Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 20:27-38
It is a queer tale, odd, to our modern ears, this business of seven brothers marrying the same woman one after the other as each died and left her a widow, each trying to leave a son to carry on the name of the first brother in the line who died childless. It is a story based in a society so removed, so alien to us that it makes little sense.
In modern western culture, where married women often do not change their surname and where single parents are not an oddity, we cannot fathom these ancient thought processes. We don’t get the idea that producing an heir, even a surrogate one, was more important than the wishes of the brothers or the rights of the woman. The men and the woman were all, albeit unequally, bound by an archaic set of social laws that we cannot fathom.
These archaic religious practices weren’t even the point of the story. Luke only uses the doozy of a riddle posed by the Sadducees as the setup for Jesus’ answer. Still, it’s worth a little reflection.
The Sadducees did not believe in eternal life nor any resurrection of the dead. This life is it, and when it is over, it’s over, a view that did not lament mortality so much as hold our brief lives all the more precious. They weren’t poking sticks at the notion of a string of brothers and one beleaguered woman following an odd bit of Mosaic law. They were trying to debate the notion of resurrection, the idea of life continuing beyond this life, by holding it up to ridicule.
We might struggle with both parts—the riddle and the answer.
We view the ancient religious marriages as peculiar, serving an end that we no longer understand, treating a woman as inheritable as any family heirloom—cherished, maybe, but property nonetheless. We might stop to view it from the perspective of the Garden of Eden.
After all, there are other views of the creation narratives of Genesis than the explanations of mainstream Christianity. One alternative to seeing the expulsion from Eden as punishment is to view this first exile experience, and the prescription of child bearing and work, as representing a passage into the adulthood of humanity, the realization of mortality, and the appreciation of the only two things that remain after us—our work and our children.
From that perspective, we might appreciate the ancient idea of a man fathering a surrogate son for a brother who died childless. Dying childless was to die indeed. A child meant that one’s life continued generation by generation. (There was also the transfer of property to consider, though the question at hand is life, not the deed to the farm.)
The answer Jesus gave should do more than enlighten us about the afterlife. He didn’t offer it, and Luke did not bother to record it, just so that we could dangle his words in the face of modern Sadducees: see, Jesus said there is an afterlife.
For that matter, I don’t think it is ever safe to use the words of Jesus to prove what we believe. There are lots of reasons, but the best one is this—we’re probably wrong, as wrong as the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Romans, the disciples, as wrong as every single group that comes along in the gospels. It’s what all of them had in common—being wrong. It is likely the single thing that all of us have in common.
Christians, particularly American evangelicals, like to be right. Right about gay rights, human rights, pro life rights. Right about who can marry whom. Right about sex, drugs, alcohol, music, art, literature, movies, and political candidates. As right as the Sadducees, who were very good people. As right as the Pharisees, who were also very good people. More right than most of the disciples, who were fairly good people most of the time.
At the end of this gospel passage, Jesus says something interesting about God and about people who died in ages past. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.”
To God all of them are alive. Not right. Not voting for the right candidate, opposing the right (or wrong) positions. Alive. Which suggests there is something more important that being right: being alive in God is the point.
As I write these words, I see a tree, the leaves slowly turning from green to orange and brown for autumn. It is not bothering to sort out the people around it, the birds, or the squirrels. It is simply alive, alive to them, alive to the sunlight, alive to the shifting seasons, and it is alive to God. It is not giving a great deal of thought to the future spring, that final spring, when no green leaves will emerge from its branches.
The voices on our televisions, computer screens, radios, churches, government, grocery stores, and even in our heads can tell us a great deal about who is right (usually us) and more about who is wrong (usually them.) That tree can tell us more about being alive to God.
If we get the part about being alive to God, the rest will take care of itself.