Whose Wife Will She Be in the Resurrection
July 16, 2017
Luke 20:27-40; I Corinthians 15
For some reason I started thinking about this passage a few weeks ago. My thinking was prompted by a conversation I had with my wife. We were talking about my mother who was married to my father, Jim Swicegood, for 31 years until he died. Then she was a widow for a few years and started going out with Charlie Bunn after his wife died. Charlie and my mother were an “item” for 22 years until he died five years ago. My mother often said that she was fortunate to have two good men in her life. So my wife mused, “I wonder which man she will choose in heaven. Your dad or Charlie Bunn.” Maybe my mom had decided it would be just to hard to choose between them so she would elect to spend one night with my dad and the next night with Charlie Bunn. I don’t know whether God would like that. Or maybe there’s a form of polygamy in heaven. Some Mormons would vote for that.
So here’s the gist of this passage. Some Sadducees, a party of the Jews who did believe in the resurrection to eternal life, came to Jesus with a convoluted problem.
Once upon a time there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman a woman and died childless. The second brother took her for his wife. And this happened again and again…to the second brother, and the third and the fourth down to the seventh. Talk about an unlucky family. If I were the seventh brother I surely would be watching my diet and exercising furiously, and made sure my life insurance was paid up. She outlasted every one of them, and at the end, which one was hers?
It’s an silly little scenario, proposed by Jewish religious leaders. They draw on an old law from Moses, tucked away in a obscure corner of the Old Testament. Moses taught, “If a married man dies but had no son, his brother shall marry the widow and get her pregnant so the family name shall continue” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).
It was called “Levirate marriage” and we don’t know how many times the rule was invoked. The brother was obligated to do this duty, regardless of whether she was a babe or as ugly as home made soap.
And this wasn’t simply an arranged marriage. There was an element of justice here. Widows had no rights in ancient Jewish society. Somebody needed to protect and provide for them. Not only that; if there were male children, they could inherit the family property someday.
Now, the first surviving brother didn’t have to do this. He could refuse. If he did, the widow could go to the village elders to complain. If the brother still refused, the widow would spit in his general direction, take one of his shoes, and he would forever be known as “The Man Without a Shoe” (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).
And then after they’ve laid this all out, they pop the question to Jesus, “When all of them die, whose wife shall she be in the resurrection since all seven were married to her?’ Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.”
A quick history lesson about the the Sadducees? They were the party of privilege; they were the ruling elite. Their priests held the majority in the seventy-one-member Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council. By tradition one of their members held the office of high priest. Most of the Sadducees were wealthy members of the upper class. What a scene! Here is Jesus encountering Israel’s priestly aristocracy. He is obvious making an impact on Jewry for them to stoop to argue with an itinerant healer from Nazareth.
Jewish society was sharply divided between Sadducees and Pharisees on most political issues and religious issues. The Pharisees wanted to overthrow their Roman oppressors, so they bring the coin to Jesus and ask him if men should pay taxes to Caesar. The Sadducees cooperated with the Romans to preserve their political clout and ruling class status. In theology, the Pharisees followed the rabbinic traditions with all their moral and legalistic regulations. But if there was one doctrine that defined the Sadducees it was their rejection of the resurrection. For them, when life is over, it is over. There is nothing that awaits us beyond this life but dark extinction.
What’s curious is that a group of Sadducees, who traditionally do not believe in the resurrection ask Jesus a question about whose wife this woman will be be in the resurrection.
We know immediately that they are jousting with Jesus. They are wanting him to mis-speak, to stutter and stammer with his answers. But Jesus, always the master of the situation, replies to their question and makes two points. The first point is the most important. In the age to come, he says, meaning that there will be an age to come. Meaning there will be life after death. Meaning that there will be a resurrection of the body, which Paul writes about in I Corinthians 15.
The second point is less important in this passage, but I suspect it is more important to us, and actually quite disturbing to some of us. In the age to come, Jesus declares, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.
How many times have you heard at a memorial service? She’s gone to heaven to be rejoin her husband. In fact, one of the pastoral prayers for a Presbyterian memorial service goes something like this: “And we look forward to a glad heavenly reunion.”
Jesus’ words here contradict that assertion. And that can be very hard to hear for those of us who have had deeply devoted marriages. It can be confusing– or relieving– to those who have been married more than once or who are divorced or separated.
On Wednesday I came home at noon after playing golf and Barbara wasn’t there. She usually leaves me a note but there was no note. I didn’t think much about it. I sat down in my recliner, which is better than any sedative at inducing sleep, and drifted off into nappy land. I woke up at :2:30; she still wasn’t back. “These are long errands she’s running,” I thought. At three I had an appointment and came home around 4. She still wasn’t there. Quiet alarm bells began ringing. Has something happened to her? Has she left me? After all, I’m not the easiest person in the world to live with. I know that. But when I looked
at where we store our suitcases they were all there, and more telling, our two cats were still in the house. She might leave me but never leave the cats. About 4:30 she came home, and I was gladder than usual to see her. She had enjoyed a long lunch with a friend, and then run errands. I’ve often told her that I am nothing without her, and I mean that every time I say it. I can’t imagine life without her, here, or BEYOND HERE. Some of you here today really understand what I mean. So if there is a heaven, and I can’t be married to her in the life to come, well then, I would just as soon join my golfing buddies in hell.
It reminds me of the young Presbyterian pastor who began his ministry some years ago in a small southern town. Those were the days of the temperance movement, remember those days. An old woman in the church, the president of the local WCTU, found out that the young pastor liked to have a glass of wine with his dinner now and then. She asked him to stop by and read him the riot act: the evils of alcohol how it has ruined individuals and families, how he was setting a bad example for the youth in the congregation. Finally when she was finished her diatribe, he said, “But Martha Jesus turned water into wine in his first miracle at Cana of Galilee. “ And without missing a beat the old woman said, That’s just another one of those things I don’t like about Jesus.
So I’m not very keen about Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees here. Is it sacrilegious to argue with Jesus? I don’t know but like the old teetotaling woman, this is just another one of those things I don’t like about Jesus.
But let’s stretch our minds a bit and gather what we know from Scripture about the life to come.
For openers, the entire N.T. rises or falls upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Without that, we have nothing, no Bible, no church, no faith.
What is it like? The best we have is Paul’s description here in I Corinthians, that we who have physical bodies will be raised a spiritual body. Does that mean that I will have hair again, or won’t need glasses or hearing aids? I don’t know. I don’t.
The world to come, Jesus teaches, is not like this world. In fact, it is dazzling in its difference. The first are last and the last are first, there is no pain or suffering or tears, where death itself will be completely abolished….and where even the most precious god-given institutions of them all – marriage and family – will be a thing of the past.
We don’t know exactly what that will look like, but we know enough from Jesus to realize that we will all be part of intensely spiritual community, sharing relationships of love, compassion and self-giving.
One of my favorite passages is from II Corinthians 4: “Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath entered the heart o human beings, the things that God hath prepared for those who love Him, who are called according to his purpose.”
I’ve always loved the poster we placed on our refrigerator a few years ago. It shows a pathway through a redwood forest, winding off into the distance until it disappears from sight. The wording on the poster says, “We can trust an unknown future to a known God.”
What I have found across my lifetime is that God keeps his promises. I believe that when our loved ones die they are transported into the presence of God, something like this life, but with all the good parts included and the bad parts wiped out.
Whose wife will she be? We have no idea. There’s lots that we don’t know, but one thing that we do. God loves us and gave His Son for us.
As Patrick J Willson wrote about this encounter with the Saducees, Jesus does not answer all our questions, though one of our fondest illusions is that he should. What he does is point us to a God whose faithfulness to those whom God called is immeasurable and inexhaustible, and in that faithfulness we find enough to endure all that life and death will ask of us.