No Marriage in the Age of Resurrection
(Proper 27) Luke 20:27-3
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
10 November 2019
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
There is no giving or receiving of marriage in heaven, Jesus tells us. Let’s work out why that is.
The Sadducees challenging Jesus were the elite class of landed Jerusalem gentry who operated the Temple and wielded power from that religious base of operations. They were also the sect within Judaism that did not believe in the idea of the resurrection from the dead. One of the reasons they don’t believe in the resurrection is because they only ascribe to the first five books of Moses as authoritative. The idea of the resurrection is located in the books of the prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel in the Old Testament. The example which serves as the basis for their question to Jesus is Deuteronomy Chapter 25. The passage is about the duty of a brother to marry his brother’s wife if his brother dies before his wife has a chance to bear him any children.
It is instructive, I think, to hear the passage from Deuteronomy so that we understand what is going on. And, it is also important to remember that the basic social and political arrangement at the time of Deuteronomy are the 12 tribes of Israel, which are made up of large family clans.
So here is the passage of Deuteronomy.
“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside of the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal is pulled off.” (Deut 25: 5-10 NRSV)
The name for this practice is called “levirate marriage.” And, this was not unique to Hebrew law, but Near Eastern and Roman inheritance law also assigned special responsibilities to a husband’s brother if it became the case that the brother did not have a male heir before his death. This law was in place not only to help secure the wealth and inheritance of families, but also for the protection of the widow.
For example, if widows were forced to marry outside of their clan, then that would diminish the landholding of her first husband’s family and add it to the new husband residing outside of the clan/family, sort of like giving money to a potential future enemy. It is also interesting to know that legal title was symbolically claimed by walking over the land. Transferring the title to land entailed passing the sandal; while the renunciation of a title, like in this passage, was symbolized by the removal of the sandal. The intent of this ceremony described in Deuteronomy is that of public shaming. The dereliction of duty by the 2nd brother has very serious consequences, since it, in effect, abandons the widow to the class of the impoverished, which also include resident aliens and orphans. The law of Moses taught that the protection of the impoverished was important, so the consequences of the brother’s refusal were significant. If the 2nd brother refuses his duty to build up the name of his brother’s house and have his name carried on, the consequences are that the house and the name of the refusing brother will be stigmatized by the rest of the larger tribe. This is no small matter because tribal and family allegiances were the basis for protection of social, political, and economic power.
In sum: the basic point of the law in Deuteronomy is to establish the line of inheritance for the first brother, which ensures the continuation of the family name and transfer of wealth.
So, going back to our Gospel lesson today, whether the Sadducees could have used only two brothers as an example or 17 brothers in the scenario is irrelevant. The question has to do with who belongs to whom in the resurrection.
Jesus, of course, in his characteristic way, basically says that the question is wrong-headed. The Sadducees are asking their question based on how human relationships function in this present age, and not how they are going to function in the age of the resurrection.
Jesus tells the Sadducees, “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.”
Notice that Jesus’ answer links the reason for why there is no giving or receiving of marriage in the age to come to his next statement. His next statement says that in the age of the resurrection there is no more death. These claims by Jesus can then help us understand why marriage functions the way it does in this world now, and why it won’t be necessary in the age to come.
So, let us think for a minute: What is marriage typically for? Why is it important and what types of things does it achieve, secure and protect?
For a vast majority of cultures, marriage has a number of purposes. Marriage is important for forging social and political alliances; marriage helps secure royal bloodlines; marriage helps identify legitimate offspring, and therefore the line of inheritance for wealth and property. Children are economic, social, and political necessities. Children are needed to become parents themselves, to fight in wars to defend the tribe, clan or modern nation state. Children are needed to continue the economy of the household and family, or the economy of the state. In whatever age and in whatever country, some form of family is the basic social unit of every society. And, without some form of family, human beings die. If there isn’t someone to look after us when we come out of the womb, we’re dead. If we don’t have anyone to give us food and shelter as we’re growing up, we’re dead. If we don’t have someone teach us how to live in our social and political world successfully, we won’t live long. Even after we leave our family of origin household to forge our own, the cycle continues, each family working for physical, social, emotional, and financial security and belonging.
In the age of the resurrection, however, this drive for survival, no longer exists and the role of the family changes with it. In the age of the resurrection we will not be constantly trying to ward off death, or trying to secure an inheritance for our future generations through the passing on of our genes, our property or our wealth. All of that will be rendered moot.
So, in this passage, Jesus is highlighting the important distinction between the two ages. The key event which distinguishes our existence in the two is this: We are born into this age by the fact of our physical birth. We are born into the age to come, not by physical birth, but by the resurrection of our mortal bodies. In the age to come, our bodies will be resurrected and transformed so that they will be suited to the new heaven and the new earth that God has promised to bring about.
Right now, all of us are mortal and are headed toward death at some point in the future. We are also either sons or daughters of human parents. Those who we call brother or sister depends on how we are related to them by blood. And, our wealth, and property, and our genes will die with us, unless we pass them on to the next generation. We pass these things on to the next generation to help them survive into the future.
But in the age to come, family ties as we need them now will be irrelevant. We will be brothers and sisters, not because we have the same human parents and are related by human blood, but because we will all call God Our Father, as we are united to him through the water of our baptism and the blood of Christ. In the age to come, the constant warding off of death and securing of our survival, will no longer be the basic driver of human action. The passing on of genes, wealth and inheritance will be unnecessary, because God has ensured our everlasting inheritance as children of his kingdom.
The challenge for us, of course, is that we are part of both of these worlds right now. This is one of the reasons why being part of a church as a Christian in this age is so difficult. We are part of the world now in which we instinctively do what we need to survive. We can’t help but see each other sometimes in the binary framework of either competitors or allies. No matter the depth of our love and friendship, we can always pose a threat to one another. The wrong word spoken or an action undertaken can turn friends into bitter enemies, and decades of marriage into a tragic divorce.
Yet as Christians, we come to church to be trained to learn how to live in this world while we anticipate the age of the resurrection. We come to church to learn how to live together as a family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, who are not driven solely by survival, but as a family that will exist in the age of the resurrection where there is no death to defend against. We come to church to learn what it might be like to live as a family in spite of our differences that feel threatening to us and which divide us against each other in this world, whether that be differences of race, class, social standing, economic wealth, and political and national affiliations. As Christians, we are trained to forgive each other, even when the world may tell us that this may not be in our best interest. As Christians, we are trained to see our earthly life as a gift from God to be lived out faithfully, and not something to be preserved at all costs, or at the expense of others, or at the expense of our relationship with God.
There is no giving or receiving in marriage in the age of the resurrection, Jesus says. For those of you who are married now, remember that. For those of you who are not married now, remember that, too, since you now live in the state of life which all will inhabit in the age to come.