This is such an odd gospel text to have to preach on. I’ve been chewing on it a lot this week. This strange math problem that the Sadducees ask Jesus to solve has lots of details that sound just straight up bizarre to our 21st century ears. In a weird way, they’re asking him about the future, about what happens after we die. So, naturally, the thing it keeps making me think of is one of the most classic movie trilogies in all of cinema: Back to the Future.
Specifically, I keep thinking of Back to the Future II. Now, full disclosure, it’s been a while since I actually sat down and watched the whole movie. But the second movie of the Back to the Future trilogy is notable because, despite being a franchise that has “future” right in its name, Back to the Future II is the only movie of the series where they actually go to the future!
In the movie, our hero Marty McFly, his girlfriend Jennifer, and their pal Doc Brown travel forward in time to the far distant future year of… 2015! Woo! And watching it now, in the really distant future year of 2019, it’s pretty funny to look back and see what people in the 80s thought the future was going to be like.
For one thing, they thought transportation technology was going to be way more advanced than it actually is – in the movie, people get around everywhere in flying cars, and even kids go zipping around everywhere on hoverboards. There are self-tying shoes and bionic body parts and instant pizza makers. And what kills me is that there are still futuristic pay phones and fax machines everywhere. The folks who worked on this movie were absolutely convinced that fax machines were going to be the big technology of the future. (I was born the same year the first Back to the Future movie came out, and I’m not sure I’ve ever even used a fax machine in my life!)
It makes more sense when you realize that these people making movies over three decades ago had no way to know how much our lives would be shaped by things like the Internet. None of us living at that time did! They couldn’t have even imagined technology like the smartphones that most of us have in our pockets right now. There was just nothing like them in the 80s. Yet, for many of us, these devices have now become an absolutely essential part of our daily way of life.
And I can’t help but wonder how people in the year 2045 or 2049 will look back on this time and laugh about our own limited ideas of what the future will look like. Our ideas will be based on smartphones and cloud technology instead of pay phones and fax machines, but they will probably still fall just as comically short of reality. That’s just how the world works. As humans, our ability to imagine the distant future will always be shaped by the limits of our knowledge and by the limitations of the world as we know it now. Humans are creatures firmly rooted in the present.
This is a struggle that I imagine Jesus was feeling in our gospel reading for this morning. A group of Sadducees – religious leaders – comes up to him with a question that I’m sure they thought was very clever. Their question is about the future resurrection. And it becomes pretty clear that they are thinking about this future in very limited, human ways.
They spin Jesus this absurd story about a woman who is married to a man and then widowed seven times in succession by seven brothers; she herself finally dies without having children with any of them. And the Sadducees ask Jesus: “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”
To start off with, Luke makes it clear that this isn’t really even an earnest question that they’re asking. He tells us right away in verse 27 that the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection. They are not asking Jesus this question out of genuine curiosity or a desire to learn. They are simply asking this question to try to stump him. In fact, almost all of chapter 20 of Luke is a series of people questioning Jesus’ authority and trying to trick him into saying something incriminating.
But Jesus is not stumped. Not only does he turn their reference to Moses right back around on them, he points out that even with their sarcastic ideas of the resurrection the Sadducees are totally missing the mark. When Jesus speaks of the resurrection, he is talking about the future God has planned for creation. But when the Sadducees speak about the resurrection, they are still thinking of it in human terms, bound by the limitations of the society that they live in.
More specifically, they can’t imagine a version of human society that doesn’t include the institution of marriage as they know it. The kind of marriage that they are talking about with Jesus in our reading for today was known as Levirate marriage. The idea was that if a man and a woman got married and then the man died before they could have any children, the man’s brother would marry his widow to raise up children in his name.
Obviously, women didn’t have a lot of say in this arrangement. They were treated more like property But still, it was ultimately a system that was designed to protect these vulnerable widows. Apart from their husbands or maybe their brothers or sons, women had no social standing, no way to support themselves or make a living on their own. For most women, marriage was the only good option.
And yet Jesus says to the Sadducees that there will be none of this in the age to come. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage,” Jesus says, but “in that age and in the resurrection from the dead,” they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. So does this mean that God will no longer care about taking care of widows and children? I certainly don’t think so!
Instead, what Jesus says here gives me hope that, in the resurrection, there will no longer be a need for those kinds of systems. It makes me hopeful that maybe we won’t need those kinds of social structures to protect the vulnerable and the needy, because we will all finally learn how to genuinely care for one another. Perhaps in God’s future we won’t need social institutions to reinforce our love for other people; perhaps we will finally learn to love like God loves – all on our own.
Honestly, I have no idea. I am only human and I belong to this age. And the truth is that none of us can truly imagine or know what the future holds. Just like the creators of Back to the Future II couldn’t imagine a future without a fax machine, the Sadducees in our story for today could never have imagined even the future we live now, with our social practices of marriage and divorce. And none of us can truly imagine what life with God will look like in the age to come.
But Jesus reminds us of what is most truly important. Whatever it is God has planned, we know it will be good. Because God is good. So we can take some advice from our second reading from 2 Thessalonians, and not let ourselves “be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” when we read texts like this one from Luke, or when we ourselves have our own questions about the future that God has planned for creation. We can face these questions with faith, trusting that God has destined us for life – because we know that God is a God of the living and not the dead. And while we can’t know whether God’s future will include smartphones or fax machines or even flying cars, we do know that God is faithful – and we can trust that God’s future is nothing to fear.