We have just heard Jesus answer a question about one bride who married seven brothers (Luke 20:27-28).
Now, the idea of a woman marrying seven successive brothers, each of whom dies childless, may seem a bit bizarre to us today. But ancient Jewish law in the Torah obliged a man to marry his dead brother’s wife if she were childless. Her firstborn child - if she had one - would inherit the dead man’s name and property. If the man refused to marry her, he would be publicly humiliated. In a deeply patriarchal society this law provided some protection and security to the widow and her future children.
The question was asked by Sadducees, adherents of a Jewish tradition who accepted only the Torah, the 1st five books of our OT, as God’s law. The Torah does not mention the possibility of resurrection, so they rejected the very idea. Later books of the OT – the prophetic and wisdom books – do talk about resurrection. They were accepted by other Jewish traditions who did believe in resurrection – in particular the Pharisees. The disputes between those who did and those who didn’t were very bitter.
The Sadducees’ question was this: if you believe in resurrection, which of the seven brothers will the woman be married to when they all rise from the dead?
It is a trick question. If Jesus replies ‘all of them’, everyone will be outraged, because for patriarchal Jews it was entirely unacceptable for a woman to have more than one husband - even though a man could have more than one wife. If Jesus picks one brother, they will tie him up in knots justifying which one. So - they think - he will have to support their view that resurrection is a nonsense – and that will annoy the Pharisees.
In his answer Jesus reveals what he believes about resurrection – and at the same time he avoids the trap set for him by the Sadducees.
Jesus tells the Sadducees they are mistaken. He quotes the Torah they revere to argue for life after death, for resurrection.
He points them to the story of the burning bush in which God tells Moses, in the present not the past tense (Exodus 3:6), ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’. God, says Jesus, ‘is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive’. They have died, but they are alive - so they must have been resurrected.
And he draws a clear distinction between living mortals and those who have died and been resurrected. He says that after death there can be no such thing as marriage – death really does change human relationships.
‘Those who belong to this age’ – mortal human beings - ‘marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age’ – after death - ‘and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’. Notice that Jesus does not say that all will rise from the dead – only those who are considered worthy of it. ‘Indeed’, he says, ‘they cannot die any more’ - they have eternal life - because they are like angels’ – and angels were believed to be sexless. They ‘are children of God, being children of the resurrection’.
From this we can be sure of 2 things: 1st Jesus himself does believe in the resurrection of the dead – at least for those considered worthy of it; and 2nd Jesus does not believe that those who are resurrected are simply re-animated corpses – they have become something completely different.
Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead – but do you, do I? I hope so, because every Sunday in the creeds we publicly declare our belief in resurrection.
These days most people find it very difficult to believe in the resurrection of the dead. Even many Christians mouth the words of the creeds without really meaning them. Our modern, materialist world view, informed by science, can make resurrection seem literally unbelievable. The atoms and molecules of which I am made will be dispersed when I die, and recycled into other living creatures, including other human beings. How can they be re-assembled after my death into a living body? My identity as a unique person is encoded chemically both in my DNA and in my memories. How can it persist beyond my dissolution?
But surely it would be wrong to reject what Jesus himself believed! If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus did not rise from the dead, and as St Paul said, our faith is in vain.
Our world view – how we make sense of everything around us – is not the same as the Sadducees’. When Jesus talked to the Sadducees about resurrection he spoke to them in language they could relate to and understand – the language of the Torah. I feel sure that when we try to make sense of the resurrection we must also use language that we can relate to and understand – and for many of us that is the language of modern science.
We should not be afraid to express our faith in new ways that make sense to us.
I ask myself how Jesus might explain to me what resurrection means to him in language I can understand and believe in. I can imagine him saying something like this:
‘Our lives are world lines, like threads in the 4 dimensions of space-time. They start at our conception and end at our death, and each of them is entangled with the world lines of the others we encounter.
God, who is not constrained by space-time, loves and apprehends each of us in our entirety, from start to finish – in other words, he apprehends our world line - and every other person’s world line too.
God judges our worth against the quality of our love - our relationships with others – measured over our entire world line, our whole lives.
Our resurrection is precisely God’s apprehension of us as being worthy of him. In our resurrection, we are as different from our mortal selves as a line is to a point - we cannot die a 2nd time, we have been transformed into immortal children of God.’
I find these ideas help me to understand resurrection and to believe in it. Perhaps you will find them helpful too. If not – if this sounds to you no more than meaningless science fiction psychobabble, like Star Trek speak – don’t worry, just ignore them.
But if you find the idea of resurrection difficult, I urge you to search for your own way to understand it, and to believe in it.
Because Jesus believed in resurrection, and Jesus was himself raised from the dead.
Let me finish in prayer with a Collect for Resurrection from the BCP (p495)
Bring us, Lord our God, at our last awakening,
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate, and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of your glory and dominion, world without end.