Text: Luke 20: 27-38
I left work on Thursday night and drove three hours west to Rock Island, Illinois for an all-day continuing education workshop on marriage and pre-marital counseling. I was a psychology major in college, where I focused on adolescent mental health. I spent some years doing youth and family counseling before going to seminary, and have worked in a couple different hospitals as a chaplain doing crisis counseling. Lots of the skills transfer from one setting to the next, but I realized that most of my background has been with families in crisis, and I wanted to get some more training in counseling in this specific area – marriage and relationships preparing for marriage.
One of the first things you learn as a counselor is the importance of knowing not only the story of your client’s family of origin, but your own. The relationships we observe and are a part of as young people have a tremendous effect on how we think about who we are and what life holds for us. Did we grow up in families with rigid rules and roles or was the household a tempest in a teacup with no rhyme or reason to its spinning? Did family members involve themselves in every detail of each other’s lives or were parents and children casual bystanders to one another? Were family conflicts wide open for all to see, or kept private and behind closed doors? All these experiences and messages shape us and mold us and contribute to who we are as we emerge into the world to build lives for ourselves.
And often we leave our homes making little promises to ourselves like, “I’ll never be like him,” and then we ask our friends to hold us to them, “kill me if I ever start sounding like her…” We can love our families, and still hope desperately to be able to leave behind some of their influences upon us.
The instructor of the marital and pre-marital counseling course told us that the scariest thing you can say to a couple about to get married is, “if you’re not careful you’ll become your parents.” I smiled when he said that, partly because I’d be lucky to end up with a relationship as strong as my parents’ and partly because I know in the way only family members can know that no marriage is perfect and that I very likely have inherited both my parents’ strengths and their weaknesses. Well, “very likely” makes it sound like I don’t already know first-hand, but the truth is that I have been in love and I have shared a home with a partner and I have lived on the inside of a relationship that fell apart – but not for lack of love – and I know that I took the best and the worst of what I learned at home into and out of that relationship. And despite the heartbreak that comes with living through a relationship that ends, I know that I am still living with the hope of love.
That’s the kind of history that a trained marriage and family counselor can probably do something with. The situation put to Jesus in today’s gospel reading is of another scale altogether.
A group of Sadducees come to Jesus asking a hypothetical question about life after death, the resurrection. We should be glad that it’s a hypothetical question, because in the case they describe a woman is married consecutively to each of her first husband’s six other brothers, and is widowed seven times. It is the kind of hypothetical question you pose precisely because of its extremity, because it pushes a point that you’re trying to make. In this case the Sadducees are ridiculing the idea of life after death.
Jewish culture in the time of Jesus was divided on some basic theological ideas – like the authority of scripture over the oral tradition, belief in angels and the resurrection, and the role of free will in the unfolding of time. Further proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Sadducees were members of the priestly class and centered their Judaism in the observance of religious practices centering on the Temple. They emphasized the role of the written scriptures, they did not believe in angels or the resurrection, and they tended to think that human beings acted on the desires of a free will. Outside the Temple establishment the Pharisees were practicing a different kind of Judaism, one that de-emphasized Temple worship in favor of observance of the moral laws of Judaism. They did believe in angels and the resurrection of the dead, and they believed that God was moving in and through people to bring about God’s ultimate ends. The Sadducees in this story are trying to figure out where Jesus fits into their long-standing conflict so they ask about resurrection in a way that makes the idea so ridiculous that no one could believe in it.
Levitical law, the law of the nation of Israel, held that a woman was the property of her husband. A man’s legacy lived on through the children he bore by his wife, and so if a man died childless it was his brothers’ responsibility to father children with by his widow in order to maintain the family line. The Sadducees use this bit of law to construct a hypothetical situation in which a woman ends up married to a set of seven brothers, each of whom dies before providing a child for the first husband. If we are to believe in resurrection, ask the Sadducees, who will this woman belong to in the afterlife?
This isn’t real marital counseling. The Sadducees aren’t asking about a real woman or her real relationships. But the question does feel like the kind of questions real couples sometimes ask – ridiculous questions designed to prove a point or win an argument. Questions that don’t take into account the reality of their loved one’s lives or fears or experiences.
Imagine what it might have been like to have been a woman in this crowd, to hear a group of men talking about this imaginary widow and her poor fortunes like they were a puzzle to be solved. Imagine living with the real knowledge that you belonged to another person the way a plot of land does, or a farm animal. Then listen to what Jesus says,
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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
Jesus answers the question put to him by first rejecting the de-humanizing assumptions his opponents have made. He won’t be forced into solving a word game based on rules that say some people matter and some people don’t. Instead he begins by reminding his audience – both the Sadducees and the men and women who have gathered to listen – that in the love of God we are exalted and made children of the most high, that we are not property to be bought or sold or traded in when something better comes along. We are precious and holy, and should approach our relationships with each other expecting to be treated as such.
This is where the story does become a case of good pastoral counseling for married people, engaged people, or just for any of us.
Some of us are married to our childhood sweethearts, some have lived lives without marriage; some of us are still waiting for our first great love, and some of us are living after the end of a relationship we’d hoped would never end. Regardless of our individual circumstances, Jesus’ words are good news for us. Our worth does not come from which man or woman we marry, or whether we marry at all. Our worth comes from the fact that we are the beloved children of God, we are like angels – children of the resurrection.
The word “angel” as you know, literally translated, means “messenger.” We are messengers of the good news of the resurrection. Now, what that means is anybody’s guess. The Sadducees try to ridicule the idea of a resurrection because they can’t make their ideas about property and law fit into that scheme, but Jesus makes it clear that whatever resurrection is about, it’s not about property – it’s about belonging. Belonging to Go
d who loves you with all the fierce and tender love of a parent, and who wants you to experience that love here and now – not someday when all is said and done. Jesus says,
Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.
We are, as we sang in the psalm this morning, kept as the apple of God’s eye. We are sheltered in the shadow of God’s wing. That doesn’t tell us much about the actual details of the resurrection, what comes after this life is concluded – and frankly I’m glad for that. Whenever people start making strong assertions about the afterlife, I start to wonder where they’re getting their information from. I actually prefer the trustworthy ambiguity of the scriptures where it says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Beloved, we are God’s children now. That is a family of origin you can lay claim to, regardless of whatever patterns or messages you got growing up. In our baptism and in our sharing at the Lord’s Supper we are learning lessons about what it means to belong to this family, and we are even growing up to become like our parent – which is what the Methodists call sanctification, but which we Lutherans may be more comfortable just calling grace. We are reaching for love in all its beauty and all its pain, and we are being transformed – raised up to new life – by the experience of it.