Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
November 10, 2019
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 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.”
William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells the story of four chemistry students who unwisely chose, on the eve of a major exam, to make a road trip to the University of Virginia. The students partied longer than they ought to have done, and got back to Duke too late for the exam. Sheepishly appearing before Dr. Bonk, their noted chemistry professor, the four concocted a sad story of woe, telling Bonk that while they had left Virginia in plenty of time, they had blown a tire on the way home. While trying to change the tire, they discovered that the spare was flat. By the time they could get the tire fixed and return to the Duke campus, they had missed the important exam. Dr. Bonk was amazingly compassionate and surprisingly understanding. He agreed to give them a make-up exam the following day. When the students arrived for the exam the next day, Dr. Bonk handed each a paper with only one question: Which tire went flat on the car?
I recall a conversation I once had with a parishioner at a previous church that I served. His spouse had died about six months earlier and following her death I had visited him regularly to check on his physical and spiritual health. This gentleman had a unique sense of humor and was always joking around. On that particular day we talked about the usual subjects – University of Utah football, his golf game, the early snowfall, and the activities of the church. Suddenly he got very serious. “I want to ask you something,” he said. “It is something I’ve always wondered about and have always been afraid to ask anyone else.” I was a bit taken aback because it was a bit out of character for the man to be so serious. But I could tell something important was on his mind and immediately started contemplating what kind of difficult question was coming my way. The man continued, “It’s about heaven. I just don’t know about heaven.” Upon hearing that his question was about heaven, I was only a bit relieved. You see, while I have an opinion about heaven I certainly don’t have all of the answers. I’ve been confronted with concerns about whether our beloved pets are in heaven, whether we have all of our missing parts in heaven, about what age our bodies are when we get to heaven, and whether or not there are baseball fields in heaven. Again, I don’t have all the answers, only what I believe and I didn’t want to leave my parishioner disappointed. I nodded my head and urged him to continue. He then said, “I believe in heaven and I’ve always thought that heaven is a place where you’re reunited with all of your loved ones. I truly believe that in heaven I will see my wife again, and my siblings, my good friends, and my parents. I believe that my wife is with her family in heaven right now. I want to know if I am going to be with my wife in heaven, will I have to be with her family again too?” I hesitated, contemplating any kind of sage answer. But then I was greatly relieved when a big smile and laughter came over the face of my parishioner. As always, he was merely teasing me.
This morning’s Scripture lesson tells the story of a group of Sadducees who approached Jesus with a similar kind of question. There was no way for Jesus to answer the question without getting himself into trouble. And that perhaps was the reason for the question in the first place. The Sadducees were testing Jesus and wanted to see how he would react when given a question with no easy and practical answer. They delighted in constructing absurd scenarios and forcing others to enter into those scenarios, thereby trapping their opponents with their convoluted logic. They were looking for any way to discredit Jesus and his teachings.
The question involved resurrection. Long before the idea of resurrection was talked about, the Israelites believed that people lived on through their children. As long as there was someone who remembered them, or descendants to carry on the family name, they still had life even though they were dead. The problem occurred when a man died without an heir. If that happened, seemingly everything about the man vanished. So God gave Moses a law to deal with such circumstance. The law of Moses held that if a man should die without children, his brother was obligated to take the man’s widow as his wife and have children with her. Since the ancient Jews believed that one lives on in one’s descendants and in their memory, this practice was especially significant. But the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, wanted to take the law to extreme, as a test case for Jesus. “What would happen,” they asked, “if each of seven brothers die after marrying a widow, and all are childless? In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”
Again, William Willimon tells of a couple he was counseling before marriage. As they were reviewing the vows, they got to the part where the groom was to say, “I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.” Suddenly the groom wanted a change. He wanted to know why, if both partners believed in eternal life, that they should promise to love one another only until death separated them. Willimon said the question raised things he wasn’t prepared to talk about at marriage counseling. Will death end marriage or will somehow that relationship continue in life eternal? Will it even matter? What kind of changes will the new world of resurrection bring? Will it cause more problems than it solves?
That is what the Sadducees wanted to demonstrate. They wanted to prove resurrection was a logical absurdity, wishful thinking, through presenting the ridiculous problems it presented. But Jesus recognized that they spoke hypothetical questions. They didn’t care about the widow in the story. They wanted prove their own bias against resurrection and at the same time trap Jesus into answering a question for which there was no right or easy answer, proving he wasn’t such a religious authority.
But like the clever chemistry professor, Jesus redefined the issue. He offered an alternative exam, proving that he saw and spoke of a different perspective. The Sadducees’ question was premised on the assumption that eternal life is an endless state of more of the same for humankind. Jesus challenged their premise that marriage as they knew it, will have anything to do with life in the Kingdom of God. He said, “Who told you that marriage would be part of the life after resurrection?” Jesus said that while such things as marriage enhance and bless and preserve our earthly existence, beyond our physical life- in our eternal life with God, such things will not be necessary. Jesus did not say that we will not see or know those who have been dear to us in our earthly life, but he did say that our resurrection life will not be marked by the same kinds of things as this earthly life.
This teaching of Jesus certainly wasn’t designed to educate us on the concept of marriage. And it probably doesn’t do much to answer our deep and sincere questions about a place we call heaven and the resurrected life. What our bodies and relationships will be like in the life to come is not clear. Perhaps all we can say is that what Jesus teaches here is that we should not assume that life in the eternal Kingdom of God will be just like the life we know now but more so. Jesus did not approach resurrection as a practical plan based on our belief in God. He spoke about it and entered into it as part of our origin with God and our eternal union with God. It is a way in which we live on with God and how God gives us worth but God is a loving God that will never let go of us even into eternity. We may not have any understanding of what resurrection means or what our everlasting life with look like. But we do not need to worry because we follow one who entered into it himself, who wasn’t in death’s tomb but showed up with his friends to eat and walked through locked doors. He was the same but different. But he was full of the power of the God of life.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, “Resurrection is not about our own faithfulness. It is a radical claim about the faithfulness of God, who will not abandon the bodies of the beloved. Marriage is how we preserve our own lives in this world, but in the world to come that will not be necessary anymore. We will all be wed to God- the God who is able to make children out of dust, out of dry bones, out of the bits and pieces of genuine love we are able to scrape up over a lifetime of trying- ‘for he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.’”
We are God’s children now. We will be God’s children forever. However that looks and however we experience it, it will be a look and experience of God’s. And that should be enough for us to know.