The Gospel for November 6th, 2016: “The Question about the Resurrection”
Reflection: What Will Heaven Be Like?
In reading today’s gospel, it occurred to me there a number of theological fine points being referenced that it would helpful to understand. In particular, I wondered who exactly were the Sadducees, what were their beliefs, and what did they mean by the “resurrection?” I did a little searching to find those are some murky waters, since the Sadducees did not have a written theology; and what we know of them comes from other sources from the time period. It appears they were a rival Jewish sect, very conservative, with both the Pharisees and later the Christians. Furthermore, there is evidence they held some power in the management of the temple and in the Sanhedrin, the court of judges we know Jesus stood before on the night of His arrest. Finally, from the passage, we know they did not believe in the “resurrection,” although there is no clarification of what they meant. It is safe to assume they meant life after death for God’s people and not the resurrection of Jesus from His death on the cross, which was yet to come.
If I may start with that understanding and avoid wading into murkier theological waters, I think Jesus’s answer is pretty revealing about what we as Christians live in hope for. When they ask Him which brother the widow who was remarried to a family of brothers after each of his deaths will be married to when she passes on, Jesus answers:
The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise (34-36).
Despite the fact that this answer is given as a part of a scriptural debate about the truth of the resurrection, a life after death, it also provides we who believe in it a glimpse of its nature that I find quite encouraging. Jesus says we are no longer married to anyone in the afterlife. Why would that be? It is not because of the problems relating to polygamy brought up by the Sadducees. Rather I think it speaks to our call to holiness as God’s created children. We have been born into this world in sin, which divides us from the animating and ever-present love of our Creator. In His grace, we still know Him in life because His love is in each of us and because the Holy Spirit’s presence in our world amplifies His call to us to overcome our separation from Him in sin and rejoin Him in the pure joyfulness and glory of His everlasting love.
While we experience this love in small doses in loving our neighbor and in the sacraments, we alienate ourselves from that love in moments of sin, widening the spiritual gap between Christ and us. Marriage, as a sacrament, joins two people into one in Christ’s love, which has the potential to extend our walk toward holiness and rejection of sin. Any married couple knows how often we are called to be unselfish and put our partner’s and others’ needs before our own in marriage, especially in marriages blessed with children. But in the next life, we no longer need marriage when God’s grace has purified us to the point of holiness where we may be joined in His love directly. The separation caused by sin is gone. We are fully justified with the rest of His people and the angels in His love forever. The fact that this happens while we still maintain a unique consciousness as ourselves, so that we may enjoy eternal life in Him, is just one aspect of the absolute beauty and mystery of God’s grace. It is a state that marriage helps prepare us for in this life as two individuals work at remaining one in Christ’s love. This relationship only works when every decision is made with the unselfish love of Christ as the animating force. And it why it has the ability to purify us so that we may eventually be holy.
So even though I like other analogies of Heaven that speak to the ecstatic joy of eternal life: streets of gold, harmonious choirs, eternal rest, endless bounty (I love my parish priest’s joke that he hopes there will be low-calorie Snickers bars in Heaven. I also love the title of Rick Telander’s book for hoops junkies Heaven is a Playground); there is something in Jesus’s answer that I find even more reassuring. When I hear other analogies, I still think about the dark shadow sin casts on every ecstatic high we experience in this life we use to imagine life in Heaven. Despite a marriage I find truly rewarding, I still long for escape from its responsibilities at times. As a result, I sometimes become very selfish and give into all sorts of sins, large and small. I find this to be true of all my relationships with others, with my children, with my co-workers, with my extended family, with my friends and neighbors. They all enrich my life with God’s love, but sometimes I see the ties that bind us as a burden I do not want to shoulder. But in Jesus’s answer, we are reminded that relationships in Heaven are no longer marred by sin. Sin is gone because the gap it causes between us and God’s unselfish love has been closed and will not return. We will all be gathered up in Him no longer touched by sin–no more alliances and rivalries. I long for that day. I have hope for that day. And I pray that we all continue to open our hearts to our Savior so that all of humanity may be joined as a truly unified people in our Creator. I think all at once it will be both eternally joyful and peaceful.