to posh schools including Eton. Michael Gove from Aberdeen is known among them as an oik, someone from lower social beginnings and a more ordinary schooling. It was a jolly jape for these Saducees tormenting this poor wandering Rabbi from Galilee with his regional accent.

But Jesus was able for them. He replied to their question. 'You do not know the Scriptures or the power of God'. He did not reject them nor return their mockery. But he questioned their lack of knowledge of the Old Testament. They were not Biblical scholars. Neither were they deeply pious. They didn’t read their Bibles and they didn’t know their Bibles - just like many Church of Scotland members. You find elders with plenty to say in Church meetings who don’t read and don’t know their Bibles and whose behaviour exposes that lack of knowledge. Jesus - in evangelical mode also challenged their disconnection with God. They had no knowledge of God’s power in their lives. They did not know God personally. They did not realise what God can do. Jesus did. Do you know God’s power in your life? Does it sustain you, help you, lift you, bless you?

Jesus then speaks with and by his own authority given him by God, his Father. He says 'When the dead rise they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven'. Marriage is a physical union of human beings, of man and woman. This physical life ends for us all. But it is transformed into something else. This was also part of the Judaism which developed over the centuries. Pharisees did believe in the resurrection. Their writings included such descriptions as there is no eating or drinking, no begetting of children, no bargaining, jealousy, hatred, strife, but the righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and are satisfied with the glory of God. The Islamic view of paradise which inspires terrorists is not at all like this - it is promised to certain martyrs to have 70 virgins waiting on them and the best of food and non-alcoholic drink. Indigenous North American Indians believed in the happy hunting ground to come. Vikings thought of Valhalla as an eternal battle ground with evening feasting and drinking from cups made from the skulls of their enemies. Scottish folk religion describes the after life in terms which are identical to our life here. So God has a football team and a rock band and the dearly departed is organising fun and games in heaven. I don’t think so.

For Jesus, eternal life is not the same as human social life. Generally speaking, however, Christianity has always taught that you will still be you and I will still be me - but in an enhanced and glorified state. We will recognise our loved ones who are saved and they will recognise us. Jesus then strongly contradicted the Saducees’ denial of the fact of resurrection. Again, he showed up the Saducees’ lack of understanding of Scripture. They said there was no evidence for immortality in the first five books of the Bible. He quoted from Exodus 3: 6 - a part of their Bible which they accepted about Moses and the burning bush which did not burn up. God says, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob'. God did not say - I was or I used to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in their day. Jesus interpreted the text as evidence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob still being alive - in the resurrection. The Saducees had much of this world’s goods and they thought that couldn’t be improved. Humans make a vision of heaven that helps. The view in Christianity’s Book of Revelation is awesome. Scary.

But Jesus’ message us very clear. If you have a relationship with God here on earth it is not limited by and it will not die with your physical death. If you know and love and serve God here on earth, you will continue to do so in eternal life. God does not cease to be God when you give up your last breath and leave this life. God does not die. Resurrection and eternal life guarantee that God is good and that this life is not meaningless or a sad joke or even just good for its days in this world. Christianity’s unique contribution to human knowledge is this and it is based solely on Jesus’ resurrection. And that is such a contrast with Jesus’ ignominious death as to prove God’s faithfulness to his creation, to humanity and to those who respond to his love and who follow and honour his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Robert Anderson 2017

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