Luke 20:27-38 Common English Bible (CEB)
27 Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, 28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.” 34 Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy to participate in that age, that is, in the age of the resurrection from the dead, won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. 36 They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection. 37 Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.”
Jesus often found himself in the cross-hairs of contemporary debates. Although he had tangled with Pharisees earlier in Luke’s story, now that he has arrived in Jerusalem, he faces a different group of questioners—Sadducees. When this encounter takes place, Jesus has already entered the city in triumph (Luke 19:28-40). He has cleansed the Temple. He has been facing a variety of questions about his authority. The Sadducees formed one of several Jewish religious parties in first century Palestine. You might call them the religious conservatives, because they sought to protect older theologies, including understandings of the afterlife. They were also aristocratic, who were the source of the priesthood. Their primary rivals at the time of Jesus were the Pharisees, who like Jesus embraced the doctrine of the resurrection.
In this encounter, this group Sadducees try to test Jesus. In fact, they seem eager to mock him. They probably had motive to embarrass him, since Jesus had earlier visited the Temple and turned over a few tables and freed some animals. We call this the cleansing of the Temple, but the priests and their allies among the Sadducees would have been rather irate at the way this upstart from Galilee messed with their Temple. So, why not ask a question that could embarrass. That had to do with marriage and resurrection.
The question they posed was this. Given the ancient practice of levirate marriage, which required that if a man died without leaving an heir, it was up to his younger brothers to fulfill that obligation by marrying his widow and hopefully producing a child, what would happen if none of seven brothers provided an heir. Who would the wife belong to in the resurrection. The point of levirate marriage was the eternal value of one’s legacy—that is one’s male line (in a patrilineal society). Things could get messy as is seen in the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38).
We no longer practice levirate marriage, but many of the concerns that gave birth to that practice remain with us. We seem to have a need to perpetuate the family tree. My father, for instance, was quite interested in our family’s ancestry. He was also concerned about his legacy. He had produced two sons, but what might happen after that. He was pleased when Cheryl and I produced a male child. For at least one more generation the Cornwall name would continue. Of course, my cousin David, the son of my father’s older brother, also produced a male heir. I don’t know if my uncle’s line has continued beyond David’s son, and as for my father’s, well only time will tell. Legacies are important, except that Jesus doesn’t agree.
So, the question posed to Jesus, a question meant to show the ridiculous nature of the doctrine of resurrection, concerned the status of a wife given two seven brothers through levirate marriage. In the resurrection (if there’s such a thing), who did she belong to if no child was ever produced? That seemed like an unanswerable question, except that Jesus turned the question on its head. What if in the resurrection there isn’t marriage and family? If that’s true, then the question of who one belongs to is a moot point. It doesn’t matter if there is no marriage or giving in marriage in the heavenly realm. In the next life, we’ll all be like angels!
Point well taken, Jesus wins the argument. Resurrection still stands. But, what about family values. How does Jesus’ answer affect the way we view marriage and family? It is common in weddings to pledge one’s covenant loyalty to the other “until death do us part.” That would seem to suggest that we understand the bond to hold as long as we “both shall live.” As for the next life, who knows? We say the words, but as life goes on and family takes hold, the hope emerges that this bond forged in life will continue in the next life. When we gather at funerals we envision being reconnected with our loved ones. We picture taking up where things were left off. Second marriages and blended families don’t factor into the equation. We don’t worry about the intricacies; we just want to take up life again. That is one of the reasons why Mormon theology of marriage consecrated in the Temples is so attractive. It also answers the question of to whom one is married in the resurrection. It’s the one to whom one is sealed in the Temple, and as far as I know that can take place only once. Alas, for the rest of us, we don’t have the theological legacy to stand on. What we have is this message from Jesus.
I take up this passage in my book Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016). I made this passage the concluding chapter in the book, which I titled “Beyond Marriage and Family.” I address the question of security. If you have security in this life, as the members of the Sadducees party like had, then there’s less need for an afterlife. Having those heirs. That’s good enough. But, if you don’t feel secure in this life, then perhaps the next will provide it.
In our modern context questions raised about the resurrection are different from the first century. They’re mostly intellectual ones. Since we can’t prove the existence of an afterlife, then why bother with believing in one. If we do believe in the resurrection, the question of to whom we’re married in heaven probably doesn’t even come to mind. Yet, at least on an emotional level, a good majority of Christians expect to take up life as usual in the heavenly realm. We want to believe we’ll be reunited. But Jesus sets that aside, which is a good reminder that while family is important, it’s not ultimate.
On the matter of resurrection, which is the real issue at hand. Jesus affirms it, and he backs up this affirmation with a bit of scripture. He notes that when God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, God revealed God’s self as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). According to Luke’s Jesus, that meant that these three Patriarchs still lived, and therefore God is the God of the living and not the dead. Death has lost its sting. Death is not victorious, because Jesus has conquered death through the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:54-55). That is what is ultimate!
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).