Proper 27C / Ordinary 32C / Pentecost +25
November 10, 2013
There is nothing like the subject of marriage to bring out the zealot in people, particularly when it comes to defending “the institution”. “The institution” of marriage is commonly seen as a towering monolith that has ordered the union of one man and one woman since the mythic beginning of the human race (“It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”). “The institution” is viewed as sacrosanct and anything outside of it is condemned. People defending “the institution” often try to trip up their opponents using a series of false equivalencies – “You support Gay marriage? Does that mean people should be allowed to marry children and sheep, too?”
In the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus is also confronted by a group of interlocutors (Sadducees) who pose Him a series of questions on “the institution” designed to trip Him up. The Sadducees were a group of priests who maintained the Jerusalem Temple, and who accepted the literal interpretation of the Torah but rejected Oral Law and belief in the afterlife. They also tended to be associated with the upper classes of Jewish society. When the Sadducees publicly challenge Jesus in this way, the stakes are high, because if He fails the challenge, it means that He is preaching contrary to the Torah and would potentially be subject to death by stoning as a blasphemer.
So the Sadducees pose their conundrum for Jesus to solve: If – under Mosaic law – a woman should marry a man’s brother after he dies so that she might still bear children, and the same woman (still childless) then goes on to marry seven brothers in succession after each one dies, whose wife will she be “in the resurrection” (Luke 20:28-33)? If Jesus answers that there is no afterlife, then He has contradicted His own teachings. If Jesus picks any one particular brother, then it would mean the woman is guilty of adultery with all the others, that that Jesus is supporting adultery (which is punishable by death). The Sadducees smugly sit and wait for the trap to spring.
This Gospel reading falls into the pattern of “challenge-riposte” encounters that are narrated frequently in the Bible when Jesus is confronted by the religious authorities of His day (William R. Herzog II. 2000. Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, pp.227). Herzog details the significance of “challenge-riposte” encounters in first-century Palestine:… opponents clashed in public debates in order to defend or acquire honor and avoid shame. All ripostes were zero sum games; somebody won and somebody lost. The winner gained at the expense of the loser, and the crowd determined who won (ibid.).
Jesus responds to the challenge by completely sidestepping the assumptions of the challengers. The Sadducees were posing their series of questions under the common assumptions (at that time) that A) marriage is a tool for regulating bodies; B) women are given as property; and C) marriage works the same way in this age as in the resurrection. Here is Jesus’ riposte: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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection (vv.34-36).
So a woman honorably given in marriage in this life is more than just a body being traded as property. She is a child of God. Being traded as property is not something that goes on in the resurrection (Greek: anastasis), in the fluid spirit-realm where property and gender are moot points. That which is promised in the anastasis has nothing to do with the assumptions we make in this aieon. We are promised something far different and better.
When confronted with the Sadducees of this era, we are usually posed with similar conundrums: Are you for “traditional marriage”? Or would you have people marrying children and horses? The appropriate riposte, in this case, is “neither”. In the act of Christian marriage, we are uniting the souls of two adults, under God and before the community, who are fully consenting in the act. We are not trading a woman as property. We are not regulating peoples’ bodies. We are not expecting people to reproduce (What about people who cannot have children or choose to be childless? Or older adults? They are routinely and honorably married, of course.) Because children are not adults, and because horses cannot consent, the comparison is invalid and absurd. When people (typically women) are given in marriage without consent (which still happens in many parts of the world), their souls are sinned against and wounded. The union of two loving, consenting, same-sex adults, therefore, have nothing to do with the assumptions of “the institution” (as opposed to actual Christian marriage).
And congratulations to Illinois and Hawaii, the 15th and 16th states to enact marriage equality! May the freedom of loving, consenting adults everywhere be respected!