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Jesus instructs the Sadducees about the resurrection
Matthew chapter 22, verses 23-33
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
It is still Tuesday of Holy Week. After the Pharisees posed their question about paying taxes to Caesar, the Sadducees stepped forward. The rivalry between the two parties was no secret. The Sadducees thought they had a brilliant question ready for Jesus. They were going to show the Pharisees how it should be done. The weapon they wanted to use was not a clever trap but ridicule.
On a previous occasion, some Sadducees had joined with some Pharisees in approaching Jesus and demanding that he show them a sign from heaven to prove that he really was the Son of God. What they had in common was their opposition to Jesus, although the Sadducees do not seem to have clashed with Jesus as often as the Pharisees did. Perhaps they considered it beneath their dignity to pay any attention to the poor and uneducated man from Galilee. At that time, Jesus warned his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (chapter 16, verse 6). The disciples did not immediately understand what Jesus meant, so he explained that he was speaking of their doctrine.
The Sadducees were wealthy and sophisticated Jews who were small in number but influential in the administration of the temple in Jerusalem. At this time they controlled the high priesthood and a majority of the seats in the Sanhedrin. They accepted only the five books of Moses as authoritative, while the Pharisees accepted all of the Old Testament. Not only did the Sadducees deny the resurrection, they did not believe in angels either. But the Pharisees did believe in both the resurrection of the body and the existence of angels (see Acts chapter 23, verse 8).
It is significant that Jesus answers the Sadducees on the basis of a passage in Genesis, one of the five books of Moses, and that he takes the existence of angels for granted as he strongly affirms the resurrection of the body.
The Old Testament background for the Sadducees’ question is this: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel” (Deuteronomy chapter 25, verse 5 and 6).
A story of two brothers having been married to the same wife under such circumstances would have been adequate to illustrate the Sadducees’ point, but they wanted to make the situation appear as ridiculous as possible. They could have made reference to the story of Judah and Tamar as recorded in Genesis chapter 38, but instead they tell a story that seems to be entirely hypothetical. They were not seeking enlightenment. They did not care about Jesus’ opinion. When they addressed Jesus as “Teacher,” their insincerity was obvious. All they wanted to do was to embarrass and discredit Jesus.
Jesus’ dual denunciation of the Sadducees is devastating: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” How do you talk to someone who is totally incapable of carrying on a conversation about spiritual things? At least the Pharisees tried to take the Scriptures seriously. It was possible for Jesus to engage in conversation with them. But the Sadducees were ignorant swine before whom Jesus refused to cast the pearls of the gospel (chapter 7, verse 6). His answer is directed more to his own disciples and to the crowds who were watching this confrontation.
The Creator blessed Adam and Eve and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis chapter 1, verse 28). God instituted marriage in order that humanity might survive upon this earth and that this world might be populated. But in heaven no one will die and no one will be born, and there will be no need for marriage as God has instituted it for us in this world.
After disposing of their impertinent question in just a few words, Jesus goes on to address the real question that lay behind it. When God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, Jacob had been dead and buried for about four hundred years. And yet God said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The Lord was telling Moses and us that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still very much alive. And we acknowledge that fact every time we join with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven to laud and magnify the glorious name of our Savior-God.
The living God is the God of all the living. We are included among those who are truly alive because in Holy Baptism “he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1st Peter chapter 1, verse 3). That is why those who are born twice die only once, while those who are born only once die twice. As the baptized children of God, we confess, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
In another place Jesus says, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John chapter 5, verses 28 and 29). We get a preview of what this will be like when Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus obeyed (John chapter 11, verses 43 and 44). But if Jesus had said only “Come out!” all the dead would have risen from their graves. That is why in each of Jesus’ miracles of raising the dead, he was very specific about whom he was talking to (see Mark chapter 5, verse 41 and Luke chapter 7, verse 14).
Jesus tells the Pharisees of the greatest commandments
Matthew chapter 22, verses 34-40
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Immediately after John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit led him out into the Judean wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Three temptations are recorded for us in chapter 4, verses 1-11. That was how Jesus’ public ministry began. Now it is Tuesday of Holy Week, and Jesus’ public ministry is rapidly drawing to a close. Once again he has to face three temptations: the question of paying taxes to Caesar, the question of the resurrection of the body, and this question regarding the greatest commandment.
The Pharisees were no doubt delighted to see that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, but they did not hesitate to ask Jesus another question themselves. Their sinful pride blinded them to the fact that Jesus could also silence them just as he had the Sadducees. So those who do not learn from the mistakes of others are condemned to repeat them.
When Matthew tells us that the Pharisees “got together,” he uses exactly the same Greek phrase that we find in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) at Psalm 2, verse 2, where it says, “The rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.” It is pertinent that only two verses later the psalmist tells us, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.” Man proposes, but God disposes.
An expert in the Law asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Perhaps it is not immediately clear how this question is designed to test Jesus. Saint Jerome was perceptive enough to see that all of God’s commandments are equally great. No matter how insignificant it may appear to us, whatever God commands is great because he is God. Thus, if Jesus elevates one commandment above another, he will be exposed as a liberal who does not esteem all of God’s law as highly as he should. But in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had already asserted that neither the smallest letter nor the least stroke of a pen would by any means disappear from the Law (chapter 5, verses 17-20).
Notice that Jesus says much more than merely, “Love God.” First of all Jesus calls God “the Lord,” a clear reference to the God of the Old Testament, who revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush (see Exodus chapter 3, verses 13-15 and chapter 6, verses 2 and 3). The Lord’s mighty acts of deliverance and his clear commandments reveal who he is and what he is like. Furthermore, Jesus calls him “your God.” This implies that a relationship already exists. When Jesus commands us to love the Lord our God, he wants us to respond to the love God has already shown to us.
Although Jesus was asked to single out one commandment, he insists on giving a two-part answer. The first commandment must come first, and the second commandment must come second, but they are equally important. What Jesus here joins together let no man tear asunder. John exhorts us, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1st John chapter 4, verses 9-11).
Jesus asks the Pharisees whose son the Christ is
Matthew chapter 22, verses 41-46
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
So far Jesus has been answering questions. Now it is his turn to ask a question: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
We miss the point if we see Jesus’ question as nothing more than tit for tat. His is a serious question, and an honest answer would bring his opponents to a correct understanding of him whom they are opposing. “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he declared himself to be the long-awaited Messiah, but he did so in the humblest manner, riding upon a donkey—and a borrowed donkey at that. But now, as he puts this question to the Pharisees, he makes the highest claims for himself as the Messiah. He will sit not on the throne of David but at the right hand of God. The Pharisees expected the Messiah to reestablish the golden age of David and Solomon, to cast off the Roman yoke and put an end to the hated tax. But Jesus sees the glory of the Messiah in the fact that he is David’s Lord, and that in an act of divine condescension he is willing to become also David’s son.
When Matthew tells us “the Pharisees were gathered together,” we hear another echo of Psalm 2, verse 2, as mentioned earlier in Matthew chapter 22, verse 34. This ties their question about the law together with Jesus’ question about the Son of David. Jesus is the Lord of the law because he is also David’s Lord.
Martin Luther made another connection between the two questions. He pointed out that Jesus preached the law when he answered the question about the greatest commandment, and then he preached the gospel when he declared himself to be the Son of David who was prophesied in Psalm 110. Furthermore, it is through faith in the Son of David that the Holy Spirit gives us the desire and the strength to love God and to love our neighbor. And it is in the Son of David that we find forgiveness for all those times when we have failed to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And it is in the Son of David that we find forgiveness for all those times we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves.
When Jesus quotes the Psalms, he is quoting the hymnbook of the Jews. There is an old saying that the hymnal is lay theology. As the liturgy and the hymns are repeated year after year, they embed themselves in the minds and hearts of the worshipers. The cumulative effect is that we eventually come to believe what we pray. That is why some of the most effective religious instruction takes place in the Divine Service, often while people do not even realize they are being instructed. But the worshiper who has absorbed the words and phrases of the liturgy and the great hymns has learned to speak the language of his mother, the church (Galatians chapter 4, verse 26). And, of course, your mother is the one who can tell you for sure who your father is! And then it is possible to engage in meaningful discussion of spiritual things. That is how we keep on growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2nd Peter chapter 3, verse 18).
Jesus says that when David wrote his psalms he was “speaking by the Spirit.” It is typical of Jesus to mention the inspiration of the Scriptures in passing rather than making a point of it. (He does the same thing in John chapter 10, verses 34-38.) Jesus simply takes it for granted that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God. Instead of laboring to establish the authority of Scripture, Jesus simply quotes it. In his typically colorful way, Martin Luther said that trying to use human reason to defend the Word of God is like a soldier using his bare head to defend his sword. After all, the Word of God is “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians chapter 6, verse 17).
So when David, speaking by the Spirit, calls Jesus “Lord,” we see another illustration of Paul’s teaching, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1st Corinthians chapter 12, verse 3). Martin Luther comments: “The Holy Spirit wants to preach only Jesus Christ; the poor Holy Spirit doesn’t know anything else.” So the Spirit teaches David, and David teaches us, that the promised Son of David is also David’s Lord. The mystery of the God-man is right there in the Old Testament hymnal, the Psalms. And it is in our hymnal too: “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater Son!” (Christian Worship Hymn 93, stanza 1).
Jesus denounces the teachers of the law and the Pharisees
Matthew chapter 23, verses 1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew devotes this entire chapter to a sermon that Mark summarizes in only a few verses (Mark chapter 12, verses 38-40). Here we see the stern side of Jesus, which he also displayed when cleansing the temple. And yet, as Jesus piles one woe on top of another, we sense that his harsh words are not merely an angry tirade, for his wrath is mingled with grief. The merciful heart of the Messiah is broken by his people’s callous rejection of the gospel.
In the course of his sevenfold indictment of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, Jesus never even mentions the Sadducees. The Sadducees’ teachings could not be commended at all to the disciples (see chapter 22, verse 29). At least the Pharisees and the teachers of the law still sat in Moses’ seat. Jesus denounces them for failing to practice what they preach, but he also commands his disciples to listen to them and to obey them when what they taught was in accordance with the Old Testament Scriptures.
Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees and the teachers of the law complements the warning issued by James: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers,because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James chapter 3, verse 1). The privileges of leadership carry with them a heavy corresponding responsibility. Jesus denounces the teachers of the law and the Pharisees not only for their own sins, but especially for leading others astray. In fact, they were imposing burdens on others that they were not willing to bear themselves (Acts chapter 15, verse 10). But Jesus “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah chapter 53, verse 4). And his gracious invitation to sinners is, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew chapter 11, verse 28).
It goes without saying that Jesus’ words apply to his church in every generation. The spirit of Pharisaism is not dead. It survives in the church. When Martin Luther teaches us to regard ourselves as at the same time a saint and a sinner, that means each of us must beware of the Pharisee within. We must heed every woe in this sermon if we are to escape the death of false churches.
We live in an age that regards all negative language as bad. But eight of the Ten Commandments are negative, and each of the seven woes in this sermon is negative, because disobedience is humanity’s instinctive reaction to any word of God. We need to hear these divine prohibitions. Yet, the genius of Martin Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism is that he brings out a positive side to each negative command. Likewise, each of the woes in this sermon can be turned around to show us those positive acts and attitudes that Jesus delights to bless.
The first question Jesus asks is: before whose eyes are you living? Everything the teachers of the law and the Pharisees do is done for men to see. The praise and opinions of men are of the utmost consequence to them. But the psalmist reminds us, “From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth” (Psalm 33, verses 13 and 14). That can be either good news or bad news: “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth” (Psalm 34, verses 15 and 16).
A literalistic reading of Deuteronomy 6:8 led to the practice of wearing phylacteries. These little boxes, often made of leather, were strapped to the forehead and the arm. They contained scraps of paper on which four passages were written: Exodus chapter 13, verses 1-10 and chapter 13, verses 11-16 and Deuteronomy chapter 6, verses 4-9 and chapter 11, verses 13-21. Although it would have been possible for these phylacteries to serve as useful reminders of God’s presence with them, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had turned them into religious theater. Their piety had become a performance designed to evoke admiration and applause from the common people they despised.
When Jesus says they covet the most prominent places at banquets and in the synagogue, we are reminded of the parable he told while he was eating in the house of a prominent Pharisee (see Luke chapter 14, verses 7-14). A similar dispute evidently erupted in the upper room as Jesus and his disciples were about to eat the Passover together for the last time. As they were taking their places at the table, “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest” (Luke chapter 22, verse 24). Who would get to sit next to Jesus?
When Jesus says, “They love to be greeted in the marketplaces,” we are reminded of the Sermon on the Mount, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men” (Matthew chapter 6, verse 5). Because they covet the admiration of their neighbors, they deprive themselves of the blessings God delights to give to those who pray in humble and penitent faith (see Luke chapter 18, verses 9-14).
Jesus warns his disciples against seeking titles of honor, such as “Rabbi” and “Father” and “Teacher,” because they tend to reinforce the sinful pride he is condemning. It should be said, however, that an overly literal application of these words tends to foster the same kind of sinful pride. People who refuse to accept any title often fall prey to the temptation to regard themselves as superior to people who do permit the use of such titles.
“The greatest among you will be your servant,” says he who was willing to wash his disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday. “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke chapter 22, verse 27). In the Divine Service, Jesus serves us by giving us his body to eat and his blood to drink.
Saint Augustine said it something like this: “By exalting yourself you cannot reach up to God, but when you humble yourself, God reaches down to you.”
Jesus himself is, of course, the one who showed us what “whoever humbles himself will be exalted” means (see Philippians chapter 2, verses 5-11). In Matthew chapter 16, verse 24 he invites us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him, knowing that no servant is greater than his master: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John chapter 15, verse 20). That is why the Scriptures encourage us, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews chapter 12, verses 2 and 3).
First woe: You keep yourselves and others out of the kingdom of heaven
Matthew chapter 23, verses 13 and 14
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Therefore you will be punished more severely.
Jesus’ complaint against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees was that they slammed the door of heaven in other people’s faces. They were not content simply to reject Jesus themselves; they did all they could to discourage others from following and believing in Jesus. Perhaps the most prominent example of this attitude is Saul of Tarsus (see Acts chapter 8, verses 1-3 and chapter 9, verses 1 and 2). His conversion to the faith he had formerly persecuted and his call to become an apostle to the Gentiles cast some light on the words Jesus speaks here. Although this condemnation is harsh, it is still a summons to repentance.
The editors of the New International Version have relegated verse 14 to a footnote because some ancient manuscripts do not include this verse in Matthew’s gospel. Mark chapter 12, verse 40 and Luke chapter 20, verse 47, however, do include this verse. Whether this verse was included in the original gospel of Matthew or was later inserted by a copyist while thinking of Mark and Luke, the fact remains that Jesus said it. It is the Word of God.
Since the teachers of the law were not salaried employees, they were dependent upon the generosity of their students and patrons. This arrangement was obviously open to abuse, and Jesus’ accusation indicates that widows were especially vulnerable to exploitation. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus was especially concerned about the widows and orphans. (See 1st Kings chapter 17, verses 7-24 and Jeremiah chapter 22, verse 3.)
Second woe: You go to great lengths to win a convert and make him worse than yourselves
Matthew chapter 23, verse 15
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
There certainly are plenty of charlatans and con artists who have discovered that they can exploit religion to make themselves rich. But Jesus seems to direct his rebuke to those who firmly believe they are doing the right thing. For instance, Paul says during the time before his conversion when he persecuted, arrested, and killed many Christians, “I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today” (Acts chapter 22, verse 3). Likewise the missionary zeal of the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses is often utterly sincere. And all of the missionaries’ vices tend to appear in intensified form in their zealous converts.
Third woe: You make foolish distinctions about oaths
Matthew chapter 23, verses 16-22
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
Three times Jesus calls them “blind.” The irony is that they think they can see things that other people don’t see. They delight to make life complicated so that others end up completely dependent upon them for an explanation of what is right and what is wrong. When the Pharisees and the teachers of the law challenged Jesus for disregarding their distinction between clean and unclean, Jesus responded, “If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (chapter 15, verse 14).
Jesus had already dealt with the question of oaths in his Sermon on the Mount (chapter 5, verses 33-37). His words of caution reflect the Second Commandment. People who develop a reputation for honesty and integrity do not need to call upon God to witness the truth and to punish the lie. Since Jesus allowed himself to be placed under oath by Caiaphas in chapter 26, verses 63 and 64, it is clear that chapter 5, verse 34 is not an absolute prohibition. But we do best to take oaths infrequently. Confirmation Sunday and your wedding day are two times when it is appropriate to take an oath, and for most of us there may not be too many other occasions.