Jesus consistently engaged in debate with Israel’s two main religious-political parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups, both important to first century Judaism, were similar in many aspects, but they did differ on several issues. One crucial theological point on which they certainly disagreed was the idea of resurrection. While the Pharisees did hold to a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not believe that such a resurrection would occur.
In Mark 12:18-27 we are specifically told that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in being told this, we know exactly why this group of religious leaders come to debate theology with Jesus. They come to argue with Jesus not in an attempt to discover theological truth. They come to Jesus for the sole purpose of entrapping Jesus by forcing him to answer a conundrum about brothers, marriage, death, and resurrection.
When I read about these encounters Jesus has with religious leaders, encounters he surely knows are motivated by aims of trickery, I often wonder why he would even give them the time of day. After all, was his mission as the one sent from God to waste time debating with theologians who remained embedded in their traditions and who refused to believe that God could speak and work outside of those traditions? Was not his mission toward the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the oppressed, and if so, why does he spend any time debating and arguing with either the Sadducees or Pharisees?
There is a fundamental question that underlies every debate Jesus had with any group of religious leaders. Every discussion, every debate, every argument, whether instigated by Jesus or the religious leaders, centers on this one question: Who speaks with the authority of Israel’s God? And over and over, every one of the debates raises the next logical question concerning the nature of God. Whether the debate is over the Sabbath, purity laws, or paying taxes to Caesar, the underlying argument is over who speaks for God and who defines the nature and purposes of God.
I think this helps us see why Jesus engages in debates and arguments with these religious leaders when he certainly had better and more important things to do with his time. He argues with them about the nature of God, because for him, God is the ultimate reality that gives meaning to human existence, and he understood this not simply because of his place among the people of Israel, but perhaps more fully through his own experience of God.
Let’s suppose Jesus did not believe God to be the ultimate reality that defines human existence. Suppose he was just another good person with certain powers to heal people, which he chose to do frequently. Yet, in healing these people, what life would he be offering to them if he was not also offering them the essence of what it means to be human?
In other words, while his healings would have been physically beneficial to those who were sick, if such physical healings did not also encompass the reality of God as the one who gives, sustains, and blesses life, such healings would fall short of the restoration to full humanity. Healing is not simply the absence of physical amelioration. Healing is the holistic union of a person’s body, mind, and soul that returns them to the unity and peace of the original creation. Healing involves the whole of a person restored to wholeness.
And this is why this particular debate between Jesus and the Sadducees is so important. They have not come to discover theological truth from Jesus. Nor have they come with open hearts and open minds. Indeed, they have come only to trap Jesus into admitting there is no resurrection. Yet, in a turn of events even Jesus’ interrogators could not foresee, Jesus offers a rebuttal to which they have no answer, and which defines the true meaning of life.
The problem in this debate is a disagreement over definition. While the Sadducees defined life as living as flesh and blood humans in this world until death ends this life, Jesus defined life in terms of relationship to God. For the Sadducees, life ends at death. But in their preoccupation with the dead, they have missed the theological truth that God is not the God of the dead; God is the God of the living.
When Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, he is not saying that God has stopped being God to those who have experienced physical death. He is saying that God cannot be God of that which is dead, for God is not dead; God is living. Likewise, God is not the God of the living because the living are alive. God is the God of the living because God is the living God.
Jesus once stated that he had come to give life more abundantly. In other words, he defined his mission not only as imparting life to all who believed, but also as imparting a life of fullness and wholeness. And for Jesus, who believed and followed the God of the living, this meant not only the absence of death, but the presence of the living God in the life of the believer.