One of the curious things about religious people is that they can develop very fixed ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes these are bolstered by appeals to their religious texts, sometimes it is based on experience, or a sort of philosophical position.
Jesus interaction with the Sadducees is about that. They’re interested in testing how orthodox he is, how close to their belief system he sits. One of their hot button issues was the resurrection. The Sadducees originated about 200 years before Jesus was born, and had disappeared by about 100 years after his death. Their existence was very bound up with the Temple, and when it was destroyed they disappeared. They were an important, political, wealthy, aristocratic and influential party within Judaism, forming a sort of clerical class, with strong connections to the priesthood. The Sadducees believed in a strict, letter-of-the-law sort of interpretation of the Torah, rejecting the interpretations of the fathers. Their activity in the Jewish world flowed from their understandings of human destiny. Because, they believed, there was no resurrection, neither the body nor the spirit survived death. For them, there was nothing beyond this life. This led to their secular orientation- human life only matters in the here and now, so why not acquire power, position, prestige, and prosper financially? Their way of living in the world, and their interactions with those in the world, were shaped by their understanding of the Jewish scriptures.
And Jesus tells them they’re wrong. He doesn’t mince words – they have completely misunderstood everything, and as a consequence, their entire orientation is wrong, and at odds with Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven.
What a shock that would have been. They’ve posed a theological question, and he’s responded with a theological answer. Given their power and status, they might have expected a more deferential attitude, but they didn’t get it. Jesus told the truth, and told it like it is. The basis on which they’ve been living their lives is wrong – and not in a small way.
The Sadducees are a good example of people who lose sight of the big picture when it comes to the things of God. Their ungenerous, unreflective and faulty reading of scripture led them to misunderstand God, and God’s call. It led them to completely misunderstand the person of Jesus, too – the man who pointed to God, and God’s desire for the world, and for the whole sweep of human existence, which transcends now, for God is God of the living.
Jesus tells them that their religion is full of wrong notions of what the Scripture says, and that their attempts to use Scripture as a weapon against him are worthless, because they have obviously failed to actually study the scripture they claim as their own.
We need to be careful to ensure that we’re not like the Sadducees. Our faith is a vital, living one, and we need to treat Scripture with great respect if we’re to grow as disciples, and live in Christ. Treating Scripture with respect doesn’t mean putting it into a gilt cabinet and just looking at it – it means getting into it, digging around in it, and getting ourselves really dirty in the earthiness of it. Methods of inquiry and study are great. You can use word studies, or commentaries, or dictionaries – or a lot of other tools. But there is another valuable and ancient method of listening to Scripture which respects its integrity, and allows the human monkey mind to be stilled and shaped by Scripture. Lectio divina, a reflective, prayerful and ancient method of Bible study, is one of the best ways of getting to the depths of Scripture. Lectio involves setting time aside for a slow and reflective reading of Scripture. Take a verse, a couple of verses, and read them slowly, aloud. Sit in silence, wait on God, asking God to show you what God would have you see in this passage. Read them slowly aloud, again. Sit in silence, again. Don’t strive to work things out, just let God feed you. Note what comes into your mind – some of it will be the junk that habitually floods our minds, but some of it will be gifts from God. Read the passage aloud, again. Sit in silence, again. Ask God to show you what you can take out into the day.
This sort of working with Scripture helps us to resist the temptation we have to treat the Bible as if it is an instruction manual. It isn’t. It is a description of a journey, a sort of atlas or map. Opening it and asking to be led is the way forward, the way to avoid the distortions of the Sadducees, which, truth to be told, are our distortions too.
We need to be aware of those, asking God to draw them to our attention, and be healed of them. Those of us who are frequently marginalised, judged, pigeon-holed and rejected can often see the distortions and misunderstandings in others – but we need to make sure we’re willing to lose our own false beliefs. We are the people who have nothing left to lose, but sometimes our false beliefs are the last things to go. We cling onto them for dear life, because they make us feel better. They need to go, so that we can live in the truth and freedom Jesus offers.