Questions for God: What Happens When We Die?

Scripture for Sunday: Luke 20:27-38

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “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. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 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. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Notes on the Text:

Jesus is confronted with a question that involved life after death. It was a complicated question because it involved one of the common laws that was applied to marriage. The Sadducees who came asking Jesus the question were part of the Jewish faith. They were the dominant religious group in Jesus’ day, making up Israel’s priesthood. All of the high priests in the first century were Sadducees. They were the ones who were in cahoots with the Roman Empire. So their power was not only religious. It was also political. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees and Jesus, were very strict in their reading of the Law of Moses or Torah. In fact, they believed that the Law of Moses/Torah, which was made up of what we know now as the first five books of the Bible, was the only legitimate scripture. They believed if something was not clearly stated in the Torah/the first five books, then it was not worth believing. Therefore, since the first five books of the Bible didn’t have any specific teachings about the resurrection or life after death, the Sadducees believed it was not a valid doctrine for their faith. As a result, they did not believe in eternal life. Jesus and the Pharisees on the other hand, believed in and taught about eternal life. They also believed that the first five books of our Bible were not the only valid scriptures to take into account. They saw that books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel were also authoritative. They came up with new teachings that related to their context and the changes in their culture. The Sadducees were threatened by the popularity of Jesus and of the Pharisees. They saw him as a threat to their authority and their teachings.

Against this backdrop we can see how their question about the woman who is married seven times to seven brothers could be a trap for Jesus. The practice of marrying your brother’s widow was something that was instructed to the people of Israel in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). This was known as levirate marriage where if one brother dies before having children, the next brother in line marries the widow in order to have children and keep his brother’s name alive. So, the question about the resurrection was a trap for Jesus because the official teachings of the temple were against the belief in the resurrection! The Sadducees’ question about marriage in eternal life was a challenge to Jesus on two fronts. First, if he denied the validity of levirate marriage in eternal life, then he might as well deny its validity in this life. Second, if he said it was valid in eternal life, then he would have denied their traditional teachings about the resurrection. Jesus responded by affirming eternal life and the resurrection, but he did not fall into the trap of explaining what eternal life looked like and how marriage would be understood in it. He told them that in the kingdom of God in eternal life the laws of society as they knew them were not valid. The laws that governed human life on earth which often oppressed women were not valid in eternal life. He also went on to challenge them to expand their interpretation of the Bible by redefining their understanding of life after death based on the understanding that their ancestors in faith such as Abraham, Jacob and Isaac were alive in God’s presence.

Because of their narrow mindedness and their literal interpretation of the scriptures, the Sadducees could not imagine anything beyond what they knew. They could not imagine life after death! They could not imagine life without marriage as they knew it. Now, we can dismiss their worldview and their experience as evil, but in their minds they were trying to be faithful and not all of them had evil intentions! But their narrow mindedness led them down an exclusive path that shut the door to any new revelation from God. They closed the door to their minds and their hearts to imagine any new possibilities of the Spirit. Their spiritual and social imagination had shrunk to the point of rigidity that it shut out any mystery about faith.

For Reflection:

Death is a scary topic for many because of its mystery. And for a long time, we have portrayed death as the grim reaper who comes with a sickle to harvest our souls. Yet, death is part of life that cannot be avoided for us or for our loved ones. Sooner or later we experience death. Not only that, but we do our loved ones a great disservice when we avoid talking about death. In his book, Being Mortal by a man named Atul Gawande who is a surgeon reflects on life and death in the United States through his many years as a doctor. He discovered through experience and study that dying people often want to talk about their death, but often times, their family members avoid the subject.

A big part of the problem is not truly knowing what happens to us after we die. And faith just gives us the assurance that there is life after death but does not truly tell us what that life will look or be like. As we look at the answer from Jesus to the question about life after death, we invited to be open to the mystery and to trust that the goodness of life and love we know now is not the end but is part of the process of moving deeper into the mystery of God. This does not mean that we do not grieve the death of our loved ones. Instead, it means that we are able to live life trusting in the mysteries that are beyond our comprehension. It is also about learning to be comfortable with talking about death and embracing it as part of life. Embracing our own mortality could help us live life more fully. This is not about worrying every day about dying. It is about being grateful for being alive and appreciating each moment we have. In his book Living in the Light of Death, Larry Rosenberg wrote, “If we understood the reality of death, we would treat each other differently. Carlos Castaneda was once asked how we could make our lives more spiritual, and he said: Just remember that everyone you encounter today, everyone you see, will someday have to die. He’s right. That knowledge changes our whole relationship to people.”

Prayer, “When My Time Comes” by Joyce Rupp:

Once heart-shaped pink pod
falls from the branch,
returning to the soil
from whence it came.

Even the most beautiful
must fall, fade, return;
all fruit succumbs,
all flowers yield.

When my time comes
to drop from the stem
and return to the Source,
may my tumbling
toward the One
be a dance of surrender. Amen.

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