Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
The Sadducees know exactly what they’re doing. They are not standing before Jesus truly desiring an answer to their question. They are not like the student whose paper is no longer decipherable because they have used their entire eraser while trying to answer a question. They are in Jesus’ presence for the purpose of embarrassment. Their aim is to argue, frustrate, and force Jesus into a particular way of thinking. The question that formed on their lips is not genuine. They are simply attempting to bait Jesus with one of their classic “what if” questions, a question on which their minds were settled long ago.
Haven’t all of us resorted to this kind of questioning at some point? The militarist asks the pacifist, “what if someone was attempting to rob you and your family, would you fight back?” or the child asks the mother, “what if the world ended tomorrow, would you really make me do my homework tonight?” or the skeptic asks the believer, “what if there is no God, would you still pray?”
“So, Jesus, Moses wrote for us about how to handle a situation if a married man dies without producing children. The wife is to remarry one of her brothers-in-law in order to have a child. But, what if this happened, and a woman remarried 7 brothers and never had any children with them, who would she be married to in the resurrection?”
I knew a man who had a wonderful family life. He was a pastor, occasionally moved throughout his conference, but he had established roots in certain parts of the state. He enjoyed his work, but he loved coming him to his wife and children every afternoon. It was when everything seemed perfect that tragedy struck; his wife was killed in a car accident. In the wake of her death, the children were old enough to take care of themselves and when the pastor returned to work he no longer had the energy to serve the local church and so he retired. It was not for a lack of conviction or faith, but the loss of his wife struck him so deeply that he felt it would be irresponsible to try and serve others.
Time passed. The wound from his wife’s death remained open. He mourned. But after awhile he started to find a different rhythm in this new time of his life. The seasons passed and even though he still missed her, he was taking steps toward finding joy again.
He met his second wife later in life through mutual friends. It was clear that they had a connection but neither realized how deeply they cared for one another. When they married it was a joyous celebration and they spent the following decade together.
I got to know the husband and wife in their later years, visiting with them, hearing their story, and breaking bread together. They were meant for each other, and I don’t just mean finishing each others sentences kind of thing. They were adorable in their connection, in their refusal to be separated, and in their faithfulness when the former pastor developed a brain tumor.
I was unable to attend the funeral but I received a phone call from the new widow that evening. Through the abundant tears landing on the telephone I was barely able to make out her words but I could tell that something was worse than the emotions that come with attending the funeral service for your spouse. “I just don’t know what to think, Taylor,” she said while sobbing, “Today, during the service, my step-daughter, my husband’s daughter from his first marriage, delivered part of the eulogy. She stood before that crowded church and lamented the loss of her Daddy. But before she finished, she looked up in the air and said, ‘I’m so happy that Dad is back together with Mom now.”
I was silent.
“What does that mean about me?” she continued. “What will happen when I die? Will he be waiting for me?”
How could anyone speak into that situation? What could you say to help fill the void that her husband left, while remaining faithful to the God who has faith in us.
For a few moments I waited silently on the phone unsure of what to say. But then I remembered that Jesus had been asked a similar question…
Jesus was asked a question that would’ve typically elicited a pastoral response. After all, this story comes toward the end of Luke’s gospel; Jesus has already traveled all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and pastorally caring for his flock everywhere that he traveled. His answer to the Sadducee’s question is important and vital to our lives not only as Christians but also to all people who reflect on life and death.
Jesus begins his response to the Sadducees’ loaded question rather directly: “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but to those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry not are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die because they are like angels and are children of God being children of the resurrection.”
In this first part of his response Jesus pointed out the inappropriateness of their question. There is a difference between this age, and the age to come. In this present age the reality of death makes marriage and the perpetuation of life essential. In order to continue the cycle of life, new lives need to be brought into the world. However, in the age to come, in the resurrection, death will be no more, death will die, and those who are blessed enough to attain the resurrection will be as children of God. There is no marriage in the resurrection because it is no longer needed, God’s purposes for life after life after death will be so glorious and inexplicably remarkable that marriage will be no more.
There is a difference here between what we commonly imagine about heaven and life after death regarding the immortality of the soul and the resurrection. Many would have us believe that to be Christian means that we have immortal souls, but there is an important distinction between immortality and resurrection. Immortality is based on a doctrine of human nature that denies death; resurrection is based on a doctrine of God which says that even though we die, God gives life to the dead.
In the second part of his response Jesus relies on the teaching of Moses to help undermine the question from the Sadducees. The Sadducees believed that a teaching, belief, practice, or habit was not authentic unless it could be found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, the so-called “Mosaic Law.” They would search through those books and unless it was there, it was not relevant or viable for their faith. So Jesus draws on the teaching of Moses, particularly the incident of the burning bush, to further defend his answer.
Do you remember the story? Moses, a shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro is out in the wilderness tending the flock. In the midst of his work he is confronted by a bush that is burning, but the flames refuse to consume the bush. In this interplay between human and the divine Moses is commissioned by God to deliver God’s people, the Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Reluctant to undertake such a task, Moses questions, “Who am I to say sent me?” And God responded, “Tell them I AM sent you, I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.”
So when Jesus responds to the Sadducees he remembers this story for them. God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. What we do in the here and now is important, and God will take care of us when our time comes. You may think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses as being dead, but God is their God, they are alive through him.
The Sadducees, in their strict conformity to their theological persuasion were unable to comprehend that standing before them was God in the flesh, that Jesus himself was the Word, the new law, and the new covenant. He not only brought a new teaching, but he himself was the new teaching.
Just as during the time of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees, there has been confusion over the implications of the resurrection throughout the history of the church. Resurrection has often been understood in one of two ways: Experientially or Eschatologically. (bear with me here)
An experiential resurrection would allow for all of us here to achieve a newness in our lives in the here and now on earth; “we have been raised to new life in Jesus Christ.” An eschatological resurrection would mean that God will give life to our bodies after we die to live and reign in the new heaven and the new earth; “Behold I am making all things new.”
What is important for us, what Christ conveyed to that crowd of doubters, is that both of these resurrections contain truth. There is a beauty in the experiential resurrection that we discover when we find ourselves caught up in the mission of God and there is an indescribable fulfillment in the eschatological resurrection that will come when God makes all things new.
So I stood there silent on the other end of the phone while the new widow cried out of frustration and fear. “What does that mean about me?” she pleaded “What will happen when I die?”
I took a deep breath before speaking into her reality.
“I don’t know whether or not this will bring you peace right now, but a long time ago somebody asked Jesus a really similar question about marriage in the resurrection. I can never tell you for sure what will happen, but I can tell you what Jesus says. In the next life, in the resurrection, there will be no marriage. God will wrap us up in such a way that marriage will no longer be necessary to convey the deep sense of love and connection that it does in this realm. Your husband will not be married to anyone but we will all belong to one another. I know that right now this probably isn’t the most helpful or pastoral response, but isn’t there something beautiful about the fact that when we go on to greater glory we will all be equal before everyone?”
The way Jesus confronted the question of the Sadducees is so relevant for us today as people of grace who contemplate both life and death. What will happen to us in the resurrection? Who will be belong to? Many of these questions trouble us because we are so desperately clinging to the material world here and now. In our families, marriage, and relationships we find fulfillment and purpose. If we lose someone that we root our identity in, what happens in the age to come?
God will take care of us. God will lead us through the loss of our loved ones and hold them within his warm embrace until that time that all the saints will be reunited; not as brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, but as children of God.
Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is the way that God responds to our questions – not with answers which flatter us, or make the world simpler than it really is, but with his life given for us, that we might more fully give our lives to him.
As we prepare to go forth into the world remember that God is with you in the mundane and in the radiant. God is with you in life and in death, in marriage and divorce, in fear and joy. God is with us in all things here now and forevermore; he is not a God of the dead but a God of the living.