“There are no stupid questions!” I’m not so sure. This Sadducee question to Jesus about the resurrection and this poor woman whose husbands keep kicking the bucket seems close. It is the first of many in Christian history. What happens if you lose a leg in battle? Will you get it back in the resurrection or will you have a peg leg? What if humans on earth invent the prosthetic leg, do you then get an upgrade in heaven, or did they already have them in the first place? What if a shark eats your leg, ingests your molecules, then someone else catches the shark and eats it, thus ingesting your molecules, who gets these molecules if there is a bodily resurrection? What will I look like in heaven? Do I get the 25 year-old me, or the body I died with? Can I chose? The mind can really start to wander as you ponder the implications of the Sadducees question. After all, I’m divorced and I bet many of you are too. What if you are widowed and marry twice and you dearly loved both your husbands or wives? Is heaven going to be socially awkward? I hope not.
The more I think about it, the more I want to hear Jesus answer. Of course, the Sadducees didn’t really want an answer, it is a question designed to make the whole idea of resurrection look stupid. The idea of bodily resurrection was already controversial in Jesus day. We have been discussing Jesus’s controversies with Pharisees the last few weeks, but Jesus did agree with them about a bodily resurrection. This was a relatively new idea to Judaism, just a couple centuries old, and probably imported from elsewhere, and the Sadducees were defending tradition and having none of it. Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.) Anything not in the books of Moses, is not scripture to them. It is interesting that Christianity became almost entirely about heaven and immortality. We have gone Greek and adopted the notion of the immortality of the soul, but the idea of bodily resurrection is reserved for Jesus, not for the rest of us. The early church taught the bodily resurrection for all of us, at the end times, so I just want to note that we have departed from the Apostles Creed and Nicene creed that proclaim a bodily resurrection.
I’m eager, in my anxiety about death and the afterlife to move to what Jesus has to say, but one little detail brought me up short in the text. The Sadducees say that this woman is childless. Why would that be important? Isn’t it enough she has been married to these seven brothers? After all, being childless in that culture was seen as being cursed by God. The Sadducees are referring to practice mentioned in Deuteronomy, known as levirate marriage. If a man died and his wife had no children, then the brother was to marry her to preserve the family name. You heard right, not to protect her but to preserve the family name, hoping she would get pregnant and give birth to a son. The son would then be considered a descendent of the dead husband, and inherit the family name and property. While the Sadducees may have been trying to show the absurdity of the bodily resurrection, their treatment of this fictional woman is the absurdity. She is barren through seven brothers? That is just cold. And then in heaven the great dilemma would be to figure out which of these brothers is her husband? The Sadducees are asking Jesus whose property she is going to be. Which brother will she serve in heaven? Family hierarchy is everything in that world. Who your father is and your birth order defines you as a man, and who your husband is defines you as a woman. Is all this human hierarchy to be preserved in heaven? All the screwed up gender relations and injustices persist in eternity? You mean there is no equal opportunity act in heaven, no Title IX? Women still have to play half-court basketball? Will we still a GLBTQ coalition in heaven?
Get us out of this mess Jesus. Tell us what the resurrection will be like:
“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but 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. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
Imagine the look on the faces of Jesus audience when he tells them that this theoretical woman, so humiliated and worthless and passed around in this life, will not belong to any of these men in heaven. She will enter the next age of the resurrection on her own power as her own person, because she is not defined by these human institutions and relationships. What is her identity in heaven? She is a child of God. She belongs to no one but God, and is raised to be like an angel, not childless servant to one of seven brothers, but a beloved child of God. Let’s take this one step further, and think of the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer –“thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If heavenly relations are to define earthly ones, what does this mean for marriage on earth? Could it be that there are bigger theological issues regarding the resurrection than if our bodies are raised? Jesus is saying that we are raised with God in the resurrection, but our flawed human institutions are not coming with us.
For so long the church thought gay couples were a threat to marriage, but it is Jesus who is the real marriage radical. Same sex couples who want to marry and raise children are traditionalists, buying into the worldly institution of marriage, when Jesus says marriage will not exist in heaven. (And according to the June issue of Atlantic Monthly, same sex marriages are changing heterosexual marriages – for the better! Countries that have had legal same sex marriages for more than 10 years are showing an increase in heterosexual couples marrying, lower divorce rates and great marriage satisfaction for heterosexual couples. Why? The article believes it is because same sex marriage forces the issue on equality. If a gay or lesbian couple has a power struggle, the issue is not going to be decided by society’s gender roles.) http://www.theatlantic.com/special-report/inside-marriage
So while we battle state by state to approve same sex marriage, Jesus is telling the Sadducees that marriage is just how we have organized human and family relationships here on earth, but in heaven it is going to be completely different. Could it be that in heaven marriage will not be a sacred institution? Not for either gay or straight? Unthinkable!
Where did Jesus get such a radical notion? It could be that Jesus just read the Bible and observed how marriage changed in scriptures, with polygamous patriarchs and kings having wives and concubines. One man and one woman mating for life is a later development, something we probably learned from geese, and someone decided that was very romantic. Perhaps Jesus read stories about Abraham, who tried to pass off his wife as his sister to get favor with Pharaoh, or Hagar, his maid, being impregnated by Abraham only to be caste out when his wife Sarah became pregnant. If we made a movie about this marriage, Abraham would be portrayed by Jack Nicholson.
So Jesus, reading the scriptures, could see marriage was an evolving human institution. Just as political organization changes in the Bible from tribal clans in Genesis and Exodus, to monarchy in Samuel and Kings, and- just three centuries before Jesus- Athens tried the first experiments in democracy. The idea of equality was in its infancy in Jesus day. So too marriage as a human institution went through changes between Genesis and Jesus, and marriage has continued to evolved even since I was born. It has taken 2300 years for Athenian democracy work its way into modern marriage.
This is not exactly where I expected to end up when reflecting on the Sadducees trick question. I stand behind my opening statement that there are no stupid questions. But chose your questions to Jesus wisely. When we ask only to justify our previous beliefs, we will probably be confounded and discover the limits of our point of view. But at least we have the hope of discovering what we learned about this hypothetical woman – that you are also a child of God. That is where all God’s answers begin. Human institutions and injustices try to tell us differently. But the point of the resurrection I hear in Jesus’s words is that we are beloved and the age is upon us when all is being made new.