This passage is a passage of hard questions. And as we read this passage today, this is just one question we have as we walk away from this passage. It is the question of every widow as she stands by the grave of her husband. It is the question every widower when he finds that the lady he has sat next to a Bingo all these year is not only a lot of fun to be with but had really pretty eyes, and thinks to himself maybe, just maybe I can try this marriage thing again. What does marriage look like when we come to heaven? In many ways by extension, it is the question every child has when the inevitable happens and most assuredly the question of every parent in the unimaginable occurs. What does family look like or mean in Heaven.
When we find ourselves in these situations 99% of the time we can find solace in scripture and comfort in the words of Jesus, but in this passage and its mirror passages in Matthew and Mark, the passage seems to hold answers we don’t like. This passage is full of hard questions not only about eternity but about how eternity touches our lives here and now. So many hard questions arise from this passage, and I am not sure I have answers for them all.
As we come to this passage the first question which needs to be answered is, “What is a Sadducee?” Well, they were priests therefore Levites; a subset of priests whose main duties were to take care of the temple. As temple priests they were thought of as ranking higher than other priests. They also had internal and international political duties one of which was serving on the Sanhedrin. Thy also tended to fight with Pharisees over differences of belief mainly revolving around purity and inheritance rights. They adhered only to the Torah and rejected the idea of the afterlife which means they did not believe there were any rewards or penalties after death. This put utmost importance on living rightly in this life, for God now. The only way you lived on was by making name for yourself through children who would carry on your line and remember you once you were gone.
The Sadducees rejected the belief in resurrection of the dead, which was a central tenet believed by Pharisees and by Early Christians. Furthermore, the Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as proposed by the Pharisees. Rather, they saw the Torah as the sole source of divine authority. They were generally well off individuals who not only held a lot of the wealth but also the power 1st century Jewish society. The written law, in its depiction of the priesthood, corroborated the power and enforced the hegemony of the Sadducees in Judean society.
The Pharisees on the other hand came from the all echelons of society, believing that closeness to God was not determined by birth, but that those who could become teachers and scholars of the Scriptures was open to anyone who studied the law and applied it. They taught not only the Torah as Holy Scriptures, but also the writings, and the prophets; the books we would consider the Old Testament. They also found in the oral interpretations of scripture which had been handed down through the generations. They adhered to an idea that the holiness of God was not confined to the temple but God desired to sanctify all aspects of life. The holiness of God could be brought to all places, to all people. There is no part of our lives, no matter how mundane, which could not be sanctified and made holy by God. (Perhaps we Nazarenes are close to the Pharisees – at least in this belief- than we realize.) They believed in the afterlife. What a person did here; how they lived and whether or not the way they lived aligned with God had eternal consequences. We do not merely live on in the lives of our children and how they remember us, but be we literally live on experiencing the consequences of our lives in a living eternity.
So why do the Sadducees come to Jesus and ask Jesus this question? What is their motivation? It is pretty simple really. They were trying to verbally trap and poke holes in Jesus’ theology. But why? Well you might find this surprising, Jesus was a Pharisee. It is not all that surprising really, most of Jesus’ theology and teachings we in line with Pharisaical belief. The points of conflict are minor. This is one of the reasons they were always around. He was one of them. They cared about what he taught. The instances where they disagree mattered to them and they wanted Jesus to “toe the party line,” so to speak.
In many ways we divorce Jesus from the very groups and people to whom he belonged. In our minds we often pit Jesus against the Jews. But Jesus was a Jew. He was raised Jewish; he went to synagogue on Saturdays. He knew the Torah, celebrated all the holidays set by God in the scriptures and he even when to Jerusalem for Passover. In the same way Jesus was also a Pharisee. His general theology and beliefs aligned with theirs. He taught many of the same things they taught. When Jesus was correcting these people, it was not so much that he was confronting the opposition, but that he was lovingly correcting his own. Working to bring people he loved and cared about into a proper understanding of God and what our relationship with God can be.
As a Pharisee Jesus held many of the theological beliefs that were the rubbing points between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. So when the Sadducees come to Jesus in this passage, they are coming to him as a member of the opposing party. They want to trap Jesus verbally; to show silly it is to think that people will be raised from the dead. So they tell this story about a woman who ends up married to seven brothers wondering, when she is resurrected, who will she be married to?
But the first question before we move on to the question the Sadducees are ask, we should probably answer a different question, “What Levirate marriage is?” It served two purposes in Jewish society. First of all, it allowed for a man to live on in his heirs, for his name to be carried on, to be remembered. If you have children they will tell your story they will remember you. Most people at that time believed that if you were remembered, if your children and you’re your children’s children told your stories, your life had meaning and value after you are dead. If you had sons your family line continued and you would be remembered in their genealogies as your family would go on.
Secondly, levirate marriage was a needed social construct in a society where women had no agency of their own. It served as protection for the widow, ensuring that she would have a male provider responsible for them. This was a positive in a society where women are not allowed self-sufficiency and must rely on men to provide, especially in societies where women are seen as under the authority, dependent on, in servitude, and/or possessions of their husbands. Having children enabled the inheritance of land, which offered security and status. A levirate marriage might only occur if a man died childless.
Our next question then is, are the Sadducees really concerned about women and what their eternal plight might be, if the resurrection is really a thing? No they are not concerned about women. Nor are they even concerned about this (hypothetical) woman! They are concerned about to whom she belonged. She was ultimately the property of a man. Women were property. What they are actually asking, if the resurrection is a real thing, which husband gets to claim her in the resurrection? Who gets her for all eternity? She is merely a belonging, an asset, part of the “wealth” one of these men could claim for eternity. Perhaps you can’t take your stuff with you into the eternal kingdom, but since it is populated by people you could take the ones who are yours with you. But she is only one woman. Which one of the seven men gets to claim her as theirs for eternity? After all, a woman can’t be married to seven men (even if a man could be married to seven women).
When we come to this passage the question most of us what to know, “Is Jesus telling us that we will not be married in heaven?” Because if there is no marriage in Heaven, “Will we get to be families in Heaven?” “Will we not be connected to those we love in eternity?” “Will God separate me from Mike in the life to come?” “Will our children know us?” “Will my father still be my father?” “Will all of us live disconnected from the love and affection we know in this life?” The short answer is, “No, that is not what Jesus is saying”
God will not separate us from our loved ones. But what that looks like in the afterlife is something we do not know, as long as we are on this side of eternity. All I can say with any confidence is that life in the world to come will be as different from life here and now as life in the womb was different from the life we now know. I can also assure you that this passage and this discussion, which Jesus is having with the Sadducees here is not answering this question. The Sadducees were not wanting to know the nature of familial relationships, whether that be our true love who passed before we did, or those of our children or parents, in the world to come. When Jesus gives his answer that is not the question he is answering.
We know this because real question the Sadducees are asking is own of ownership, “If there is a resurrection, in which we all live on, who does this woman ultimately belong to. . . for eternity?” (can I just say all my modern sesiblities, say “Ewww.” This is a bunch of men standing around discussing the eternal fate and ownership of a woman – hypothetical she may be) So what is Jesus’ answer? He says, “she does not BELONG to any of them!” Jesus frees this woman from the societal need for her to bear a son in this life, and her enslavement to these men in the life to come. (Hallelujah! She is her own woman!) This woman does not BELONG to any human being not here on earth and definitely not in God’s eternal kingdom. She is her own person, she does not belong to any of them and she will not belong to any of them in the world to come.
When Jesus says, “No one will be marry or be given in marriage”, what he is saying is, “No one will take another in marriage and no one will be given to another.” No one will be taken or given. Paul said something similar, In Christ Jesus, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.” We are set free in Jesus Christ, set free from the bondage of sin, and set free from the brokenness sin has brought into our societies and systems. No one belongs to anyone else, not now, not ever; not in this life and not in the time of the Resurrection.
Jesus is actually telling them. “Wrong question!” The Sadducees cannot trick Jesus with this question because the very premise of it is wrong. The resurrected life is just like this life only unimaginably better and it is not at all like this life because the ways in which it exceeds what we know and how we think about life, are nearly incomprehensible. The resurrected life is life as it should be, if we lived in a whole and holy world. It is life without sin, without brokenness. It is a life lived without economic disparities, without the harm we experience at the hands of others. Life lived in unbroken communion with God. Where we get to really know and understand what it means when Genesis says they walked with God in the cool of the evening. It is life lived as we can only imagine. It is life lived in ways we could never imagine.
Now don’t get me wrong just because we no one belong to us, that does not mean that we do not find belonging in Christ and in Christ’s church. At the end of the passage Jesus tells us who we truly belong to. God is the God of the living, in the end, after the resurrected, we will all live again. God is the God of all. This passage is about to whom we belong. Jesus tells us, when it comes down to what really matters we cannot be possessed by one another. Yet we find belonging in God, in God’s people, together with one another, belong together.
We like to stake our claim on one another. We say, “This is Brenda, she is my mother.” “This is Drew, he lives in our basement.” Explaining our connections to each other is not inherently wrong, but generally speaking we do not know how to speak of those connections with our exerting a sort of belonging over that person. In a world which continually seeks to possess and own everything around us, this is just another way of exerting our dominance over even those we love and care about the most. Jesus says these ideas of dominance and possession do not matter in eternity. This woman does not belong to any of these men. We do not belong to anyone who seeks to dominate and possess us, nor does anyone belong to us. We do not get to own anyone in Heaven. We are all our own human beings so to speak.
I say, “So to speak,” because although, we do not ultimately belong to one another. To whom do we belong does matter, in eternity? Because in the end belonging to God is what really matters. All life is God’s but do we belong to God? Have we lived lives which exemplify God’s holiness, righteousness and justice in this world? Have we given all of who we are, all we ever hope to be and who ever we may one day become over to God? Have we lived lives of Holy excellence; seeking to bring God’s redemption and holiness in to all the place we live. Have we allowed God not just to sanctify all aspects of our lives, all we do, all we say, all our actions and our interactions? Jesus sides steps the Sadducees debate about the resurrection and asks a more important question, “Do we belong to God?”