A Place in the Resurrection
All Saints’ Sunday
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question…
“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection,” came to Jesus and asked him a question about a woman who had been married seven times, to seven different men. They wanted to know, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will she be, for the seven had married her?” It’s a hypothetical question. It’s a question meant to trip Jesus up, and to make resurrection look ridiculous. We’ll get to it in a minute. But for now let me remind you that for some people that question is not hypothetical at all. They have been married more than once, and they wonder: “When I get to heaven whose spouse will I be?” Or they’ve been happily married to the same person forever and they wonder, “Will we still be married in heaven?” I think we can find the answers to those questions and more in today’s Gospel lesson, but first I need to give you some background.
Let’s begin with the Sadducees themselves. They were the wealthy ruling class in Jerusalem. They held the majority of the seats on the Jewish religious council and among them were the chief priests and the high priest. They maintained the peace in Jerusalem primarily by enforcing the decisions of Rome, and some thought they were more concerned with politics than religion.[i] They were ultra-conservative, accepting only the first five books of the Bible as authoritative, and perhaps for that reason did not believe in the resurrection. The Pharisees, on the other hand, did. One of my Sunday school teachers helped me remember that distinction by saying, “It’s sad-you-see: there is no resurrection.” And then saying, “It’s fair-I-see, there is resurrection!” I will add to that distinction only this observation: that the people who have everything in this world often seem to have far less interest in the next. In first-century Israel, those people were the Sadducees.
Secondly, I believe that the question they asked Jesus was their standard test question for the resurrection. It was intended to make resurrection look ridiculous by appealing to the practice of “levirate marriage,” where a man would marry his brother’s widow in order to keep his brother’s memory alive. Here’s how it is explained in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:
When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
This, for the Sadducees, was the Word of the Lord (thanks be to God). It was from one of the first five books of the Bible. They say to Jesus in verse 28, “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.”
And let me pause long enough to point out that the Greek word for “resurrection” is anastasis. It comes from the word stasis, meaning “to stand,” and ana, meaning “again,” so that anastasis means “to raise up,” or, literally, “to stand up again.” The Sadducees didn’t believe in that, but they believed in this: that a man could “raise up” children for his dead brother. The Greek word is exanastase, which sounds just like the word for resurrection but with an ex on the front, meaning “out of,” and in this case “out of his seed.” It’s an earthy analogy but in levirate marriage a dead man’s brother was expected to plant his “seed” in the “soil” of his widow’s womb so that children could be raised up for him like a farmer plants seed in his garden to raise up cabbages. This is the only kind of resurrection the Sadducees believed in, and in their test question it created a problem because (verse 29): “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.”
The real conundrum in this question, as far as the Sadducees are concerned, is not whether or not people can rise from the dead, but who gets the property rights. Because in first century Israel wives were considered the property of their husbands (I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying that’s how it was). All seven of these brothers had, at one time or another, “owned” the same property. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will she be? The Sadducees could almost picture these seven fighting over the same woman and to them the whole thing looked ridiculous. To us it’s not so ridiculous. We believe in the resurrection. And we’ve all known people who were married more than once. You may be one of those people, and you may be wondering, “In the resurrection, whose wife will I be?” (or whose husband), and for you it’s not about rights; it’s about relationship. So, lean in close and listen, because I think Jesus has some answers to your questions.
In verse 34 he says, “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.” Let’s pause for a moment and think about when people do that: when they “marry” and are “given” in marriage. It’s at a wedding, right? In Jesus’ time that’s when a man “took” a wife. That’s when a woman was “given” to her husband. So, I don’t think Jesus is saying there won’t be any marriages in heaven, but he does seem to be saying there won’t be any weddings, and that’s because there won’t be any funerals.
He says, “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.” Why? Verse 36: “[Because] they cannot die anymore.” And when Jesus says that he makes it clear that in his time marriage was not usually about being so in love with another person that you couldn’t live without each other, but rather about the creation of a stable social structure in which children could be born and raised.[ii] It was about building up the nation of Israel initially, and beyond that about ensuring the survival of the human species. I love the child’s letter to God that says, “Dear God: instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you’ve got?” Jesus seems to be saying that in the resurrection that’s how it is: God keeps the ones he’s got. There is therefore no need to make new ones and therefore no need for marriage.
“But wait a minute,” you say. That’s not why I got married. I don’t see marriage as merely the means of procreation. I see it as a lasting commitment to another person. What about me?” Ah! Now you’re talking about relationship, and that’s what matters most to us. I sometimes say, “Relationships are the most important thing in the world and the only thing that really lasts.” Occasionally I test that truth by asking mourners at a funeral, “Do you love this person more or less now than you did three days ago?” They usually say, “More!” The person has died but the relationship hasn’t.
That’s what Jesus is talking about in verse 37 when he invokes the story of the burning bush from Exodus 3, one of the first five books of the Bible and therefore a story that would have had authority for the Sadducees. He says, “Do you remember what God said to Moses? He said, ‘I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ He didn’t say, ‘I was their God’ (past tense); he said, ‘I AM’ (present tense). And for Jesus that’s all the proof the Sadducees should need. “For he is not the God of the dead,” Jesus says, “but of the living.” And then he ends with something that sounds almost like a poem. He says,
For to him
All of them
I think he would say the same about those you have loved and lost: that “to him all of them are alive.” And I hope that can be a comfort to you. If you get nothing else out of this passage I hope you will get this: that according to Jesus the two things that survive death are identity and relationship. Because somehow Abraham is still Abraham after all these years; his identity survives. And somehow God is still his God after all these years; the relationship survives. But that is not only true for Abraham. It is true for all those who have made him their God, and for all those whose names were read this morning. Their identity survives, and their relationship with God—the one who made them and loved them and called them his own—survives. That’s good news. But there may be some of you who are still wondering about marriage and asking, “In the resurrection what happens to that relationship?”
This is where I move beyond the things I can say with certainty and into the realm of speculation, but I think Jesus gives us some important clues. In verse 34 he says, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage” while “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age” do not. Listen carefully: he doesn’t say that people on earth get married but people in heaven don’t. He says that people in this age get married but those in that age don’t. An age is not a place; it’s a time. Jesus is borrowing the language of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology, where people talked about “the present evil age” as compared with the messianic age: “the age to come.” That’s when they believed that God’s chosen one, the Messiah, would ride onto the scene, conquer evil, and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity. For them heaven wasn’t up there somewhere, in the sky, it was out there somewhere, in the future. For us it might be that moment when God’s kingdom finally comes and his will is forever done on earth as it is in heaven.
Wherever it is or whenever it is, Jesus says in verse 36 that when that new reality dawns we will no longer be mortal (that is, subject to death). Instead we will be like the angels (who never die). He says that in that day we will be the “children of God, children of the resurrection,” and I’m fascinated by his use of the word children. Because one of the things I know about children and one of the things I love about them is that they live in the moment. For them there is no yesterday, and no tomorrow; there is only now. I know this because I have struggled to explain the concept of time to my grandson. I tell him that I will see him tomorrow, or remind him of something we did yesterday, but he doesn’t know what that means. He’s two years old; for him there is only now. But if that sounds like a handicap consider this: he doesn’t have any regrets about the past or any worries about the future.
He lives in the moment.
This seems especially relevant when I think of how some modern theologians have described the realm of God as “the Eternal Now.” You’ve heard me talk about this. In my Easter sermon this year I suggested that when we die we “step off the time line” and into the realm of God. I quoted that old hymn, “When the Roll is Called up Yonder,” the one that begins with a reference to that moment “when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more.” Even then I thought, “These old hymn writers had it figured out! Time is not always our friend; sometimes it is our enemy. But sometime there will come a time when time will be no more!” Maybe then we will all be like my grandson, Leo: living in the moment. But unlike him, we will live in that moment forever.
One of my favorite pictures is a picture of Leo and his little friend Charley on the playground at preschool. Charley is just about the cutest little girl you have ever seen and Leo is, well…he’s my grandson. In this picture the two of them are hugging each other hard and laughing hysterically. It’s adorable. And it’s a little too easy to start matchmaking, to start thinking that maybe the two of them will remain friends throughout childhood and adolescence, and someday tell us that they’re getting married. “Wouldn’t that be sweet?” we think, for these childhood friends to end up married to each other?” Well, yes, it would be sweet, until that night when they’re in their mid-thirties and both exhausted from working at demanding jobs so they can pay the mortgage on their beautiful home where the sink is full of dirty dishes and the dog just ate the remote control and one of the kids is spreading peanut butter on the living room curtains and the other one needs a diaper change in the worst possible way.
In a moment like that you might think, “Why complicate things? Why can’t they just stay the way they are? Why can’t Leo and Charley just be best friends forever?” Is that what Jesus has in mind when he says that those who are considered worthy of a place in that age are the “children of God,” and “children of the resurrection”? Does he mean that in that blessed state they will never have any regrets about the past, and never have any worries about the future? Does he mean that they will always hug each other hard and laugh hysterically? I don’t know. How could I possibly know? But sometimes the questions are even more exciting than the answers. They leave me scratching my head, searching the Scriptures,
And dreaming about the future.
— Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] From the “Got Questions?” website, which promises biblical answers to your questions (https://www.gotquestions.org/Sadducees.html).
[ii] This is my usual definition of biblical marriage. I’m currently reading a book on the history of marriage that includes things like political alliances, division of labor, etc. (Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage).