There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
One of the few clear memories I have of being lectured to by our current Archbishop while in seminary was when he spoke on this passage. He began by saying that early on in his marriage, whenever his wife Christine read this passage, informing us that there was no marriage in Heaven, she would get a little teary. Nowadays, he said, she doesn’t have that reaction.
Isn’t it odd that the only distinct thing Jesus ever told us about the world to come is that there is no marriage there? And what does this mean? Free sex? That’s where the minds of the less regenerate amongst us no doubt go. No sex? That’s what we were taught in youth group. And yet the passage leaves those questions entirely unanswered because it’s not really about sex, and it’s not even about marriage really, but about resurrection.
The Sadducees come to Jesus with a story of 7 brides for seven brothers, with the one woman playing the part of the bride each time. There are seven weddings followed by seven funerals, and then the question: ‘whose wife will she be at the resurrection of the dead?’ But this is not the serious question any more than this woman is a serious case study, taken from the pastoral archives of the Sadducees. Their real question – the question behind their question – is whether or not there is a resurrection of the body after death, and this story is what we call in logic a‘reductio ad absurdum’
A reductio ad absurdum is a device used in philosophical arguments to prove the untenable nature of your opponents position by showing that if he or she were correct then it would lead to an absurd conclusion.
Time travel is not possible. Why not? Because if it were possible to travel back in time, then it would be possible for you to go back and meet yourself at an earlier stage of your life (which would be unimaginably embarrassing). No. The absurdity of the idea that you could meet yourself in another time and still be yourself at the same time shows clearly that the whole idea of time travel is ludicrous. This is a reductio ad absurdum, or so the argument goes.
It’s the same scenario here. The Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection of the body after death. It is an absurd idea – that the body can somehow be reconstituted on the other side of the grave. If that were so, what would happen to those who’ve been cremated? How would they get their bodies back? And what about those unfortunate souls who met their demise through being devoured by cannibals? (considered a real problem a generation or so ago). And what about the woman with 7 husbands? Whose wife would she be? No. The whole idea of a bodily resurrection is ridiculous! Ain’t that right, Jesus?
It’s curious, when you look at the way Jesus responds to people’s questions. Often people came to Him with straightforward questions – ‘do we pay taxes to Caesar?‘, ‘who is my neighbour?’ – and Jesus mucked around with them in response, giving very ambiguous answers or saying, ‘let me tell you a story…’
Here we’ve got the opposite scenario. These people are mucking around with Jesus – ‘let us tell you a story, Jesus’ – and yet Jesus who gives them a very straightforward response: ‘are you really asking about life after death? Yes, there is life after death. Is there a resurrection of the body? Yes, there is a resurrection of the body. Do you really want to know whom this woman would be married to? She won’t be married to anybody. Any more questions?’
It is an unusual scenario for the gospels. What makes it different, I think, is that in most of these gospel scenarios, people come to Jesus asking what appear to be genuine questions, but they are really trick questions – ‘should we pay taxes to Caesar?’ Here, on the contrary, what appears to be a trick question is in fact a genuine question – ‘is there a resurrection of the dead?’ And so Jesus gives a genuine and straightforward response – ‘yes there is’.
People have always found it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, and for the same reason that the Sadducees found it hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, and I think that’s basically because we naturally assume that what is to come will be a continuation of what is now. That assumption, I’d suggest, is at the heart of the problem of the Sadducees.
Of course, if you understand the nature of Old Testament marriages, you’ll realise that the question about the woman is technically one about property rights. This woman had been the property of seven different men. Whose property will she be at the resurrection of the dead? Jesus says she won’t be anybody’s property! Why not? Because things are going to be a whole lot different then.
The assumption is that what is to come will be some sort of continuation of what is now, and this is a false assumption, Jesus says. And yet I think we’ll find that most religious beliefs about the after-life do see a fair degree of continuity between what is now and what will be.
If you’ve ever seen the tombs of any of the great Pharaohs, you’ll know that Pharaoh’s household and servants were buried with him when he died, so that when life started up again on the other side everybody would be able to resume their respective roles as cooks and cleaners and concubines. For what was, is now, and shall be evermore!
If you are king in this life, you can expect to move on as a king into the next. If a slave, then a slave, or perhaps, if you lived well in this life, you may move up a station. That’s what makes the whole idea of reincarnation such an attractive concept. It’s all logically connected. What you do in this life determines precisely the role you assume in the next, and if you owned property in this life – be it a cow or a house or a woman – then, with any luck you’ll find that property waiting for you (in some form or another) on the other side.
Jesus challenges all of this. The new world coming, he tells us, is not like this world at all. It’s not just a continuation of life as we know it, with all its structures and traditions intact. On the contrary, in coming Kingdom, everything is turned upside-down, and the first will be last and the last, first! Pain and injustice will be wiped away and even death itself will be abolished! All the things that degrade and demean and destroy our world will be gone, though notably, some of our most precious God-given human institutions, such as marriage and the family, will be going out right along with them!
We have trouble with this because we have limited imaginations. We can only think about the future in a way that is based upon our experience of the present and past. That’s why we find it much easier to believe in the immortality of the soul than we do in the resurrection of the body. And indeed, throughout Christian history, priests and prelates alike have substituted the teaching of the immortality of the soul for the teaching of the resurrection of the body, presumably because it is so much easier to swallow!
The idea that there is an invisible part of us that will go up when the rest of our earthly body goes down, is intuitively attractive and is consistent with our experience. We do sense that there is a dimension to each of us that is unseen. It makes sense to identify this with the real self – the immortal soul that even death cannot destroy.
The only problem with this theory is that Jesus didn’t support it! Socrates and Plato did, but Jesus proclaimed the less intuitively compelling assertion that the body itself would be resurrected on the last day, and of course He was happy to illustrate the point by being bodily resurrected Himself!
Be confronted by this! Face the Gospel truth in all its illogical simplicity! This is not easy to accept – that strange things await us in the future: life without marriage and family, to be enjoyed in a resurrection body! Yet this is the Kingdom of God as Jesus proclaims it – a world that is full of justice and love, yet where our most treasured human relationships have been somehow dissolved, or at the very least transformed?
Surely this is not necessary, Jesus! Surely just a few cosmetic changes to the human personality and a bit of fine-tuning in our governments should be enough to bring our society up to scratch? Surely, if we can vote out the current Prime Minister and put someone decent in his place, the little guy will start to get a fair deal and things will get a whole lot better.
So speaks the well-healed church of the middle-class Australia, untouched by the ravages of war and shielded from the level of human misery experienced by so many citizens of this planet! No! Look around our world. Look at the underside of our own society! Jesus sees what we cannot see – that there are injustices in our world that are so massive and heartaches that run so deep – that nothing short of an entire recreation of the cosmos is required in order to fix them!
‘Behold I am making all things new’ the voice booms from Heaven (in Revelation 21:5) The whole of the heavens and the whole of the earth are about to be recreated, we are told. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and the world as we know it is about to be thoroughly and comprehensively upgraded! This is the Gospel of Jesus. This is the good news, and good news it is, for it is a promise of ultimate healing and peace for every creature in the cosmos!
‘Behold I am making all things new’. Everything is about to change. Pain and injustice are about to be wiped away. The earth is going to be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Death itself is going to be abolished, and marriage and family are going out along with it! Like it or lump it, nothing is going to be like what it used to be, and if we are going to follow Jesus then we had better start adjusting our lives accordingly.
I suspect that this is a problem for most of us white, middle-class, land-owning persons who live in a lucky country under no immediate threat of war, pestilence or famine. We envisage the Kingdom of God as being something a lot like what we are experiencing now, but a little more widespread and with a few improvements. Adolph Hitler, his cronies, and the guy who side-swiped my car are not going to be there, so there won’t be any more lying or stealing. Indeed, everyone will respect everybody else’s privacy and property rights!
Jesus says ‘No, no, no! The Kingdom that is coming will be so unlike anything you experience now that you will barely recognise yourself. The whole world is going to be recreated, and the body is going to be recreated, and we’re all going to relate to each other in entirely new and powerful ways, and if you want to get on board with this then you had better start to live a life that reflects your alignment with this radical new world to come.’
This makes following Jesus a bit like learning to speak Hungarian!
I’m told most European languages are part of the same family of languages. We are familiar with the Romance languages: French, Spanish, and Italian, and the Slavic languages: Russian, Czech, Slovakian, Serbo-Croatian etc. We know the Germanic languages: Norwegian, German, Swedish, Danish, and English. But Hungarian apparently stands alone, related only to Finnish! And so it has been suggested that we will speak Hungarian in the Kingdom because it is so ‘new’ (and because it will no doubt take an eternity to learn).
There is a new world coming, and if we are going to live for Jesus, then we have got to live the life of that new world. And I know we have to keep one foot planted in this world, but we’ve got to have the other foot planted firmly in the world to come. And if that means shedding ourselves of old traditions and old prejudices, bad habits and bad friends, excess wealth and excess property, then so be it. There is a new world coming, and if that means taking on new friends and new family, opening up our homes and opening up our lives, emptying our hearts and emptying our bank accounts, then so be it!
‘Behold I make all things new’ says the Lord. He doesn’t say ‘behold, I am making all things slightly better’ or ‘behold, I am going to make a few improvements’. He says ‘behold I am making all things new’. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the days to come are going to resemble the days that have been. There’s no marriage in heaven you know! The whole of creation – the things that we hate and those things that we love – the whole of creation is about to be recreated. Everything is about to change, says the Lord. The only question is whether we are ready and willing to be changed along with it.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 7th November, 2007.