Don’t fall into the Sadducees’ trap. They set it for Jesus. He didn’t ignore it, but he refused to get bogged down in it. Push on through and get to the real issue.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 20:27-38), Jesus is tested by some Sadducees, “those who say there is no resurrection.” They propose to him a hypothetical situation that, because of its ridiculousness, is memorable. A man and a woman marry, and the man dies, and his brother marries the widow as the law requires. This pattern repeats itself until all seven brothers (note the number of completeness) have taken their turn and died. Finally, the woman also dies. Whose husband will she be in the resurrection?
Actually, it’s a good question—good for those of us who believe in the resurrection. If you start from a position of faith, it’s worth asking what marriage will be like in heaven. Will I live with my spouse? Will that relationship matter? What if I am remarried? What if I am married to a man I loathe when I die? Those are real, good, and valuable questions for those of us who genuinely believe that one day we will be with God in heaven. But they are useless questions for someone who is trying to punch holes in our belief in resurrection. That is because they are essentially unanswerable. They don’t have clear, definite answers. Ultimately, we don’t know what heaven is like. We get glimpses of it in scripture, but we cannot know the fullness of that which awaits us. So, for the person of faith, these questions remind us that our hope is real but flexible. For the cynic, they lead to nothing—empty, cyclical proof of the proposition that the cynic holds dear.
Jesus gives an answer—perhaps a surprising one. There is no marriage in heaven. Period. The end. Try arguing around that! It’s “until we are parted by death,” baby. After that, you’re on your own. But I urge the reader and the preacher not to get tangled up in that web. That’s not the point of Jesus’ response. This passage isn’t a teaching about the nature of marriage in the afterlife. It’s a chance for Jesus to refute the Sadducees claim that there is no resurrection.
When asked a cynical question by a cynical person, sometimes the right thing to do is give an inarguable response. You want me to trap myself in answering your ridiculous question, but I refuse and instead give an answer that leaves you no room for a come-back. The only problem with that is that the answer I give isn’t necessarily what I’d say to a person who really wants to explore the answer with me. For example, when I’m having a theological argument with someone about the nature of God and the nature of the universe (Bentley Manning), it’s easy for me to offer extreme, inarguable responses if that person is coming to me from an opposite perspective. But, when I sit down with someone in a pastoral setting who wants to gently explore the tough questions of life, brute force is not needed. This gospel lesson is Jesus hitting the Sadducees over the head with a powerful statement. He’s not ministering to widows who just lost their spouse.
Push ahead to the end. What’s the real point? “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.” God is God of the living. In him there is no death. For Jesus, resurrection is a given, and that’s the real point here. This isn’t a teaching on the nature of marriage after the resurrection. It’s a lesson on the resurrection. Jesus tackles the trap set for him, but he doesn’t get bogged down in it. It would be a shame, therefore, for a preacher to lose the forest for the trees. Preach resurrection and save the pastoral conversation about marriage for another day.