What is heaven like?
I get that question a lot, but since I haven’t experienced the afterlife myself, I never have a great answer.
The Bible never speaks extensively about heaven—but there are clues here and there. Our passage today is one of those hints.
Ironically, the people asking Jesus the question about what happens after the resurrection don’t even really care about his answer.
Some Sadducees come up to Jesus, trying to outwit him. Sadducees were the Jewish sect that was in charge of keeping up the Temple. They came from wealthy, respected families. And they did not believe in the resurrection.
To try to prove how illogical the resurrection is they pose the question about the widow that we heard today.
This poor hypothetical woman! In the law of the time, if your husband died, it was his brother’s responsibility to marry you. This was meant to protect the widow, but it also reinforces how women were treated like chattel—passed along from one brother to another. This poor woman has not been able to bear children, and she goes through all seven brothers. You can only imagine how much she and her mother in law loathed each other after all this!
The Sadducees want to know: Who does she belong to in heaven? Who has the right to be her husband, if she’s been married seven times and has no children?
Jesus’ response set the Sadducees back on their heels.
To the Sadducees, this woman is just hypothetical, an intellectual exercise. But Jesus has known and loved women in really difficult circumstances. Remember his loving response to the woman at the well who had been married five times. To Jesus, women weren’t chattel to be passed along. A barren woman wasn’t the object of derision or deserving of shame. Women were integral parts of God’s kingdom.
Jesus tells the Sadducees that in heaven, no one is given in marriage. Each person comes to God on his or her own terms and worships God as a whole person. In community, yes, but not tied to any individual person.
What good news this is for us! We are in this rare time and place in history in which we understand that women and men are equally valuable members of society and the church. We understand that a woman’s value is not based on her ability to produce an heir for a family line.
On the other hand, we in the church can do better!
Church can be a very marriage and family centered place. When I was single in church, people kept trying to set me up. When I was newly married, parishioners felt perfectly free to ask me when I was going to get pregnant. We treat single and childless people as if they haven’t quite arrived to adulthood.
And I am not innocent of this! One of my goals as your priest was to minister to the women I don’t see at my women’s bible study: women who work during the day, who are busy with other responsibilities, including children. So, I planned this “Mom’s night out” for next week. After we had already advertised this, I had a revelation. There were fabulous women I really wanted to be there who did not have children. I found myself running around individually asking them to join us. We’ll rebrand it the next time we meet, and please, if you want to join some of the young and middle aged women of St. Paul’s Ivy next week, read your bulletin for more information!
This is just a small example of the way churches treat being married with kids as the default position for adults. But be reassured, even if your clergy get mixed up about this, Jesus never does.
Nancy Rockwell wrote a gorgeous blog post about this passage this week in which she writes,
… the Christian church has so venerated women as childbearers that it has been unable to imagine other roles for women, even though Jesus never praised childbearing or motherhood, and did imagine other roles for women: Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her, he said, when Mary chose to sit among the disciples and learn, rather than work in the kitchen. And perhaps most importantly, in this argument with the Sadducees over the barren woman, Jesus opened the gates of heaven to her, saying that in the resurrection, life is not as we know it here on earth, there is no owning or belonging to one another, for in eternity all are children of God. Thanks to Jesus, the barren woman does what is unthinkable: she steps into heaven on her own.
Jesus was never interested in anyone’s societal status. He never asked a tax collector if he was the best tax collector in his company. He didn’t ask Peter whether where he ranked among local fishermen. He didn’t keep nagging Mary Magdalene about finding a man and settling down already!
Jesus was interested in the hearts of human beings, not any of the outward categories by which we humans judge each other.
In heaven, and now, we are loved by God for who we are in all our individuality. There is no one way to be a woman. There is no one way to be a man.
Heaven is a mystery. But God is not a mystery. God has revealed himself to us in Jesus and we can trust that Jesus’ compassion for humanity will extend itself into our experiences after we die. And for those of us who are happily married, who grieve the idea of no longer being married in heaven, we can trust that while the legal bonds of marriage may be dissolved upon our deaths, the bonds of affection between two people, the love between two people remains. After all, those bonds are part of who we are.
In our community, may we strengthen and widen those bonds of love so that everyone, no matter their life situation, may feel welcomed into our little corner of the Kingdom of God.