Anyone who is middle-aged or older might remember the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It was an exuberant, fast-paced musical about seven brothers on the frontier of the United States who all were looking for brides. While young women were rare in their part of the world, as usually happens in feel good musicals, in the end each brother found his bride.
The story in our lectionary passage for today is about one bride for seven brothers, but the end of this hypothetical story is not as happy and upbeat as was the movie. The story is part of a “knock-down, drag-out” debate or argument between Jesus and some of his most powerful opponents. It takes place in the temple court in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.
Although Jesus is immensely popular with many people, opponents have dogged his steps almost from the beginning of his public ministry. The opposition comes to a head and moves toward a climax as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, boldly riding a donkey and being greeted with shouts of “Blessed be the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38).
He heads straight for the Temple, the arena of his activity in Jerusalem. One can imagine that the religious authorities are not too pleased with this turn of events. Jesus teaches every day in the Temple. The tension between him and the authorities continues to mount. This 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 spellbound by what they heard.” (Luke 19:47-48)
In such an atmosphere, conflict is inevitable. Whenever there is the presence of bright light, you can almost count on their being works of darkness working against it. The representatives of the religious establishment question Jesus’ authority to rearrange the furniture of the Temple or to teach in its confines. He counters with a question they cannot answer and a story which makes them extremely uncomfortable.
The authorities call in reinforcements. They send spies to listen to Jesus’ teaching in the hope that they will hear some heretical or treasonous word by which they can accuse him to the Roman governor. These spies seek to bait Jesus with fawning compliments. Then they ask him a trick question about whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to the government.
Such a question can raise strong differences of opinion in almost any age or country. It is an especially sensitive issue in the time of Jesus. If he says an unadorned “Yes,” many of the common people who are on his side will be offended. If he replies “No,” the Roman IRS will go into action against him. Jesus’ very wise response involves a Roman coin and the admonition, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. (Luke 20:25)
“Well, let’s trap this traveling teacher with a complicated theological question based on scripture. Let’s watch him squirm as he tries to get out of this one.” The Sadducees enter the fray. Many of them are aristocratic, arrogant, and wealthy. They accept as scripture only the first five books of the Bible, commonly called the Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch. In these books they find no evidence for life after death and certainly no basis for a belief in a resurrection.
We can almost see them snickering as they pose their questions in the form of an absurd hypothetical story about one bride for seven brothers. The Sadducees are using an old trick. Instead of putting forth strong evidence for their own position, they are seeking to make Jesus look ridiculous and his beliefs seem absurd.
They raise the question of resurrection from the dead, based on a law in Deuteronomy, which says that if a man dies childless his brother is to marry the widow and raise up children in his brother’s name. In the Sadducees’ story, there is a family of seven brothers. In succession each brother marries the same woman, but each brother dies without fathering a child. Finally the woman herself dies.
The Sadducees now ask the question, which they are sure is the clincher: “Whose wife will the woman be in the resurrection?” I suppose those who ask the question have in mind a ridiculous picture of a family feud in heaven in which seven brothers argue about whose wife this woman was.
“I saw her first. I was married to her before any of you gave her a second look. All of you married her only from a sense of duty, but I loved her. She is mine.”
“But I was married to her longer than any of you. I admit I married her out of a sense of duty, but I came to love her dearly. I am sure she prefers me above all of you.”
“As far as I’m concerned, any of you can have her. I did not like her very much and we never got along. This will not be heaven to me if I have to live with her as a wife through all eternity.”
With his answer Jesus wipes out this chaotic scene. The Sadducees have no idea what resurrection is all about. They are unable to look beyond this present world and time into the possibility of a new dynamic future. They think of the resurrection as a simple extension of how things are now and here. Jesus assures them that the resurrection belongs to a new and radically different age.
In this present time, marriage is necessary in order to preserve the human race. One generation passes away like the grass of the field. For another generation to come into being, there must be families in which children are born. But in the resurrection, marriage is not necessary. There is no death. Life is not interrupted by the passing of one generation to make room for the next. Those who experience the resurrection are like angels. Jesus does not say they become angels. Like angels they do not die any more. They are in the presence of God forever. Jesus calls them “children of God” and “children of the resurrection.” Rather than owing their lives to earthly parents they have been given new lives by God.
The Sadducees base their question on a passage from one of the books of Moses. Now Jesus uses the same tactic. He brings into the debate a passage from another book of Moses. His opponents accept these books as authoritative scripture. If they accept the part about a man marrying his brother’s widow, then they must accept the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses is alone in the wilderness. He sees a bush that is burning but is not consumed. A voice comes out of the bush telling him to put his sandals off his feet for 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” (Exodus 3:6).
I am sure the Sadducees accept this story as literal truth. But do they think through the implications of God’s words at the bush? Jesus gives those words an interpretation his adversaries never considered. If God identifies himself as the God of patriarchs long since dead, what does that say about the relationship now between God and those heroes of the faith? Jesus declares that God is not the God of the dead. God is God of the living. Death does not separate God from God’s people.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have not disappeared from God’s care and presence. They are “children of the resurrection,” “for to him all of them are alive.”
Are the Sadducees convinced by Jesus’ interpretation of scripture? Do they change their minds about the resurrection? The story does not tell us, but I doubt it. Their feet are set in the long-since hardened concrete of their system. They are trapped in a rigid and unbending stance from which they choose not to escape. There is no spiritual growth for them. They know it all.
But the pressing question for us today is: Do some of us have concepts of resurrection life that need clarifying by Jesus’ interpretation of scripture? I know of someone who says he hopes heaven has a large video room where he can see any place in history at the height of its glory. He is especially interested in seeing Corinth and Ephesus when Paul was in those cities.
Jesus’ word that God is the God of the living does not satisfy our curiosity about such things as a video room in heaven, but it does give us strong assurance that God does not abandon us at death. It may not make entirely clear what our relationship will be to those whom we loved dearly on earth but who have gone before us into the new age. But it does confirm that our relationship with God is forever.
No matter what the Sadducees think about it, from Jesus’ point of view, if there were one bride and seven brothers, they are all content in the presence of God for eternity, and the question of whose wife she is never comes up.
For us, there is another lesson, another challenge, and that is being faithful, doing good, being really generous, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God, and loving one another as Christ loves us. And every day seeking how we can be more and more conformed into the image of God, in whose image we were created—here, now, while we can.
Just think, if we all did that, and consciously, intentionally, put away bickering and creating strife, we might better be able to help God create a kind of heaven here on earth, what Jesus refers to as the Kingdom of God, where love and justice and peace prevail, while we are still alive. Amen.
*Resource: CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, Good News Among The Rubble, by J. Will Ormond