Just yesterday, Jesus rode into town on a donkey through a sea of palm leaves. Last night he ran the moneychangers out of the temple calling it a den of robbers. Now, today, he's sitting in the main temple courtyard teaching with great authority. Earlier this morning, the scribes tried to entrap him by asking if we should pay the tribute taxes or not. He said, "Render unto Caesar." Now, the elite and powerful Sadducees are taking their turn. Listen for God's Holy Word found in the Gospel of Luke 20:27-40.
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 the children for his brother. Now, there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third; 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." Then some of the scribes answered, "Teacher, you have spoken well." For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
Lana Turner, Larry King, Mickey Rooney - they were each married eight times. So was Elizabeth Taylor, although she married the same man twice. Greg Allman, Jerry Lee Lewis, Richard Pryor had seven weddings each. King Henry 8th took six brides, although one marriage was annulled; and well, a few wives were beheaded. Zsa Zsa Gabor claimed to be an excellent housekeeper! She stated that every time she left a man, she kept his house! With nine husbands in all, she advised, "A girl must marry for love, and keep on marrying until she finds it." I guess I am more the Ruth Graham type who said, "In all these years of marriage to Billy, I never once thought about divorce, but I did think of murder a time or two."
People get married for all sorts of reasons. Every now and then, in churches across America, we celebrate a couple who has been married 50 or even 60 years. "This morning, we give thanks to God for 60 years of marriage between Leroy and Alice Smith." Leroy grabs the top of the pew with one hand and takes Alice's hand with the other, as they smile and slowly pull themselves to a stand to accept our well-wishing applause. "Aren't they sweet?" We smile. "A lifetime of togetherness could not possibly be enough!" We clap.
Sweet? Tenacious, yes - faithful, yes - but sweet? How many times have they forgiven each other? What sort of hardships have they endured? How in the world has Alice managed to put up with Leroy for all these years? It is precisely here, beneath the surface of our unspoken assumptions, our questions of the resurrection linger. Forever, is a mighty long time.
Sure, Alice loves him, but who knows? Hypothetically speaking, Alice may be looking forward to that final, glorious day of rapture and joy, when she no longer has to fold Leroy's boxer shorts.
How can we be certain about what comes next? The Sadducees aren't sure what to make of the resurrection, any more than they know what to do with Jesus. So, they rely on what they have always known to be true: if we are good and follow the rules, our children will inherit our many blessings, as long as they follow the rules, too. How is it folks like us, who celebrate Easter and know how the story ends, find ourselves standing with the Sadducees?
Sure, we are willing to encounter Jesus, as long as we meet him on our terms. Jesus is an idea we might understand, or a miracle we may or may not believe is true. Jesus is a goal we can achieve or an experience we can have. At least we can all agree, that Jesus was a good person to model our lives after? [Barth, Karl. The Word of God and the Word of Man (Glouchester: Smith, 1978), 181.]
And just like that, instead of confronting our own questions and conditional rules of engagement, we deduce our faith to a moral code of conduct, easily conveyed on bumper stickers and t-shirt quips; "Bless this Mess," "Let Go and Let Jesus," "What would Jesus do?" "Jesus is my Anchor, or King, or Rock." We religious people are the worst! If you want God's blessing; say it this way, do it that way, and follow these rules. There are thousands of Christian denominations across the globe, each certain "our" way is the right way; which must be God's way. And we'd rather be right than united, so split after split, our convictions reveal nothing more than the truth of our own sinful nature. Our way is never God's way. Following Jesus is never as simple as following the rules. As Karl Barth states, "Our way always leads elsewhere." [Barth, Karl, 181.]
But the Sadducees were decision makers and law keepers; as consumed with doing "the right thing" as we are. How could they possible have imagined their way not only underestimated God's way, but undermined it, too?
They too, were confident in the authority of their beliefs. They too were faithful to the scriptures and their doctrines. They also believed in the power of their institution, and yet, "pious or not, there is no certainty or salvation apart from God's forgiveness." [Barth, Karl. 171.] If Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, then God's way is only really discovered in the depths of our humility and surrender.
And so, face to face with Jesus, it seems the confident Sadducees have found themselves in a bit of a conundrum! The law of marriage was clear: if a husband dies, his brother must marry the widow. This way, the first-born son will take the name, land, and inheritance of the deceased brother (Duet. 25:5-10).
Now maybe, as some might suggest, that is just the way it was back then. "These laws we've created are meant to protect this widowed woman from other men, or destitution, or even herself." Or perhaps, as one might argue, this law was really meant to protect their hold on land and wealth.
After all, it is clearly written in the Torah. God's covenant with Abraham promised two things, land and children. No child means, no land inheritance. No inheritance means no prosperity. No prosperity means no wealth. No wealth means no power, and no power - well, that's the heart of the problem, now isn't it? The Sadducees had a lot of it. Why would they want to change a system that works in their favor?
Throughout history, those in power have shaped cultures, and cultures have informed beliefs. As writer, Gloria Anzaldua says, "In every culture there are paradigms that are considered unquestionable or unchallengeable.” [Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera (San Francisco, Aunt Lute, 2007), 38.] Even ours, even now.
So, within the Sadducees' hypothetical question, the hypothetical woman, with hypothetical husbands has no name, no voice, no agency, and absolutely no power. And yet, she represents very real women who were created in God's imagine. If not for their blinding privilege, the Sadducees should have known what to expect from Jesus. Who gave the woman at the well the courage to claim her voice? Who affirmed the hemorrhaging woman after she stole her blessing? Who stood up to the mob beside the adulterous woman? The women who encountered Jesus, were always first responders, because Christ always stands with those who are marginalized and despaired.
The Sadducees assumed there could not possibly be enough of God's blessing to go around. So, they have nothing to offer Jesus than a bunch of hypothetical questions. What if we don't do enough? What if we don't have enough? What if we risk and fail? What if we trust and get hurt? What if we lose control? In this endless pursuit of more, there is never enough money or status or comfort or convenience or power.
So, just like Zsa Zsa Gabor, we look to hedge our bets. The insurance industry in America was valued at 1.2 trillion dollars a few years ago. [https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic ] We can be so mistrusting, litigious: health insurance, life insurance, car insurance, travel insurance, pet insurance. Cold feet insurance? Body-part insurance? Bruce Springsteen's voice is insured. Mick Jagger has his middle finger insured. Heidi Klum has her legs insured for 40 million dollars, you know, just in case.
We want back up plans and guarantees. So, we work hard day and night, sacrificing our relationships. We give, when the market is booming. We help - those who are like us. We are generous to a fault - toward our own children. Then, just in case, we enforce rules to protect our blessings without considering those for whom the rules exclude from God's blessing. For all of this, we find our way often leads us far, far from God's way. God's way of justice and mercy, peace and love.
Yet, we are a people of hope. We can't help but perceive the world as it should be, instead of how it really is. The problem is, things are a mess right now! Clearly, the chasm between what we desire, and what we are capable of is too big. [Barth, Karl. 163.] Quips on a t-shirt aren't going to save us. If we bite our tongues in the face of human suffering, we are complicit. We are a day too late if we are praying for victims. Handing over our leftovers will not end human suffering. Dividing and shouting and blaming certainly won't reconcile the world.
We all know the Kingdom of Heaven does not operate by way of the status quo! Who said, "Blessed are the poor for yours are the Kingdom of God"? Who turned two loaves and five fish into a feast? Who shouted from the cross, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do?" As much as we try, deep down, we know it is impossible to save ourselves. There is no politician, no world leader, no president or candidate, no CEO or marketing campaign. There is no sports team or friend group. There is no boyfriend or girlfriend, or spouse, or pastor or doctor or teacher, who can promise salvation. By the power of Christ's life, death, and resurrection only the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can make the sort of promise that transcends our broken and hurting world.
From Jesus' lips to the Sadducees' ears, the resurrection is not hypothetical. Not that they asked me, but I'd much rather fold Leroy's boxer shorts for an eternity than suffer the hell on earth of marrying seven brothers in a row!
Laundry notwithstanding, we find great comfort in the promises of the resurrection. I'd like to think Alice and Leroy will see one another in the world to come, but we can't pretend to know. According to Jesus, one thing is clear. They will be free and they will be made whole. They will be like children of God amongst the angels, unencumbered by the barriers and constraints of this finite world.
Which means, I have some news for the boys: the hypothetical wife, in their hypothetical story, does not need a hypothetical man or seven to save her! On her behalf I say, "No. Thank. You." to this divinely created order. [Ruether, Rosemary. Sexism and God-Talk, Toward a Feminist Theology. (Boston: Beacon, 1983), 98.] The promise of the resurrection invites no one to quietly suffer beneath the weight of status quo unto death.
If God is the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then God is also the God of Sarah, Hagar, Rachel, Leah, and Rebekah. Each were called, encouraged, and equipped in her own time to keep moving into the future with hope. By grace alone, Christ redeems and calls us to participate in the reconciling work of God's Kingdom, now. Right now. Ours is a God of action. Ours is the still small voice at the mouth of Elijah's cave. Ours is the protector who parts the seas and stills the storms - the father who runs to embrace a son who has finally come home - the healer who cures the blind and exiles the demons - the shepherd who refuses to stop looking for the lost lamb. The risen Lord who stood before Mary on Easter morning - the living God of the resurrection, who crosses a vast abyss to stand with us in full revelation and loves to say, "I AM with you. Now, let's go!"