Column: Jesus sees through sophistry of Sadducees

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Once, back when I was in high school, a woman old enough to be my mother walked up to me and asked me if I was the son of John Stubbs.

I had never seen this woman, but answered that I was indeed his son. She told me that she had gone to school with him years earlier and that I looked exactly as he did then. She had guessed my identity solely on the basis of that resemblance.

As children grow up, it is amazing how closely they start to look like their parents. That explains in part why parents can look upon having children as a type of vicarious immortality. Even after the parents have died, they will live on in their children.

That also explains the institution of levirate marriage in ancient Israelite society. If a man died without leaving any children, his surviving brother was expected to marry his widow, in order to engender children to carry on his brother’s name. This was codified in the Law of Moses: “The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel” (Dt 25:6).

In ancient Israel, levirate marriage helped keep property within the family and served as a kind of vicarious immortality. The notion of personal immortality had not yet developed.

As time went on, however, the idea of an afterlife grew in popularity, perhaps in response to martyrdom. How could an all-powerful God allow believers to die without any hope of a reward? They found the answer in resurrection.

On the other hand, not all Jews accepted this new doctrine. After all, little in the Bible directly supported it. Only certain later writings, such as 1 and 2 Maccabees, explicitly affirmed a belief in the resurrection. And some Jews rejected those writings as not properly included in the Bible.

The Sadducees belonged to this category. They adhered to a more restricted list of biblical books and denied the resurrection. In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 20: 27-38, they approach Jesus to challenge that doctrine.

Their challenge consists of a complicated argument involving levirate marriage and a hypothetical situation. In referring to levirate marriage, they paraphrase Dt 25:5: “If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.”

The Sadducees’ paraphrase contains a subtle mocking of the belief in the resurrection. The wording “raise up descendants” alludes to the resurrection in its choice of the verb “to raise.” It suggests that the descendants who are raised up can substitute for a personal resurrection. The verb of the original text in the Book of Deuteronomy does not refer at all to resurrection.

The hypothetical situation proposed by the Sadducees also contains a subtle mocking of the belief in resurrection. It tells about seven brothers, each who die in turn. That story parodies an episode in the Second Book of Maccabees, which affirms the belief in resurrection but was a book rejected by the Sadducees. By creating a ridiculous hypothetical situation based on that episode, they hope to discredit it.

But Jesus sees through their mockery and ignores their false assumptions. He affirms his belief in a God of the living. The God who created us will give us new life through the resurrection from the dead. That is the basis of Jesus’ belief, and ours.

Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.

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