Biblical marriage isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. There’s my pithy intro. Let’s jump right in. Some Sadducees approach Jesus. What you need to know here is that Sadducees are a Jewish sect. There’s more to them than that, but the story in this case tells you what the story needs you to know. They don’t believe in resurrection. So, like the biblical literalists in my undergrad New Testament class, they’ve got a real stumper of a question for the teacher, the one that’s going to bring his whole theological world tumbling down. There is no way he’s going to keep talking about resurrection after this. Look out, y’all, the speech and debate team is here, and they’ve brought a zinger.
By the way, the question is also super depressing. According to Deuteronomy, the Mosaic law holds that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a childless widow, the man’s brother is to marry her and raise children with her. It’s called Levirate marriage. By our modern standards, of course, this arrangement stinks all around. But there is a rationale behind it. It’s a very, very paternalistic and misogynistic rationale, but when in ancient Israel…
Widows, as we’ve discussed recently, are among the most vulnerable people in ancient society. With precious few rights and with no husband to provide for them, widows largely subsist on the kindness of strangers. Especially a childless widow, who has no children to care for her, to take her into their homes. Against the specters of starvation and homelessness, the provision of the open arms of a brother-in-law, you can see, is somewhat thoughtful. There is actual legal compassion encoded there. Marriage customs in most every society, biblical or not, have been ways of providing order, making sure inheritance made sense, and allocating assets. Social contracts between families. Romance and equality entered the picture alarmingly recently.
Now in this nightmare scenario the Sadducees describe, this poor woman is widowed seven times, by seven brothers. “Wow, what a coincidence,” you say, “that all seven died, like seven in a row, with no children. They just all died. It’s so weird. If only there was a unifying element here.” “How nervous,” you might reasonably ask, “must that seventh brother have been at his wedding?” The Bible does not grant us those details, for they are not the point and the Bible is telling this story with a straight face. She is treated by the text as property, as more of an abstract concept than as a person, in this story, but this widow is a survivor.
The question is meant to show how the societal structures that God—through Moses—has installed make the concept of resurrection, that is, of life after death, ridiculous. This widow had seven perfectly biblical marriages to seven brothers from the same family and so in the resurrection she’s going to have, what? Seven husbands? That’s crazy talk. Seven husbands never enters their mind. Which one will she be married to? The question is the argument. The spiritual realities of life preclude the possibility of life after death.
Jesus kind of blows it up. “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.” God’s reality is different than our reality. The ways we structure our society do not necessarily obtain in heaven.
This should be no surprise. We just heard the beatitudes last week. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” We have here the contrast between two familiar realities: the reality of scarcity, which is focused on obtaining resources and authority, and the reality of abundance, which is focused on life and personhood. In God’s kingdom of abundance, the one scarcity we fear most—the scarcity of life itself—is washed away with the excess of divine life. “Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the Resurrection.”
So if you look at marriage as a matter of organizing households and dividing labor and ensuring lines of clearly defined inheritance, which is of course not how we today look at marriage but is how the societies of the Bible looked at marriage, the coming Kingdom of God makes marriage rather pointless. St. Paul felt this way as well, for similar reasons. In a non-competitive, non-scarcity-driven society where people live eternally, the structured life that marriage provided was no longer needed.
The winner, of course, is the widow. The brothers, too, for they are resurrected and are in the Kingdom of God and freed from the logic of scarcity, but the widow benefits more. Interestingly, she isn’t referred to in Jesus’ response, but if we look at the reality Jesus describes, quite a lot changes. If God is the god of our ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and if all who have died are living in God’s sight, then the widow is now fleshed out with a fullness of personhood that her life and her portrayal in the text did not recognize. No longer is she an asset or a commodity, formally valued as a homemaker and childbearer. She is not defined by her station in society. She is alive. Fully alive. Blessed are you who are poor, indeed.
For all I know, the seven imagined brothers were decent guys. We don’t need them to be villains to see how Jesus’ prioritization of spiritual life over secular life offers a liberation to the widow. She is no longer bound by societal codes that limit her to an abstraction.
It also offers a challenge to society. That last sentence. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” The simplicity cuts like a knife. The qualification for full personhood is to be alive. That’s it. If you are alive, you are alive to God and your spiritual worth exceeds any secular evaluation or designation. If you are alive, you are not known to God as someone’s wife or husband or partner or as a single person. You are known as you, human and valued to your core. The various markers of value that persist in our life, things like wealth, status, and power, do not enter God’s calculus.
The Gospel today isn’t simply about marriage. It’s about the dignity of each person. We believe that the dignity of each person ideally is not something to be debated and arbitrated with legislation or ballot initiatives or doctrinal statements. Those things happen because we are painfully slow in working this out. We believe that the dignity of each person is sacred, and is assured by God. So when we catch ourselves using cultural lenses that obscure any part of a person’s dignity, we have a sacred obligation to be self-critical of the assumptions we bring to our pursuit of God’s kingdom.
This is, in fact, why our church’s understanding of marriage looks very little like the one described in Deuteronomy and in today’s Gospel. By linking marriage to God, to Jesus, we hold it to a higher standard. By making marriage a sacrament, we hold it to be an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. We strive for our marriages to reflect something of God’s kingdom. Marriage in our time serves—and this is a value judgment I’m fine with—a higher purpose than organizing households and orders of succession. It is a bond between two people meant for mutual thriving, mutual delight, and for helping one another to know God’s blessings more fully.
The old customs, wherein a woman’s property became her husband’s property and his authority was sacrosanct, or wherein the two people being married had to be of opposite sexes, reflect a different, less spiritual understanding of marriage, one that is less concerned with affirming the divinely-granted personhood of each person. I would contend from personal experience that they vastly underestimate the true value of marriage.
It is tempting, preaching in a denomination that is rather progressive on these matters, to congratulate ourselves. Aren’t we clever? But the call in this direction has been there the whole time—today’s text is nearly 2,000 years old—and it’s taken us a long time to get to where we are. Surely we have more to learn, and self-congratulation only gets in the way of that learning. The widow who married and buried seven brothers was not defined by her marriages. Her value was not constrained by her society’s understanding of marriage or of people’s places in society. God saw her, God sees her, and God loves her. For that grace, throughout the ages and today, I am very grateful.