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 family gathers around the casket, muttering prayers under their breath imploring the Lord to keep the rain clouds at bay. The new widow is dressed appropriately in all black, her mascara is flowing down her cheeks, and she is clutching at the chest of her dearly departed husband’s brother.
Like anyone else, the family isn’t sure what to do with their grief. Some of them forcefully push their hands into their pockets, others try desperately to hold back tears, and still yet others stand stoically as if nothing happened.
But, none of them, not the mother nor the father, not the cousins or the nieces or nephews bat an eye as the widow drives off in the limo nestled a little too closely with her brother-in-law.
2 years later the same family, though a little grayer than before, gathers in the same cemetery only a few paces from where they were last time and the scene feels eerily familiar. So much so that a few of the guests note how the pastor inexplicably uses the same homily as he did the last time around. The widow is now widowed twice, with two dead brothers buried by the old oak tree. This time the family wonders which brother will step up to the plate, and sure enough before the occasion ends she is driving off in another limo with another brother.
A decade later the woman runs out of tears for all of her dead husbands. She went from one brother to another, all seven in fact, and not a one of them had given her the baby she so desperately craved. The waning and remaining family members try their best to show signs of grief and sadness, but the scene has become so familiar that they were kind of looking forward to it. These funerals had replaced the Thanksgiving table as the occasion for family catch-ups and story-telling.
The priest is now feeble and old, and he had taken on an apprentice in the last few years hoping he would be the one to replace him. The two with their black robes and white collars politely shake hands with the family and make their way back up to the country church. The older priest struggles up the hill and sighs before noting that the next funeral will probably be for the woman, suspecting her of an imminent death caused by a broken heart. To which the younger priest wonders aloud, “Father, to which husband will the woman belong in heaven?”
There’s no telling how many times I’ve read this story or heard this story. It’s a powerful moment in Luke’s gospel when the Sadducees try to beat Jesus at his own game by sharing their own little parable. They are but another drop in the ocean of those who questioned the audaciousness of Jesus’ claims about the kingdom of God, the totality of grace, and the resurrection of the dead.
And for as many times as I’ve heard the story and even told the story in moments of worship and even counseling, there is a detail that has bothered me to no end.
I mean, I understand what the Sadducees are trying to do with the question, they want to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. And okay, the woman seems to have some rotten luck. But no one seems to want to point out the obvious! Are we sure she’s not a murderer?!
Seven men marry her and seven men die! Those are pretty bad odds! The Sadducees are consumed by this idea of who she’ll be married to in the resurrection and I’m over here far more concerned with whether or not she was a serial killer!
And yet, its a story meant to point at something else. Like any parable it takes on these larger that life characteristics that intend to point us as something bigger. The story might as well have been that a woman married one man, who then died, and then married the man’s brother who also happened to die, who then would she be married to in the end? But that’s not nearly juicy enough! Particularly not when you’re trying to take down the guy who had the gall to tell stories about a prodigal son and a faithful shepherd and a good samaritan.
Questions are important things. And, sadly, we often limit their importance to the answers they provide. But questions contain their own answers. To ask a question is to reveal, to disclose something about the person asking the question. There is no such thing as a question that is morally and intellectually or even politically neutral.
Imagine a spouse returns home from work a little later than usual and their partner asks, “Did you get the groceries?” Behind that question are a bunch of assumptions, perhaps the person forgot or has forgotten them before. Maybe the question is really pushing toward why the spouse was late. And so on.
Or imagine a kid returns home from school with a tear in his eye and asks his mother, “Why are Johnny’s parents getting divorced?” Of course, there is an obvious nature to the question, but behind the question there is perhaps the fear of his own parents getting divorced, or it happening to him in the future, or what’s going to happen to his friend. And on and on.
Questions have agendas whether we like to think they do or not. Questions, before they are even answered, imply something about what is important, what is true, and they are all full of assumptions.
Jesus is asked a question. To whom will the woman be married to in the Resurrection? The implication, the question behind the question, is that these people do not believe in the possibility of any resurrection and they want to trap Jesus in his places.
Jesus has two choices in terms of an answer. His first option would be to pick or specify which of the seven brothers would be the partner in the great beyond. Jesus could pick her first husband, or her last husband, or the one right in the middle of the whole thing. But none of them make particularly good sense because ultimately, 6 of the former husbands would be left hanging in the wind.
And then there’s option number 2: Jesus could admit that the Sadducees have a good point – they might be on to something with the inherent assumption in their question. The woman can’t be the wife of any of the brothers in the resurrection so therefore there must not be a resurrection!
But Jesus doesn’t go with either of those – instead he breaks through with an answer previously unthought of. He simply asserts the resurrection is a whole new ballgame to which the present rules and assumptions about marriage no longer apply. And he doesn’t stop there, he takes is a step further to claim that even the Torah proves the resurrection. You see, since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were not all alive at the same time, and for God to be their God they must all be alive together in some other-than-earthly state, it means that the resurrection is real, and its real even for them.
For Jesus, the whole focus here is to build up anticipation of his passion, his own death and resurrection. He’s not trying to paint a picture about whose still with who on the other side of death. Instead, he’s merely asserting a radically powerful truth, the people we marry and bury in this life don’t belong to us in the resurrection.
And that’s Good News.
However, for some of us this might, in fact, sound like bad news. We shudder to think of a time where we will lose the people we’ve taken hold of in this life – we don’t want to imagine a moment in which the person wearing the ring is no longer bound by that ring.
But that’s exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus is trying to overturn.
Its why we say, “Till death do us part.”
The Sadducees, in their question, held desperately tight to a understanding of relationships such that women literally belong to men as a wife would belong to her husband. They understood women as property, something to be traded and treated as such. I mean, their question about marriage in heaven might as well have been about who a cow would belonged to in heaven having been sold over and over again in this life.
Jesus said, “In this age people are married and are given in marriage. But I tell you in the age to come this woman with be equal with even the angels, she will be a beloved daughter of God – nothing more, less, or else.”
What a Word! Just mull on that for a moment! Imagine what it would’ve been like for the woman in the story to have heard those words of the lips of Jesus, hell imagine any woman today in an oppressive or overwhelming relationship. She would have known that in the age to come, in the kingdom Jesus’ inaugurates, she would not be defined by the man she married, she would no longer be defined by anything other than the fact that she was a child of God.
Friends, there are people, great numbers of people who need to hear what Jesus has to say. This little nugget of the gospel could bring them a remarkable sense of peace.
Jesus changes everything. This is the story I want to tell people when I hear them talk about their better half, or their lesser half. No one becomes less of a person when they get married. Or at least they shouldn’t. We are unique and beautiful and wondrous because that’s exactly who God created us to be. And yet, of course, we were made to be in community, but that doesn’t mean we lose part of who we are by being connected with other people. If anything, the point of connection is to give us the freedom and the strength to flourish as God made us.
The Sadducees carry their own assumption. Whoever this Jesus guy is, he’s just bringing more of the same. He’s coming in here with his promises of a different world and a different future. But they can only see that in the terms already dictated by the world.
And then Jesus walks up, listens to their question that’s really an accusation, and says, “Excuse me! A new world is colliding with the old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, a thing beyond even your wildest imaginations. In this world, the world you’re so wedded to, the world of the here and the now, there is death. But in the world I’m bringing there is life and life abundant! In this world, right now, people are owned, people are belittled, people are made to feel less than whole. But in the world to come, all people are children of the Living God.”
Jesus sees more than we can. He knows that the cross is waiting for him and he knows that the tomb won’t hold him. He knows that we are far too content with the status quo and that we still treat people as if they are less than whole. And so he says, “Come to my table. Take some bread and wine. See in this meal how the labels we place on ourselves and others start to disappear. This is the beginning of the end. But of course there really is no end. Because God is the God of the living. And whether you are married or buried, to God you are alive.” Amen.