Today’s gospel reading (see text here) offers us Jesus’s words about what happens to us after death. The question that the Sadducees pose to Jesus is meant to ask Jesus to take sides in a dispute over whether there is a resurrection or not. The Sadducees as a group rejected the idea of a bodily resurrection. Death was the end for both the righteous and the unjust alike.
Jesus’s answer is reassurance of continued existence after death. While the Sadducees question was about which brother will be husband to his wife after death, when the woman has married man after man in the course of being widowed multiple times, Jesus really does not answer their question directly. Instead, he tries to show them that the whole question is misguided. Jesus is saying more than the idea that there is no marriage in heaven. He is suggesting that the concept of marriage, a relationship that exists on earth, doesn’t have the same meaning in heaven. Jesus uses an analogy in saying that we will be like angels, not because human beings are angels, but rather because human categories of what it means to be embodied, to be alive or dead, do not quite fit in this other realm.
Heaven is such a transformation of our being that the human categories of understanding are no longer fully functional when we go home to be with God. St Paul later will say, “eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love him. We see as in a mirror darkly now, but we will see him as he is.”
I find this aspect of our faith both encouraging and challenging. It’s encouraging because we are promised that there is a resurrection and that our existence will continue in some different form after death, that our being does not simply come to an abrupt end. God holds us not only through the process of dying, but also through the process of transformation that we name as death. At the same time, knowing that we will die should challenge us deeply, because we also know that we do let go of this human life. We don’t take our money or material things with us, or these same (often broken down) bodies with us, nor our jobs, reputation, or many other goods that often end up being the centerpiece of our lives. Perhaps we will even be stripped of aspects of our ego that are non-essential, and that are bound up in these kinds of things. As St Paul says, faith, hope and love alone remain (1 Corinthians 13: 13).
What remains especially is our love and the effects of love on the world that we will have left behind: situations where we have shown forgiveness and mercy, or fed the hungry and clothed the naked, or given of ourselves generously in community, or created beautiful works of art or music, or held the hand of a suffering person so that they did not feel alone. In heaven, our loving relationships remain–with God and with each other, held “in” God.
To this extent, Jesus’s answer goes far beyond judgment about a controversial matter of teaching, and reminds us to remember that this life is a journey and a short one, very meaningful because of the love and creativity in which we are called to participate along with God, as God works in and through us, but also temporary. How different are our choices when we consider which things for which we now grasp will fade away in heaven, and the love that will remain? Are we called to live differently than we are when we keep in mind that death will strip us of all the non-essentials? Can we trust that God preserves every love and will always hold us, even in death, because God is the unending source of love and life?