Jesus had plenty of run-ins with the Pharisees. In some ways, they're the pantomime villains of the Gospels. They never seem to tire of attempting to trip Jesus up – no matter how many times he confounds or even dumbfounds them with his answers.
Yet there's another group who try to take him on a few times in the course of his ministry. They were also a group of religious leaders – the Sadducees.
One of their key beliefs was that there was no afterlife. This set them against other Jewish sects, as well as some of the prevailing pagan cultures of the time. The Gospels record some of their interactions with Jesus but probably the most well known is the story in Luke 20.
The scripture suggests that they wanted to debate resurrection with Jesus. They present a convoluted scenario in which a woman marries each of seven brothers after the previous one dies. They then come to what they think is their knock down question and conclusion which they imagine will flummox Jesus – "In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus' teaching on resurrection was anathema to the Sadducees because they thought any life after death was not an option. But Jesus' teaching wasn't just theoretical. It was the prefiguring of the events of the first Easter. In other words, Jesus didn't only teach about a general resurrection at the end of time (which other Jewish sects would have adhered to). He actually became the first fruits of the resurrection when he was raised from the dead on Easter day.
This bodily resurrection before the end of time was something that flew in the face of Jewish teaching and showed that Jesus was indeed who he had claimed to be – the son of God. But if we look back at the teaching he gives in response to the Sadducees' question, we see more clearly just how radical and unexpected the resurrection really was.
He says, "Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection."
By using marriage as an illustration Jesus is presenting the discontinuity of the age to come. In other words – people are married now, and won't be after the resurrection. There is something different going on. In a similar way, Jesus himself demonstrated this after his resurrection. His resurrected body was different – he wasn't immediately recognised by some he came across – but his body also showed continuity – when prompted, they did recognise him.
More than being about marriage, this story shows that the Christian hope of resurrection isn't about floating off to heaven when we die. Instead the Christian hope is about a real, bodily resurrection at the end of time.
In this new age (See I am making all things new, as Revelation has it) marriage isn't needed – because it was merely a foretaste of what was to come. This means that with their narrow belief that the current age is all that there is, meant the Sadducees couldn't see what it was that Jesus was offering. He was talking not only about the Kingdom of God coming about in first century Palestine, but about the eventual day when the dominance of that Kingdom would be complete.
This Gospel reading comes in the middle of Kingdom season – when we have remembered those saints of the past and when we look forward to the coming reign of Jesus. Another of the set readings for this day comes from the Book of Job. The famous words say, "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another."
This hope of a bodily resurrection didn't start with Jesus words but was woven into the teaching of the Hebrew Bible. What Jesus demonstrates to the Sadducees, and to us, is that he was the one who makes it possible.