Jesus was truly a man of the people. The Master intermingled not only with the poor, handicapped and humble, but was regularly in the company of the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and even the Roman authorities. The religious leaders, no doubt threatened by Jesus’ increasing popularity, sought every opportunity to embarrass Jesus before the crowds. The Gospels record about a dozen street corner confrontations between Jesus and the teachers of the Law. Early on, the Pharisees asked Jesus why they and the disciples of the Baptist chose to fast but Jesus’ disciples did not. Again, the religious leaders insisted on knowing whether Jesus thought it lawful to pick grain on the Sabbath and why Jesus’ followers did not wash their hands before eating, “as is the custom of our elders.” Still again, the religious leaders asked Jesus publicly to cite some authority for his actions and to give them a sign to prove the authenticity of his activities. Jesus cleverly sidesteps these contrived issues, leaving his antagonists both answerless and speechless.
Some questioners seemed genuine enough, as when a young man asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But an almost identical question, “Which is the greatest commandment of the law?” was clearly a trick to get Jesus to take sides in a perennial Jewish Biblical debate. The same is true for the Pharisees question on the permanence of marriage: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever?” This question was clearly an attempt to get Jesus to take sides in a debate that was already dividing the Jewish community. The same is true of the celebrated proposition concerning the payment of taxes to Rome: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus were to reply “Yes,” he would alienate the Jews; if Jesus were to say “No,” he would antagonize the Roman authorities. To both of these legal challenges, Jesus offers characteristically insightful replies. “What God has joined together, let no man separate,” has been the safeguard of Christian marriages for two millennia. And “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” has been an enduring Christian guide to Church/State relationships through the centuries.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, it is the Sadducees, the Temple authorities, who question Jesus on the then unsettled question concerning the resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees, the teachers of the Law more regularly in touch with the crowds, did, to give them their due, accept the fairly new revelation on life after death — the resurrection. The ancient Jews — Abraham and Moses and the prophets — had no notions, pro or con, about life after death. Jews to this day still have only vague notions about what the next life will entail — or even if there will be a next life. It was about the time of the Maccabees — about two hundred years before Christ — that eternal life became a prospect for the Jewish community. The Sadducees, on the other hand, rejected any notion of life after death, espousing a much more materialistic view that Divine blessings were to be enjoyed in this life, not the next. These Temple leaders consequently propose to Jesus the amusing puzzle of the woman with the seven legitimate husbands: “Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.” Jesus quickly dismissed the proposition for the deception that it was. The next life will be a radically different life from the one experienced here on earth. The resurrected “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” They are “like angels,” they are “the children of God,” Jesus suggests as he searches for a proper simile or metaphor for this marvelous but mysterious transformation to take place after death. “He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” The details of the Resurrection would be the work of the Church’s later theologians, a work still in progress. But the truth of the Resurrection, the belief that all humanity will rise from the grave to weal or to woe, to salvation or to damnation, to heaven or to hell, is here clearly taught by Jesus: “…the dead will rise.”
The teachings of Jesus on the resurrection will be resoundingly confirmed, of course, by the Savior’s own personal bodily resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. “He is risen. He is not here,” announces the angel to the women. “Behold the place where they laid him,” he directs as he gestures to an empty spot in the tomb.