A few years ago, AARP did a survey of their membership, asking, among other things, how many of them believed in heaven. The statistics were not surprising: the higher a person’s income the less likely s/he was to believe in heaven. The higher a person’s level of education, the less likely s/he was to believe. Ninety percent of people who earn less than $25,000 a year, according to the survey, believe in heaven while among those earning $75,000 or more, 78% believe. The survey did not include the attitudes of younger people, particularly that largely unchurched group between the ages of 19 and 29 that we priests and ministers are constantly concerned about.
Most people know me well enough to know that I do not necessarily accept literal interpretations of words like “heaven” and “resurrection”. We are, after all, living in a post-modern world and we have found the need to harmonize our spiritual knowledge with our scientific knowledge, with our sociological knowledge, with our psychological knowledge, etc…etc… The survey is, in my mind, seriously flawed because had they used the word “afterlife” instead of “heaven”, the results might have been very different. The word “Heaven” is encrusted with centuries of orthodox interpretation, words that have long been used as weapons against those who questioned the literal veracity of the theological terms. Notions of Heaven and Hell have been used to further separate humanity into subgroups of those who believe Truth (the things WE believe) and those who believe falsehood (the things OTHER people believe.)
The Sadducees, the ones who believe OTHER things than the Scriptural orthodoxy prescribes, tend to get a bad rap. Luke tells us that one of their core tenets was that there is no resurrection of the dead. If that is true, and we only have our own biased texts on which to base our assumptions, then surely they based this understanding on that part of the Hebrew Scriptures called the “Books of Moses”, the most ancient of the Hebrew Scriptures, where there is no explicit reference to an afterlife.
In the Gospel pericope for the 32nd Sunday, these Sadducees come to Jesus with a convoluted question, a theoretical situation that is based on what they themselves considered a parody of heaven for those who believed in it. Jesus is always an agile opponent in logical debates, however, and as usual, he surprises them by agreeing that their theoretical situation is an absurd one. There is no way to sort out who will be married to whom in heaven – not because there is no heaven but because life after life on earth will not resemble life here at all. It will be unlike anything we’ve ever known – and so different that there are not adequate words to describe what it will be like.
The Scriptures say that the streets will be paved with gold, but we know that that is not possible in any literal sense. In the past year, I have had the misfortune of hearing some very lame sermons at different churches, and one morning I was treated to a sermon that took this verse literally, where the minister explained that this proved that Heaven was another planet with a very dense inner core and strong gravitational pull—otherwise the gold streets would not be held in place.
The Bible also tells us that we will see God as God is, face to face, even though we know very well that God does not have a face at all. So, Heaven, or the afterlife, remains a mystery. We cannot know with certainty what it looks like, what it sounds like, or what it smells like. We can only trust that somehow, something of us continues into another dimension of reality that eludes our present understanding or experience.
In speaking to the Sadducees, Jesus recognizes their preference for the books of Moses, the Pentateuch. Jesus uses their understanding of scripture when he points out to them that the Law was never intended to define what heaven will be like, rather, the Scriptures are given to let us know how to live on earth, in the here and now. He reminds them that the provisions listed for widows in the Book of Deuteronomy were written for this life only, and were never intended to inform us on what comes next.
By insisting on their own narrow understanding of the Scriptures, they miss out on the larger truth of resurrection, the prospect of earthly life continuing into the next, and the vision of our life in the here and now as having real significance. Jesus uses the story of Moses at the burning bush to remind them that we can have a sense of confidence to face uncertainties because we know that no matter what happens, we worship a Living God, a God who functions in the present reality of our lives. This God will certainly continue to care for us after death.
Members of our own armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq—to use a contemporary example–need to have the firm hope that there is a place waiting for them when they return. Were they to enlist, train and be sent overseas without the knowledge that things would be here for them, they would, I suspect, be less motivated to survive their deployment. On the other hand, they would not be able to perform their duties in Iraq if all they thought about was “home.” So, while we might have days when we long for life with God on the next plane of existence, we still have to focus our attention on this life and the ones who share this plane with us.
Jesus reminds us that God is not just the God of heaven. God is not just the God who will meet us “on the other side.” We worship and serve the God of the living, no matter where we live, no matter how we live. God is the God of the living – in this world and in the next.
What Jesus says to the Sadducees does not change them: they are clinging tenaciously to their beliefs. Their concern for truth as an intellectual category blinds them to truth on the spiritual level. And their error should be a reminder to us today that we run the same risk of becoming so locked in our own opinions as to close off new information and greater understanding. We can become allow ourselves to believe that the Reign of God can’t be accomplished here, that Heaven is the only possible resolution to the world’s problems. We can become so enamored of our beliefs that we stifle God’s attempts to move us to a wider understanding. We can discover, as various political groups have, that focusing on a single issue, divorced from the context of other issues, leads us to abandon compassion for people living real lives who may well have come to conclusions different from our own. And rather than respecting their wisdom and their journey, we may even treat them as obstacles in the way of how we want the world to be, instead of as human beings loved equally by God. In all things, we need to hold the truth that God loves us all equally, that God is the God of the living, that God supports us always, in this world and the next.
The Sadducees made it a practice to memorize some key scripture verses, to learn a few right answers—but they were unable and unwilling to really open themselves to both their questions and their answers, and find a way to incarnate the truth they found. They came to the conclusion that their actions had no lasting consequences or influence at all. Had they thought more deeply about God as God of the living, and focused on entrusting themselves to God’s care, they might have found some other strands within their own tradition that would have expanded their understanding. We, as humans, have a tendency to absolutize our opinions and then look for proof in the Gospel or in our Tradition. If we are to avoid becoming Sadduccees ourselves, we must resist this temptation at all costs.