A funny thing happened on the way to the sermon this past week. The discovery startled me. How was it only one commentary made the connection between the way the Sadducees tell their theoretical tale and Jesus’ response? (Luke 20) More specifically, trained in an environment where word studies reveal exegetical and expositional gems, how is it the description of the as is of taking a wife gets glossed when compared to the middle voice of Jesus’ words describing the same event?
I am still ruminating. Still cogitating.
The Sadducees Enlist Jesus (Not) as a Conversation Partner
The Sadducees not only make Moses their source of authority, The Torah, but they institutionalize the as is structure of marriage they inherited. Read their outlandish tale of the woman who married a man with seven brothers. That is not the unbelievable part. What should set the reader on alert is that the woman married the oldest brother and before he died they did not have children. So, according to their source of authority (Judah and Deut. 25) the next brother was to take the woman as his wife in order to provide an afterlife of sorts by keeping his brother’s name alive by having children with his brother’s widow. This was their understanding of transcendence.
We could follow that simply enough. But in order to mock Jesus, and resurrection, the story included the fact that all the brothers died having taken the woman and yet did not produce any children, much less a male heir. The presumed unanswerable question, “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” The Sadducees did not anticipate Jesus’ response, or non-response. And, neither do we.
The language used to describe marriage by the Sadducees was the as is – a man takes a woman. Despite the institutionalization of the King James language in the traditional wedding vows, modern marriage in the West does not occur by taking but by asking. “She said, ‘Yes!’”
Prior to the current way marriage works in our culture, marriage served other purposes than the romantic. Political or economic matters influenced unions. Consider the popular Downton Abbey as providing an on-screen illustration of how marriage functioned long after the Sadducees asked Jesus their (in)famous question.
Only Joel B. Green referenced the distinction between taken and Jesus’ use of the middle voice “given in marriage.” He noted that we translate the words in the passive. This, in our translations, maintains the as is structures. Women are given. We still ask, “Who gives this woman?” There is a sense that in Jesus’ answer, one that draws a distinction between this age and the age to come, the age of resurrection, something is getting done.
More Than They (and We) Bargained For
All others missed the middle voice of Jesus’ words. “Given in marriage,” is better “(they) he/she gives (give themselves) himself/herself.” Participation in his/her own giving is a subtle but important distinction. And since the context is framed in the question, “Whose wife will she be,” we must keep the emphasis upon her.
The question is framed as the woman acts passively and is taken in marriage. Jesus’ reply appears to call that into question when he elevates her role as one of participation rather than passivity. She gives herself in marriage. She is not taken.
Yes, you rightly notice that Jesus uses this phrase twice. First, he notes that in this age people marry and are given in marriage, or better, give themselves in marriage. Jesus responds to a theoretical and yet does not give a speculative answer. Is it that Jesus subtly calls into question their as is even as he begins his response?
Second, Jesus replies that in the age to come, the age of resurrection, people will not marry or be given in marriage. Careful. We are not surprised that in the age to come people will not marry or be given in marriage. But, that is not saying the same things as in the age to come there will not be any reference to who was married to whom. That no eye has seen, no mind can conceive, nor has entered the heart of man opens up inconceivable possibilities. Some make this point saying that in the eschaton there is no need for pleasure or procreation, as if those are the only benefits of marriage.
Whether or not that is the case is not the point Jesus makes. Jesus gives his response in relationship to resurrection, which is what is in question. The reason there will be no marrying or people giving themselves in marriage is that “you will be like angels.” The qualifier is, “for they cannot die anymore.” The end of marrying in the age to come is related to resurrection, the end of death.
Marriage is not for creating transcendence. Children are not born so a man may experience some form of afterlife. Jesus takes up resurrection and as he does undermines the as is in favor of the to come, the eschatological.
The Pregnant Present
If Jesus subverts the view of marriage as for male transcendence by pointing up marriage as a participatory relationship, then be sure he undermines the way the Sadducees read Moses, The Torah. It should be a bit of a warning to modern readers not to instantiate the as is as part of the to come. Jesus returns to Moses to make the point.
The age of the resurrection will not follow the orientation or patterns of the present age. Jesus points to the way the present is pregnant with the future. Moses writes, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Jesus interprets the statement as indicative of a living God. On their face, Moses’ words do not demand Jesus’ reading. Instead, Jesus re-reads Moses to the Sadducees and emphasizes the is of God as indicating the is of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a living God of living patriarchs.
A recent conversation caused me to think of the future differently. Feuerbach believed God was little more than a psychological projection of an idealized human. Maybe there is really in all people a secret longing to fill out some idealized human vision and this is God. Jack Caputo made the point that rather than God as a projection could it be God as projectile. Instead of something that is cast out into the future via our imaginations, what if God were a projectile hurtling into the present. I could not help but think this is a good way to talk about Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom come.
For the sermon I could not see how this philosophical conversation could make its way into the church. But, since the initial question is about the absence of children why not borrow from the experience of pregnancy to suggest the present is pregnant with the future. All of this coming through a willingness to be open to unconventional conversation partners.
Two people marry. Amidst all their hopes and dreams they discuss one day having children. Time passes and physiological and biological changes call for a doctor’s visit. The news is good – a baby is on the way. No one expects the couple to wait until the baby is born to prepare a nursery, to buy clothes, to buy furniture, to consider names, and on we could go. No, they begin re-orienting their lives and relationship in anticipation. Changes are made. The future projects itself in the present. This is the Kingdom Jesus announces.
Who has/have been your unsuspecting conversation partners?
Image Credit – He Asked, She Said Yes
Image Credit – Inconceivable
Image Credit – Future