22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (10 November 2019)
JoAnn A. Post
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus 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.”
“I take you to be my spouse, from this day forward, to join with you and share all that is to come; and I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.” (ELW marriage vows)
These are the simplest, most straight-forward wedding vows offered in our wedding liturgy. Another option offers language about “richer and poorer, in sickness and in health.” Yet another suggests that we “forgive as we have been forgiven.”
Since the long-passed OK Boomer days of church weddings with a common liturgy, weddings have become completely customized, tailored to the needs and desires of each couple. Invitations. Events. Venues. Menus. Officiants. Rituals. Play lists. No wedding is like any other. In keeping with this personalization of the rite, rather than borrowing vows, words crafted and tested over centuries, couples like to write their own. Confidentially, I discourage the practice. Because it is harder than one might think.
We struggle to send a text message without unfortunate errors or inappropriate emojis. Imagine how hard it would be to find words of such gravity and depth that they will last a lifetime. Emoji-free. It’s not easy.
Some hand-crafted vows are too intimate, better whispered on a moonlit beach than shouted in front of Grandma. “When I look into your sultry eyes . . .“ Yeah, no.
Others are far too intricate, attempting to address every possible circumstance that might befall them. “When you stay up late working, I will keep your side of the bed warm. When the dog barfs on the rug, I’ll clean it up.” Take it from me—those are the easy parts.
And most custom-crafted wedding vows are dishonest. Not by design, but out of denial. We want to use words like “forever” and “always.” But we don’t marry forever, or for always. Because, sad but true, even the most loving, most faithful marriage ends. We are married only until death parts us.
“Do we have to say that part? The death part?” couples often ask. “I don’t want to think about dying on my wedding day.”
Jesus has arrived. After chapters and chapters of traveling to Jerusalem, he has arrived, standing inside its storied walls. As we would have expected, his reputation got there before him, and so far he’s been alternately adored like a rock star and splattered with questions like paint balls.
“By whose authority do you do these things?”
“Is it lawful to pay taxes or not?”
And today: “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”
None of these was a real question. They just wanted Jesus to say something stupid on a hot mic.
When the Sadducees (disingenuously because they didn’t believe in a resurrection of the dead) challenged Jesus’ understanding of the resurrection, they did so with a troubling nuptial “what if.” In a discarded first draft of the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” the Sadducees sing a song of a solitary bride, serially, tragically married to seven brothers.
A pastoral colleague wondered, darkly, about this bride, widowed seven times—might she have had access to arsenic? It’s been done. And those short-lived brothers. What in the world was floating in their gene pool that they lasted about as long as mayflies?
We’ll never know. And it doesn’t matter. Because it’s only a story. And an outrageous test of Jesus’ eschatology—his belief about what happens after we die. It’s also a perennial question, speculation about life after death, a question which Jesus twists to fit his answer.
In a bizarre riff on Moses and the burning bush (EX 3), Jesus makes the claim that the dead to us are not dead to God. Because those whom God deems worthy “cannot die anymore.” After all, Jesus points out, “Pay attention to God’s grammar. In speaking of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, long-dead patriarchs, Moses used a present tense verb: is. God IS their God, not WAS. So, ipso facto they must be alive.”
What? The Sadducees looked at him sideways. Is? Was? Dead? Alive? Perhaps Jesus was imagining a famous quote from an impeachment trial that would take place two centuries later, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” (President Bill Clinton, September 1998)
Is their God? Was their God? How would you diagram that sentence? Where’s my seventh-grade English teacher, Miss Shroyer, when you need her?
Jesus just shrugged and went back to his teaching.
For him, their effrontery was just another day at the office.
But for us? Jesus had us at “Those who belong to this age marry. But in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
Remember “until death parts us?” We didn’t just make that up. Marriage ends. Instead of imagining that the life to come will simply be a better version of this one, Marriage 2.0, Jesus pursues a different image of life after this life ends: “They will be like angels, children of God, children of the resurrection.”
All the images we have of life after this life ends are just that. Images. Whether from Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives and will stand upon the earth,” (Job 19.23-27a) or from the Thessalonian correspondence, “you will be the first fruits for salvation,” (2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17), we can only speculate, only imagine. Even scripture offers no single image, no definitive answer, no irrefutable evidence. How long will we, like John Brown’s body, be a-mouldering in the grave? Who will be there, in that life to come, and what will they look like? Will all wounds be healed? Will all relationships be mended? Will all sorrows be forgotten? Will we recognize one another? Will we get to choose between a harp and a harmonica? Will we care?
The shock in Jesus’ flippant answer to the Sadducees is not that God parses sentences differently than we might—is, was, dead, alive—but that all marriages end. For the happily married or partnered, that is an outrage. How dare Jesus tell me I won’t be married to my beloved into eternity! But for those for whom marriage is a burden, a struggle, a disappointment, the fact all marriages end is a relief. Tied to that ball and chain for all eternity? No thanks.
Here’s the thing. We can’t have it both ways. Either all relationships linger into eternity, or all relationships end. We can’t assume that the relationships we cherish will endure forever, and those we despise will end. Eternity belongs to God, it is not ours to design.
My Dad died 18 months before Mom did, and every day of those 18 months she lived without him was torture. “I just want to see his face,” she cried almost daily. When my Mom died in July, my husband and I were in the car, racing to see her, but we didn’t get there in time. Instead, when my brother called with the news, I whispered through my tears, “Say ‘hi’ to Dad for me.” Will it be like that in the next life? That we just pick up where we left off?
I once served in a community with an enormous township cemetery on the edge of town. The richest farmer in town, and the most self-important, purchased the eastern-most plot in the cemetery. Believing that Jesus will return from the east, like the rising sun, he wanted to ensure he would be the first in our town to be up and at ‘em when the trumpets sounded. When, years after he died, the cemetery was expanded, his family had his body exhumed and moved to the new eastern-most plot. They knew he wanted to be the first to see Jesus on resurrection day. Will it be like that? Obnoxious for eternity?
But here’s the honest truth. All these things we cherish and know—relationships, possessions, structures, even the church—are temporary. They give order to our lives in this life. But like our bodies that eventually return to the dust from which they were made, all those structures dissolve. At their best, they offer only an image, an approximation of eternity. But only an image, only an approximation.
The Sadducees’ convoluted question wasn’t a real question; they were just messing with Jesus. But their “what if” provided Jesus an opportunity to speak of limits. Soon to face his own death, Jesus had limits on his mind. The limits of life. The limits of relationships and structures. The limits of knowledge. The limits of our imagination. And the limitlessness of God and God’s love.
“In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” they wondered.
We know the answer to that. We are married only until death parts us. But Jesus has more to say.
“In the resurrection,” Jesus responded, “there will not be marriage. It will no longer be necessary. But there will be life. For to God, even the dead are alive.”
And to that life, there is no limit.