by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 20:27-38
A little pun helps me remember the difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, two branches of Judaism in Jesus’s day: The Sadducees were sad, you see, because they did not believe in resurrection. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the dead—as did Jesus. The Sadducees did not. In this story, the Sadducees were hoping to make the idea of an afterlife seem ridiculous to gain points for their team and undermine Jesus’s popularity, so they sketched out an improbable, hypothetical case:
Let’s say that a married man dies. His widow then marries his brother, who subsequently dies. The widow marries another brother, who dies. She eventually marries all seven brothers in this family. If there is an afterlife, whose wife will she be when she dies?
This question was posed not long before Jesus was arrested and executed. His time for teaching and healing was nearly over, but even his own disciples had not yet grasped his world-altering way of being. Jesus must have felt dismayed to waste time on stupid questions.
I know. Good teachers and pastors say that there are no stupid questions. I do believe that questioning is a vital spiritual practice. But some questions are diversionary or disingenuous or just plain self-serving. The Sadducees’ question reflects an attitude that life’s unfathomable mysteries can be settled like case law. Maybe they were the kind of folks who ask “Who? What? When? Where? and How?” but seldom “Why?”. Or the kind of people who engage even the big questions with their head, not their heart and expect the ineffable to be explained in sound bites.
How would YOU have answered the Sadducees’ conundrum?
I hope I’d have started by resisting the question’s underlying assumption that the woman who eventually married seven brothers was a mere commodity. “Jesus, which brother gets to claim her as their prize in the afterlife?” is another way of asking the Sadducees’ question. I’m glad that Jesus asserts that in the fullness of God’s reign, no one will be “given” to another, as if a bride is property, as if the male actively marries and the female is passive gift given to him. It’s possible Jesus reframed their question because he refused to accept the premise that a woman is chattel.
But this scenario also exposes the more general problem of imagining eternal life as enduringly desirable. Anyone ever read Tuck Everlasting, a children’s book whose author Natalie Babbitt died this week? This story exposes the potential problem with life everlasting through characters who feel trapped in an idyllic eternity. I’ve tried to picture the popular idea of heaven—a beautiful place without any sorrows. But all the good stuff I’d pile into my flawless eternity would eventually get old. Even chocolate. An existence without sadness would rule out any memories since even joyful memories are tinged with pain. There could be not even the slightest physical discomfort and longing—so you’d never know again the pleasure of a cold cup of water to quench your thirst, the satisfaction of a goal completed or a conflict resolved or an insight gained or a love kindled. I can’t imagine feeling enraptured for very long in a state of having everything and knowing everything–much less an eternity without engaging in something challenging or even different. (Bear in mind, if your existence is already perfect, it cannot be changed and still be perfect, so you’d have to exist in a kind of stasis, pinned like a perfect butterfly under glass.) I’m glad Jesus reframed the Sadducees’question rather than offering some theory about marriage in heaven.
If the Sadduccees were genuinely interested in the question of an afterlife, maybe they’d have asked questions like these: What endures? What does it mean for the life of God to last for eternity? In what sense will I continue within the life of God?
Religion’s answers usually require mystical language. Jesus draws from his religious tradition to explain the dead are “children of the resurrection,” supporting his assertion with the story of Moses and the burning bush. Since Moses “spoke of the Lord as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” then “God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” The Hebrew God was not like the Greco-Roman gods of the underworld, who presided grimly over zombie-like shadowy beings. Jesus says poetically that when the living God disclosed the divine identity to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who had been dead for many years), God was saying they were still alive to God and still alive in the life of God.
That’s as precise as he gets about eternity. But I don’t need a blueprint for heaven to believe that we “are children of resurrection” who are eternally alive “in the life of God.” Because God is love, I can fall trustingly into the endless life of God. It’s enough for me to trust Love with a capital L. That is what is ultimate and enduring.
It’s also helpful to situate this verbal contest between Jesus and the Sadducees in the context of his entire ministry. Although many Christians make life after death the focus of their theology, Jesus barely mentioned it. And with good reason. If Luke’s account is correct that Jesus focused on bringing justice to the downtrodden, then any teachings about life after death might have undermined his aims. Promising the oppressed that justice will eventually come to them after they die has been a tactic to mollify the disempowered and maintain an oppressive status quo. Oppressors have always said, “God ordained your status. So don’t resist the system that exists now. This world may not be fair, but you’ll be treated right when you get to heaven.” John Shelby Spong argues that “the rewards of heaven and punishment of hell,” which have “deeply infected our concepts of eternity,” actually “have nothing to do with life after death, but everything to do with controlling human behaviors in the here and now.”
In contrast, the Jesus presented in Luke was teaching a peaceful installment of justice NOW. Even though he did believe in resurrection, his core message about the realm of God is not a prediction of a future kingdom in the clouds. Jesus said we must engage this world AS IF the just and peaceful realm of God is possible and is already beginning to be a reality–because we will bring it fully into reality through this fundamental shift in our consciousness. At the heart of Jesus’s message was the announcement God’s realm is already glimpsed in freed and changed lives and systems—and ordinary people like us are being called to usher it into its fullness. That’s the good news.
Jesus cared about the plight of real widows and orphans, not about a hypothetical dispute among seven dead brothers over who owns a woman they left childless in a culture where she was then without identity, without economic resources, without a future. Why were Sadducees focused on the dead brothers’ competition when a widow was alive but destined for destitution–until she at last died? Do you see why a question about how seven brothers will eventually divvy up a woman in heaven is at odds with Jesus’s concerns? “God is the God of the living!” Jesus concludes. God’s work is involved with caring for living widows, not dividing dead ones into seven pieces. If you ask the wrong questions, you miss what’s important.
Religion often quibbles about an unknowable heaven to avoid the knowable demands of this earth. Jesus refused to take seriously the soap opera scenario of a woman with seven dead husbands. Instead, he focused on the living and then transported their question to the metaphysical realm: He believed if God self-identifies as the living god, and also as the god of Abraham, that must mean Abraham in some sense is also living. Those who have died are alive to God, in God. After showing concern for those here and now, Jesus shifted the question this way: What are the implications if our God is a living God? What does it mean for us to be fully alive in God? What is the nature of that which we call God?
Understanding the fundamental liveliness and aliveness of the Sacred has important theological and ethical implications, both for the present world we now inhabit, and a future reality about which we can only speculate. In this present life, we can honor and celebrate the holiness and the creative aim of every living thing. Doing so unites us with God’s loving and LIVING purposes. If God is living, then God is a generative, creative power; an ongoing forward movement; the source of abundance and endless variety; a force for change and growth and love.
Good religion aims to enhance life, but behavior-controlling tactics—like the threat of hell—suppress life. Healthy spirituality is about becoming more human and whole, not about gaining advantage, not about men subordinating women, masters owning slaves, straight people demeaning gay people. Besides, as Spong says, if we live our lives “motivated by our desire to gain paradise or avoid eternal punishment, then we have not escaped a basic self-centeredness,” the truest hell. Fear has no place in one’s relationship with God. Love, not domination, is the divine power. The faith of the Christian saints evinces a trust for this life and what stretches out beyond.
The Sadducees’ real question was this: How can we make heaven conform to the rules of this world? They wanted to take an earthly notion of Empire domination up to heaven. But Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is coming to us in order to upend this world’s ways and usher in God’s equality, freedom and generosity. Caesar’s empire—or some future empire of 21st century Western values—would not prevail. Domination is NOT of God. And here is more good news: Death itself has no dominion, no power over us.
I do not know the unknowable. But I have a hope in some kind of eternal unity within the life of that which we call God, and I believe it is marked by love and goodness. I see in the Jesus Story a frame for making meaning of life and death. I see in this world a bias for life and love. Though survival is hard, and cruelty and death are inevitable, LIFE and LOVE are the generative and connective forces in this world. Increasing consciousness and connection is the evolutionary direction.
I trust that Christ’s self-giving love (not selfish power) will have the final say. I find this hope in scripture, Christian tradition, the lives of the saints, and the world around me. Like Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, I think that “after my death, our death, the death of this planet, there will be life” within God which is “realer and bigger than anything I can imagine.”
God of life and love, may we live each day as a little eternity, with trust and in your love. Amen