We continue our journey through Luke this morning, this time finding Jesus in Jerusalem, preparing to celebrate the Passover and continuing his teaching.
In the story we’re about to hear, Jesus is confronted by a group of Sadducees. The Sadducees were a particular sect of religious leaders who followed only the written Torah – what we know as the first five books of the Old Testament. They also believed that there was no life after death – and this was kind of at the core of what they taught. If there is nothing that comes after death, then what ultimately matters is what happens in this world, here, now – and nothing else.
I also want to note that for some of us, what we’re about to hear will be liberating and refreshing – and for some it will be weird and distressing. That’s okay. Hang in there.
Scripture: Luke 20:27-38
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 any more, 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 are trying to trap Jesus – to get him wrapped up in a logic problem that was not going to end well for him no matter how he figured it out. They come up with a slightly ridiculous theoretical question based on what’s known today as Levirate marriage.
It sounds more than slightly ridiculous to us, but there’s history here. In ancient Israel, marriage wasn’t necessarily the loving partnership between two consenting adults that we think of today—marriage was almost solely about procreation and having children in order to continue the family line. Women were, at best, considered second-class citizens who could not own their own property, go out and get a paying job, or live on their own. At worst, they were just considered the property of the men around them. For example: my life, as a single 30-year-old woman with no children of my own, who lives on my own and works full-time, would be absolutely unthinkable in that ancient culture.
The idea, then, behind a levirate marriage was that if a woman’s husband died before they had any children, then it fell on the man’s closest male relative (usually his brother) to marry his widow and try to produce children. Those children, legally, would be considered the offspring of the original husband. (Remember, the ancient Israelites also had zero understanding of genetics.) Ideally, this arrangement also ensured that a widow wasn’t left out in the cold to starve. If you’re familiar with your Old Testament stories, this is the background of the entire book of Ruth.
But in the case of the woman in the story we just heard, the question isn’t necessarily about how to survive in a world where all of this was completely normal. The question is about what Jesus calls “the age to come.”
The question is basically: if all of them married her, then in this supposed resurrection, who gets the woman?
And I can almost feel Jesus take a deep breath and sigh really loudly before he says: “that is the wrong question, my friends.”
Their mistake was assuming that if it did exist, then life in the age to come – in the kingdom of God – would be exactly like the life we already know. But Jesus knows better. Resurrected life is something completely new, he says, where the need to continue and preserve a nuclear family is no longer the sole driving force.
Jesus isn’t saying we’re all completely alone, separated from the people we love. The kingdom of God is always described as a community, whether the image is a great banquet or a great city. What he is saying, however, is that resurrection will transcend everything we already know and expect.
That’s part of why it’s so hard to talk about life after death. We don’t talk about death much as a culture, because it’s somehow become this private, almost shameful thing. But even Scripture talks about the resurrected life pretty sparingly, and mostly in metaphor: it’s like a big ol’ party. It’s like a long-lost child coming home. It’s like a city whose streets are paved with gold. It is unending peace, and joy everlasting. It’s the place where there is no more death, no more pain, and no more tears.
These are all good things, but it’s not exactly a detailed map.
That means we live in hope and anticipation of something we can’t fully understand in this life, because it’s going to be so much better than we could ever imagine.
The human imagination is an extraordinary thing – it’s brought us epic tales like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, science fiction and virtual reality that pushes the limits of what we believe we can do, and so many delightful worlds found in books and movies and art.
But like the Sadducees, our ability to comprehend the fullness of God’s kingdom is somewhat limited by what we can already imagine, and our imaginations are somewhat limited by what we already know and see.
Two thousand years ago, the ancient religious leaders could not have imagined my life today. (There are some contemporary religious leaders who also cannot comprehend my life, but that’s beside the point.)
Five hundred years ago, builders couldn’t have imagined jumbo jets or iPhones.
One hundred years ago, the idea that women would hold almost 25% of the seats in the US Congress – not to mention that black women and Muslim women and Native American women would be seated as representatives – was unthinkable.
For some of us, the idea that we can’t fully know what awaits us after death is slightly terrifying.
But here’s the good news: the age to come is the place where God, who loves and cares for and provides for us even in this mess we call life, is one hundred percent in charge. Here, the struggle is very, very real. There, the struggle is past and death is over.
Jesus reminds us here that even those who are gone from us are not gone from God’s presence: this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of resurrection.
In a few weeks, we’ll begin the season of Advent – the season where we set aside time to unabashedly long for the fullness of God’s kingdom while we wait on Jesus.
So friends, take heart – God is with you in the here and now, with all of its mess and struggle. And, when that mess and struggle comes to an end, God will be with you still in the age to come.