The Meaning of Marriage

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus is asked a question about marriage in the afterlife (Lk 20:27-38). The Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection) ask Jesus about a woman who had been married to seven brothers during her life. Whose wife would she be at the resurrection? They ask this question in an attempt to make the idea of resurrection appear nonsensical.

Jesus affirms the doctrine of the resurrection by quoting from Exodus, noting how God identified himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” even though those patriarchs had died “for to him all are alive” (Lk 20:37-38, cf. Ex 3:2-16). There are other, more explicit references to the resurrection of the dead in the Hebrew scriptures, but the Sadducees only recognized the authority of the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, which includes Exodus; so Jesus responds to their challenge on their own terms. He would prove the resurrection definitively later on by rising from the dead himself.

But even though the Sadducees were challenging Jesus on the resurrection and not marriage, Jesus doesn’t leave their question about marriage unanswered. He tells them that in the age to come people will “neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Lk 20:35). In other words, marriage won’t exist in heaven. This may sound jarring to us, especially those who have been married for a long time — think of some of your parents or grandparents. If you share your life with someone you love, it may bother us to think that we won’t have that same relationship with them in the life to come. What can we say about this?

First, we should understand what Jesus isn’t saying. He is not saying that you won’t know your spouse or love your spouse in heaven. In fact, based on everything we know about heaven, it’s safe to say that you will know and love your spouse even more. Those in heaven remain aware of the relationships they had on earth — your mother will still be your mother, your father will be your father, your children will be your children, and your spouse will be your spouse. We will still be who we are, only perfected. That’s the communion of the saints. So we don’t need to worry about our loved ones being strangers to us in heaven.

What Jesus is saying is that marriage won’t exist, which leads us to ask, what is marriage, anyway? The Catholic Church defines marriage as “a partnership of the whole of life,” which is “by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (CCC 1601). That’s for this life. In the life to come, there will be no need for procreation because the number of the human race will have been brought to completion.

So what about the good of the spouses? Well, the ultimate good for anyone is to attain the beatific vision of heaven. The Catechism further teaches that, for baptized Christians, the covenant of marriage “has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” (CCC 1601). Sacraments convey grace to us to help us on our pilgrimage to heaven. In other words, sacraments are for this life, not the next. There will be no need for sacraments, including marriage, in heaven, because everything the sacrament points us toward will have been achieved.

Marriage won’t exist in heaven because marriage won’t be needed in heaven. If this sounds strange to us, consider this: Faith and hope won’t exist in heaven, either. Faith is evidence of things not seen (cf. Heb 11:1), and in heaven we will see God (cf. 1 Jn 3:2) and therefore have no need of faith. Similarly, hope will not be necessary for all we could hope for will have been realized. This is why St. Paul says that of the three great theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love (cf. 1 Cor 13:13), because not only will love exist in heaven, it will be perfected.

So yes, marriage won’t exist in heaven; not because marriage isn’t good, but because marriage points to something greater. Those who choose celibacy for the sake of the kingdom (i.e. a monk, nun, religious brother or sister, priest, or consecrated single person) similarly point to something greater. By the witness of their way of life, they testify to our faith in the resurrection and belief that, at the end of the day — and the end of our lives — our relationship with God is sufficient, because our relationship with God will be everything.