Mark 12:18-27

THE WRONG IDEA OF THE LIFE TO COME

Mk. 12:18-27

There came to Jesus Sadducees, who are a party who say that the resurrection of the dead does not exist. They put the following problem to him. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote the law for us, that, if a man’s brother dies and leaves behind him a wife, and does not leave a family, the law is that the brother should take his wife, and should raise up a family to his brother. There were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died, and left no family. The second took her, and he died, and left behind no family. The third did the same. The seven left no family. Last of all, the woman died. At the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” Jesus said to them, “Are you not in error and for this reason–because you do not know the scriptures, nor do you know the power of God? When people rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are they given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven. With regard to the dead, and the fact that they do rise, have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, `I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are far wrong.”

This is the only time in Mark’s gospel that the Sadducees appear, and their appearance is entirely characteristic of them. The Sadducees were not a large Jewish party. They were aristocratic and wealthy. They included most of the priests; the office of high priest was regularly held by a Sadducee. Being the wealthy and aristocratic party, they were not unnaturally collaborationist, for they wished to retain their comforts and their privileges. It was from them came those who were prepared to collaborate with the Romans in the government of the country.

They differed very widely from the Pharisees in certain matters. First, they accepted only the written scriptures and attached more importance to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, than to all the rest. They did not accept the mass of oral law and tradition, the rules and regulations which were so dear to the Pharisees. It was on the written Mosaic Law that they took their stand. Second, they did not believe in immortality, nor in spirits and angels. They said that in the early books of the Bible there was no evidence for immortality, and they did not accept it.

So the Sadducees came to Jesus with a test question designed to make the belief in individual resurrection look ridiculous. The Jewish Law had an institution called levirate marriage. Its regulations are laid down in Deut.25:5-10. If a group of brothers lived together–that is a point that is omitted in the Sadducees’ quotation of the law–and if one of them died and left no issue, it was the duty of the next to take his brother’s widow as wife and to raise up issue to his brother. Theoretically this would go on so long as there were brothers left and so long as no child was born. When a child was born, the child was held to be the offspring of the original husband.

It is clear that the whole point of this law was to ensure two things–first, that the family name continued, and second, that the property remained within the family. As a matter of fact, strange as the matter seems to us, there were certain not dissimilar regulations in Greek law. If a Greek father had a considerable estate and had only a daughter, she, being a woman, could not inherit direct. Either her husband or her son would be the direct heir. But if the daughter was unmarried the father could leave his property and his daughter to anyone he chose. Such a person, in order to inherit the property, had to marry the heiress, even if he had to divorce an already existing wife to do so. And, if in such circumstances, a father died without making a will, the nearest relation could claim the heiress daughter as his wife. It is the same principle again. The whole thing is designed to maintain the family and to retain the property within the family.

The question that the Sadducees asked, therefore, may have presented an exaggerated case, with the story of the seven brothers, but it was a question founded on a well-known Jewish law.

The question of the Sadducees was simply this–if, in accordance with the regulations governing levirate marriage, one woman has been married in turn to seven brothers, if there is a resurrection of the dead, whose wife is she when that resurrection comes? They thought that by asking that question they rendered the idea of resurrection completely ridiculous.

Jesus’ answer really falls into two parts.

First, he deals with what we might call the manner of the resurrection. He lays it down that when a person rises again, the old laws of physical life no longer obtain. The risen are like the angels and physical things like marrying and being married no longer enter into the case. Jesus was saying nothing new. In Enoch the promise is, “Ye shall have great joy as the angels of heaven.” In the Apocalypse of Baruch it is said that the righteous shall be made “like unto the angels.” And the rabbinic writings themselves said that in the life to come “there is no eating and drinking, no begetting of children, no bargaining, jealousy, hatred and strife, but that the righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and are satisfied with the glory of God.” It is Jesus’ point that the life to come cannot be thought of in terms of this life at all.

Second, he deals with the fact of the resurrection. Here he meets the Sadducees on their own ground. They insisted that in the Pentateuch, by which they set so much store, there was no evidence for immortality. From the Pentateuch Jesus draws his proof. In Exo.3:6, God call himself the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. If God is the God of these patriarchs even yet, it means that they must still be alive, for the living God must be the God of living people, and not of of those who are dead. And if the patriarchs are alive then the resurrection is proved. On their own grounds, and with an argument to which they could find no answer, Jesus defeated the Sadducees.

This passage may seem to deal with a matter which is recondite and remote. It is an argument on terms which are out of the orbit of our experience. In spite of that two eternally valid truths emerge.

(i) The Sadducees made the mistake of creating heaven in the image of earth. Men have always done so. The Red Indians, who were by nature hunters, conceived of a heaven which was a happy hunting ground. The Vikings, who were by nature warriors, thought of a Valhalla where they would fight all day, where at night the dead would be raised and the wounded made whole again, and they would spend the evening in banquets, drinking wine from cups made from the skulls of their conquered foes. The Mohammedans were a desert people living in circumstances where luxury was unknown. They conceived of heaven as a place where men would live a life replete with every sensual and bodily pleasure. The Jews hated the sea and thought of heaven as a place where there would be no more sea. All men shrank from sorrow and from pain, and heaven would be a place where the tears were wiped from every eye and there would be no more pain.

Always men have tended to create in thought a heaven to suit themselves. Sometimes that idea can be poignantly beautiful. During the 1914-18 war The Westminster Gazette printed a lovely little poem about those who had died for their country:

“They left the fury of the fight, And they were tired. The gates of heaven were open quite, Unguarded and unwired. There was no sound of any gun, The land was still and green, Wide hills lay silent in the sun, Blue valleys slept between. They saw far off a little wood Stand up against the sky. Knee deep in grass a great tree stood, Some lazy cows went by. There were some rooks sailed overhead, And once a church ben pealed. `God, but it’s England!’ someone said, `And there’s a cricket field’.”

There is wistful beauty there and real truth. But we do well to remember that Paul was right (1Cor.2:9) when he took the words of the prophet (Isa.64:4) and made them his own, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” The life of the heavenly places will be greater than any conception this life can supply.

(ii) In the end Jesus based his conviction of the resurrection on the fact that the relationship between God and a good man is one that nothing can break. God was the friend of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when they lived. That friendship could not cease with death. “God,” as Loisy said, “cannot cease to be the God of those who served him and loved him.” As the Psalmist said, “I am continually with thee. Thou dost hold my right hand. Thou dost guide me with thy counsel and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.” (Ps.73:23-24.) He cannot conceive of his relationship with God ever being broken.

In a word, there is only one immortal thing–and that is love.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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