When Marriage is Unjust

Herb Montgomery | November 4, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“In Jesus’ worldview, if marriage was going to perpetuate patriarchal dominance and dependence, then it would be better for both men and women for there to be no marriage at all. The “age to come” breaking in on the present, even then, was an age when all oppression would cease, all violence would end, and all injustice, including that enacted through marriage, would be no more. For Jesus, then, patriarchal marriage could not persist.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. Teacher,” they said, Moses wrote for us that if a mans brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

Jesus replied, The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are Gods children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Luke 20:27-38)

Luke’s gospel repeats this story found also in Mark 12:18-27 and Matthew 22:23-33, and doesn’t change much. This story is rooted in the interpretation debates between the more liberal Pharisees and the more conservative Sadducees.

As we’ve discussed before, the Sadducees’ view effectively marginalized many people because they could not economically afford Torah faithfulness as the economically elite Sadducees defined it. This definition worked to preserve the Sadducees’ “purity,” social location, and privilege. As Josephus later wrote, “The Sadducees have the confidence of the wealthy alone, but no following among the populace” (Antiquities, 13.10.6).

The Pharisees had a much larger palette of sacred texts they used to color their theological, political, economic, and social views. Their interpretations put righteousness in the masses’ reach.

These contending political forces also debated whether there was a resurrection and an afterlife and whether this life is all we get. The Sadducees, who valued most of the Torah’s sacred writings, said there was not enough evidence in the Torah for belief in a resurrection. The Pharisees, who valued both the Torah and also a plethora of other sacred texts that we call the Hebrew scriptures today, taught of a resurrection in the age to come.

The Jesus of the gospels agrees with the Pharisees’ more theologically and politically liberal position. That’s why the Sadducees in this week’s reading are questioning Jesus’ belief in a resurrection. His response in each synoptic gospel is telling: and that response doesn’t seem to be good news for the patriarchy, heterosexism, or the social institution of marriage.

Jesus explains that in the age to come, an age of justice, there will be no marriage. How unjustly must the institution of marriage have been that Jesus couldn’t imagine it in the coming age of justice? Jesus states that all who are children of the resurrection will be “like the angels.” We can debate whatever that means, but the implication of the phrase is that marriage will be no more because all injustice will be no more.

Then, in language best fit for the Sadducees, Jesus references the Torah, stating that to God, those who are dead are “all are alive”: the big picture is that, if there is a resurrection, none are really gone and they will live again. This reminds me of the language Jesus uses in the gospels about the 12-year-girl who had died. In that story, he states that she is “Not dead, but only sleeping” (see Mark 5:39; Matthew 9:24; Luke 8:52). The righteous dead are not gone but simply asleep, waiting for the resurrection of the righteous in the age to come.

Let’s unpack this a bit: what relevance might this have to us today given our worldview and justice practices.

First, it helps to understand that the Sadducees are referencing Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

“If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husbands brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”

I want to be careful here with my critique. What stands out to me in this passage is the way it centers men. It also centers men with language that colors these actions as fulfilling a “duty” to the woman. The passage, though, is concerned with extending the lineage of the husband not the women. The woman here is a conduit through which the first brother can have his lineage live on through the faithfulness of the second brother. This raises many questions in our cultural context today. To the best of our knowledge, this passage was at least redacted somewhere between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE. How much did Assyrian and Babylonian patriarchal practices influence this passage? What was the lived experience of those who tried to follow this passage? Was the bodily autonomy of women respected? Did the woman have a say in this? If she also felt that this was a duty to be fulfilled to her, was this due to internalizing the patriarchal elements of her society? Or was this the price of economic survival in an economy that was patriarchal? Was her role assumed to be passive within the social construct of the way marriage was practiced at this time?

I appreciate the perspective Rev Dr. Wilda C. Gafney offers when she calls us to consider what the experience of this practice would have meant for women. Referring to Jesus’ words about the age to come being sans marriage, from the woman’s perspective, she writes, “Might that not be good news?” (Wilda C. Gafney, A Woman’s Lectionary fo the Whole Church, Year W; p. 175)

This week’s reading challenges all our institutions, systems, and social structures including marriage. If marriage is practiced in a way that creates injustice, it must change. The Jesus of our passage this week is teaching that it’s better for there to be no marriage at all than for marriage to be practiced unjustly.

The past few decades the United States debated how the institution of marriage should be practiced. When marriage was being justly expanded to include LGBTQ people, whose exclusion from marriage led to many political, economic, and social injustices, many Christians argued against it using the rhetoric of “Biblical marriage.” But when we look at Biblical definitions of marriage we see that the institution of marriage has continually evolved over the centuries when our sacred text was written and compiled. Marriage as an expression of love, as some of us know it today, simply didn’t exist in the Bible. It was most often contractual, rooted in economic, political and social considerations, and rarely included romance or being “in love.” By Jesus’ time, marriage had evolved into something so harmful to women that he solved the problem of marrage by leaving it out of the age of justice to come.

In the gospels we encounter a Jesus, like other Jewish voices at this time, who was deeply concerned about injustice to women and how marriage was being practiced in his society.

What is the lesson for us?

Today, we must ask whether our social institutions are being practiced in lifegiving or death-dealing ways. Where those institutions, like marriage, are being practiced harmfully, it’s time for them change. As uncomfortable as those still steeped in patriarchy and heterosexism may find a Jesus who does away with marriage, marriage’s evolution in our society to include same-sex marriages is in perfect harmony with the spirit of our passage this week and the spirit of the Jesus in this passage.

Marriage has a long history of change and social construction.

In Jesus’ worldview, if marriage was going to perpetuate patriarchal dominance and dependence, then it would be better for both men and women for there to be no marriage at all. The “age to come” breaking in on the present, even then, was an age when all oppression would cease, all violence would end, and all injustice, including that enacted through marriage, would be no more. For Jesus, then, patriarchal marriage could not persist. And today we might add that heterosexist marriage and the social injustices it births will also be no more because the social construct of marriage, when practiced in a way that is death dealing, has no place in an age of justice.

Which other institutions and social assumptions are practiced in ways that are death-dealing rather than life-giving?

What social constructs from our time shouldn’t be part of an age of justice?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Which other institutions and social assumptions are practiced in ways that are death-dealing rather than life-giving? What social constructs from our time shouldn’t be part of an age of justice? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


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