Love is eternal. Marriage isn’t! (A sermon on Luke 20:27-38)

“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] 28 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. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

I’m not sure if those who chose who designed our lectionary were thinking of Remembrance Day when they chose this reading for today. I’m guessing not.

The passage doesn’t say much about war and peace. It seems to be about an unfortunate woman and her many partners, though a closer inspection suggests that it may be less about the woman than it is about the resurrection of the body, and possibly about a lot of other things too. Even so, I find it a painful passage, as it’s an account of a rather antagonistic dialogue between Jesus and a group of theologians on a subject that many of us are quite sensitive about – namely, marriage.

Some of us are sensitive about marriage because it’s something we associate with a lot of pain. Others are sensitive because the institution of marriage is at the heart of a fiery communal debate at the moment, most especially within the church.

Most of us here will be well aware of the words of our Archbishop at synod a few weeks back where the phrase ‘please leave us’ was applied with regards to certain persons pushing for a particular view of marriage, seen by the Archbishop as being contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures and the church.

You may have also read the press release this week about the splintering of the Anglican church in New Zealand over exactly the same issue. A breakaway Anglican church is being formed there, specifically around this question.

It seems that Christian churches in this country are increasingly defining their identities around this issue. Perhaps the days are coming when denominational labels will be irrelevant in terms of how we position ourselves in the community. Perhaps titles like ‘Anglican’, ‘Catholic’ or ‘Orthodox’ will soon no longer appear on notice-boards, replaced by something indicating the church’s marriage policy.

We’ll have the broad church of Dulwich Hill at one end of the street – blessing both same-sex unions and multi-partner relationships – and the narrow church at the other end – allowing only one-man-one-woman marriages and no divorce! In between we’ll have other variations that people will be invited to choose from, according to their preferences and life circumstances.

I’m not really joking about this, as I’ve been frankly astonished how significant this issue has become for Sydney Anglicans. I didn’t see it coming – the million dollars donated to the ‘no’ campaign last year, and I didn’t anticipate seeing the church rupturing over this issue, especially when we have teachings from Jesus like today’s reading, reminding us that while faith, hope and love are eternal, marriage isn’t.

The Sadducees ask, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her. 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but 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.” (Luke 20: 33-35)

There you have it – love is eternal, marriage isn’t! That doesn’t mean marriage is unimportant, but it’s evidently not designed for eternity, and why not?

‘Why not indeed?’ some of our newly married sisters and brothers might be asking. I remember when I was at Moore College, the then principal told us how, in the early years of his marriage, his wife would quietly cry whenever she heard this passage read. It was evidently just too painful for her to think that their marriage might not be eternal. That was in the early days, he said. His point was that she got over it.

I think that the reason that marriage is not eternal is clear enough from this passage, and I’m not even thinking of the metaphysics of resurrection here.

If you followed the story of the seven brides for seven brothers, with the same woman playing the role of the bride each time, the background to this bizarre story is the law regarding levirate marriages.

It’s all outlined in the book of Leviticus and it’s played out in the book of Ruth too, but the law was basically that if a man died childless, his brother would be required to marry his widow so that she might not remain childless, though the first child born to the woman would be considered the descendent of the deceased brother.

At one level this might seem like a compassionate institution designed to take care of widows, since women owned no property and were seriously at risk if they had no man to look after them. Even so, the institution was really less designed to take care of single women than it was to maintain the male bloodline, as the rule about the first child being the deceased man’s heir makes clear.

In truth, the law of levirate marriage is a very patriarchal institution, found today in only the most patriarchal societies, where the woman is considered nothing but the goods and chattel of her male owner, and where she has no property and no real rights and no way of surviving without some male being appointed to protect her.

I don’t think I’m saying anything radical by suggesting that Biblical Israel was a very patriarchal society, and this is reflected very clearly in the marriage laws, which are a form of property ownership.

This is reflected in the ten commandments, where the commands not to steal and not to commit adultery appear side-by-side, and where the 10th commandment tells us not to covet “our neighbour’s house, nor his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything else that is his” (Exodus 20:10).

You don’t covet your neighbour’s property, and a man’s wife is a part of his property.  So when we hear the story of the poor widow who is passed around between seven men so that each of them can have a go at producing an heir through her, and when Jesus tells us that this sort of marriage won’t be with us for eternity, I say ‘great’!

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. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 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. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:35-38)

As I say, in as much as this story is about marriage, it’s really about something more than marriage. It’s about the bodily resurrection of the dead, so let me focus the rest of my time today on that topic.

These Sadducees, we are told, don’t believe in the resurrection of the body after death. Of course they don’t. How many people do? I’m not going to attempt any embarrassing survey today by asking people to raise their hands if they really do believe in the physical resurrection of the body after death, but I doubt if I’d get a 100% show of hands in our church or in any church across our city.

We are modern, 21st century people. We don’t believe in bodies coming back to life after death, except in zombie movies, and we’re pretty sure that the Kingdom of Heaven is not supposed to look like a scene from any of those movies anyway.

I think the reality is that most of the church cashed out on belief in the resurrection of the body years ago and substituted for it a belief in the immortality of the soul, which is a distinctively Greek metaphysical position historically, but which is a lot easier to integrate with a western 21st century scientific mindset.

If you believe in the immortality of the soul, you believe that people are made up of both bodies and souls as two distinct entities, and that at death these two are separated, with the body going down into the earth and the soul rising up to its proper spiritual home.

Perhaps you were brought up believing that this was the Christian understanding of life after death. It’s not. The New Testament writers believed that our bodies would be raised just as Jesus’ body was raised – raised in the flesh (though not necessarily in exactly the same sort of flesh). Either way, it’s not a belief that gels easily with any contemporary scientific paradigm, so who can believe it? Well … for the record, I do believe it, but that may be because I’m a great disbeliever when it comes to science.

I don’t admit that I don’t believe in science very often, as people tend to look at me like I’m some sort of flat-earth society luddite. In truth, I don’t mean to take issue with any specific scientific discovery or medical breakthrough. My issue has always been with scientific method itself, and science is first and foremost a method, rather than any body of knowledge.

Without wasting too much time on this, let me suggest that human beings recognised that things that go up tend to come down long before Sir Isaac Newton turned that observation into a ‘law of gravity’. Newton didn’t discover anything new about the world, but what he did do was introduce the word ‘must’ into our perception of the way things work. Newton went beyond noticing that things going up come down. He introduced necessity into the equation. Things come down because they must!

Some of you will have read the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume’s, classic work, “A Treatise of Human Nature” in which he takes apart this concept of ‘laws of nature’ and the concept of ‘causation’ which are at the heart of scientific method.

Science works on the idea that if we run a thousand tests on throwing a ball into the air, with all the other variables such as air pressure and ball integrity unchanged, and if the ball comes down every time, we are justified in saying that it must come down.

Why must it come down? Who says it has to work that way the next time we do it? Hume says that we import the idea of necessity into our analysis of these events because it’s how our minds work. Our brains seem wired to believe that if something always seems to work in a particular way that it will always work that way. The thing going up will always come down. The sun will always rise and the future will always be a repeat of the past. There is nothing new under the sun. Jesus says ‘rubbish’!

At the very heart of the Gospel message is the announcement that things are going to change. The future is not going to resemble the past. Indeed, everything is going to be turned upside-down. The first are going to be last and the last are going to be first. Nothing is going to be left as it was!

“Behold, I make all things new”. That’s the great promise Jesus gives us at the end of the book of Revelation (21:5) and it is a great promise, and it is Good News, so long as we’re not too invested in the current order of things. Yes, if we’ve been busily building up our empires on earth, the Good News is probably not going to sound too good to us. We’ll do best to try to keep everything going exactly as it is for as long as possible, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and with everything inevitably ending in entropy and death.

What Jesus promises is a new world coming – one that does not resemble the old world in a thousand fantastic ways. The lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. Broken hearts are mended and there will be no more wars. Yes, for better or worse, marriage is no more, but death itself is going to be defeated, and those who have died ahead of time will experience a bodily resurrection! Does that all sound impossible? Yes, if you assume that tomorrow has to resemble yesterday, then none of it is remotely possible, but if you’re open to the possibility of something truly new taking place in our world, maybe you’ll be ready when it happens!

If you’ve ever seen images from the excavations of some of the great pyramids, one of the appalling things revealed there was how most of Pharaoh’s household were buried along with him (buried alive, presumably) so that when the resurrection took place on the other side of death, each of his servants would be ready to resume their rightful place and continue serving him. Pharaoh had all his soldiers and his cooks and his women and all his other attendants ready to get back to work in the afterlife, with the assumption being that if you were Pharaoh’s property in this life, so things would continue on unchanged in the next.

That’s the same mentality the Sadducees had when they asked Jesus about the widow – ‘and whose property will she be in the resurrection of the dead’. The answer is that she’s not going to be anybody’s property because everything is about to change! A new day is dawning. The Kingdom is coming. The world to come is not going to resemble the world that has been. Repent, and get on board!

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, November 10 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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