It started, I think, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. She’s an actress and he’s the front man for the band Coldplay. When these two people, who were married for 10 years, parted in 2014, they announced their split ‘consciously uncoupling’ … not separating or divorcing but ‘consciously uncoupling’. This linguistic creativity continued last week when the actress Emma Watson used the novel expression ‘self-partnered’ to describe her being contentedly single. (A letter to The Times on Thursday asked ‘should we therefore anticipate a post-Christmas desire to cut out eating cakes as ‘conscious unKipling’.)
When we die, will we be contentedly ‘self-partnered’? Will our marriages here on earth be ‘consciously uncoupled’? Or will be still be ‘coupled’ with our earthly partners? If there really is life after death, what will be the state of our relationships with the people we have known and loved?
Both the First Reading and the Gospel address these questions.
The first real mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Bible is found in the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel. This is believed to have been written in the first half of the second century BC i.e. less than 200 years before the time of Christ. From then faith in the resurrection became a standard teaching among some groups of Jews such as the Pharisees. However, more traditionalist groups like the Sadducees clung to the older conviction that there was no real afterlife.
In today’s Gospel we hear the Sadducees ridiculing this belief in an afterlife and Jesus defending it. Although they disagreed with the Pharisees over resurrection, the Sadducees shared a common desire to dispose of Jesus (and would succeed eventually).
In the Gospel the Sadducees quote an old law that required a brother-in-law to marry and have a child with his dead brother’s wife (if his dead brother had not produced an heir). The basic principle behind this regulation was that a widow was forbidden to remarry outside her deceased husband’s family (probably to prevent alienation of property). The Sadducees then invented a story about an unfortunate woman who had to marry, in turn, six of her dead husband’s brothers before a lawful heir of her first husband was produced. They then mockingly asked Jesus “and when this woman takes part in your ‘resurrection of the dead’, which of the seven brothers will she be married to in heaven?”
In reply, Jesus quotes from the Book of Exodus in which God declares to Moses ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ … not ‘I was’ but ‘I am’, meaning that in God’s own eyes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still alive. So for Jesus God is a God of the living, for whom all people are alive even after they die.
As for marriage in the afterlife, Jesus’ reply is based on the common understanding of marriage at that time. By our standards it was oppressive as its function was solely to produce new human life. There was no understanding of the complexity of human relationships as we experience them today: society then knew nothing of gender fluidity, same sex relationships, egg donation, surrogacy or the possibility of a man giving birth. Couples, who were chosen for each by their families, did not live together before marriage which was solely between men and women. While people then could become happily married, their primary role as married people was to produce children.
So for Jesus marriage was necessary only for this side of life, where people die. As the afterlife (‘heaven’) was a place where people no longer die, he says they do not need to be married in heaven.
Our understanding of marriage today is more enriching and liberating! In the Church we speak of marriage having two primary ends. It is for the mutual love and support the equal-in -dignity partners who freely choose each other, and for their sharing with God in creating new life. In some parts of the world, this understanding of marriage is still a radical doctrine.
(Some people have interpreted Our Lord’s reply to the Sadducees to claim that there is no sexual activity in heaven [as sex purely for procreation is not required]. In reply, others ask that if this is true, how can it be heaven?)
So if I have been married in this life, will I still be married in the next? God forbid, some might say, while others will dread the thought of being separated. If I’ve been separated or divorced in this life, will it be the same in the next? What kind of existence will I have? Will I still be ‘me’ and will my loving relationships here on earth continue in heaven?
The answer? If for you ‘seeing is believing’, then there no tangible proof of the resurrection to new life that can be offered to you. However, the teaching of Jesus is that even when dead we are ‘alive’ to God. He used the phrase “children of the resurrection” to describe his followers because they believe in something that cannot be proven. And isn’t life full of similar challenges when we believe in something we cannot prove – in another person, in a cause, in the value of a particular course of action etc.
As St Paul reminds us, we Christians ‘walk by faith and not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7). In this faith – which is not certainty – we live in the hope that all who have been dear to us here on earth will remain close to us in heaven.
Holy Name, Jesmond
10 November 2019