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Marriage & The Resurrection

Mark 12:18-27

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, saying, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that 'if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.' There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her." Jesus said to them, "Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong."
In today's Gospel reading from the lectionary we once again see some Jewish leaders trying to trip Jesus with a clever question. The difference is today Jesus' encounter is not with the Pharisees but the Sadducees who do not believe there will be a resurrection. That is why they are "Sad You See".

Like most of us, the Sadducees were so convinced of their way of seeing the world that they could not conceive that they could be wrong or that another way of looking at the world might be right. They are certain that there will be no resurrection of the body. They believe that the ancient Jewish practice of Levirate marriage proves their point.

The Jewish Encyclopedia explains Levirate marriage this way:

Marriage with a brother's widow. This custom is found among a large number of primitive peoples, a list of which is given by Westermarck ("History of Human Marriage," pp. 510-514). In some cases it is the duty of a man to marry his brother's widow even if she has had children by the deceased, but in most cases it occurs when there are no children, as among the Hindus ("Institutes of Manu," v. 59-63). Among the Hebrews marriage with a brother's widow was forbidden as a general rule (Lev. xviii. 16, xx. 21), but was regarded as obligatory (Deut. xxv. 56) when there was no male issue, and when the two brothers had been dwelling on the same family estate. The surviving brother could evade the obligation by the ceremony of Ḥaliẓah. The case of Ruth is not one of levirate marriage, being connected rather with the institution of the Go'el; but the relations of Tamar with her successive husbands and with Judah are an instance (Gen. xxxviii.). If the levirate union resulted in male issue, the child would succeed to the estates of the deceased brother. It would appear that later the levirate marriage came to be regarded as obligatory only when the widow had no children of either sex. The Septuagint translates "ben" (son) in the passage of Deuteronomy by "child," and the Sadducees in the New Testament take it in this sense (Mark xii. 19; comp. Josephus, "Ant." iv. 8, § 23).
This practice, among others, should teach us to be careful of using the phrase "biblical marriage" as though there were only one understanding and one way of practicing marriage according to the entire Bible. Levirate marriage was an ancient practice later discarded by Judaism and Christianity. The chart above shows several different marriage practices in the Hebrew Scriptures. (You may click on the chart to see a larger image.)

Be that as it may, the Sadducees thought that Levirate marriage proved their point that there would be no resurrection. After all, who would this woman belong to in the resurrection if she had seven husbands in this life?

Jesus scolds the Sadducees for not understanding either the Scriptures or the power of God. Jesus then explains to the Sadducees that there will be no marriage in the resurrection, contrary to what many Christians even today may believe in their heart of hearts. But even more importantly, raising the dead is not too difficult for God. Jesus proves to the Sadducees that there is life after death by quoting from the Torah, the five books of Moses which they did believe. Jesus points the Sadducees to the story where Moses encounters God in the burning bush and God says, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." In other words, Jesus explains, God is the God of the living, not the dead. If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had simply ceased to exist after death, then God would presumably have introduced himself to Moses in this manner: "I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

This story raises several important questions:

  1. How much are our views of marriage shaped by our culture?
  2. How much are our views of marriage really shaped by God?
  3. How much is our belief about life after death shaped by Jesus' teaching?
  4. How much is that belief shaped by other factors like beliefs that our widespread in our culture?
  5. Do we really believe in the resurrection of the body?
  6. If so, how does this belief shape our lives now?
  7. How well do we know the Scriptures?
  8. How well acquainted are we with the power of God?

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