Whose Wife Will the Woman Be?
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
The gospel lesson this morning is one of those that make me ask, “Can I figure out a way to take this Sunday off? Who, in this day and age, wants to preach about marriage?” It sounds like an invitation to wander into the midst of the culture wars! Add to that the words from 2 Thessalonians which declare, “So, then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”
“Hold fast to the traditions.” Don’t we hear that admonition in many ways, in many circles? It is a constant cry in the face of radical and rapid change. “Hold fast to the traditions.” We hear it in political circles that want to direct how it is people should live. We hear it as an approach to understanding who we are as a nation. Strict constitutionalists tell us that if we are to be good Americans we need to be faithful to original intent of those who wrote the constitution. We can’t interpret for our own age, our own context. We should let the voice of the original framers remain the dominant voice.
Yet, we need to remember that the "tradition" of which Paul wrote was not some ancient scheme. It was the story, the stories of Jesus and the impact of his life, his death, and his resurrection. The Christian community was still in its infancy. It was still fleshing out what it meant to be a community that was not bound by ancient divisions. The tradition of which Paul wrote was not rigid – but rooted in the life-giving presence of Jesus – a presence that broke with and destroyed ancient animosities and fears. Paul, the great Jew, had himself been changed by the tradition that was not found in codified laws or in dusty manuscripts. Paul had been changed by an encounter with the redeeming, loving presence of God. Paul then began to struggle with what that meant for him and for all who would choose to follow the resurrected Christ.
So, the tradition to which we are to hold fast isn’t necessarily the tradition that we easily recognize or follow. And that is a truth to keep in mind as we encounter this gospel story.
The Sadducees were followers of tradition. Their tradition was the Torah, what we know of as the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Scribes and Pharisees has a broader tradition that included the wisdom that had grown out of wrestling with the Torah. The Torah has no mention of the possibility of resurrection. So, the question that they posed to Jesus was not intended to generate discussion, to deepen faith. They came to Jesus with a problem that they intended to use to show the “ridiculousness” (in their eyes) of the concept of resurrection. In every way the scenario up they presented was faithful to the tradition. “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
It’s a gotcha question. It’s meant to ridicule Jesus, to poke holes in the “tradition” to which they assume he holds. The idea of resurrection, when fleshed out, has problems. How can seven men claim one woman?
It's so easy to get caught up in thinking about all the ways we look at marriage in our own society. We could speak about traditions that permit men to have multiple wives – traditions in other cultures and in parts of our own. We could think about the church’s tradition of holding marriage in such high regard that divorce was impossible or a lengthy, painful process. The church, to be faithful to the high estate of marriage, was often willing to overlook abuse. We still might think about how difficult it is, in our society, for divorced couples to move forward in positive ways. And of course, our society has a tradition of prohibiting certain marriages. For years, blacks and whites couldn’t marry. That prohibition was eliminated years ago, yet many interracial couples still struggle. A few years ago, a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial child and interracial parents had to be pulled because of backlash. Today’s issue, of course, is same-sex marriages. It may be legal – but, for many, it is a difficult concept. And often, those most opposed, appeal to our own religious traditions.
We might come to Jesus with our own set of traditions and assumptions and bias about what marriage is supposed to look like – and how that plays out. Today, we add a layer of fantasy played out in movies and stories that tell us that marriage love is everlasting. I remember standing at the grave site of a man who had died in a tragic accident. His wife –relatively young – had arranged to have the headstone engraved to declare that her marriage bond to him was exclusive and eternal. She expected to be reunited with him in the resurrection. I wondered what would happen if she met someone else. Would she be able to find love again? Would she see that as a betrayal?
It's easy, in hearing this encounter, to get hung up on the issue of marriage. Like the Sadducees, we bring our traditions and our expectations – and want to know, from Jesus, if he’s with us or against us.
“Jesus said to 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.’” Jesus told the Sadducees that they couldn’t use logic, earthly logic, to figure out what the resurrection would look like. Our earthly institutions and practices and, yes, traditions, won’t exist in God’s realm. It’s different. We can’t imagine it based on our earthly experiences or even our earth-bound dreams.
Professor Nancy Lynne Westfield wrote, “The ways of God are not the ways of humanity. God’s judgments are not our judgments. Things do not work in heaven the way they work on earth—thank God! Jesus answers the question by saying that in heaven even the lowliest of the society would be considered ‘like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.’ This radical statement of the gospel, that in heaven there are no sociopolitical strata, is good news even today.”
We get hung up on the wrong things. We stew over the details of something familiar – and run the danger of missing the gospel, the good news, that is in Jesus’ message to the Sadducees. Westfield writes that the Sadducees would have been astounded that “the woman,” in God’s realm, would have had an identity apart from the marriage relationship. She is included in Jesus’ statement that those of the resurrection are like angels and are children of God. She has value – value apart from being asked to be a child-bearer.
Former President Jimmy Carter said that the abuse of women is the primary human rights issue of today. We hear horrific stories – stories like that of Boko Haram in Nigeria, which kidnapped school girls and took them into captivity. Or we might remember stories from Yugoslavia where soldiers raped women. A friend said that women are often the victims in conflict – used as a way of asserting authority and power over enemies. They are the collateral damage.
But, we cannot say that this is an issue that exists only in foreign lands. We dress up the abuse – but it is rampant in our own society. It has made headlines during this election! I read one young woman’s letter that asked a question, “Why are we known only according to labels? Labels that more often than not connect us to men? Wife. Mother. Daughter.” We see the issue on college campuses where women are frequently assaulted. This week, Harvard suspended its male soccer team because of its practice of rating the women on the women’s team. There are also stories about recruiting practices that use women as a tool. We see it in the court system that sometimes blames victims and excuses behavior that treats women as objects rather than human beings. There is a growing outcry about judges who excuse sexual assault and blame the victims. Yet, it happens. Again and again. There is abuse of women in the assumption that they cannot make decisions for themselves. A friend recently said, “It makes me so angry that there are groups pushing for laws that deny women the freedom to make choices for themselves!” I read a powerful article that spoke of the way the interaction of men and women is portrayed in films. The author noted that, too often, the films show men ignoring women’s “no-s.” A man pushes and pushes and pushes until the woman says “yes.” And that is presented as romantic!
“Whose wife will the woman be?” Their gotcha question showed that they didn’t see a woman as anything more than a wife who would, who should, bear children for a man. For them, she had no worth outside of that role. Jesus told them, Jesus tells us, that in God’s realm those labels that become a means of dismissing others don’t exist. All have value. The woman was a child of God.
If we come back to marriage – it seems to be the “elephant” in this encounter, we have to remember that modern marriages are very different from the marriages of Jesus’ day. They are, at their best, a partnership—female/male, female/female or male/male. There is good Biblical justification for that concept. We have to peel away the cultural practices and look for God’s good intent. Partnership sees and affirms the other. There is no room for abuse.
Westfield wrote, “Jesus [said] that God is the God of the living – the God of newness, forgiveness, and liberation. Oppression on earth does not dictate the rewards of heaven. The bondage and slavery of human life does not inscribe how life will be in heaven.”
The tradition of which Paul wrote is not a tradition that enslaves – but a tradition that calls us to work for the ways of God to be known and lived and embraced by a world that too often chooses to let brokenness rule our lives and diminish the lives of others.