Until this week I have read this lesson as being about Jesus debating with the Sadducees when they were trying to catch him out in some theological point. Of course the Sadducees don't believe in afterlife so they can make fun of that belief with their story. Or even if they did think about afterlife - given their cultural context the story of the brothers and the widow would be worrying.
In Jesus day, women were property - transferred from father to husband to first born son. They never had possession of themselves. Hence the question of where she belonged. Never having a child (meaning son) would leave her in confusion in their minds.
As I was reading the story this week and also reading Suzanne Guthrie's Edge of Enclosure reflections - I had a whole different idea about it.
When Jesus says "marry and are given in marriage" he means men (the ones who marry) and women (the ones who are given in marriage) - totally different categories of people. So when he says in the afterlife there is none of this - I can almost hear the women in the crowd gasping. "What, we are going to be our own persons? We will have decision making powers about our own lives?" Breathtaking and no wonder the Sadducees are silent - Jesus has opened up something bigger than they had imagined with their debating point.
Jesus breaks something that seemed unbreakable. From the first naming of things (to show possession) of the Genesis story to this moment - man has been doing the naming and all else (including women) are objects.
A friend noted that she believed the first sin was the naming - the objectifying of others. When we name things we are saying we own them. Think of your pets - do you know their real name? Or mountains?
T.S. Eliot puts it like this
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
What Jesus is doing in this passage it giving ownership of self back to women. It is really quite shocking - and I didn't see it at first - being caught up in the debate and thinking it is about after life. But we know that Jesus prays that earth will be like heaven (Lord's prayer "on earth as in heaven") so he is not caught up in a debate but telling us a deeper truth about what God is wanting for us.