Silent and Afraid #4: The Question of Marriage

  The Widow's Mite (Le denier de la veuve) , James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Widow's Mite (Le denier de la veuve), James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

It is no doubt obvious at this point that my ability to blog consistently is atrocious. Nevertheless, I continue to slowly compile my thoughts, unsystematically, and inconsistently. Here is a reflection on the question of marriage, and resurrection. In my own context my church, the Uniting Church in Australia, is set to decide whether it will embrace marriage equality - now law in Australia - at its upcoming Assembly in July.

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"Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’ -- Mark 12.18-27

This passage gets very little play in Christian discussions of marriage, despite the fact that it's one of only two times Jesus explicitly engages with the issue of marriage.

The context is Jesus' final public encounter with the religious leaders that have served as antagonists throughout Mark's Gospel. Having dealt with the question of taxes by condemning the temple system itself as profane, Jesus turns to face the Sadducees.

Their question is speculative, driven by their own theological assumptions. They don't believe in the resurrection, this is an argument to absurdity: if you believe in resurrection you contradict the law, and end up with absurd results. No resurrection. QED.

We are fortunate that marriage is here the case study for Jesus laying out the logic of resurrection.

Jesus' first riposte is to accuse them of not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God. Setting aside the question of Scripture for the moment, the power of God has been at work throughout Mark's Gospel. Miraculous healings - even simply touching Jesus' cloak - casting out demons, reaching a crescendo in the confession of Christ by Peter, preceding the transfiguration.

Having heard Peter's confession Jesus makes clear that the way of the Christ is the way of obedience, suffering, and death - even death on a cross. Peter doesn't understand this, and so Jesus rebukes him. In that context, having emphasised that the way of the Christ is the way of the cross, Jesus says that some of the disciples will not face death before seeing the Kingdom of God arrive in power.

What arrival of the Kingdom of God means in that instance isn't clear, and has been interpreted in several different ways. Does it refer to the transfiguration the disciples are about to witness? Does it refer to the cross itself, mindful of Jesus' rebuke of Peter? Does it refer to the resurrection? The second coming of Jesus?

Our passage from Mark 12 hints at a possible answer. There Jesus connects the power of God to raise the dead to the nature of God - referencing the story of God identify Godself to Moses, one of the founding figures in the story of God's people, Israel. Resurrection is not about a future hope for an afterlife, but about those who are living now. For the early Christians reading this we might imagine that this is rather obvious: the point of Jesus' own resurrection was that it had implications for their lives - and indeed our lives - right now.

The power of God, in resurrection, is not a question of future speculation, but of immediate consequence. We have to ask what the immediate consequence of resurrection is for the case of marriage. We might be even more specific: what is the immediate consequence of resurrection for this widow?

In fact, as Mark 12 continues, a widow appears - as if to answer the very questions raised by Jesus' encounters with the religious leaders.

She places two coins in the offering plate at the temple - this contrasts starkly with the rich who emptied their wallets. There Jesus upholds her offering. She has put more in than all the others.

This widow has modelled faithfulness in a temple that stands condemned. She has given freely what she has, even as the Scribes sought "devour widow's houses." She has been uplifted even as the question of her marital duties are brought unstuck by speculation about resurrection.

This radically concrete story of the widow's offering locates the resurrection. The resurrection is about the living; in this case, the widow, who's husbands have died, and left her with no children. She is the site of the resurrection, to be upheld and supported, to be given life. To be told Good News.

So the question of marriage is not one of legalism or speculation. It must always be tethered to the outworking logic of resurrection. That says to the poor, the lowly, and the powerless: you are upheld, even as the religious leaders seek to subdue you.

The issue of marriage fades into the background here. It is not marriage itself that should drive us - this is what Jesus teaches - but marriage, like all things, should be caught up in the resurrection life of God. We must always ask, about marriage as much as anything else, is this good news to the poor and suffering? That is the immediate consequence of the resurrection. And so any myopic focus on marriage that does not take seriously the immediate consequence of the resurrection is at risk of departing from the very teaching of Jesus on marriage.

To God be the Kingdom, the power and the glory.