Seven Weddings and a Funeral
Dr. Randy L. Hyde
You would think that on Saturday nights at the temple, the place would be as deserted as a ghost town. Worship is over and all the sacrifices have been made. Why, if you look closely you’d swear you had just seen a tumbleweed go rumbling through, the place is so empty.
But no, that’s not the way it is at all. Now that worship is over and the law has been fulfilled in regard to Sabbath duties, the real activity has begun. The real fun in going to temple, you see, has to do with the Saturday night debates. That’s when all the various groups within Jewish life like to get together and argue their respective points of view.
Don’t be fooled into thinking you can begin a statement by saying, “The Jews believed this or the Jews believed that.”1 You might be interested to know that in the first century there were just about as many different kinds of Jews as today there are various kinds of Baptists. Some believed some things, and others believed something entirely different.
You had your scribes, you had your Pharisees, you had your Sadducees, just to name a few. And on Saturday night at temple, these different groups of Jews just loved to get into arguments about what they believed. One of their favorite things to do was defend their turf and fool the other guys with their clever theological debates. Talk about straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! But it was fun to see how much aggravation you could stir up on a Saturday night down at the temple.
And believe it or not, the Pharisees were the liberals in the group, while the Sadducees were the conservatives. The Sadducees, who were generally more wealthy and aristocratic than the Pharisees, put stock only in the first five books of the Old Testament. If it wasn’t clearly stated in the Pentateuch, they put no belief in it. And, as far as they were concerned, there was no mention of the resurrection of the dead anywhere in what were called “The Books of Moses.” That is why they were considered more conservative. If it didn’t say it in the Pentateuch, the first five books of their Bible, they just didn’t believe it. In fact, the first five books of the Old Testament were the only Bible they had.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, depended not only on the Pentateuch but also gave credence to the prophets who had roamed the land a few hundred years before. They also believed in the oral tradition that had circulated for many years in regard to Moses, and within that oral tradition was a belief in the resurrection of the dead. Not the Sadducees. They stubbornly held to the understanding that since the Pentateuch doesn’t mention resurrection, there must not be a resurrection.
That is the backdrop to this confrontation between the Sadducees and Jesus. And since Jesus is the new prophet in town – and most of his time thus far has been spent skirmishing with the Pharisees and/or the scribes – it is now the Sadducees’ turn to take him on. They are determined to see what this upstart Galilean is made of. So, they have come to him with their clever little riddle.
Have you ever had anybody do that to you? Get you into an argument over your beliefs? You can imagine that, since I’m a preacher of the gospel, I’ve had an encounter or two of this nature. Somebody comes to me and asks me a question about the Bible, or something of a theological nature. It doesn’t happen as often as you might think, but it has happened.
How I respond is largely based on what I think is the motive of the person who is doing the asking. Is he an honest seeker of the truth, or is he trying to get me to perpetuate an attitude he’s had for a long time and has no intention of changing? It’s generally the latter, and I suspect that’s the way it was for Jesus when he was confronted by the religious leadership in Jerusalem, especially in this little encounter with the Sadducees.
You see, the Sadducees, when they ask this question of Jesus, aren’t trying to learn anything new. They don’t really have any interest in the resurrection or the life to come. They don’t believe in it, and nothing and nobody is going to change their minds. They’re toying with Jesus, perhaps trying to get him riled up, maybe take a sideways stab at the Pharisees in the process… prove their theological and biblical superiority over those who disagree with them. After all, it’s Saturday night at the temple and everybody knows if this kind of thing is going to happen, it’s going to happen then and there.
It occurred when I was in seminary. You would think that at seminary all the professors thought alike. And while that may be true in some quarters today – as I suspect it is now at my alma mater because it has changed so much… and not, in my opinion for the better – that’s not the way it was a little over thirty years ago. We had some real characters on that faculty, let me tell you. That’s one reason I enjoyed seminary so much.
One of the most notorious was Dale Moody. Some of you may have heard of him. He was as wide as he was tall, and was one of the most learned biblical scholars ever to come down the Baptist pike. When he read scripture, it wasn’t from the King James or the latest version to have been published. He read the New Testament directly from the Greek, its original language. But in doing so he came across more like a Texas brush arbor evangelist than he did a biblical theologian.
In a day in which Baptists clung tightly to the belief in the security of the believer – or as it is more commonly known, “once saved, always saved” – Dr. Moody wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t that he thought you could drift away or slip from salvation, but he thought you could surely jump if you wanted to. He drew a lot of angry fire over that one because it placed him outside the box of conservative Baptist orthodoxy.
He also didn’t care much – and this is an understatement – for The Living Bible. And students, as well as his own colleagues, loved to draw him into debates over it just to see him turn red in the face and start pontificating, sticking his stubby finger in your chest as only Dale Moody could do it.
Like I said, at times seminary could be a lot of fun.
One day he came storming into our theology class with his manila folder in hand. I always assumed his class notes were in that folder, though I never saw him use them so I can’t be sure. On this occasion he threw them down angrily on the desk and it became quickly evident that he had just come from yet another hallway debate. Somebody, yet again, had seeded the trap and Dr. Moody had taken the bait. Without any introduction or as much as a hello, he said in his loudest voice, “Ahm gettin’ tiyed of people stickin’ that green thing undah my nose and callin’ it a Bible!”
Well, the Sadducees have stuck a riddle under Jesus’ nose, and this time they think they’ve got him. It involved seven weddings and a funeral, and true to form, they’re using their beloved Deuteronomy – straight out of the Books of Moses – as their prooftext.
When it came to governing the early life of Israel, the leading fathers tried to think of every contingency, any eventuality that might arise. One of the solutions they came up with was known as the levirate law of marriage. In the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 25) provision is made for the perpetuation of the family. And since this was a male-oriented society, all possibilities were covered from that perspective.
For example, what happens when a man dies, leaving a widow without a son to take care of her? Is she left to her own devices? No, the man’s brother must marry the woman who had previously been his sister-in-law. Then, if a son is born to them, he is considered to be the son of the deceased brother so, as the law puts it, the deceased man’s “name may not be blotted out of Israel” (v. 6).
Here’s the riddle as put forth to Jesus from the shrewd and calculating minds of the clever Sadducees. There was a family in which there were seven brothers. All married the same woman and not one of them produced a child. Finally, the woman also died. “In the resurrection,” they want to know, “whose wife will the woman be? For (all) the seven (brothers) had married her.”
Ooh, that’s a good one, isn’t it? Wonder how long it took them to come up with that? Can’t you just see them, putting their heads together in order to conjure up such a puzzle? There’s just one hitch, at least as far as Jesus is concerned. Jesus knows the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection. In fact, everybody knows the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection. They reiterate their position on this every Saturday night in the temple. So, if they don’t believe in the resurrection, why do they challenge Jesus with a riddle about the resurrection? That’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked.
They’re trying to set him up, aren’t they? They’re not honest seekers or believers wanting to better understand their doctrine. They’re not interested in stretching their minds or learning new things. They already know what they believe, or this case don’t believe. They are “fixed in their position that there was no resurrection of the dead,”2 and nobody, especially this upstart Galilean preacher, is going to change their minds one little bit. The Sadducees are not about to think outside the box of their theological orthodoxy.
And there is no evidence that Jesus convinced them they were wrong. But he certainly gave them something to think about, didn’t he? There’s plenty here for us to consider as well, and it doesn’t necessarily coincide with our theological comfort level either.
For those with long, strong marriages, these words of Jesus might be only a bit short of offensive. If two people, who have loved each other for decades, want to continue their relationship in heaven, what Jesus says could be indeed disturbing. On the other hand, it might provide a measure of comfort.
One minister tells the story of a woman with terminal cancer. Her husband suddenly died of a heart attack. At the funeral, well-meaning friends leaned over to her as she sat in her wheelchair and reminded her that they would soon be reunited in heaven, that it would not be long before they were together again. Later, when she was alone with the minister, she said, with tears streaming down her face, “I am never going to get away from him, am I?”3
So what is Jesus saying about heaven? Despite what your beliefs might be about the life after this existence, pretty much all we have to go on from this little Saturday-night-in-the-temple encounter is that the life to come is not simply a continuation of this present existence. If it were, I would think there are plenty of people on earth for whom such a prospect would not be a positive one.
But Jesus says that God is the God of the living, and guess what? In saying this to the Sadducees he quotes from the Pentateuch, the only part of the Bible they believed. Talk about turning the tables! Take that, you bunch of conniving characters!
But what does it mean that God is the God of the living? We can buy that, believe in it with all our heart. What we want to know is, what kind of living is it going to be? We want answers… clear, unequivocal images of heaven that will encourage and sustain us. In other words, we want a rational explanation of heaven.
Sorry. That’s evidently not what the Bible is for. The Bible talks about the life to come as mystery, that what we can see is like looking through a dark and murky mirror. “You can tie your brain into knots trying to figure it out.”4 So this what I suggest you do…
Either go for it or not. Believe in it or walk away. What I think Jesus is saying is that those who are willing to give their lives to God now will find God to be there when this journey of life is over. What we will discover there is beyond our wildest imaginations, but it will be life as God created it to be, and all our wondering about it, our conjectures, our images, won’t make a bit of difference. It all comes down to a matter of faith, doesn’t it? It is simply and finally a matter of faith.
Let me close with the observation of a little girl. She and her father were walking on a clear, starry night. She turned to him and asked, “If the wrong side of heaven is so beautiful, what will the right side be (like)?”5
When it comes to answering that question, we’ll just have to leave it up to God, won’t we?
Lord, instead of clear answers maybe what we need is more faith. God of the living, live in us we pray… in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 237.
2Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 468.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 204.
4Taylor, Ibid, p. 205.
5SermonWriter, November 11, 2007.
Copyright 2007 Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.