The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the twentieth chapter.
27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”
34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” (Luke 20:27–38 ESV)
Moses wrote for us. In Deuteronomy 25, to be exact. The rules by which a dead brother’s name is to be remembered. She shall not be married to a stranger, but “[h]er husband’s brother shall go into her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” And the first son — meaning he keeps going in if she bears daughters — shall bear the name of the dead brother “that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”
This all reminds me of Abraham and Sarah, and the promise of God that the two will have many descendants. And their failure to trust God’s time, and God’s abilities, when Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a present, telling him “go into my servant, that I may be built up by her.”
And Ishmael is born. Abraham and Sarah try to fulfill the promise of God on their own, with their bodies, according to their impatient wills. It doesn’t work. Not that Ishmael isn’t a blessing, and receives a promise of his own, but that he is not the one in whom and through whom the promise of God will be fulfilled.
Jesus says something similar here. The Torah allows — even requires (though the matter appears to be conditional by beginning this teaching with the qualification, “If brothers dwell together” כּי־יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּ֗ו) — that brothers do this duty for each other. This appears to be a woman’s right, to have a son that will bear the name of her deceased husband, and she is allowed to shame a brother publicly for his refusal. Strong stuff.
But it assumes death, and the finality of death. It assumes that all we leave behind of value is what we beget, or can build or hew with our own hands. And Jesus no longer speaks of the finality of death. “They cannot die anymore,” he says. And they never were truly dead, as God is God of the living, and to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to remind ourselves that our ancestors in calling and faith are not dead.
It is to remind ourselves that we are preserved — our names, our patrimony, our descendants — not through our own efforts, not because (as men) we go into our wife’s handmaiden or our dead brother’s widow, but because we are united to Christ in his eternal life.
And Jesus also suggests here that our temporal arrangements — in particular, marriage — are of no meaning in the resurrection. That we marry not for sacred or holy reasons, or to fulfill some natural order of creation, but rather, as Paul said to the church at Corinth, for crass and almost utilitarian reasons, because “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
We are not married for time and eternity. Because in the resurrection, all of the things we arrange — good ordered or not, pleasing to God or not — are of no importance and of no value. No one “belongs” to anyone in the resurrection, not spouse, not child, not slave.
Death is not real, and so we do not have to worry about what we leave behind. We who have no children will have as many descendants as those who have conceived and birthed many.
We love in the here and now because we are called to love. And we leave it to Go to fulfill the promises we are made when we love. Whether we marry, or not — or beget, or not — we belong only to Christ. Whose eternal life we share, whose resurrection is ours.