I watched a movie years ago called “Defending Your Life.” Meryl Streep was in it, along with Albert Brooks. Streep played a woman named Julia, and Brooks played a man named Daniel. They meet in Judgment City, which is where dead people go to have their lives reviewed to see if they will be “passed on” to a more advanced stage of life, or sent back to earth to try once again to overcome the fears that have been holding them back. Our passage today, with its focus on resurrection and life after death made me think of that movie, so I downloaded it and watched it again.
Judgment City is designed so that it’s an absolutely familiar environment to the dead people who arrive there, right down to the billboards for golf courses and steak houses and comedy clubs. Of course, there are some other-worldly perks—like being able to eat all you want without gaining an ounce, and going to the “Past Lives Pavilion” to get a peek at some of your earlier lives. But other than that, life in Judgment City for Daniel and Julia looks pretty much like the life they knew before they died.
It’s funny—I always remembered it as a Christian movie, and I was surprised at how not Christian it is. I’d say it’s more Buddhist than anything, with its past and future lives. But it still reminded me of our passage today. Because the question the Sadducees ask Jesus is based on a similar premise: that if there is an afterlife, it would pretty much be an extension of what life is like now.
Actually, the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection or life after death. And, they were in competition with the Pharisees, who did believe in resurrection. So, their real intention may have been to needle the Pharisees by proving just how ridiculous the whole idea was. Jesus had been fielding one question after another from the scribes and chief priests who were trying to find a way to trip him up, all without success. So, the Sadducees step up to see if they can best Jesus and the Pharisees in one fell swoop.
The basis of their question was the idea that whatever rules applied on earth would apply in the hypothetical afterlife. Whatever conditions were present in this life would be present in the next. Whatever concerned people during their earthly lives would concern them in the next.
In the world of the Jewish Sadducees, one of those concerns was producing descendants. Since the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection or life after death, the only way a man could live on was through his descendants. Plus, if there were no children to inherit the land, the land would pass into other hands. That’s why there was a rule that if a man died without having any children, his brother was to marry the dead man’s wife. The first child born of that union was considered the dead man’s child and heir. Problem solved.
The Sadducees set up what would have seemed like a fairly unlikely scenario. One of seven brothers died, childless. So, according to the law, his brother married the widow and, like his brother before him, died without any offspring. In a spectacularly bad string of misfortune, the same thing happened to the rest of the brothers, until the poor woman died as well. “So, Jesus,” the Sadducees say, “When they’re all resurrected, whose wife will she be? Whose children will she bear then, huh? Because she was married to all of them.”
If there were such a thing as life after death, knowing whose wife that poor woman would be was an important issue for the Sadducees, because they assumed that life after death would be like life before death. The issues of property rights and carrying on the family name would continue in the afterlife just as they had on earth. The same old worries, the same old traditions, the same old quest to hold onto property, the same desire not to be forgotten would all follow the dead to their resurrection lives. Not believing in an afterlife dogged by the same old earthly problems may have been a relief to the Sadducees.
Of course, unlike the Sadducees, we believe in the resurrection and in life after death. But sometimes we think and talk more like Sadducees than Christians. We imagine life after death as being pretty similar to the life we know now, at least the good parts. We sing about golden mansions lined with silver. We imagine loved ones who have passed away doing the same activities they enjoyed on earth. I’ve even presided over funerals of professed Christians whose families placed objects in their loved ones’ caskets because, they said, the deceased would need that lucky ball cap or favorite snack in heaven.
I heard a story once about two elderly men who loved baseball. Each day, Joe and Tom would meet at their favorite park bench and talk about baseball—games they’d played in, games they wished they’d played in, games they’d seen, games they wished they’d seen, their favorite players, their least favorite players, teams from the past, teams from the present, teams of the future. They never tired of talking about baseball.
One day, they got to wondering if there’s baseball in heaven. They made a pact—whoever died first would somehow get back to the other with the answer. Not long after, Tom died. Later on, as Joe sat sadly on their favorite bench, he heard a voice. “Joe, it’s me, Tom! I came to tell you about baseball in heaven. And I have good news and bad news.” “What’s the good news?” Joe eagerly asked.
“The good news is that there is baseball in heaven. And it’s amazing! Every seat has a perfect view. The outfield is like green velvet. You get all the hot dogs and beer you want, for free. Every game is as exciting as the 7th game of the World Series. You can even watch games from the past! You can even play if you want to! That’s the good news.” “That’s fantastic news!” Joe said, “But what’s the bad news?” Tom replied, “You’re pitching on Friday.”
We imagine life after death as some version of life as we know it now, because it’s so hard to imagine what resurrection life will be like. We search the Scripture for hints. Paul speaks of how our perishable, mortal bodies will put on imperishability and immortality. We read about what John of the Revelation could only describe in metaphors and similes. Jesus spoke of a home and a table. But there is little in Scripture that enables us to clearly envision the reality that awaits us.
If we had been standing near Jesus, we may have wanted to ask him a question similar in nature to the Sadducees’, but for a different reason. They wanted to discredit the reality of resurrection. We want details that can help us know what to anticipate.
When Jesus replied to the Sadducees, he skipped right over the riddle they had posed and went straight to the heart of their question. What is life after death like? Is it just a continuation of what we already know, or is it different? And, Jesus’ short answer is, “It’s different.”
It’s different because this world’s rules are all about how to get around the threats that death poses—the threat that property will be lost, a family name forgotten, or relationships ended. But those who enter into life after death will never die again. In the resurrection, this world’s rules don’t even enter into the equation, because death doesn’t enter into the equation. All earthly worries vanish, including the ones about ensuring a line of inheritance, which made marriage as a legal institution necessary.
That may sound good to people whose main focus in marriage is securing their material legacy. But, what does it mean for people who are fortunate enough in this life to enjoy warm and loving relationships with other people—marriage in particular, but others as well, like the ones between children and parents, or between dear friends? What do Jesus’ words mean for our hope of being reunited with our loved ones after death?
Our loving God offers life after death to those who enter into a loving relationship with God through our faith in Jesus Christ. Through him, we become children of God—children of the resurrection. In many ways, life as children of the resurrection is a mystery beyond our knowledge now. One day, we will see clearly, rather than in a mirror dimly. We will know fully, where now we know only in part.
What we will see more clearly and know more fully is the very nature of God. And, we can be sure that our resurrection lives will reflect the nature of God, which is love and relationship. God created marriage and family and friendship and community where love between people can be nurtured, where God’s love can be experienced, and where love for God can be cultivated. We can trust that, as we come to know resurrection life with a loving God, the love we have for others, which springs from God’s love for us, will go on.
In the movie “Defending Your Life,” the kind of life the characters would have after death was determined by how they had lived before death. To some extent, this is true of us as well. Our decision to accept Christ as our Lord and Savior does determine whether we will be children of God—children of the resurrection who will die once to this earthly world as we know it, and then never again.
But, life as we know it now should also be shaped by life as we know it will be. We live in the sure and certain “hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.” That hope should color all of our earthly lives. That hope frees us from the world’s focus on material wealth and success, calculations of who’s in and who’s out, and feelings of pessimism and futility, and frees us for lives of love and joy and peace.
The Sadducees, and today many people like them, didn’t believe in resurrection. Today, many believe in life after death that will look pretty much like life before death. But, children of God, who have responded to God’s love by putting their trust in Jesus, do have the sure and certain hope of resurrection and eternal life in God’s kingdom. Life as we know it now will come to an end. But as children of the resurrection, we can live this life in the light of life as we know it will be. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young