'Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus 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."'
--Luke 20-: 27-38
One of the greatest joys that I experience as a priest is the opportunity to listen to people’s questions. Sometimes I have an answer for them: Do Episcopalians read the Bible? That’s a pretty easy one; Do the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus? Depends on who you ask; Do dogs have souls? Absolutely! Engaging with questions such as these help us to wrestle with our faith and grow to a spiritual maturity that we do not get if we just accept everything at face value. But there is one question that I get, one question that every clergy person, bible scholar, and theologian gets that simply cannot be answered, at least not in the usual manner: What is heaven, or resurrection, like?
Jesus himself had to answer such a question. We find him in this week's Gospel passage during the final week of his life, teaching in the Temple. After confrontations with the Pharisees, now is the Sadducees’ turn to go toe-to-toe with Jesus, the only time they ever do so. We talk a lot about the Pharisees, but who were the Sadducees? The Jewish historian Josephus described the Sadducees as wealthy, urban, conservative aristocrats. Where the Pharisees cared little about politics—they were more concerned with keeping Judaism alive, and indeed would be the ones who would do so after 70 AD—the Sadducees were very much involved in the political scene. They were the high priestly class, part of the collaboration system with the Roman Empire, and hell-bent on maintaining their wealth and status. They followed only Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—and ignored the prophets, the wisdom literature, the histories, and most other teachings. They did not believe in a day of resurrection; after all, if you’re rich and powerful, who needs an afterlife? Nor did they believe in a coming Messiah. Both events would cause a disturbance to their carefully ordered lives. So when they approach Jesus with a question about life after the resurrection, they are not at all being sincere, but rather they just want to trip him up with a question that’s not really a question but something designed to humiliate him and his ridiculous belief. As one pastor I heard earlier this week call it, this moment is “gotcha journalism” at its finest.
A handy guide to the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees
Their question goes something like this: OK, Jesus, if there really is a resurrection, suppose a woman’s husband dies and they have no children, prompting the man’s brother to marry her in accordance with the Law, but he dies childless, and the pattern continues until the woman has married all seven brothers without bearing a child. So whose wife will she be at the resurrection?
You can hear the smugness come through, can’t you? "We got him!" they’re saying to themselves, maybe even with a dude-bro fist bump or two. Then Jesus responds, and his response is so profound that Luke says in the very next sentence following the end of this lection, that nobody dared question him from this point forward.
So let’s unpack that response. The Sadducees think that if there is a resurrected life, then it must follow the same pattern as this one, and this life is governed by Torah, the Law. In the Law there is the prescription for a man to marry his dead brother’s widow if no children are born. The reason that this Law exists is to maintain justice for the widows, to be sure that they are not forced to live as beggars or prostitutes after their husbands’ deaths. It is a well-meaning law, but it fails in one crucial way: it treats women as property. “Whose wife will she be?” they ask, implying a sense of ownership.
Immediately, Jesus rejects this. His rejection is not of the law or of marriage but of the possession of women. He acknowledge that in this age women are “given” in marriage, but it is not so in the age to come; that is, in the resurrected life with God. It’s important to remember that marriage was not a love focused institution, but a patriarchal institution, whereby bloodlines were kept alive and family allegiances were maintained by giving a daughter away in exchange for a dowry. As Jesus points out, however, in the resurrected life with God, no one is “given” in marriage because at that time we will understand the true meaning of marriage, that it is not about property but about belonging. As our own marriage rite says, it is a reflection of Christ’s love for us, a reminder of our own belonging to the family of God. To imply that a woman would remain the property of a man in the age to come is to infer that God’s future is merely an extension of our own present, but Jesus makes clear that resurrection entails transformation into something new, or in this case into that original vision of how God intended for people to be in relationship with one another. The closest we get to seeing that vision in this life are the Sacraments, including marriage, which give us a glimpse of God's grace and love in our material reality. In the resurrected life, though, we will not need such outward and visible signs because we will be wed one to another, and all of us to God. This vision of belonging, of unity with God, is what the resurrected life is all about and hearkens back to that original vision that God had for us when we walked in the Garden with God in the evening breeze.
This original vision of God if fulfilled when all people know the justice of God, which is so often proclaimed by the prophets and by Jesus. This is an important piece to remember, because, as collaborators with Rome, the Sadducees had a stake in maintaining unjust systems. Of course, they will deny a resurrection, or some life to come with God, because if there is no resurrection then this life right now is all there is and the only opportunity for God’s justice to be realized, and that is bad news for a Jewish population under Roman rule. It’s bad news for anyone who has known and still knows the sting of injustice. But resurrection gives hope to the oppressed, a promise that even if justice is denied to them now, there will come a day when God will break through, and the dream of justice for all God’s children will at last be realized. Such a promise was terrifying for the Sadducees.
Still, they figured they had the Scriptures on their side; after all, where in Torah can you find a reference to resurrection? You can’t. At least not the word ‘resurrection,’ but just as Christians would later read between the lines and find the Trinity in the words of Scripture—despite the literal word never being used—Jesus does the same thing with a passage from Torah very well known to the Sadducees. He cites the encounter between God and Moses at the burning bush, and God’s invocation of God’s name, “I am,” present tense, and the statement by God, “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The inference here is that in some sense Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive, otherwise why would God use a present tense verb—rather than, say, “I was the God of your ancestors back when they were still alive"? God doesn’t do that because, as Jesus points out, to God, they are, indeed still alive. The proof of resurrection, then, is the living God. God is alive, which means that those who know, love, and worship, this God are also alive. So there must be a resurrection, there must be life beyond this life, because our God is one who was, is, and ever will be alive.
An icon depicting Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush.