November 10, 2013
William G. Carter
Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but 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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Whose wife will she be? Multiple marriages and the life to come: whose wife will she be?
There once was a woman who outlived seven husbands. She was strong, apparently they were faint of heart. She outlasted every one of them, and at the end, which one was hers?
It’s an odd little scenario, proposed by Jewish religious leaders. They hurl it at Jesus, trying to make him stumble so they can pounce. They draw on an old law from Moses, tucked away in a dark corner of the Old Testament. Moses taught, “If a married man dies but had no son, his brother shall marry the widow and get her pregnant so the family name shall continue” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).
It was called “Levirate marriage” and we don’t know how many times the rule was invoked. The brother was obligated to do this duty, regardless of how appealing his sister-in-law was, and she was required to go through with it, regardless of how she felt about the brother-in-law who became her husband.
And it wasn’t simply a redneck wedding. There was an element of justice here. Widows had no rights in ancient Jewish society. Somebody needed to protect and provide for them. Not only that; if there were male children, they could inherit the family property someday. The line could continue . . . although it continued in a most unusual way.
Now, the brother didn’t have to do this. He could refuse. If he did, the widow could go to the village elders to complain. If the brother still refused, the widow would spit in his general direction, take one of his shoes, and he would forever be known as “The Man Without a Shoe” (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).
So they go to Jesus, assuming there is no resurrection, no life to come, and these unromantic fundamentalists say, “There once was a widow who wore out seven brothers. Whose wife is she going to be in heaven?” Some have said that’s like asking, “Whose farm animal will she be?” As for me, I wonder about those seven disposable husbands.
It is an odd scenario, to say the least. It comes from the Sadducees, a sect of leaders in the Jerusalem Temple. They were wealthy and supported by the rich, as opposed to the Pharisees who had broad support from the common people. The Sadducees would have been very concerned about the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. They were also united in declaring there is no such thing as a resurrection. You only get one time around the block. This is it. When it’s over, it’s over.
After entering Jerusalem in humility, this is their test for Jesus: in your so-called life to come, whose wife will she be?
I don’t know about you, but I am inclined to dismiss that as a silly question. Like the high school science teacher who asked on a test, “Name three things on the earth that do not exist on the moon.” One student wrote, “Bagels, minivans, and the Dallas Cowboys.” The teacher had to mark him correct.
Whose wife will she be in the afterlife? We could dismiss that as a small question, just as Jesus does. Heaven is so much grander, so much greater than anything we can imagine. But then, I recall a couple of vignettes.
Sixteen years ago, when I was going through a divorce, I was talking to a young woman at a wedding reception. We were admiring the bride and the groom and enjoying the party. Somebody at the table asked how I was surviving the divorce. I began to talk, and this woman grew very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that I asked if I was making her uncomfortable. "No," she said, "it's just that I'm a Mormon."
I wasn't sure how that fit. So I asked her. She said, "Well, for us Mormons, marriage is forever." There was an embarrassed silence at the table. Finally I decided to break it; "Listen," I said, "whenever two people get married, they always hope it will last forever." The young woman said, "We Mormons believe that marriage does last forever, regardless of how it works out during your earthly life. If you marry somebody on earth, you are bound to them in eternity. You can't ever break it off."
All of us turned and looked at her. Somebody said, "How do you know you're not marrying the wrong person?" And she said, "I guess you need to be very careful."
It took me a while to shake that off. She and her ilk didn’t believe that marriages come to an end. I happen to believe that they do. The marital promise is conditioned by the words "til death do us part."
Remember what we say at a wedding? Our marriage service declares that "husband and wife belong to one another, and, with affection and tenderness, freely give themselves to one another." This, of course, is the hope and aim of Christian marriage. Marriage is a covenant partnership that gets people through the dark. Those who have been married know that marriage is a school for forgiveness; every day can offer a practice exam. At its best, marriage gives a soul mate who nurtures your faith, calls forth your gifts, and challenges you to grow into full maturity. Marriage is a gift from God, and like every other gift from God, it is to be cherished and enjoyed.
But every marriage ends, just as every life ends. Some marriages end with death. Other marriages end with another kind of death. Either way, all of us know about death. The big question is whether there will be a resurrection.
The Sadducees believed, “Nope. This is all you get. One trip around the track and you are done. This is it.”
A few days before his death, Jesus disagrees with them. His disagreement is rooted in the nature of God. God is eternal. God is the giver of life. Wherever God is, there is life. Jesus looked at the Sadducees and said, “As long as you’re throwing around the words of Moses, take a moment to remember how God came to Moses in the burning bush. The Eternal One said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,’ each of whom had died long ago, and each of whom are now alive with God. God is the God of the living.’”
Wherever God is, there is life. Not death, but life. "In this age," said Jesus, "people marry, are given in marriage, and die." In this age people suffer, and starve, and shiver through the night. In this age some are deprived of dignity, or perish from loneliness. In this age, people have to make answers for their questions out of the materials at hand.
"But in that age," Jesus goes on to say, and he points ahead to a future age not governed by the captivities of the present. For God is the God of the living, God is at work in the world, and God will ultimately redeem and renew this beloved creation. God will gather everybody who belongs to him and fill them with life. Before a group of Sadducees talks callously about a hypothetical woman with multiple husbands, perhaps they could reflect on what God is doing through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It's better news than any other news in the world.
The second vignette comes from a few days after my Aunt Mary died. We loved her so much. She was a grade school teacher. She loved bookstores and whales and little children. She made great apple pie and stayed up late with construction paper and scissors. Her first husband, my Uncle Bill, died of a heart attack in his forties while deer hunting. She was alone for years, and then she met Chuck, who became Uncle Chuck when she married again. He had been widowed when his first wife died of cancer. When he and my aunt met, both of them became very happy very quickly.
Now Aunt Mary had died. Leukemia. For Uncle Chuck, another wife lost to cancer. She lay in a coffin in the same funeral home, in the very same room where his first wife had been. Small town.
Between the viewing hours and the funeral, Chuck and I went downstairs for a Coke. We were both alone with our thoughts. I didn't have much to say. Suddenly Uncle Chuck spoke in the void. "Bill, I loved your aunt. She brought a lot of joy into my life. I always thought I would go first. But now that is she's gone, do you think she's with her first husband up in heaven?"
I learned a long time ago that it's good practice to keep your mouth shut in the basement of a funeral home. It was not a moment for idle speculation. We were both heavy with grief. Chuck asked again, “Do you think she’s with her first husband?”
And all I could blurt out is, “Chuck, she’s with God. Now she is with everybody who belongs to God.” I looked at him through scorched eyes to see him nodding his head with a slow smile. Wherever God is, there is life.
We stood there silent for another minute, and hugged. Then we went upstairs. It was time to celebrate Easter.
© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.