There are a lot of questions in the 22nd chapter of Matthew, a reading we began last Friday. It’s a good passage to read in one sitting, so you can get a sense of the larger narrative. First the Pharisees ask Jesus a question to “entangle him in his talk,” and then later on the same day, the Sadducees take their turn. After that exchange, the Pharisees regroup and return, and one of their company, a lawyer, tests Jesus with yet another question. Jesus answers all their questions, and at the end, he poses one of his own.
It’s important to remember that this practice of raising questions about the Law and debating the answers is a good thing, not a bad one. While it can seem a bit rough and tumble, and perhaps overly scholastic and arcane to Christians accustomed to a contemplative study of the scriptures, the process of rigorous disputation of the Law and its application to human life is fundamental to Judaism. It’s a way to know God better. Jesus engaged in this form of study at an early age. Remember that time he went missing and his parents found him in the temple?
But while God has given us our rational powers as a way to understand aspects of his nature and glory, something has happened to the use of those powers in this story. We read that the Sadducees “who say that there is no resurrection,” come asking Jesus how the bonds of marriage extend into the afterlife.
You recognize this rhetorical move. It’s a fake question. You’ve heard them a thousand times in political debates and committee meetings and faculty discourse. The person who asks such a question doesn’t really want to know the answer. They’re not engaging in a process to further the truth, or come to a solution and a course of action. A fake question is a weapon, not a tool for discovery.
Jesus responds to the Sadducees by answering two questions: the one they pretend to ask, and the one that needs to be answered. There is no marriage in the afterlife—it’s not just a continuation of this life; and yes, there is a resurrection.
It’s the second question that pierces the heart of mystery. Jesus quotes scripture, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” I Am. God’s name. Present tense, not past. God is not God of the dead, but of the living. Not the underworld’s pitiless tormenter of restless shades, but Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer. The God who loves. The God who will raise up his Christ and give a wedding banquet such as the half has never been told.
But let’s get back to all those questions. We believe in this process too. We believe that study and debate and the use of reason can help us know God better. When we wrestle with language and ideas, when we are challenged by others, we believe it can lead us to truth. We believe it may help us know how to behave ethically, solve complex problems, and discern how to make our own good laws.
Reason and language are tools, given by God for our use. To use them well and faithfully, our questions must be real questions, especially when there is much at stake, and when we disagree. We must truly engage with our neighbor, listening, probing, pressing, always yearning to know more. For we seek to repair the world, to further the kingdom, and not merely to win the debate.
Alice Campbell blogs about her experience of God and the Church at Grace is Everywhere.
Image: Christ Among the Doctors by Albrecht Dürer (public domain).