Most knowledge comes to us by comparison to something we already know. For example, rattlesnake tastes like chicken, so if you've ever had chicken, you know how good rattlesnake will taste.
In a similar way, the Bible uses comparisons to teach us about heaven and hell. It says hell is like fire, so if you've ever been burned, you know how bad hell will be. As for heaven, will the gates be pearly and the streets made of gold? How long will the heavenly banquet last? Forever is a long time to be eating. That's not the point.
The Bible uses these images to teach how great heaven will be — and how bad hell will be — but the images themselves are just images, and Jesus is addressing precisely this difference between image and reality in today's Gospel when he tells the Sadducees that they've missed the point because they're being too literal. Jesus teaches us about heaven by comparison to something we already know, but the underlying reality is as different from the image being used as chicken is from rattlesnake.
The Sadducees were arguing with Jesus, saying that his teaching about the resurrection of the dead could imply polyandry — multiple husbands — in heaven. Notice that they're not worried about polygamy, a man preceded in death by seven wives. Wives were thought of as a possession, given away in marriage — kind of like slaves. According to their logic, you could conceivably own more than one such possession at a time, for instance, like the ancient patriarch Jacob had done — even though by then that had had in fact ceased to be the practice in Israel.
But to their mentality of polyandry, multiple husbands owning the same woman was different because that would have been sort of like owning timeshares in the same condo — and according to the Sadducees, that's why the resurrection of the dead is illogical. Even Jesus taught that no slave can serve two masters; how much less could one woman serve seven husbands, all of whom would have had eternally irreconcilable rival claims on her as their exclusive possession. Ridiculous!
But Jesus tells them that they're the ones who are being ridiculous because they're being far too literal. No one will be possessed by anyone in the life to come. Moreover, because even the healthiest marital love on earth is of necessity exclusive — certainly that was Jesus' understanding — it is just a faint image of the unimaginably great love of heaven, which is, of necessity, non-exclusive. Thus, in heaven, there is no marriage as we think of it and hence no polyandry or polygamy. Those seven husbands will be best buddies, not rivals.
And, of course, implied in all of this is the fact that we will be reunited with our loved ones in the next life — assuming that we make it to heaven too. And while the way we will relate to our loved ones there will be different, it will also be better.
For one thing, our ongoing relationship doesn't end with their death. We remain united in our thoughts and memories and prayers. For another, our lives will continue to unfold and develop during this time of separation, and we bring all that with us when we enter the next life. So, we will be different than we were at the time of their death, hopefully, better, more loving and more appreciative. Able to make good on all the things we wished we had said and done when they were still with us in this life. Including things that didn't occur to us at the time. Free now of all regrets!
Jesus teaches us about love in the next life by comparing it with something we already know. The love of heaven is greater than marital love at its very best because it is not exclusive, all are fully free, no one possesses anyone else, there are no conflicting claims. The love of heaven will be as different from earthly love as chicken is from rattlesnake.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Nov. 6.
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