Texts: Job 19:23-27; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Marriage law has always been about property rights. Although a few things have changed since then (like the fact that women can inherit property), marriage in our culture is still fundamentally about determining who has a right to what property in the event of a death or divorce. The Sadducees’ question might seem like it’s about a really complicated love octagon, but it’s really all about property rights: who has the right to whose property, and who has the right to father children with the woman to pass along his property. In other words, it’s all about stuff that doesn’t matter.
Jesus points out the fundamental irony in the Sadducees’ scenario: that all these laws are written with death in mind. It’s all about providing for a woman after her husband’s death, or about making sure a man has heirs to pass along his stuff to when he dies. After the resurrection there is no more death—the laws are superfluous! That’s why marriage isn’t a thing after the resurrection: there’s no need for it.
This made the issue of parentage very important. In a time before paternity tests, it was very easy to figure out who someone’s mother was; but knowing a person’s father was a complete act of trust. Marriage was a way of formalizing that trust to ensure that man’s children were his own and that he would live on through them. This was another reason why levirate marriage was so important: it was away for family to ensure that a dead man could still achieve eternal life through offspring who shared his blood.
Once again, after the resurrection, this becomes a moot point: when life itself is eternal, there is no longer any need to live on through your children, and therefore no need for marriage to ensure that those children are yours.
What is really interesting about this gospel story is not the historical or legal background, but what Jesus is saying about the life we have available to us now. As he takes apart the Sadducees’ scenario, he is basically saying that when death is no longer something we need to account for, things work differently. Think about that for a moment: how much of what we do is in some way tied to the fact that we are all eventually going to grow old and die?
As I already said, marriage is about making sure our property is protected in the event of death, but even from a romantic perspective, marriage is “until death do us part;” what if death never doth us part? Most laws are intended to keep us safe, often from one another. They are written to protect us from early death, or from deprivation of resources like wealth or safety, which might lead to death. We avoid doing things that are dangerous because we are afraid of being hurt or killed. We put away money for retirement to sustain us in our old age. Sometimes we talk about the “bucket list:” that list of things you want to do or experience before you die. The idea is that you should get to them before we die. What sorts of things are on your ‘bucket list?’ What is it that keeps you from doing them? How would life be different if death were no longer a concern?
Jesus points out in this story that rules written for a world in which death is inevitable are meaningless in a world in which death is obsolete; they’re like punch cards in the age of smartphones: most people don’t even know what they are, and those who do mostly find them quaint or curious. Resurrection changes the rules because it changes us. There is no longer a need to fear the consequences of doing something dangerous, no longer a requirement to figure out what belongs to whom—or who belongs to whom.
The woman in the story is suddenly freed from being a baby-factory for the seven brothers and becomes her own person with her own agency. The men, too, are freed from their need to provide for a legacy for their dead brother or themselves to ensure their own survival. To be free of the fear of death changes them: changes what they do, what they believe, who they are. What will they do from here? The story teases at a world of possibilities.
And that possibility is where the story meets us. Imagine what life would be like if we were able to live—even just a little bit—in that state of being free from the fear of death. What would we be free to do? What chances would you take, or what passions would you pursue?
The way Christians often talk about the afterlife make it seem like some sort of reward for good behavior or some well-earned and just-deserved rest from the chaos of life as we know it. In this story, Jesus suggests that it is neither; instead it is a great permission. When death becomes something temporary, nothing more than a pause in the action before the next phase, we suddenly have a world of possibilities open to us—possibilities that before were too unwise, too risky, too naïve.
The promise of eternal life in a world where peace and justice reign, where all will be fed and comforted is not an opiate with which to drug ourselves while we wait for this world to burn itself out. It is the promise of the way life can be for us right now, today. Jesus has already shown us what waits for us after we have been sealed in our tombs. With that in mind, why in God’s name would we wait until after we die to live like death didn’t have a hold on us?
While the world and the people in it are tearing themselves apart, this is what God is doing: bringing life and immortality to light. We have already been set free from death by Jesus’ baptism, and he is at work in us every day raising us to that new life. Every day, the Holy Spirit is drowning the old sinner in each of us, the one that needs those punch-card rules to keep us safe and order our lives, and raising up a new being who is as free from those rules as we are from the fear of death that creates them. While it’s true that we are still waiting for the final resurrection, Jesus reminds us today that this doesn’t need to stop us from experiencing abundant life now. What’s the worst that could happen: that we might die? Jesus already has that covered.
Luke’s story today is an invitation to us to change our perspective. God is God not of the dead, but of the living. The story invites us to stop seeing through the eyes of the dead, looking at the world through the lens of the laws, logic and limitations of the present. Instead, we are invited to remember that in God, we are all alive. We can start viewing the world through the lens of hope, life and justice. Seeing the world like this is to look through God’s eyes.