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Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 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. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘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 any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.‘
Have you ever met people who obsess about details? I have, and in most cases, where I have had the privilege of speaking deeply with such people in counselling, I have discovered that the obsession with details is often a compulsive strategy of avoidance of deeper issues. I suppose it is a similar syndrome that makes a student spend days preparing the study place, the lighting, the timetable, anything but getting down to studying. At least that’s how I remember it from my formal student days.
It would seem, from studying the Gospels that those who question Jesus are often caught up in the details and minutiae of religious practice as a way of avoiding the confrontation with what really matters in the deeper parts of who they really are and what needs transformation? At one point you will remember, Jesus accuses his hearers of straining out gnats and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24)
Could it be that questioning around the details of marriage arrangements in the resurrection, is a similar avoidance of a deeper issue?
I offer as an example of this dynamic, so many people I meet who are obsessed with past lives regression and similarly with who and what they will be in heaven or in their next life, depending on their eschatological persuasion. These dear and sincere people are often caught up in a dance with their own egos. After all, who but our false selves would be deeply concerned about the manner in which our lives will continue in God? Please do not hear me dismissing these interests as inconsequential. I know many who have been greatly helped by exploring past lives as well as meditating on who and what they will be after this life. All I am concerned to point out is that the ego feasts on these exercises of imagination and so lures the false self into deeper and deeper constructs of illusion, thereby avoiding the life changing encounters with Truth.
I am surprised that as I have got older, I have developed a fair amount of sympathy for my ego, or “false self” as Thomas Merton chose to name it. My sympathy arises from the recognition that my false self has everything to lose from transformative depth encounters with God . I do mean “everything”. To follow Jesus in the Kingdom of the Heavens requires “the grain of wheat to fall into the ground and die“. The cross that I have to take up daily in my following of Jesus will require the gentle, but nevertheless, inevitable transformation of the ego into the likeness of Jesus, and thereby an inevitable diminishing of the self with its obsession with self maintenance, defence and perpetuation.
The false self (ego) in what Fr Thomas Keating calls its “Programs for Happiness” will always be aiming away from the target of self transformation into Christ as our true nature and true self. The false self targets its own gratification as the exclusive focus of this life. Need I remind us that “missing the target” is the root meaning of the word “sin”?
Merton writes, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. There I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface” (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation pp. 34-35).
The devilishly detailed question of the Sadducees ironically come from a group that did not believe in the resurrection, but who are happy to set up a straw man debate in order to discredit Jesus, thereby avoiding having to deal with his challenge to their lives.
So as I am tempted to dance with this straw man, and get into the details of the possibility of marriage in heaven or not, I am checked by a realization that what is at issue here is not marriage in heaven. The issue for Jesus is “Eternal Life” (zoein aionion literally Life of the Ages)
How interesting to realise that the phrase “eternal life” is never used in the Old Testament. The phrase only begins with the New Testament. In the Old Testament the only one who is eternal is God.
Jesus however invites his followers to begin to imagine and dream that they can share in this wholly other dimension to living. “And this is eternal life, that they may know (ginoeskoesin) you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3
Living eternally, in the teaching of Jesus is not an awaited event that comes at the end of this life, but the awakening from the dead right now. The resurrection happens when one realises that this life with its cares and woes is not all there is. The kingdom of the heavens is within us, and living from that perspective is the ultimate salvation, right here right now.
It would seem that knowing God through Jesus constitutes an awakening from the dead and a beginning of living eternally. Moses was already in this context so he could speak about God as the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.
So to return to the beginning of this discussion; past life regression and our obsession with reincarnation or all the details of heaven, are activities of the ego. The false self is caught up with the inconsequential details, that actually must die here and now in this world so that the true self may emerge.
Does this mean that Christ followers should not marry? I do not want to suggest that at all. The context of modern marriages as loving, long term partnerships between two completely equal human beings (of any gender), is such a completely different relationship in our time, that to compare it with marriage in Jesus day is just plain silly.
In Jesus day, wives and children were possessions of husbands. The implication that people who are already living eternal life and who don’t marry is really more about living life with diminished grasping for possessions including wives, children and cattle, than about whether Christ follower today should be getting married or not.
The bottom line of this passage for me lies, in its invitation to avoid being distracted from our chief purpose of realising the transformative eternal life in Jesus. Don’t be seduced by the devilish minutiae of doctrinaire speculations of any kind.