7 Nov 2010
“‘They can no longer die for they are like angels.’” (Luke 20:36) In the name …
It was Halloween last Sunday. Just after dusk the doorbell started ringing with the littlest kids coming to the house for trick-or-treat. Every time the bell rang my dog Wilbur would start barking and charging toward door. I quickly got tired of blocking his repeated attempts to greet everyone, so out back onto the tether he went. There were all of these kids and parents walking around Thayer Street, and Wilbur was trying to talk to each of them from out behind the house. I wasn’t paying too much attention after a while. Then a bit later my doorbell rang and I had a porch-full of kids. While I’m handing out the candy, this dog keeps trying to sneak into my house. I’m telling the kids nicely to hold on to their dog so that he doesn’t follow me inside. I just got rid of my crazy dog out back. I didn’t want to replace him in the house with a stranger’s dog. Then I begin to realize, this isn’t their dog at all, this is my dog Wilbur. He must have got so excited out in the backyard that he pulled right through his collar. I don’t know how long he was running around outside. I don’t know how many kids he greeted in the front yard. But sure enough it was my dog pushing past everyone and trying to get back inside. I didn’t recognize him because I didn’t expect to find him on the front porch. And do you know, he looked different when I didn’t think he was my dog. My expectations played games with my eyes. I only saw what I was prepared to see, not what was actually there – my dog.
Expectations can be pretty convincing like that. We all heard today’s Gospel selection about the Sadducees and their attempt to trap Jesus. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, and Jesus goes on to point out to them that the Scriptures reveal a God not of the dead, but to a God of the living. And since all of us here are from a faith-tradition that expects a resurrection, we can agree with the earliest church when they wrote: “‘Teacher, you have answered well.’” (Lk. 20:39) We expect a message about the resurrection and so we receive it easily, but is that all that Jesus reveals about the afterlife? Or is there something more that we didn’t expect and therefore we didn’t hear? How about Jesus’ words that after the resurrection marriage ends? How about the message that it ends because we become like the angels? What does all of this mean?
First of all let me say that this passage is open to a variety of interpretations, and one of the reasons for all these interpretations is that Jesus says very little about the afterlife so there’s not much to compare this passage with in the rest of the Gospel accounts. Right there, that’s something that we would not expect. If Jesus comes from heaven at Christmas, speaks with God who is in heaven throughout His life, and then returns to heaven after Easter, then I think we would expect to find more said about heaven. But there’s really not much there. We just don’t know what heaven will be like. We may expect that we know a lot about heaven, but we really don’t. So we’ve filled in the gaps ourselves without even realizing it. And we do this all the time. For instance, did you know that all of the neurons gathering information from our eyes come together in one spot at the center of our vision, and because there’s so much wiring there, there’s no eyesight to be had. Every one of us has a black dot at the center of our field vision, but none of us see that black dot because our minds fill in the gap with what we expect to see. Likewise, we’ve got a really big dark spot in front of us when it comes to what heaven will really be like, but we’ve let our expectations fill in the hole.
And this brings us back to today’s Gospel about the end of marriage and that we will become like angels. This is the reason why in our wedding vows we recite the words, “Until death.” The vows stop at that point. Furthermore, according to Jesus, we are not described as male and female in heaven. Instead, we become not angels per se, but “like angels.” This isn’t to say that a husband and wife can’t be reunited in heaven, but it might be saying that there is a deeper meaning being revealed here about heavenly love. Is the ideal of a happy and loving marriage, as a matter of fact, being extended to everyone in heaven? Is the message the hard to imagine teaching that as close as a husband and wife may be after a lifetime together that this then becomes the example of what all relationships are like in heaven? And to make sure that we don’t misunderstand what this implies, Jesus goes on to say that in heaven we become “like angels,” which may very well mean something beyond the physical, beyond genders.
Just like seeing and not-seeing my dog Wilbur on the front porch on Halloween, our expectations set us up to notice what we expect and to ignore what we don’t. And this warns us that we’re no different than the Sadducees in today’s story. It’s part of our universal human nature. It’s the way our minds work. And what we may have heard or not heard from Jesus’ words to us today serves as an example of this. It warns us to stay attentive in our faith lives, to be open to what God still speaks to us. It’s easy to become complacent when it comes to religion, to stop searching and to settle for where we are, to not let our faith challenge us to do new things, that only the past is authentic in religion. Rather, ask new questions, expect more from our answers, and let us grow in our relationship with God and with each other. We have this built-in tendency to notice what we expect and to ignore what we don’t. So this means we have to work at growing in the faith. We have to make a conscious effort to reach beyond what is expected. I’m going away this week for a couple of days to our diocesan clergy retreat. I love those days and I need those days. They recharge my spiritual batteries. They help me sometimes to see things differently. And even though I spend a lot of time at religion, there’s always something new to see that was always there, just never noticed before. Let us pray today for that kind of a commitment that works through the questions and likes to challenge the answers because if God is leading us, there is always somewhere further to go. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo