This week’s Gospel story is easy to understand, but its lessons are harder to find.
The Sadducees ask Jesus a trick question: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.”
Jesus responds that it’s a false dilemma, but his reasoning gets more and more strange.
First, he says there is no marriage—which answers the question by making it worse: does that mean that heaven will destroys our earthly loves?
Second, he explains why there is no marriage: “because they cannot die.” (Our translation leaves out the “because,” but “because” is a fascinating word when you’re trying to understand a reading; it shows how the writer thinks the sentence is relevant.) What does the inability to die have to do with not getting married? And even more, what does it have to do with earthly marriage disappearing?
Third, he explains the not dying: “because they are like the angels.” (It’s a funny word, literally “angel-equals.”) Does that mean we resurrect without human bodies? Or that angels have human bodies? The Tradition answers both those answers “no”—but how are they like angels?
And fourth, he gives his final answer: Since at the burning bush God tells Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Abraham must have risen from the dead. I don’t find that argument convincing at all. If I say the United States is the country of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I am not making any claims about the resurrection.
Jesus’s argument seems a bizarre chaining together of claims that do not clarify each other. And anyway, who cares? That there is a resurrection is of course important. But what does this encounter with the Sadducees add to my understanding of it?
A first clue is the word “age.” The Sadducees conclude without that word: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?” But Jesus responds by introducing it: “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are made worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead . . . .”
More than angel-equality or inability to die, these two “ages” suggest mystery. Like the Sadducees, we imagine that heaven is just a slight tweak on this life. Okay, we can’t die anymore, maybe we grow wings, but we imagine things will be about the same on the other side of death.
But here, at the beginning of his response to the Sadducees, Jesus tells us that the key to thinking about the Resurrection is to realize that it’s a different world, a different “age.” (The Greek word means something like “forever”—and Jesus is saying there is “this forever” and a different “forever.”)
He is saying that the Sadducees—and we—lack imagination in our thinking about heaven. Or perhaps we are using our imaginations too much, trying to picture something that matches our experience here. To the contrary, says Jesus, no eye has seen, no ear has heard. You have no idea what it will be like.
Rather than trying to iron out the details—or to disprove the Resurrection because we can’t iron out the details—we need to realize that all will be transformed.
(How will things be transformed? No sin and no death is a pretty big change. Try to imagine a new world where everyone loves each other perfectly—where everyone has been “made worthy of the resurrection.” Spiritually, maybe it’s not that the earthly love of marriage will be wiped away, but that it will be perfected, so that we all love one another with the intensity of spousal and familial love, no longer need to guard our modesty from prying eyes, and no longer need sexual intimacy to kindle our love. And what will the body be like, without death and suffering, including the ache of longing? Pretty hard to imagine!)
A second key to this reading is Jesus’s interpretation of Scripture.
What he says about the burning bush is not convincing. He hasn’t found a proof text that proves to every skeptical reader that the writer of Exodus believed in the Resurrection.
But it is an interesting rereading of that story. Jesus finds in God’s words to Moses a deeper, fuller meaning than we would have expected. There’s more to the story, a deeper statement about who God is, and how he relates to Moses, and to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and to us.
The Scripture is not confirming Jesus’s authority. Rather, Jesus is lending his authority to Scripture. He is showing that he understands Scripture at a deeper level, takes Scripture to a deeper level, than we could find without him.
And how? Because Jesus knows that other “age” with the intimacy of someone who lives there. He can talk about the God of the Burning Bush as someone who knows the Father face-to-face, who burns with the same light and heat.
In fact, what we learn is not something about the Resurrection, but something about Jesus, and about the God of that coming “age.” Because Jesus himself is the Resurrection and the Life.
How could you contemplate Jesus as heaven himself?