About a year ago we lost one of our parishioners after a sustained battle with illness. If you remember, at that time we were still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Though many of us finally had our power back, we faced an early snow storm. The storm delivered just enough snow to knock out power in some of the local schools and to muck up roads that were already struggling to be freed from fallen trees. My daughter’s school was cancelled, and I had anticipated just trying to stay warm at home for the day. But when I got the call that Mina had died – I was dumbfounded. There was no doubt in my mind that I would go join the family for prayers, but I had no idea how to incorporate my daughter into the visit. With the weather conditions such as they were, there was no way she could stay anywhere else. And so began a ten minute drive during which I tried to explain to my three-year old daughter what death meant, what heaven is, and what God’s role in all of this is. Of course, I totally forgot to factor into my explanation the fact that Mina’s body would still be present, and how her body figured into my three-year-old-appropriate explanation of heaven. Needless to say, a year later, I am still fielding questions about death, heaven, and God.
The truth is that I think adults have as many questions about death, heaven, and God as young children do. When we hear the complicated question of the Sadducees to Jesus about the woman with seven husbands, we find ourselves morbidly curious too. What does happen to this woman in the afterlife? Would she have wanted to be with one over another in heaven? Of course her scenario makes us think of all the stories of loved ones we know – or even of ourselves. What happens to the widow who remarries in the resurrection? What about the couple who divorces and later remarries? Surely they will not have to be reunited with their exes! Or what about that abusive father, that mean uncle, or that estranged sister? Do we face them in the afterlife? Since we do not really have anyone to give us an insider’s perspective, these are the questions that we really wonder about. And if we have ever held the hand of a loved one approaching death, we may have asked these questions to God, to our priest, or to a friend. So when the Sadducees ask this question of Jesus, we perk up, hoping for some real clarity from Jesus, and secretly praying for the answer that we think is best.
The trouble with this text though is that the Sadducees are not really asking Jesus a practical question about what happens in the resurrection. In fact, the Sadducees do not even believe in the resurrection. If you remember, the Sadducees are the group of people who believe the Torah – those first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures – to be the only authorized scripture. None of the other books that we know from scripture – the prophetic writings or the Psalms – are considered valid scripture by the Sadducees. Because there is neither a doctrine of resurrection of the dead nor a belief in angels in the written Torah, the Sadducees refuse to believe that there is life after this earthly life. The Pharisees along with Jesus and his disciples, on the other hand, believe in ongoing interpretation of Torah handed down by word of mouth, and so, they have no problem with the ideas of resurrection presented in other Hebrew scriptures.[i]
So this question by the Sadducees about the resurrection is not really a question for which the Sadducees are looking for answers. Instead, this is a question meant to both ridicule Jesus,[ii] and to trap Jesus in an impossible question. Though we may feel some sense of camaraderie in shared curiosity, the Sadducees are not simply a curious bunch with a heartfelt question. They are trying to manipulate Jesus and embarrass him in front of the crowd. Luckily for us, Jesus offers an answer anyway. Of course the answer is not as specific as we might like, but the answer does offer hope and mercy in a roundabout way.
What Jesus basically tells the Sadducees and those gathered around him is that the resurrection is not like life here on earth. Life after earthly life is not “Earthly Life, Part II,” where everything is the same, but better. In the resurrection life, rules of this life – and in particular, rules that applied to Levirate marriage, like a brother taking on a widowed sister-in-law – are not the same as the rules in the afterlife. Jesus does not explain exactly what this looks like or how this plays out, and Jesus does not fully satiate our curiosity. But Jesus does give an answer that is full of mercy and love. Jesus basically tells those gathered that the beauty of the resurrection is that the strictures and limitations of this life are lifted in the life to come. Things like women being treated as property to be managed, infertility, and grief are erased in the afterlife. Things like disappointment in marriage, pressure to be married, and even death itself are no longer present in the afterlife. Things that define us here, limit or frustrate us, or pain us here in this life are absent in the afterlife. Jesus will never concede to the Sadducees that resurrection life does not exist. But Jesus does try to kindly invite the Sadducees into seeing that resurrection life is so much more than they can imagine, and so much more full of true life than this earthly life that they know. Jesus does not answer their question fully, but Jesus does say that the Creator God of Torah is still revealing truth, and that the truth is full of mercy, grace, and love.
I am reminded of the scene from the movie The Matrix where the main character, Neo, goes to visit a woman called the Oracle to find out if he is “the one,” a messiah-like figure to save the world. Neo goes to the Oracle with a clear-cut question, “Am I the One?” But the conversation that ensues is complex and layered with meaning. She seems to be telling Neo he is not the one, but we later learn in the movie that she was actually telling him that he is not the one if he will not claim his status as the One. The scene is as complicated as my rudimentary attempts to explain the scene. But what the scene reminds me of are our conversations with God about ultimate things. We often come to God with basic questions and concerns that are rarely answered directly. But that does not mean we do not get a response. In the end, the response is loving, full of compassion, and ultimately full of truth when we are ready to understand and interpret that truth.
This is all that Jesus can offer us today. Jesus is not offering an exclusive interview a top news source to tell us everything we want to know about resurrection life. We will not be able to watch with bated breath as Jesus answers every question we want answered. Instead, Jesus offers us a promise to take home. His promise is that we have resurrection life beyond this earthly life. His promise is that resurrection life is not some two-dimensional repeat of this life, with the limited happiness we can find here, but instead is a three-dimensional life beyond our knowing because of our limited earthly experience. His promise is that God is ever revealing truth to us, showing us the most important truth: that God loves us, shows us exquisite mercy, and offers us unfailing grace. Jesus’ words today may not be the 60-Minute special we were hoping for, but Jesus’ words today give us something to hold on to in the midst of this crazy, chaotic world that is our earthly home. Hold fast to the Lord who loves you, shows you exquisite mercy, and offers you unfailing grace. Amen.