Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Four)

What is the status of marriage in the age to come? As we’ve noted previously, this question will occur to many of our listeners this week. And both the question and answers will bother and even upset some of our listeners. This isn’t the primary issue in our text. Nor does it appear to be a major concern for Jesus. Yet, this question motivates the text and can, perhaps, assist us in our interpretation.

Is marriage a divine creation or a human institution? Spoiler alert – I think the answer is “yes,” but leaning heavily toward “human institution.” While marriage may not be a central concern in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, marriage is certainly present in the texts. In the first creation account, the emphasis is on human beings made in the divine image. And human beings are to be fruitful and multiply on the face of the earth. No marriage there.

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In the second creation account, we learn that it is not good for human beings to be alone. God wondered if one from among the animals might remedy the situation. But a fit partner was not found there. Therefore, God made a fit partner for the man. The translation of “helper” for the Hebrew word “ezer” is not helpful – not unless we recall that the other one called “ezer” in the Hebrew scriptures is God.

There is no subordination of the woman to the man in either of the creation accounts. In fact, what subordination we do find in the text comes as a result of the Fall. Therefore, that sort of power relationship was not intended in God’s creation. It may be some sort of accommodation to human sin. Or it may simply be outside of God’s intention. In either case, however, the subordination of women to men is not a feature that will be carried into the age to come.

Some readers might point to Genesis 2:24 as the basis for a divine institution of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The word translated as “therefore” in this verse is actually two Hebrew words. The sense of the phrase is “because of” or “as a result of.”

Because the Lord made a fit partner for the man, and because the man recognized the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” human beings (at least those who held these texts as sacred) took a customary course of action. There is nothing in the text that suggests this course of action was designed or decreed by God. The outcome, that they become “one flesh,” is certainly consistent with the man’s experience. But the text does not describe marriage as specifically designed or directed by God.

I don’t wish to denigrate marriage between a man and a woman. Nor do I wish to deify it. Marriage can be an important way to organize one sort of human connection. But as marriage exists in human experience, it is a construction rather than a “natural” state. The sheer diversity of marriage customs, practices, laws, and rules in human societies gives testimony to this fact. Relationships between human beings can be organized in an astonishing variety of ways. That diversity means that the organizing structures have been built by human hands.

This gets more complicated when Jesus is challenged to interpret divorce regulations in the Torah and the first-century practices that come out of those regulations. In Matthew 19:7, some Pharisees point out to Jesus that the Torah allowed for men to divorce their wives. Jesus returns to the creation accounts. It’s always interesting to me that Jesus quotes from both of them.

In the light of God creating men and women and allowing them to join as “one flesh,” human practices should reflect those realities. It’s clear that the Torah constructs ways to manage those practices for Jews. And further teaching and practice continue to build additional stories on to that ground floor. The additional construction must reflect the nature of the foundation, or the structure will collapse under its own weight.

The Torah begins with sexual differentiation, the need for procreation, and the need for human community. We human beings have built all sorts of stories, practices, assumptions, and institutions on those few “facts” of creation.

What we have constructed will not be necessary in the age to come. Sexual differentiation will likely be a continuing reality because the new bodies we have will still be “our” bodies. But that differentiation will not be particularly important because we will be “like the angels.” There will be no need for procreation since life with God will not come to an end. And human community will be part of the gift of the community of all creation, the “new heaven and the new earth,” as it is described in the book of Revelation.

So, I think our text urges us to hold on to our constructions lightly, not tightly. We humans slip too easily into assuming that what we build is, in fact, “natural.” When we do that, we are usually creating a story that gives life to ourselves and takes life away from others. Whatever gives and sustains life will find its way into the age to come. Whatever takes and destroys life will not.

For some perspective, let’s think about “race.” In biological terms, there is the human race. All other senses of “race” are social constructions. They are not genetic realities. Human beings show up in this life with a variety of phenotypes (how we express our genetic endowment as individuals). We have small variations in our genotypes (the genetic information we carry with us). But there is very little relationship between the variations in genotype and phenotype.

In biological terms there are no “races.” Yet, the power of racialized constructions is the power or life and death. We White Europeans have spent five hundred years constructing stories about “racial” differences that advantage us in every way. We have built entire cultures, polities, and economies on the fiction of “natural” differences between the races. In those stories, the White people are always the best, the most deserving, the winners.

When we construct such stories, we typically reverse cause and effect. For example, Victor Ray gives this brief assessment of the eugenics movement in the United States. This movement, not coincidentally at its height during the Jim Crow era, sought to root the racist system in America in “natural” differences between people.

“Eugenicists who attributed differences in life expectancy and literacy rates to biology,” Ray writes, “were laundering social prejudice through scientific jargon, by providing a defense of and justification for racial inequality, not an explanation of underlying causes” (page 10). The constructed system, by intention, produced differential outcomes. Then that system used those outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between White and Black people.

The same critique can be made of the patriarchal system at work in our text and still in our own culture. We see differential outcomes for women when it comes to average earnings, healthcare outcomes, and opportunities for advancement. The patriarchal system is designed to precisely produce those differences. Then the system uses the different outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between men and women. Of course, those differences don’t really exist. But the system does.

Therefore, even though “race” as a biological reality is not real, “races” as social constructions are very real. Yet, what has been built can be unbuilt. What has been constructed can be deconstructed. I’m not suggesting that this is easy or simple. We White Europeans have invested five centuries or more in building and sustaining the system of White Supremacy around the globe. It may take that many centuries to dismantle this damnable system.

I think that our text reminds us to hold our human constructions lightly. The moment those constructions take life rather than give it, destroy life rather than sustain it, those constructions must be attacked and abandoned. If the Temple system, for example, becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If human government becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If our theological system becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If the way we organize the relationships between men and women becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go.

One could argue that we’re comparing apples and oranges in comparing race and gender. However, that’s not the case. I’m not suggesting that phenotypical differences are an illusion. They are not. Nor am I suggesting that sexual differentiation is a mirage. It is not. What we do with those differences, however, makes all the difference. “Race” is a social construction. So is gender. What has been constructed, can be deconstructed.

And what is constructed are structures, not merely individual actions. “Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray writes. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). A similar description can be offered for patriarchal systems of power and privilege. And when such systems are combined, for example in the lives of Black women in the United States, the life-denying power in those individual lives is devastating.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims can bring a particular analytical lens to life, if we’re willing to apply it first to ourselves. We humans tend to build things that benefit us. Then we worship those things and pretend that things have always been this way. That’s called idolatry. That’s what is really at stake in our text and in this section of the Lukan account. What things have we built and then turned into deities? Will we let the Holy Spirit challenge and change those realities in our systems and in ourselves?

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Random House, 2022.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Three)

“In the resurrection, therefore,” the Sadducees ask, “whose wife will the woman be?” She won’t be anyone’s wife in the resurrection, Jesus replies. That’s a revolutionary statement. In the first-century Mediterranean, a woman was usually defined by her relationship to a man. She started out life as a man’s daughter. She got married and became a man’s wife. If she bore sons, she would become a man’s mother. Her identity as a person was derived from her connection to a man.

It’s not that there were no “independent” women in the ancient world. We know about Lydia in the book of Acts, the dealer in fine purple cloth. While the text is mum about her marital status, there is no mention of a man in her life. A number of women, as we read in Luke 8, underwrite the costs of Jesus’ preaching tour in Galilee. One is married. At least some of the others are not.

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Widows in the ancient world occupied a liminal space. Widows had once been married and now are not. I can tell you, from experience as a widower, that this in-between experience of the formerly married is not limited to the ancient world. Widows were stereotypically regarded as in need of male protection and resourcing. They were often portrayed as economically and socially vulnerable. They were viewed as living on the edges of “normal” male/female relationships.

Childless widows would be particularly vulnerable. They were probably beyond the protection and care of a father. They had lost the connection to and identity with a husband. They did not have the “social security” of children duty-bound to provide for them in old age. Thus, the system of levirate marriage (assumed in the thought experiment proposed by the Sadducees) was intended to provide both some measure of security for the widow and a way for the name of the deceased husband to continue in Israel.

All that being said, we need to also remember that in ancient Israelite legal theory, marriage was first and foremost a property relationship. Therefore, for example, adultery was a property crime. It was the theft of one man’s “property” (the sexual function of the wife) by another man. The property of the family was owned and controlled by the husband and his family.  Of course, that is familiar to some of us as well. I can clearly remember the days when my mom couldn’t have a checking account or credit card without the co-signature of her husband.

Whose wife will the woman be? The socially conservative Sadducees presume a property understanding of marriage. “Whose” is a possessive pronoun. And the wife, in this question, is a possession of each of the seven brothers. More than that, she derives her position, status, and identity from that connection to a man. If there’s no man, whose is that woman? And who is that woman? In the resurrection she is, Jesus declares, isaggeloi – “like the angels.”

“This story, properly understood,” Anna Beresford writes, “emphasizes the equality of men and women in God’s sight, the love of God, the power of the kingdom, and the qualities of the resurrection life” (page 6). The woman will be a child of God and of the resurrection without the need for a male anchor in the scheme of existence. She will not require the validation of connection to another human being for that status. She will be seen and valued for herself and not for the sake of another.

Beresford notes that the Lukan author portrays an ambiguous picture of women in the gospel account. She suggests that this treatment of women is part of the Lukan strategy to subvert existing social relationship for the sake of the Kin(g)dom without posing a radical threat to the established authorities who might cause trouble for the Lukan community. “Rather than silencing or sidelining women,” Beresford writes, “Luke used them and their plight to highlight the historical inequalities of the time and make a theological point” (page 7).

Beresford argues that the Lukan author tells the story of the nameless widow in our text to demonstrate “the disconnect between the worldview of the Sadducees and the economy of God’s kingdom” (page 7). The Sadducees, as the representatives and guarantors of the established order, were not interested in any doctrine or practice that might threaten to upset that order.

It’s clear as we read Luke 20, that many folks saw Jesus as a threat to that established order. The questions Jesus fields in this section try to show him as a problem for the Temple system, the economic system, and the political system. Beresford notes that our text immediately follows the question about paying taxes to the Emperor. “To whom does this coin belong?” is the previous question. “To whom does the woman belong?” is the current question.

According to Beresford, Jesus’ answer is the same in each case: “just as the coin is imprinted with the emperor’s image and so belongs to the emperor, men and women both reflect the maker’s mark. They are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27) and belong to God alone.” This identifying mark, for the woman, is not dependent on a property relationship to a man. “The reason they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection,” Beresford argues, “is that, in the resurrection, women, make in God’s image, shall cease to be property” (page 10).

Instead, the woman (like the men) shall become “like the angels.” This doesn’t mean that dead people “become” angels. I write that with a certain amount of trepidation, no matter how much I know it’s true. In our time, many people are quite certain that their dead loved ones have become their “guardian angels” who watch over them from heaven. That’s not what our text says. “Like” the angels in immortality and ceasing to marry is not the same as being angels.

I want to digress for a moment in this regard. I am not saying that I think our deceased loved ones cease to have a relationship with us who are still in this life. I take great comfort from the image in the book of Hebrews of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on from the heavenly bleachers in the stadium of the New Creation. I have experienced connections with deceased loved ones at important moments of my life. I believe in the communion of saints, and I think that communion transcends the boundaries of space and time. It’s just that this doesn’t make my deceased loved ones into “guardian angels.” That job, in Christian tradition is already taken by, well, the guardian angels.

The angels live in the presence of God and have their life from God. So, too, Jesus argues later in the text, do those patriarchs (and matriarchs) upon which he bases his exegetical argument. “God’s relationship with people does not end when they die,” Beresford writes, instead, the relationship is everlasting and personal. And, as Jesus’ words implied,” she continues, “that relationship is not limited by a person’s gender. Both men and women are made in God’s image, so all have equal standing before God” (page 11).

As Beresford notes, the Sadduceean thought experiment portrays numerous features of their worldview. The ownership of women by men is assumed. Women have no choice but to acquiesce to the needs and directives of those men. The age to come would differ little from the present age (if there was any age to come at all). Things might be a bit different but not much. And death seems to be more powerful than God.

Jesus’ reply describes a different worldview, as Beresford summarizes. Death cannot destroy God’s relationship with God’s creatures. Men and women are equal participants in the age to come. That age has come near in Jesus and is beginning to unfold in the here and now.

I would add that Jesus reverses our frame of reference. This age is not the standard by which we judge the age to come. That is the Sadduceean perspective. Instead, the fulfillment of God’s creative intent in the age to come is the standard by which we are called to evaluate and change this age.

For example, how we do marriage now does not tell us what relationships in the age to come should be like. Instead, what we can discern of the age to come should tell us how our relationships in this age are to be – at least for Jesus followers. If the fulfillment of creation is that we should be like the angels, then we are called to start acting more “angelic” in the here and now.

Marriage should not be defined as property and power but rather as partnership. Human status and position don’t confer identity. God does. Marriage can be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the quality of relationships among all people in the age to come. But that can only be the case if marriage reflects the quality of relationship we can discern in the age to come. The current status quo cannot be used to judge the nature of the age to come. Rather, the age to come provides the standards by which to judge the current status quo.

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part One)

22 Pentecost C/All Saints Sunday 2022

In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Kyle Brooks notes that some might compare the controversy in this week’s reading to the medieval question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Brooks does not reduce the debate to such triviality, but he doesn’t address the real and quite personal questions this text will raise for many of our listeners. For those in our pews and on our feeds who are widowed and/or divorced, this debate will have immediate resonance.

We can dispense with the notion that the wife might remain the property of a husband in the afterlife. We may return to that downstream, but for now, let us stipulate that this is not an issue worthy of our attention for the moment. Instead, the question that will ring through the minds of many is clear. In the next life, whatever it looks like, what will remain of and/or carry over from this life?

“Love you” and “forever” go together in our normal discourse like “peanut butter” and “jelly.” A large fraction of pop love songs would disappear if we did not have this notion of “eternal” love. Some religious traditions make this a part of their theological and moral foundations. The idea that marriages formed in this life endure beyond this life is common and treasured by many.

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Even when the marriage ends in this life through divorce, the question still remains. That’s especially true for Christians. After all, Jesus is the one who emphasizes the “one flesh” nature of the marital bond. And he is the one who says that what God has put together no human being should put asunder. If one has forged multiple marriage bonds in this life, what part if any of those multiple bonds will remain and/or carry over into another life?

I am a widower. I have the great blessing of being married to two of the finest women ever to walk this earth. I am, of course, completely unbiased in that opinion (ha! Ha!). I should clarify that I have been married to these two women serially rather than concurrently. I believe and trust that the Holy Spirit has forged bonds in each of these marriages beyond human will and preference. If that is the case, to whom (if anyone) will I be “married” in the next and new life?

Therefore, the question from the Sadducees to Jesus may be one of the most contemporary questions possible for some in our pews (and pulpits). It is neither academic nor esoteric. The situation may seem comic in its exaggeration. But the question is serious in its implications.

“The sons of this age marry and give in marriage,” Jesus replies to the Sadducees, “but those who have been counted as worthy to obtain that age and to the resurrection from the dead shall neither marry nor give in marriage” (Luke 20:34b-35, my translation). Marrying and giving in marriage are both male activities in this context. Men marry women. Fathers give daughters. Those institutions will not continue in the age to come.

One reason for this change, of course, is that the need for procreation shall cease. “For neither shall they be able to die,” Jesus continues in verse thirty-six, “for they are like angels, and they are sons of God, being children of the resurrection” (my translation). As most commentators note, Jesus is not suggesting that people become “angels” when they die. The word is quite clear here. They become like angels since they are no longer subject to mortality.

More to the point, they are no longer offspring of human beings. That physical birth is not what begins and sustains their life in the age to come. Instead, they are “offspring of the resurrection.” It is the resurrection which gives them the life that is like that of the angels. That life is not rooted in human procreation. Nor is it rooted in a human “family unit.” Institutions of human family – whether biological or otherwise – do not have the same reality and force in the age to come.

I think this line of thinking can produce immense pain for those who have lost a spouse – either to death or through a painful divorce. It’s easy to hear in this analysis that our closest relationships in this life don’t matter much in the next life. Sometimes that sense leaches into our conversation in the here and now, with traumatizing consequences.

When my first spouse died, I was inconsolable. I mean that people found it hard to find the words to comfort me. And I was pissed off by most words of comfort. One well-meaning soul said to me, for example, that God needed my spouse. That’s why she died so young and so unexpectedly. I replied that as far as I could tell, I needed her more. You can imagine that it was an uncomfortable exchange for all. I experienced the comment as a way to diminish the importance of our relationship to one another. If only I could put my loss in that divine perspective, the argument ran, then I wouldn’t be so hard to console.

That’s the danger here, I think, for preachers. We can easily make these relationships into zero sum commodities. We can hear Jesus saying that being married is of value for this life. But it ceases to have value in the next and new life. The more we value our relationship with God in Christ for eternity, the less we must value our relationships and commitments in this life. If that’s how I must view my first marriage and my loss of my first spouse, then frankly I’m not very interested in the whole conversation.

This is the risk in any Christian conversation about this life and the next. We are so often tempted to make the next life “more” by describing this life as “less.” We are known historically (at least in White western Christianity) as describing this life as a “vale of tears.” We focus on how wonderful heaven will be in comparison. We describe the Resurrection as an escape hatch from this miserable existence and heaven as pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. We make the new life more by making this life less.

As we’ll discuss further this week, that’s not the New Testament view of the Resurrection and the New Life. For example, our connections and commitments in this life will not be discarded in the next and new life as unimportant. Instead, they will be fulfilled and transcended in the next and new life. Our ability to relate to one another as married people, for example, is possible because God has created us to not be alone (see Genesis 1-3). We Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Out of that connection arise our other experiences of Christian community.

When I think about the new and next life, I have a humorous image in my imagination. I can see my two spouses from our earthly life sitting together talking about me. They are laughing until they cry about my quirks and foibles. After all, who could understand one another better than two women who had been married to me? This sharing would have no malice in it. I will laugh as hard and enjoy the conversation just as much as they will. And we will have this conversation as siblings in Christ, living together in the eternal communion of the saints.

As N. T. Wright so often reminds us, in the Resurrection nothing good in this life will be lost. We don’t have to make the realities of this life less in order to experience the hope of the next and new life as more. All that is good about my marriages will be kept for the life to come – not because marriage is “forever,” but because God the Creator is faithful. That’s the real punchline of this story in Luke 20: “but [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for to [God] all are living” (my translation). We may get the chance to discuss “Christian presentism” in a downstream post. But for now, let’s be clear that whatever gives life in this life will be part of the next and new life.

I’ve been asked many times, “Will I see my loved one in heaven?” That loved one may be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend, or a pet. I always answer with firm conviction, “Yes, you will. I am sure of that.” Part of the question, however, often is like this. “Will I have the same relationship with my loved one in the next and new life that I’ve had in this life?” Some hope the answer will be yes. Others pray the answer will be no.

I think Christian tradition tells us that our relationships of love in this life will endure into the next and new life. However, what is broken in those relationships will be healed or discarded. What is good in those relationships will remain and be enhanced. Our relationships will be more in the next and new life, not merely different. We will be in the communion of saints, connected with one another and all of the New Creation in the ways that the Creator intended for us from the beginning.

While this line of thought is not the center of the controversy in the Lukan account, I am certain it will be in the minds of many of our listeners. I think it’s pastorally necessary in many settings to offer this sort of conversation and counsel this week. And it can lead to a fruitful conversation about the nature of Resurrection and trust in the Communion of Saints.