TEXTS: Job 19:23-29 and Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow . . . Now, there were seven brothers . . .” (Luke 20:27-29)
And so they ask their question. One by one, seven brothers marry this same woman, and one by one they all die, leaving no children. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?
Given the glorious and comforting promise of a life with God beyond this life on earth, the Sadducees quiz Jesus about marital law in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus might have responded by saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Or, if he had my temperament, he might have said, “What do you care? If God cares for you enough to provide for your security through death and on the other side of death, would you not think that God can handle all the details? Come on! Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
But Jesus took their question seriously. He told them: “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.”
And he kindly let them know that their query revealed at least two weaknesses—one in their mentality and one in their spirituality.
First, the questioners failed to recognize that the nature of life beyond the grave differs substantially from life in this present moment; and second, they failed to understand the comprehensive nature of God’s care for all people.
And it’s for these two reasons that I think today’s gospel reading is bang-on perfect for the Sunday before Remembrance Day, when we will pause to remember wars and tragedies and atrocities—past and present.
Because if you’re like me, when you contemplate those kinds of things, you get sad and then you get angry—and then you begin to look either for justice or for vengeance. And maybe you begin to get all tied up in knots about questions like these:
- Do our enemies go to the same heaven that we do? Our faith tells us that every person who truly repents and turns to God will be saved.
- If Adolf Hitler—or Osama Bin Laden—asked God for forgiveness, would they go to the same heaven as the people they murdered? Will victims have to endure the presence of perpetrators for all eternity?
- Do the poor fools who flew jetliners full of innocent people to their deaths because of some misguided interpretation of Islam get punished as severely in the next life as those who put them up to it?
- Are the mourning relatives loved ones murdered by Russian forces in Ukraine supposed to “turn the other cheek” and “love their enemies?” And what if they can’t? What if they just can’t? Will God judge them for that, on the last day?
Or how about this question: How can the suffering of this life be erased in the next? If someone has been tormented and abused and made to feel worthless in this life; if someone has known nothing but unendurable suffering in this life; how can it be made “all better” in the next life?
How? How can tears like that ever be wiped away—even by God?
When we are faced with such questions, we need to hear stories like today’s gospel passage. Because—as urgent and heart-rending as such queries are—they are like the question the Sadducees posed to Jesus.
And such questions are, in the end, without satisfying answers.
Questions about the hereafter—and especially questions that attempt to make sense of the hereafter—cannot have answers which are satisfying, because they cannot have answers which we can understand.
Life beyond the grave, apparently, differs so completely from life in this present moment that its details are beyond our comprehension.
So we find ourselves stymied, as the Sadducees were.
And faced with Jesus’ assurances, we find ourselves asking the same kind of needless questions they asked. We ask, “How? How is the next life different from this one?”
That question reflects the same kind of “can’t see the forest for the trees” mentality that plagued the people around Jesus.
By the way, my own answer to the “how” enquiry is: “I don’t know. I do not know the details of the future.”
I think I can say with confidence that I am not alone—no one possesses such knowledge.
Too many of us spend too much time asking needless questions. Instead of joyfully affirming that God created the earth, we get caught up in enquiries about the methodology and chronology of creation. Rather than celebrating Christ’s ability to quell the storms that arise within and around us, we argue details of the boundaries of Christ’s sovereignty—seeking explanations of exactly who can realize the calm of Christ, and when and where it can happen.
Akin to the Sadducees interrogating Jesus in today’s gospel text, many people—instead of giving thanks for Christ’s assurance that God will take care of us at the end of time—spend their energy trying to figure out exactly when and how the end will come.
Now, to be sure, curiosity is not incompatible with faith. I’m not saying that questions are bad. Questions can play a major role in the strengthening and maturing of one’s faith. However, in the presence of grand assurances from Jesus Christ, we ought not to ask needless questions—questions that reveal not so much a desire for understanding as a lack of trust.
Even when current events appear to squelch hope for the future, the goodness of God is not in question.
Consider our Hebrew Scripture reading. Not even the blitzkrieg of tragedies in Job’s life could erase his hope in God’s goodness. Sitting on a garbage dump—just as well as lounging in a mansion or praying in a temple—Job could declare his absolute confidence in God’s redeeming, faithful love.
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27a)
The Sadducees should have remembered Job’s testimony. And so should we. Like Job, Jesus understood that faith needs both an appreciation of mystery and a complete trust in the living God.
The nature of the life to come, like the substance of so many other spiritual realities, is a mystery. To a mindset bent on knowing everything about everything, mystery reeks with negative overtones. That is not the case, however, for a person who relates to God in faith.
Mystery held in the hands of a loving God is a source of assurance rather than threat, an instrument of comfort rather than anxiety, a guarantor of security rather than a prompter of questions. An appreciation of mystery rests on the foundation of trust. It is not a blind leap into the darkness, but rather an eyes-wide-open embrace of God’s promises.
Though we may not know the details of how every divine promise will be fulfilled—or of how God’s perfect justice will ultimately play out—we need not doubt God’s ability to make all things right. Through the whole sweep of biblical history, people’s hopes were never large enough to capture God’s fulfillment of those hopes. Even the great prophets’ loftiest expectations of the coming Messiah fell short of the One whom God finally sent.
Thankfully, God’s gift of the Messiah was not limited by people’s knowledge or understanding—or even by people’s dreams.
Jesus was more than anyone ever imagined: a prophet who spoke with unprecedented authority, a leader whose power resided in service, a ruler whose throne was a cross and whose kingdom was not of this world.
The glory of God’s future does not depend upon our understanding of the future. God remains capable of giving us more than we ever can imagine or understand. Such gracious reality calls forth not questions, but praise. Let us rest in the compassionate provisions of our just and loving God. Amen.