As our Lord himself showed on the Emmaus Road, Scripture is ultimately about him. But the curious thing is, this vast panorama of parted seas, plagues, kings, vineyards, whirlwinds, floating axeheads, blessings, curses, patriarchs, prostitutes, assassins, prophets, laws, peasants, sages, lions and hippopotami does not immediately suggest to us just how to find Jesus of Nazareth in the midst of it all.
Some people think it’s easy. With too-comfortable hindsight, they imagine that all Jesus’ contemporaries must have immediately known that Psalm 16 was a) inspired Scripture and b) clearly referred to the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead, when it declared, “But I in justice will behold your face; on waking I shall be content in your presence.” Such people often speak as though first century Jews had a sort of “messianic prophecy fulfillment checklist” and that it was possible to just follow Jesus around, checking off fulfillments as they happened. The notion seems to be that the entire history of Christ was foreseen with as much clarity by the Old Testament prophets as it was remembered by the apostles.
Others, including the Sadducees in today’s gospel, are in the opposite camp. They see no messianic and no resurrection in the Old Testament. Indeed, they see only five Old Testament books as inspired at all: the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. All the rest of it from Joshua to Malachi was, for the Sadducees, just Jewish literature. Therefore, when 2 Maccabees preached the Resurrection, the Sadducees said, “So what?”
And when a rabbi from Galilee came to Jerusalem with the same sort of message, the Sadducees from the big city thought it would be fun to put this up-country preacher in his place. So they posed him what they thought was an insoluble logic problem. A series of brothers, in obedience to the law of Moses, marries the same woman and dies one after another. If there is a resurrection, who is she married to?
Jesus stuns them with his reply. First, he points out that their view of the Resurrection is ridiculously provincial. The supposition that glorified human life must look exactly like our present circumstances is scotched. The vow of marriage makes no sense in a world where vows, taken to bind fallen humans to promises they might otherwise break, are unnecessary. Then, in an even more stunning move, Jesus calls as witness to the Resurrection none other than the Torah itself. Since the Sadducees only recognize the books of Moses as Scripture, that is what Jesus relies on. He confronts the Sadducees with the fact that God says I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 3:6) not “I was”. The implication is clear: God is saying the patriarchs are still alive. And as they are, so shall we be–if we have faith in Jesus.
In so doing, Jesus shows the way in which he and his gospel are both revealed and hidden in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is not simply an itinerary or checklist of crystal clear messianic prophecies. In fact, many texts which the Church understands as referring to Jesus were not understood to be messianic until Jesus fulfilled them. None of his apostles understood clearly that Jesus had to die and rise from the dead, even when he told them point blank and even when they stood in the mouth of the empty tomb (Mark 9:32; John 20:9). However, when it was fitting, our Lord opened the eyes of his disciples (and, as we see today, sometimes even those of his enemies) to show his gospel hidden in the Old Testament (Luke 24:27). In light of his resurrection, Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 (among other texts) suddenly took on stark significance. That which was hidden was revealed in almost blinding light (Ephesians 3:4-5).
The same sort of thing is promised to us in our resurrection with him. We will be taken as hicks, fools and fanatics (like the martyrs in today’s reading from 2 Maccabees) for pinning our hopes on life from the dead rather than seeking to win through intimidation or make hay while the sun shines or do any of the thousand other things to gain the whole world while forfeiting our souls. But in the day when that which is hidden is again revealed, the light will again both illumine with stark clarity what was always true, even in the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.