Sermons That Work

Whose Wife Will…, Proper 27 (C) – 2001

November 11, 2001

“Whose wife will the woman be?” Isn’t that a great question? The Sadducees were the oldest and most conservative of the major religious groups of Jesus’ day. One of their big disagreements with the Pharisees and other groups was over the fairly new notion that there would be a personal resurrection after death. The Sadducees denied this for a number of reasons. Today’s Gospel talks about two of them. First, they argued that the resurrection was not attested in Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament, which were the only books the Sadducees accepted. This is why Jesus uses the story about Moses and the burning bush as an argument against the Sadducees. That story, Jesus insists, implies a resurrection, and, what’s more, it’s from Exodus, one of the books that the Sadducees did accept. That little discussion is a case of Jesus accepting the starting point of his opponents, and arguing against them on that basis. Since we are not terribly concerned about what can and cannot be established using only the authority of the first five books of the Bible, this particular argument of the Sadducees is not terribly interesting.

But the other reason, the other argument, is interesting. The Sadducees said that the resurrection didn’t make sense. They said that you could not think about it clearly, and that you could not understand it well enough to merit believing it. This is what’s behind the business with the woman and the seven brothers. After all, if the idea of resurrection doesn’t let you figure out as simple a point as who is married to whom, then there must be something wrong with the whole thing. This is an interesting argument for a lot of reasons-not the least of which is that we still ask questions like this all of the time. We don’t usually ask them for the same reasons the Sadducees did — to discredit the whole idea of resurrection. We usually ask them in the hope of finding some sort of answer. But our questions are still very much like those of the Sadducees.

We wonder whether, in heaven, after the resurrection, babies who died as babies will still be babies, and whether those who die at great age will be of great age, and if not, what age will they be, and for that matter, what age will we or anyone else be. (By the way, in the fourth century St. Augustine worked on this question and came up with an answer that satisfied him. He decided that everyone would be 33 — which was generally thought to be Jesus’ age at his resurrection.)

We also wonder whether we will recognize one another, and — at least in some cases — we wonder whether we will want to recognize one another — or at least whether we want to be recognized by everyone. No doubt, there are also many who still ask about some variations and versions of “whose wife will she be?” or “whose husband will he be?” (Which could be connected with the issue of who we would want to recognize, or not recognize, and who we would want to recognize us. Did you ever wonder how many of those seven brothers the woman in the Gospel story really wanted to know forever?) Anyway, there are lots of other questions like this around, and we all have them.

What’s more, these are good questions, and it would be really handy to have answers to them. It would be really great to have knowledge, real information, about the details, the specifics, of eternal life. Reasonably enough, we want to know what it will be like.

This search for answers, for knowledge that feels so much like power, is both very ancient and completely contemporary. Crystal balls, mediums, books about near-death experiences, the old psychic channel, the new age junk, and a goodly number of offbeat versions of the Christian faith, have all promised, and continue to promise, this sort of information. They all say, in one way or another, “We know what it is like; we know the answers, the secrets.” And it would be very nice to know, to have our questions answered, our doubts removed, and our uncertainties put to rest.

So, it is important to pay careful attention to what Jesus has to say to the Sadducees when they ask him about the woman with seven husbands. After all, if we are going to get any reliable details about the hereafter, we will more likely get them from Jesus than from television psychics. Besides, this is one of the very few times Jesus does deal with direct questions about this issue.

And what Jesus has to say to the Sadducees is fascinating. He says that the woman in the story is not going to be anybody’s wife. He said the question was silly because things will be different and people will be different. He said that we will all be like angels — children of the resurrection. He said, in effect, that God would handle things very efficiently.

Now, think about it; is that a very satisfying answer? We don’t know what the angels are like, so we don’t know what it means, really, to say we will be like angels. We don’t know what it looks like to be children of the resurrection, so that news doesn’t help us much, either. The Sadducees came to Jesus with this great question, and Jesus simply said that everything was going to be fine. But we know no more about what the resurrected life is like after the Lord’s answer than we did before.

Jesus just isn’t telling. And based on that, it would seem that he doesn’t particularly want us to spend a lot of time asking, either. God can handle it. That’s about as much as we are going to get.

This is important. This is central to our entire understanding of the resurrection and of hope. It is very important that we understand that our hope does not come from knowing whose wife the woman will be. Our hope does not come from knowing any details, not even from knowing answers to the best and most reasonable of questions.

Our hope comes from knowing Jesus, and only from knowing Jesus. Our hope comes from our trust in the power and the love of God. There is no other source of real hope. Not only do we not know any of the details of the life to come, we are not ever going to know any of the details; at least not on this side of the journey.

So, we are called to hope, to real, dynamic, living hope, based solely on our trust in God. We are given no specifics, no answers, no solutions, no picture postcards. Instead, at this place of all places, we are called simply to surrender our questions and our difficulties and our logical puzzles and to trust that God will handle things better than we could even imagine; and that God’s love and care for us will surpass all that we can ask or imagine.

We are to remember that when we die, and when those we love die, that God does not die. God’s love for us, a love that has already carried us through so much, a love that has already been so gracious to us — that love does not die. That love will continue and that love will grow, and that love is what we have to rely on. One of the things this means is that the best way to prepare spiritually for our death and for the life to come is not by taking harp lessons or by trying to figure out the details of the afterlife. The best way to prepare ourselves spiritually for our own death and the life to come is to work on trusting God more, and to practice letting go.

This doesn’t answer the questions of the Sadducees or our own questions. We still don’t know whose wife she will be, or how old we will be, or whom we will recognize, or anything like that. Jesus thinks it best that we don’t know this. Instead, we are given an opportunity to trust, and we are give a chance for hope, for hope that is greater than all of our questions, for hope that is greater than we can ever imagine.

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Christopher Sikkema


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