The world's great religions often record controversy stories, where people come to the spiritual leader intent on putting his wisdom to the test, or even to outsmart him and prove that he isn't as enlightened as he makes out. Christianity is no exception and the Gospels contain a number of stories where Jesus is put to the test like this.
Today’s story is one of them. The Sadducees were an aristocratic group of rather sceptical people who did believe in God but put definite limits on his power. They didn't believe in an infinite or absolute God, for they held that our relationship with God can’t continue beyond death. He is God only of the living, of the present order, not a God who - at least in terms of our relationship with him - was, and is and is to come.
Their question about the unfortunate woman who was forced by custom and practice to marry one brother after another is not a sincere quest for truth, because they don't believe that either the brothers or the widow survived death. They're simply trying to show how absurd it is to suppose that God can overcome death and grant us life beyond it.
Perhaps they're also trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and another religious group, the Pharisees, who shared his belief in a God who is all powerful and can overcome death. Will Jesus say something which sets his ideas at odds with theirs? Jesus responds, however, by suggesting that the Sadducees’ idea of God is too small.
How old were you when you decided to count all the numbers and then realised that it couldn't be done, at least not before teatime anyway? Or that, no matter how wonderful it might be, heaven goes on forever and ever, and that's a long, long time to sing the same hymn over and over again?
The ancient mathematician Pythagoras said that the cosmos - the whole created universe - can be divided into two kinds of things, things which come to an end and things which go on for evermore. Men, he said, are easy to work out. You could take any man and work out what makes him tick. It's a task which very soon comes to an end. But women, he said, are a mystery that he can never be fathomed, no matter how hard a man might try. I think Pythagoras was probably joking, or exaggerating anyway. But Jesus says something similar about God, and I think he really means it. God is the great I Am. Like the time it would take to count all the numbers, his time never comes to an end and he is simultaneously God of those who are long dead, those who are living now and those who are yet to come.
It was Pythagoras who first realised that not only can we never count all the numbers in the universe , because there will always be another one, and another, but also there are some individual numbers which never end, and it was the Prophet Moses who first understood that God is outside time and space.
If we get out a pencil and paper and divide the number one by three we will never get the exact answer. We can get closer and closer to the answer, to the point where it no longer matters very much, but if we tried to do the sum in an exam we could keep working it out all the way to the end and run out of time to answer any more questions. In the same way, if we try to work out when God stops being present for us, we'll never arrive at such a time. The time is always Now for him. He is the great I Am.
This may sound impossible, it certainly seemed impossible to the Sadducees, but it's like the question that children ask in the back of the car, 'Are we nearly, nearly there yet?' It was another Greek philosopher, Zeno, who realised that the answer will always be, 'No, we're not there yet!'
That's because if we were in a rocket going to Mars it's a journey of millions of miles and for a very long time there would still be a long way to go, but if we were a flea inside the rocket, and we were trying to crawl from the tail to the nose cone, we might still have a long way to go even when the nose cone was about to hit the surface, and if we were a microbe inside the flea we might still have a long way to go just to travel from the tip of the flea to its toe, and if we were inside an atom inside that microbe we might have even further to travel, and so we could go on forever, with the distance we had to travel getting smaller every time. So we always never be nearly, nearly, nearly there.
Well you might think Zeno didn't have enough to do. And you'd be right because he was an aristocrat. But the point is that, whether the distance we've got to travel is very big or very small, there's always a bit further to go. Journeys seem never ending when the kids keep asking, 'Are we nearly there?', because in a sense they are never ending.
And the passage of time is a bit like that, too. It's relative, which means it seems to pass very quickly when we're enjoying ourselves, and very slowly when we're having a torrid time, but for God time seems to go on and on for ever, without beginning or end. At least, that's what Jesus tells the Sadducees.
But of course our journeys normally do come to an end. And we don't keep counting for ever. We get bored and decide to do something else instead. Travelling and counting have the potential to go on for ever, but it doesn't actually happen in real life. Whereas Christians would say that life after death and God do go on for ever. And we don't just mean that in theory they could go on forever, we mean that they actually do go on for ever.
Plotinus, one of the earliest influences on Christian ideas about God, said that God is not just infinite, he is the infinite. He’s not just the sum of all things that already exist and have existed in the past; his kingdom also contains infinite possibilities, and it’s infinitely perfect. It doesn't have to deal with awkward issues like widows who are still married to several men at once; in heaven all such problems are automatically ironed out and resolved.
Christians haven’t always agreed with Plotinus that God is the infinite. But all Christians have at least agree that in heaven and on earth, whatever we might mean by those terms, God is all knowing, all loving and all powerful.
Where do we get this kind of idea from when we think about God? Not from looking at the world around us, to be sure. When people do that they either come up with something like a nature god, or a nature goddess, a Mother Earth figure, or they come up with gods and goddesses who are just superhuman versions of ourselves. So this idea of God’s infinite capacity for love, and knowledge and power must come from somewhere outside ourselves. The French philosopher Rene Descartes said that only God himself, or God's grace at work in us, can possibly inspire us to think of an infinite God. He implants the idea of his greatness within us.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant took Descartes' argument a stage further. He agreed with Descarte’s critics that - even with the help of God's grace - we can never really know what it might be like for God to be timeless, or infinitely perfect or powerful, all knowing or all loving, because these things are totally outside our experience. But he said that grace can still inspire us to believe that these things are possible for God even when we can't imagine them ourselves.
Kant said that two things particularly inspired him. When he looked up at the stars he believed in God's infinite power and when he looked deep within himself he believed in the infinite worth of every human being. It doesn’t matter how numerous the human race might become, God will never lose track of us.
He sees the meanest sparrow fall unnoticed in the street not because he's an avid birdwatcher but because he has an infinite capacity for love. However many creatures there might be, however many worlds might be created, God will always find room in his heart to love everything and everyone. So when a widow dies after being married to several husbands God is infinitely concerned for the well being and happiness of each one of them, just as he cares about each wildflower and each blade of grass.
This doesn't just mean that we can have hope in God for life after we've died; it also has implications for our lives here and now. No matter how unimportant we might think we are, no one can ever be justified in treating us as expendable, or insignificant. We can never be just collateral damage in an explosion meant for somebody else. We can never have been put on earth just for someone else's amusement. We're always the centre of God's attention. We always matter infinitely much to God because he has an infinite capacity for love.
The ancient thinker Epicurus pointed out a long time ago that we don't need to fear death because we won't be there to feel it when it happens. His followers said that death is just like a dreamless sleep. The modern philosopher Thomas Nagel begs to differ, though. He says that, so long as he isn't in terrible pain, and so long as his death wouldn't save other people from suffering, he would always choose to go on living if he possibly could. But perhaps we don't need to fear death for another more comforting reason, because God knows us and loves us, before we're, born, throughout our life and even after our death.
The modern religious philosopher John Cottingham says there's something within human nature that always make us reach out for more, what St Augustine called 'the restlessness of the human heart'. He observes that if we put a horse in a nice big field with lots of grass it will be happy. It won't look for anything else from life. But we're different. We always want that little bit more. We always sense that something - like the fence in the field - is stopping us from going that little bit further.
Time, for example, is a greater limiter. Just think how much more we could achieve if time didn't go so fast and if life weren't so short. We say to ourselves, 'If only we had more time!' Does this restlessness come, as Descartes and St Augustine thought, from a God who calls us to look beyond ourselves and our own situation and imagine something better even when it's just a vague feeling that we can't put into words?
Unlike the horse in its field, no matter what our life is like we can always conceive of something more, something greater or better. We can always imagine a heaven or a utopia where everything is perfect, and someone dwelling there who is beyond all limits, someone like God, and that's true even if we're not believers.
The sheer size and beauty of the natural world and the universe beyond point us to God's grandeur and infinite power. The moral rules that guide us and tell us - deep down within - what we ought to do, point us to God's love. And the scientific laws and the logic which shape the way things are, point us to God's infinite wisdom and knowledge. Of course, these pointers could be purely imaginary. The Sadducees thought that God was not as boundless as we like to believe. But they could also be real pointers to an absolute being who can actually overcome all the boundaries of time and space, including death itself.
The novelist Iris Murdoch thought the Sadducees were right. She said that no one as great as the Father Jesus believed in could possibly exist, but she said the hopes and dreams that lead us to believe in such a God do exist and are 'incarnate in [our] work, and knowledge and love.'
I think she stumbled there upon an important truth, the truth of incarnation. We know that God is all loving because his love is incarnated, that is made visible and tangible, in the work and the love of Jesus, and most especially in his death on the Cross. And we get a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of God in the way Jesus dealt with other people and handled controversy, which brings us back to where we began, with a group of people who were trying to outsmart Jesus but found themselves outwitted in their turn.