Text: Luke 20:27-40
Once upon a time, Barry McNary of Harper’s Ferry and Mary McClary of Eden Prairie were married. They looked forward to a life that would be nothing but merry, but on their honeymoon went to a wetlands sanctuary and explored an estuary that unfortunately was unsanitary, and Barry tragically developed dysentery and died.
Now the custom was that when a man died with no children, his brother took the widow as his wife. The first born son of this union took the deceased man’s name, received his inheritance, and carried on his line of descendants.
So Barry’s brother Gary, who worked in a dairy, married Mary and their first son would be named Barry, but shortly after the wedding, Gary suffered a coronary. The family did not tarry, but Barry and Gary’s brother Harry, who was in the military, married Mary. Harry and Mary’s sons would be named Barry and Gary, but there was a tragic accident with an actuary and like Barry and Gary, Harry died with no heirs. So the fourth brother, Jerry, the lapidary, married Mary, and looked forward to raising sons Barry, Gary, and Harry, who would receive the inheritance and carry on the names of Jerry’s brothers Barry, Gary, and Harry, but the stress of all this proved to be more than Jerry could carry, and he too wound up at the mortuary.
Friends advised Larry not to marry Mary, it was just too scary, but Larry ignored their commentary and like his brothers Barry, Gary, Harry, and Jerry, Larry too married Mary, but he met with an unfortunate accident involving a crazed canary, and Larry went to be with the older McNary’s.
Which left brother number six, Perry, the visionary, to marry Mary, but Perry fell off a ferry into Lake Erie and like Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, and Larry, Perry died with no heirs.
And so it was left to the seventh and final brother, Terry, to marry Mary. Their union would hopefully produce sons Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, and Perry, who would receive the inheritance and carry on the names of brothers Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, and Perry who had died. Not to mention any other sons who might come of the union and who would be Terry’s heirs. He thought he might name son #7 Elmo, or Fred, or maybe Timmy.
But as he reflected on the task before him, he was overwhelmed. His cousin Sherry asked how he felt about the coming marriage, and he replied, “Very, very wary.” And his fears turned out to be justified, because at the wedding reception he ate a bad berry, and, well, you know what happened next.
Now Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, Perry, and Terry had all been married to Mary, and all had died. The question is, when they all get to heaven, what becomes of Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, Perry, Terry, and Mary? Who will be Mary’s husband? That is the query.
It’s a silly, far-fetched story, ridiculous. The person who first told it (and yes, I’ve added just a few embellishments) intended for it to come across as silly and far-fetched. It was absurd, and it was supposed to be. The story and the accompanying question about “what happens now?” were intended to make a point. The real issue was resurrection and the possibility of life beyond death. Those who posed the question, the Saducees, did not believe in resurrection. To them, it seemed absurd, about as silly as the story.
For the Saducees, if it were not in the Torah (the books of the law, the first five books of our Bible), then they had no time for it. The Saducees were rich and powerful and very conservative. They didn’t put stock in those newfangled scriptures – the Psalms, prophets, books of history. They followed Torah – if it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for them. And they did not find resurrection in the Torah.
Other Jews, including the Pharisees, believed in resurrection, and as far as the Saducees could tell, Jesus believed in resurrection. To show how ridiculous all of this resurrection talk was, the Saducees came up with this story about the woman who had been married to seven different brothers, all of whom died, and asked, what happens now? In the resurrection, who is married to whom?
It wasn’t a sincere question. That is, those who asked it did not care about Jesus’ answer. They did not ask because they wanted to hear his opinion, they asked it to make him look bad, to point out how fuzzy his thinking was, and if they could tweak the Pharisees at the same time, well, that was a bonus.
The intention was for it to look like a silly question, in order to reveal the silliness of resurrection talk, but the fact is, within this scenario that the Saducees came up with lies a real question – several real questions, in fact. Presumably, none of us have come upon a situation where seven brothers were married to the same woman, but we all have some questions about what comes after this life.
People have always been fascinated by these sorts of questions, and a variety of folks have paid special attention to this passage of scripture in particular. In the early 1800’s, various groups based a whole theology on their unique interpretation of these verses.
Joseph Smith read “in heaven there shall be neither marriage nor giving in marriage,” and he said that since we can’t get married in heaven, we better do it right on earth so that it will last, and from this comes the Mormon practice of “temple-sealed marriages.” At about the same time, just a few miles down the road in upstate New York, John Humphrey Noyes read this passage and said that since marriage doesn’t matter in heaven, it shouldn’t matter here, either. So the Oneida Community practiced a kind of “Free Love” arrangement that was scandalous. It was a very different interpretation, to say the least. Their community faced a lot of opposition, as you might expect, and it didn’t last, but they did give us Oneida silverware.
And then there were the Shakers and Mother Ann Lee, whose take on the whole matter was a rejection of marriage and a call to celibacy for believers.
While those groups focused strongly on the marriage question, it seems clear that the real issue here is not so much marriage as it is death and resurrection and eternal life.
Now, any conversation about resurrection, any conversation about what happens after we die has to be undertaken with a lot of humility. We don’t know for sure and no one can know for sure. People who have it all figured out, who know all the details, kind of scare me.
In college, I was in the Baptist Student Union, the Southern Baptist campus ministry group at the University of Evansville. We would sometimes lead services at area churches. I remember one time there was a little church in a town about 30 miles away that was having a weekend revival. They had an evangelist, and different students were providing music and leading worship, doing pretty well everything except the preaching.
The evangelist was young, probably around 30 years old, and very slick. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, a lot of guys used blow dryers, but this guy could have been the poster boy for blow-dried hair. We rode over to the church with him. He drove a sporty car and he popped in his 8-track tape with popular Christian music. Nothing wrong with any of that, but the sermon was another story. The first night, he preached about heaven. He took a verse here, a verse there, a little from Revelation, a little from 2 Thessalonians, a little from Daniel. He added 2 + 2 +2 and came up with 147.
He told everybody exactly what would happen when we die; he told us we would all have a mansion – Jesus said, in my Father’s house are many mansions – and he told us the exact dimensions of our mansion, the square footage, computing this from various verses of scripture. It was bizarre, and so bad that the little church, which was quite conservative and not at all what you would call a sophisticated bunch – I mean, they were the kind of church that had probably endured more than a few weird sermons over the years – this church had to decide whether or not to continue the revival or just cancel the whole thing right then and there after the first night.
Those folks knew intuitively that none of us could possibly know the stuff this guy was spouting out, and it offended them not just that he was answering unknowable questions, but that he was so darn sure about it.
Rather than speculating about what we do not know, we need to pay attention to what we do know. In this story, we need to pay attention to what Jesus is saying.
To get a sense of where Jesus was coming from, it may help to know a little bit about marriage in Jesus’ day. Marriage in the first century was an economic arrangement, usually initiated and concluded by the parents of the two parties. Generally speaking, the woman had no say in the matter, and the man often had very little, especially if he were 15 or so, which was a normal age to be married. The laws about marrying a deceased brother’s wife if there were no sons were instituted to keep the property in the family and continue the dead man’s name. These were economic considerations.
So when Jesus says we won’t be giving people in marriage in the Kingdom, part of what he is saying is that we won’t have the economic necessities that made marriage what it was, and that people will not be treated like property.
Now, we can read this kind of odd, kind of archaic, maybe even kind of silly story, and think of it as irrelevant, but it raises a couple of questions that are very relevant.
First, what will resurrection life be like? We all wonder what the future will hold, we all wonder about what happens when we die. The Saducees’ mistake was assuming that the life to come would be just like earthly life – and therefore ridiculing the very idea. We certainly don’t know the full answer to this question – even if folks like that evangelist back in Indiana think they know all the answers – but Jesus tells us at the very least that that resurrection life will be nothing like our present existence.
It was acceptable - and according to the law, even expected - for a widow to marry her brother-in-law in order to have children and keep the family name alive. Jesus said, these are concerns for this life. They will not be concerns in the life to come.
The Book of Revelation often describes heaven by what is not there--no tears, no sorrow, no pain. With this passage, we could add, no domination, no taking others for granted, no treating someone as if they were property. People will not be given in marriage because people will not be things to be given.
Resurrection life will not simply be “more of the same” of what we have on earth. It won’t even be “more and better” of what we have now. Existence in the kingdom is beyond our describing. In I Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of eternity and says that now, we only “see through a glass dimly.” We cannot describe existence in the life to come because we cannot know it in this life.
Imagine a baby, still in the womb. Assuming that child could understand what we are saying, how could we describe to that child what this world outside the womb is like? How could we describe the sky and the air? Or trees or grass? Or people? We couldn’t. How can we describe existence in the life to come? We can’t. We have some clues to that existence, but we can rest assured that it will not simply be more of the same.
Jesus speaks to the Saducees’ real issue, their lack of belief in resurrection. Conditions in this life do not constitute proof of conditions in the life to come, he says. The realm of God is unlike life as we know it now.
The second big question this story raises for us is, Will we know our spouses, our family, our friends in eternity? Given Jesus’ words about not marrying in the next life and the emphasis on a qualitative difference in resurrection life, this is an important question. And whenever there is a funeral, this question is very much on our minds. Will we be with this person again? Will we see them again? Will we know them? What will they be like?
Jesus does not address this question here, not directly. He does not say whether we will know those who have been dear to us in this life, only that resurrection life will be different than this one.
But he does say – and here, he is quoting from Torah, for the benefit of the Saducees – Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, where God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It is not that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God is their God. To God, all of them are alive. God is the God of the living, not the dead.
Jesus says that there is life beyond this life, and his statement implies that relationships in this life persist in the life to come.
Still, we want to know more details. We naturally want to fill in the blanks, like that young evangelist. We want to know more, but as Paul says, we only see now through a glass dimly. I don’t know the answers, none of us do, and I have probably already said more than I know.
We do not know the what and the how. We do not know the details. But we do know who holds the answers, and who holds our lives. Our faith is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Christ from death and promises to do the same also for us. For God is the God not of the dead, but of the living. And for now, that is enough to know. Amen.