Lesson: Luke 20:27-38
Now that is a strange story from Scripture – a woman married to 7 brothers, one after the other, until Jesus declares that there is no marriage in the Resurrection. It also may seem like a strange scripture for me to preach – this “no marriage in the resurrection” text.
As some of you know, for the past 14 or so years, I’ve been part of a community that has worked for marriage – for marriage equality – marriage equality in our national, civic life (as a matter of law) and marriage equality in the church (as a matter of faith).
And you know that the status of marriage has been contested and hard fought. Back in 2004, Gavin Newsom and the City of SF said yes to marriage, but days later, the Supreme Court said no. Then in 2008, the California Supreme Court changed its mind, and said yes to marriage for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and our families. BUT, then, later that same year, the voters of California said no, when they passed Prop 8. Then a couple years later, a federal judge said yes. And then in 2013, the United States Supreme Court said yes, recognizing marriage as a fundamental constitutional right, and that LGBTQ couples and our families couldn’t be excluded. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes.
The national Presbyterian church also didn’t allow the marriage of same-gender couples until just a couple years ago. And that took decades of advocacy, as Presbyterian ministers were brought up on disciplinary charges for celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples, and for insisting that the gospel of Jesus Christ recognizes the dignity of all people and all families.
Marriage in California – no marriage in California – marriage again in California. But not in other states. Then, marriage in all the states. No marriage in the church. Marriage in the church.
It can be – exhausting – just to keep up. All along the way: What will they decide about us next? What will the next court say? Or the next legislature? Or the next popular vote? And now, with a conservative court, someday, will they change their minds?
And then we come to today’s Scripture, and we hear Jesus say this: “There is no marriage in the resurrection.”
Oh no! You’ve got to be kidding me. No marriage in the resurrection? Really? All this work. And there is NO MARRIAGE IN THE RESURRECTION! No marriage for gay people. No marriage for straight people. No marriage in the resurrection. Jesus says to the Sadducees, “In the Resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage – they are like angels.”
“No marriage in the resurrection.” What does that mean?
Now we have some choices here. We could just ignore this scripture and move on – because we are pretty sure from the rest of the Bible that God endorses marriage as one of the ways of ordering our lives – the Bible assures us “Love never fails.” OR, we could explain it away, and just say that Jesus didn’t really mean what he says here. But he’s pretty clear. And this story does appear in the Gospel of Matthew, and Mark, and Luke.
OR, we can take this scripture – that seems strange to us at first – seriously. We can take this scripture seriously, and listen for what it has to say out of its particular ancient context and into ours.
I was ready to just ignore the passage until I ran across a feminist scholar, Rachel Conrad Wahlberg, and she suggests that if we want to make sense of this text, we have to try to hear it as a woman standing in the crowd might have heard it.[i] As a First Century Jewish Palestinian woman might have heard it. So let’s give that a try.
Remember last week, we caught up with Jesus as he was on his way to Jerusalem, making trouble. This week, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem – in what we’d call Holy Week –right before he gets arrested, and he is preaching in the Temple courts. The crowds continue to gather, and he’s stirring things up, and those in power don’t like it, because remember, he is threatening their power and their authority – he is turning their world upside down. So they come to Jesus with questions, trying to trap Jesus, so that they can get rid of this problem.
The crowd is gathered, and this first century woman is standing in the crowd -- probably at the back of the crowd, listening to Jesus, listening for a Word. And the Sadducees come with their trick question. Now, the question they ask is about Resurrection and something called Levirate marriage.[ii] That’s a law in Deuteronomy that says that when a man dies without an heir – without a son – that his brother shall take the widow as his wife to preserve the family line – and the family property. The widow is prohibited from marrying outside the family – she has to marry her brother-in-law. To protect the family property.
So the Sadducees come to Jesus, and they lay their trap, “Jesus, there once were 7 brothers. The first one marries, and then dies. He leaves his wife to the second brother, who marries her. And when the second brother dies, he leaves this woman to the third brother who marries her. And so on, and so on, with the woman being passed from one brother to another. And then the woman dies.” And the Sadducees ask Jesus, “So, Jesus, when they’re all dead and gone – all these brothers -- when they’re in the resurrection, whose wife is she?” Whose is she?
Now, this first-century woman, standing at the back of the crowd, she knows what they’re really talking about. They’re talking about property. This Levirate marriage is about protecting property, a man’s property, keeping that property within the family. And the Sadducees’ question is talking about this widow in the story – as if she were property – passed from one brother to another. In this story, the Sadducees’ question, “Whose wife is she?” is pretty much the same thing as saying, “Whose property is she? Who owns her?”
And the first-century woman, listening in the back of the crowd, she gets this. She knows what they mean. In her bones.
Now in Matthew and Mark’s version of the story, the first thing Jesus says to the Sadducees is this: “You don’t understand the power of God.” But after that, I think Jesus looks past the Sadducees, and the rest of the answer is for the woman, and for everyone else in the crowd who needs it – and Jesus says, “In resurrection, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” The Sadducees ask of this widow in the story – “Whose is she? Who owns her?” and it’s as if Jesus looks past these Sadducees, and past their trick question, and looks to this first-century woman standing in the crowd and says to this woman,
“In the resurrection, no one will own you.
In the resurrection, no one will have power over you.
In the resurrection, you will be free.”
This woman has come to Jesus for a word of hope. And here it is.
This Scripture is about power. About power-over. And let’s be specific – as biblical scholar Emerson Powery notes[iii] – this scripture is, in the first instance, about power-over women’s bodies. The question is about the power to control a woman’s body, the power to own a woman’s body, and to pass her along as property.
Now so that this ancient story doesn’t feel quite so ancient, let’s confess and remember that we live in a world that tries to exercise power over women’s bodies all the time. Patriarchy is still at work in our economic systems, particularly the workplace, and in our daily life. It works to constrain a woman’s opportunities and her freedom. We live in a nation where, right now, states are aggressively working to pass legislation to control women’s bodies.
Women’s bodies – and other bodies.
Right now, the Supreme Court is considering a case that asks if it is legal to discriminate against transgender bodies. And they very well may say yes.
In our nation, we incarcerate black bodies at 5 times the rate of white bodies.[iv]
We’ve talked before about our crisis at the border – what that is really about is the government trying to control bodies – particularly brown bodies – saying these bodies can be within our borders – and these bodies cannot – and if they are, we will put them in cages.
That’s how power-over works in the world of the widow in the Sadducee’s story, and in the world of the woman standing at the back of the crowd, and in our world. Power-over seeks to control bodies.
And Jesus looks at the Sadducees and he says, “You don’t understand the power of God.” And Jesus says to the woman, “In the resurrection, no one will own you.” Jesus stands up with the vulnerable in the crowd, and with us all, whoever needs to hear it, and says: “In the resurrection, No one gets to have power over you. You are a beloved child of God.” This is the resurrection word of hope for all God’s children – for everyone in every place and every time who has ever felt the brunt of power-over.
That’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s Scripture. That is how he is turning the world rightside up. He’s talking God’s love at work in the world strong enough to break every power over us, every power that holds us back, and holds us down. Jesus looks at the Sadducees and he says, “You don’t understand the power of God. You don’t understand the resurrection power of God.”
You see, in the Resurrection, the patriarchy no longer has power over the lives of women,the hetero-sexist world no longer has power over gay and lesbian families, racism no longerhas power. Period. Cisgender bodies no longer have power of transgender bodies,the majority no longer has power over any minority.
In the Resurrection, the rich no longer have power over the poor,the CEOs no longer have power over the workers,those who are documented citizens today no longer have power over those who arrive in this country tomorrow,the strong no longer have power over the meek,the war makers no longer have power over the peace makers, the well-fed no longer have power over the hungry.
Because the power of God has never been about the power that we have over one another. It’s not about power over. The power of God is about power for and power with and power in.
Let me say that one more time: The power of God has never been about the power that we have over one another.
The power of God is about
· God’s power for us and
· God’s power with us and
· God’s power in us.
The power of God is about God’s power to set us free.
Now that would be good news enough, but then Jesus says one more thing. The Sadducees are talking about who has power over whom after they die. Jesus says, “In Resurrection, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage. In Resurrection, they cannot die anymore. They are children of God. They are children of the resurrection. God is a God of the living not the dead. And in God, all are alive.” Jesus says to this woman – not only are you free – you are a child of God. You are a child of Resurrection. You are alive. And you are free.
The Sadducees are talking about death. Jesus has always been talking about life – Resurrection life – life bigger than we have ever imagined it – life bigger even than death. Jesus is saying that God’s commitment to our life is steadfast, and it has been from the very beginning, on back through Miriam and Moses, on back through Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. It encompasses everyone who has ever lived; it encompasses everyone we have ever loved. And in Resurrection, it reaches on out into forever. God is a God of the living –and in God all are alive – and all are free. God’s commitment to our life – to our freedom – to Resurrection life stretches all the way back to the beginning, and on out into forever. And we stand in the midst of that Resurrection life, right here, right now. And that give us something to do.
The resurrection power of God calls us and empowers us to live our life say to “NO” to power-over in every form we find it.
The resurrection power of God calls us and empowers us to live our life to say “YES” to the full dignity and well-being of all God’s children.
The resurrection power of God calls us to live Resurrection Life right here right now. As the Body of Christ, turning the world rightside up.
And so we come, and we stand in this crowd with this strong, courageous woman, and we listen for Jesus, we listen for a Word from God.
And Jesus says to the Sadducees, “You don’t understand the power of God.”
And then he looks over their shoulders, right at this woman, and he says, “In resurrection, no one owns you.”
And then he widens his gaze, and looks upon us all – all of us God’s children, all of us children of the Resurrection, standing there, standing here, waiting on a word from God, and Jesus says, “In resurrection, no one has power over you. In Resurrection, all are alive. Right here, right now, no one has power over you. In Resurrection, you are free, you are free, you are free.”
© Scott Clark, 2019. All rights reserved.
[i] Rachel Conrad Wahlberg. Jesus According to a Woman. (Paulist Press 1975).
[ii] For background on Levirate marriage, see Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible (NIB), vol. ix.
[iii] Emerson Powery, Commentary on Working Preacher, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4274
[iv] NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/