The story is repeated Matthew, and Mark as well as Luke. It’s the only place the Sadducees show up, and they are here as a foil for Jesus. Jesus disposes of them with a quick argument. And we could as easily ignore them if they didn’t bring up this pesky pat argument about marriage and the resurrection. The very thought of a widow needing to remarry within the family seems profane to us and yet it’s in our sacred book, tarnishing our sacred view of marriage.
Luke’s narrative sets Jesus up against all of the religious leaders to show how out of step he was. He wasn’t restrictive enough for the Pharisees. He consorted with the wrong people which made him suspicious. He had a classic impatience with the religious establishment, namely the scribes. He frustrated all of them, which endeared him to everyone else. It seems today that the most popular religious groups are the ones who distance themselves from organized religion. Nondenominational is a badge of honor. The lack of accountability inherent in such a system is seemingly irrelevant.
Now, a little about the Sadducees: They were the upper crust, the elite. They were defined by what they didn’t believe in. Namely, they didn’t believe in the resurrection.
Think about it, if you don’t believe in the resurrection, then God’s justice needs to be meted out in this world. In occupied Israel, it didn’t seem that Rome would get punished for their injustice. The Sadducees who were in charge of this world and its religious life liked it that way, thank you very much. How convenient not to believe in ultimate judgment or praise. But if you believed in a resurrection, then there was hope for punishment and reward in a later time. First Century Jewish historian Josephus said that the Sadducees were “able to persuade no one but the rich.” Who would they be like today? Scientologists?
As far as we can tell, Jesus didn’t give a hoot about a lot of those religious disputes. His ethic was, “does this help people and does it bring them closer to God?”
The Sadducees bring this question to make the resurrection look absurd.
Whose wife will she be? The old one bride for seven brothers argument. The question was an attempt to stump the preacher. It’s like a grab bag question. Now there were seven brothers and they all married the same woman. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? We can imagine Jesus knocking his head on the pulpit.
Marriage, as we know it today is to be about love. It feels very good indeed to be living in a state where marriage rites are actually civil rights that are available to all regardless of sexual orientation. We feel downright righteous because of our work to make marriage equality the law of our land. Beware of the righteous because they tend to see the world in black and white with no shades of grey. Biblical marriage is one of the shadiest fields in which to sow.
We have learned to be suspicious when people talk about Biblical marriage.
Biblical marriage includes polygamy (for men, but not for women), marriages of convenience, marriages to suit political and property ends alongside marriages for love. Which is the true Biblical marriage? Well, all of them. The key for us is to figure out how we want this sacred rite to be promoted and supported in the future.
In Biblical times, men had many wives. Solomon had over 300 concubines in addition to 700 wives. Makes me tired just thinking about it. We see nothing about women having many husbands, except in a judgmental tone when talking about the woman at the well having had five husbands. The nerve of her.
Then we have the focus of today’s scripture, the odd and totally sexist practice of Leverite marriage.
It’s right there in Deuteronomy:
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).
This was instituted to make sure that property belonging to the 12 tribes stayed within the families. It’s all about carrying on the family name, and of course, only the guy can do that, not the woman. She becomes property of the man. Ick.
Leverite marriage shows up in the story of Ruth. Ruth is a widow and has caught the eye of Boaz. But Boaz cannot marry her. Ruth’s brother-in-law has first dibs. There is no talk of love here. Boaz devises a plan to buy Ruth from the brother-in-law, so he can do the next of kin thing with her. It involved a land transaction, some barley and a sandal. Not only that, but Ruth was of a different race. So we have interracial marriage, too. You’ll hear more about it next month as we look at the story of Ruth and how her unique marriage to Boaz set the way for Jesus. Read Ruth chapters 3 and 4 to get acquainted with the story. It’s a pretty good story.
Imagine a hundred years from now, someone asking: “In the early 21st century, only fifteen states allowed same sex couples to be married. It was the law of the land. If they went across state lines, were they still married?” Some laws aren’t as strange as they seem. Maybe we need to be patient with even Biblical marriage laws. They have changed over the generations.
Kim, Amanda and Becca are big into Downton Abby. They have gotten me to watch many of the episodes. Everyone seems obsessed about marriage. And some of it is about love, but a lot of it is about inheritance and the way class plays out in England 90 years ago. People need to marry the right people in order to secure the inheritance. It’s really quite silly. But it is tradition!
I can imagine Jesus confronted with the intrigues about this servant marrying above or below his class, or that woman being bold enough to marry the right man to attain her place in society. He would certainly laugh at the layers of clothing that people wore. How many tunics do you need?
In the resurrection of the dead, whose wife out of the seven would she be? It’s just so silly. It’s so not the point. Love is the point. Women having power is the point. People being equal is the point. Don’t you see how religion has gotten all messed up with class? Men and women will be equal. Age will make no difference. Education will make no difference. The amount of time you have been saved will make no difference. Since we are all children of God, there is neither Jew nor Greek ,Slave nor free, male nor female for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Certainly status or wealth will be immaterial.
Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ absurd question about one bride for seven brothers was that in the resurrection, they will all be equal. They won’t be concerned about being husbands and wives. They will be children of God, angels. They see the world differently than we do. Duh.
So what does this have to do with the rite of marriage these days? Just this: I’ll take love-based marriage over restrictive Biblical marriage any day. Not that love is not in the Bible and not that Jesus doesn’t want us to treat each other equal. The point is that in God’s kin-dom, we seek to live in such a way that we can affirm love. And when love is right and mutual and not with one having power over another, and when that love is meted out with a self-sacrificing interest in the well-being of the other, then the partners are in touch with the angels and God blesses them. That’s the kind of Bible-inspired love that I believe is of God.
So we celebrate the rite that is marriage when it is right. When love is there and you see a couple trembling before us all as they say the words of their hearts.
We all know that the hard work comes after the rite. The hard work comes in growing with the other person, shifting as the other person shifts and renewing the love as the years pass. For some it doesn’t last and it shouldn’t. But they come to the rite with a desire and a commitment to make it right. And we as guests support them in that brave and inspired attempt.
And we support them in such a way that we work for the right to have the rite be as closely aligned with God’s ways as possible. I didn’t say the Biblical way, I said God’s way. Based on the Bible, we see God’s revelation shifting and changing in nuance, but always to honor love and fidelity. That’s the rite that we celebrate. That’s who God is on our lives.
So we celebrate love. We celebrate the ability of people to make the best decisions and we support them in them. And if they fall, which sometimes they do, we pick up the pieces and show them the love they need.
Back in the mid to late 90’s we had a ministry team at our church that used to visit people in the hospice ward of Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. Most of the residents of this floor were people who were wasting away from AIDS. And they had no one to visit them. Family had shunned them. Churches were still learning how to get over their fear and homophobia. Support networks were non-existent. So Cecil White and I went as volunteer chaplains every Saturday and we would come to church with the prayers of the people we visited. It was holy time.
After about 2 years visiting, one of the nurses introduced me to a couple who wanted to get married. Because of their disease, they had left the church a long time ago. Or maybe the church had left them. They had a child together but had never gotten married. And they were both dying. They asked if I would perform the ceremony. I said I would be honored.
And so we wheeled the couple into the old auditorium, complete with IV poles and nurses and doctors. They shared simple vows in English and in Spanish. I told them that they were to have each others’ backs, that together they were a formidable force for good. And that their gathered community honored their love. They embraced and we celebrated their vows with a cake and sparkling grape juice. They promised to love each other in this life and the next life.
That’s what the rite of marriage is. It’s to hold another and to even defy convention if it serves love.
So I encourage you to embrace love. And such a God-honored love does not simply need to be between two people. Marry mercy and compassion, love and justice, peace and power. The world needs marriage that liberates, sets free and preserves the very best of God’s power. That’s what is holy now. That is what we need to recover. And it’s all wrapped up with sacred community, sacred love and sacred story. Marry that. Let that be the seal upon our hearts. It’s stronger than death. And they key to a God-inspired life.