“he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for him all are alive.” Lk 20:38
After the untimely death of his four-year-old son, Eric Clapton wrote a song that has touched the hearts of many who’ve stood at a loved one’s grave.
“Would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven?” Clapton asks.
Every pastoral instinct we have wants to say “yes.” Everyone seems to want assurance that when someone beloved dies, we will be together with them in heaven as we have been in this life.
In answer to Clapton’s question, Jesus’ words in this Gospel story appear to suggest that things will not be the same. Rather, they will be enriched and enhanced beyond our wildest imaginings. In today’s story, Jesus tells us that our vision of God’s future is entirely too small.
Jesus uses as an example the plight of women in his day.
Back then a woman’s status and survival depended entirely on being attached to a man. When the Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death, told their tale of woe about a woman who was shuttled from one brother to another each time one died, their concluding question sounded an alert for Jesus:
“To whom will she belong in heaven?”
To the Sadducees, resurrection from the dead implied a continuation of life as it is on earth. Jesus, on the other hand, wanted to show that his vision of heaven implied transformation, a whole new way of being.
In the case the Sadducees presented, that meant a total change in the status and importance of women.
Jesus was saying that in the resurrection there will be no more giving women away as if they were property. In their resurrection women will be full persons, just as men will be.
St. Paul understood this perfectly when he wrote his letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus’ response to the Sadducees was a call to change their way, and our way, of thinking. His teaching challenged our view of God as too narrow, too restricted. And Paul’s writing was yet another way to show that in Jesus all things are made new.
As one writer puts it, “Jesus is pointing out once again that through him there is not only good news about the status of women, but also for slaves, for those oppressed by race, class, creed, or any other box in which they have been confined: too big, too young, too slow, poorly educated or learning disabled. Whatever the box, it will not exist in the resurrection.”
Though the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection of the dead, many others, often us too, believe that eternity will be a continuation of things as they have been on earth. Jesus came to help us see that what is to come will be so much greater, so much grander. It will be far beyond our imagining.
Recently I read a story about a judge who heard the case of a prostitute only minutes after he heard the case of an abused woman seeking protection from her abusive husband. He had always thought of one as a culprit and the other a victim. But this day he saw only two broken people who seemed remarkably alike.
After a little research, he learned that 80 percent of women in the sex trade were first abused, and thereby taught they were worthless. Soon after, the judge established a program to educate and empower prostitutes to stand on their own, and to surround them with the support and love they needed.
He believed that by changing attitudes, people could be transformed.
The more the judge cared for the downtrodden, the more he came to realize, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He said that it made him more understanding, kind, and merciful.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, showed little sympathy for the sorrow this woman had faced. In two verses, they described a woman losing her husband, then remarrying his brother and losing him and then the next brother, and on and on: seven weddings followed by seven funerals. If Jesus sounded exasperated by their telling of the tale, perhaps it was because they did so without an ounce of empathy.
How did she get through it all?
When Jesus said, “It will not be like this in the resurrection,” he was not just declaring the end of all forms of tragic oppression and the attitudes that birth such miseries.
He was declaring the end of death itself.
In Christ the old will pass away and all will be made new. Hearts broken by sadness and grief will be mended and made whole in resurrection joy.
The answer to Clapton’s question, “Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?” is perhaps best given by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians where we are told that what awaits us instead is :
“What no eye has seen, no ear heard, and no mind has imagined.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.