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Whose Wife is She Anyway?

Thomas J Parlette

“Whose wife is she anyway?”

Luke 20: 27-38


Well the days are growing colder – and wetter. Soon it won’t be rain anymore, but snow. And last night we turned our clocks back an hour. We are officially in the autumn of the year.

This is the time of year when it feels pretty good to hibernate – curl up on the couch, snuggle up in a blanket and read a good book on a gray, cold Saturday afternoon. If you’re lucky enough to have the AMC movie channel, perhaps an old movie is more your style. I’ve always loved the old fashioned movie musicals – “Singin in the Rain”, “On the Town”, “West Side Story”. One old musical from the golden age of Hollywood I remember is “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” It’s a fast paced, exuberant musical about seven brothers on the frontier of the Old West who were all looking for brides. But since brides were hard to come by in their neck of the woods, they had to get creative in their courting. The whole story revolves around the attempts of the brothers to find some suitable ladies – despite their backwoods way of life. The movie is filled with singing and dancing and of course in the end, every brother gets his bride. I admit it’s a terribly sexist movie and would probably not get made these days – but it’s a fun throwback to another era for some hibernating on a Saturday afternoon.

This morning’s passage from Luke also features seven brothers, but each brother does not get his own bride. No, instead the seven brothers have to share one bride – at least as the Sadducees tell the story

This encounter is part of an extended debate that Jesus is having with some of his most powerful opponents. It takes place in the Temple Court in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life.

Although Jesus is immensely popular with the people, the officials in charge are not happy with him. They have been trying to find a way to undermine him almost from the start. The opposition comes to a head and moves toward a climax as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. Once in the city, Jesus heads straight for the Temple and uses it as his home base for his activities in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the religious authorities were none too pleased with Jesus for doing this. They saw how popular he was, and they heard his teachings that frequently condemned them.

Despite their displeasure, Jesus teaches in the Temple everyday. And as he does, the tension between him and the authorities continues to rise. Here is how Luke describes the situation – “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spell bound by what they heard.”

In such an atmosphere, conflict was inevitable. There were attacks, and counterattacks. The authorities came to Jesus and questioned his authority to teach in the Temple, they asked for his credentials – who gave you the right to be here?

Jesus counters with a question about the baptism of John and his authority, but the chief priests and the scribes can’t answer it. Then Jesus tells a parable about some wicked tenants who take over a vineyard and kill the vineyard owners son. The authorities quickly see that the parable is about them and so they call in reinforcements.

They start sending spies to listen to Jesus’ lectures, hoping that they might hear something heretical or treasonous that they can use against Jesus. The spies do their best to trap Jesus into saying something they can use, including a question about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Roman government.

Now the subject of taxes will always raise strong opinions in any culture of any time – but it was an especially sensitive topic in Jesus’ day. If he said “Yes”, all those common people who were on his side would get offended and leave, or maybe revolt against him. But if he said “No”, then the Roman IRS would be coming after him. The spies rub their hands together with glee – “Ah, we’ve got him now!”

But Jesus gives a very clever answer as he asks whose picture is on the coin. The Emperor of course. Well then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s – but give to God what is God’s.

“Ok – fine,” think the spies. “Good answer, didn’t see that coming. He got out of that one. So now let’s bring out the heavy artillery. Let’s trap this smart guy with a complicated theological question. Let’s see him squirm his way out of this one. Let’s bring in the Sadducees.”

The crowd parts as this arrogant, aristocratic, wealthy group of well-dressed, respectable people made their way slowly towards Jesus – making their one and only appearance in Luke’s gospel. In my mind I picture like the Malfoy family from the Harry Potter movies – condescending pure-bloods through and through.

The Sadducees accept as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, the Books of Moses himself. The rest is unimportant. Only those things Moses himself wrote carried any weight with the Sadducees. In those five books they find no evidence for life after death and certainly no evidence of a resurrection like Jesus talks about.

You can almost hear the spies snickering in the background as the confident Sadducees pose their question to Jesus in the form of an absurd and rather insensitive, little hypothetical story about one bride and seven brothers.

The Sadducees are using an old trick that we still see today in politics. Instead of putting forth strong evidence for your own position, just make your opponents position look ridiculous. That’s exactly what the Sadducees were trying to do to Jesus. Make him look ridiculous.

So they raise this question about life after the resurrection. This little story of theirs is based on a law from Deuteronomy which says that if a man dies childless, his brother is to marry the widow and raise children in his brother’s name. In the early days of Israel, this law was supposed to make sure that the Hebrew nation would survive, that children were a priority. It was also supposed to offer some security for the widow, so she would have someone to provide for her. Terribly sexist to our modern ears, I know, but that was the reasoning. Even in Jesus’ time, the law was really not carried out anymore. But for the Sadducees, it was still on the books, so it was fair game.

So there is a family with seven brothers. In succession each brother marries the same woman, but each brother dies without having a child. Finally the woman herself passes away.

The Sadducees then ask the question which they’re sure is going to nail Jesus and make him look ridiculous in front of his followers – “So, in this resurrection of yours, whose wife will this woman be anyway, hmmmm?”

I suppose the Sadducees were trying to get the crowd to imagine a big family feud taking place in heaven with these seven brothers arguing over about who was married to who. Are they up in heaven pushing and shoving, “I saw her first, I was married to her first, she’s mine – No she’s not, you died and I took over – yeah, but when you died, you didn’t have any kids anyway – Look, I was married to her the longest, so she’s mine – May be, but she loved me best. Then they all turn to the woman and say, “Come on honey, choose!”

But with his answer, Jesus wipes out this whole confusing scene. The Sadducees haven’t been listening very closely. They’re too busy looking for technicalities. They have no idea what the resurrection is all about. They are unable to look beyond this present world, this present time into the possibility of a new kind of future. They think the resurrection is just going to be an extension of how things are here and now.

But Jesus assures them that the resurrection belongs to a new and radically different age. In the present time, in Jesus’ time, and still in our time – marriage serves a noble purpose. It serves to preserve the human race, to order society, and be a covenantal relationship in which we can grow, practice love and share both the joys and sorrows of life.

But in the resurrection, our existence will be different. The things of this life, as noble as they are, will be unnecessary. At the resurrection we will be in the presence of God forever – we will be a part of God’s consciousness. We will have a new kind of eternal life in that age – very different from what we know in this age. How different, we don’t know – but it will not be simply an extension of what we know now.

Then Jesus used a story from one of the books the Sadducees accepted as scripture, the story about Moses at the burning bush. Moses is alone in the wilderness. He sees a bush on fire without being consumed. A voice comes out of the bush telling Moses to take his sandals off because he is standing on holy ground. Then the voice says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

I’m sure the Sadducees stood there nodding their heads – they knew the story well. But then Jesus gives them his interpretation. If God identifies himself as the God of the patriarchs long since dead, what does that say about the relationship now between God and those heroes of the faith? Jesus goes on to declare that the God he speaks of is not the God of the dead. His God is God of the living. Death cannot separate God from his people. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have not disappeared from God’s care and presence. They are children of the resurrection now – they are alive to God. They are part of God’s consciousness always.

Now are the Sadducees convinced by Jesus’ interpretation of scripture? Do they change their minds about the resurrection? The story doesn’t say. But it does say the Sadducees knew a good answer they heard one, and they decided they’d better not ask Jesus any more questions.

But the more pressing question is “What can we take away from this story, what words of hope can we take home with us?”

Jesus’ word that God is the God of the living doesn’t really satisfy our curiosity about what heaven is going to be like, but it does give the strong assurance that God will never abandon us, not even at death. This story assures us that our relationship with God is forever, even beyond the grave. We are part of God’s consciousness – always. As Paul once asked in his letter to the church in Rome – “Who can separate us from the love God?” The answer – “Nothing, not even death.”

May God be praised. Amen.