As the uncreated Word of God, the Lord Jesus is the key to all the Scriptures. The New Testament itself bears witness to this truth. St. Paul interprets the beginning of Genesis in the light of Christ as “the New Adam” (Rom 5:12–19), and at Pentecost St. Peter preaches Christ as foreshadowed in the Psalms (Acts 2:14–41). The Evangelists frequently tell us that Christ did or said a particular thing “that what was written might be fulfilled” (cf. Mt 26:53–56). In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–7), Christ offers direct commentary on the Law (“You have heard that it was said . . .”), and in the synagogue at Nazareth, Christ closes the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
We find Christ offering another such exegesis in the context of a doctrinal dispute with the Sadducees. By the time of Christ’s public ministry, the Sadducees, along with the Pharisees, were a major politico-religious party. Generally, they were aristocrats who maintained national relations with Rome and whose influence at the Temple was unequaled. (For decades the office of High Priest was held by a Sadducee.) They also held a strong majority on the supreme Jewish council known as the Sanhedrin. And since they persistently opposed the Pharisees on a number of important doctrinal issues—denying, for example, the existence of angels and the resurrection of the dead—they must have been well versed in the Law, drawing on the knowledge of scribes, whether within their own ranks or as outside consultants. Indeed, they were so confident in their denial of the resurrection, that they decided to challenge publicly Jesus’ teaching to the contrary, even after the Lord had embarrassed “the chief priests and the scribes” in disputes over the character of the Baptist’s ministry and the legality of Jewish tribute to Caesar (cf. Lk 20:1–8, 19–26).
The Sadducees present Jesus with the following dilemma: If a woman is widowed seven times and dies, then, in the resurrection, she will have seven husbands. Such a situation would be absurd. The only option left to an interpreter of the Law, the Sadducees suggest, is to deny that the dead are raised. Jesus’ response is twofold. First, he teaches that those who rise on the last day neither marry nor are given in marriage. Second, he shows that his own teaching on the resurrection is in accord with the Scriptures: “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush . . .” (Lk 20:34–39). In this passage God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex 3:6). Thus, our Lord’s argument may be sketched as follows: (1) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob belong to God; (2) those who belong to God are living; (3) therefore, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and all those who died in God’s grace) are still living.
At first glance and taken out of context, this argument might strike us as simplistic. According to St. Matthew, however, the crowd was “astonished at his teaching” (Mt 22:33), and St. Luke tells us that “some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well’” (Lk 20:39). Furthermore, the Sadducees seem to have offered no remarkable response.
Jesus’ audience was greatly impressed, yet surely the Sadducees knew well the two premises of his argument. Why hadn’t they reached the same conclusion? Indeed, how could the Sadducees have come to precisely the opposite conclusion?
Jesus’ reading of Exodus 3:6 is as extraordinary as it is simple, yet when he put it forth, none could deny it. This teaches us that Scripture is deeper than we often think. If we stop actively listening to Scripture on the grounds that the readings are already familiar, then we share the complacency of the Sadducees, to whom Jesus said, “You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mk 12:24).
On the other hand, the Scriptures are too deep for us to interpret alone. We need to ask Christ to help us to understand them, for when the Word reads the word, “Deep calls to deep” (Ps 42:7). Indeed, Christ is present when the Scriptures are read; it is Christ himself “who speaks when Scripture is read in Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §7). Moreover, he has given us the Spirit of truth (Jn 14:17), who makes the word effective in the hearts of the faithful.
When we listen to the Scriptures, therefore, we should look for guidance to Christ our Teacher, and we should expect to be assisted by the power of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we will be unable to hear the word of God fully. Consider how long the inner meaning of Exodus 3:6 was available to the Sadducees, and how long they failed to see it!
Image: Gerrit Dou, The Bible Lesson, or Anne and Tobias