By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today I’d like to talk with you about the shape of the life to come. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The story is told of a man — let’s call him Frank — who lived quite an immoral life. He lied, he stole, he cheated, and seemed to show not the least regret. Now it happened that Frank had one great passion, and that was to play golf. Whenever he was not involved in some underhanded activity, he was out there on the golf course.
Frank’s death was sudden and unexpected. A heart attack took him — just like that! When he came through on the other side, he was surprised. First, he was surprised that he was dead. It was not something he had expected when he got up that morning. But Frank was also surprised about where he ended up as a dead man. It was the most beautiful golf course he had ever seen! The sky was bright blue, the grass was brilliant green, and the temperature was that of a pleasant spring day.
Frank saw three men together, and recognized them as some old golfing buddies, all of whom had died before him. He connected up with them just like before, and they went out together to the first hole. The tee was in its place, and it was Frank’s turn to swing. He asked that somebody put down a ball. It was then that his partner looked at him with regret and said, “We’ve got all this, but we have no golf balls. You know, don’t you, that this is not heaven? We’re in the other place!”
The story demonstrates a popular misunderstanding. It depicts the next life as somehow just a version, better or worse, of the life we are living now. And so the ardent golfer ends up in an otherworldly country club, and because he lived a terrible life, he must spend eternity out on the links without a golf ball.
Some Sadducee-opponents of Jesus showed the same misunderstanding. These people imagined the next life entirely in terms of this one, and so they rejected any belief in the next life. It made no sense to them that the arrangements that characterize this life should continue on forever.
The Sadducees were only one segment of the Jewish community in the time of Jesus. Generally speaking, they were the old aristocracy, with ties to the temple priesthood. They were the religious and social conservatives who, unlike other Jews, accepted as Scripture only the five books of Moses: Genesis through Deuteronomy. They denied not simply the resurrection of the dead, but spirits and angels as well. This put them in conflict with both the common people and the Pharisees. It also put them in conflict with Jesus, whose proclamation of God’s kingdom they regarded as a threat to their comfortable little world.
And so it is that the Sadducees attempt to discredit Jesus through debate. They offer a hypothetical case: seven brothers marry the same woman one after another. Each brother dies in turn, leaving the woman a widow. Each subsequent brother attempts to have children with the woman. In this they are obedient to the law of Moses, which requires that a man marry the widow of his childless brother and produce children to preserve his brother’s memory.
“So far, so good,” say the Sadducees. “Now, Jesus,” they ask, “When this resurrection happens that you talk about, whose wife will this woman be? Which of the seven will be her husband?”
The example is a bizarre one, and for us it may seem remote. We do not require that a man marry the widow of his childless brother. But the attitude of these Sadducees can express itself in modern terms as well. Today’s Sadducee might propose this example in an effort to debunk the resurrection:
A child is born through the new reproductive technologies. Donor parent one contributes the sperm to fertilize the egg from donor parent two. The resulting embryo is implanted in parent three, the surrogate mother, who carries it to term. The child is then given to adoptive parents four and five who are committed to raising it, but they are both killed in a car crash. The child, now a toddler, is adopted by another couple, who become parents six and seven. Now at the resurrection whose child will this be? [This example comes from Ruth Caspar, O.P. in Gail Ramshaw, ed., Homilies for the Christian People, Cycles A, B, C (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1989), p. 539.]
The man out on the eternal fairway with no golf balls. The woman who is the bride for seven brothers. The child with a roomful of parents. In each case, a mistake is made in assuming that the life to come is simply an extension of life as we know it now.
A continuation of life is not the Gospel message. What Jesus teaches about is a new life. What Jesus experiences in his death and resurrection is a new life. What Jesus makes possible for us and all the world is a new life. Not resuscitation for more of the same, but resurrection for something different! Not a small life, easily managed, but a life that grows ever larger, the only life expansive enough to fill the God-shaped space inside us. It is this new life that the Gospel announces.
The Sadducees — whether ancient or modern — are wrong. There is a resurrection, a life to come, and it promises something better than this life. It is a world where the joyous awareness of God is never absent from anyone. It is a world where the light of God shines every day.
The Sadducees could know this, for sometimes eternal life breaks through into the here and now. We too can know this, for eternal life is not simply something stored up for us and stored away. It breaks through and changes life here and now. We can recognize these breakthroughs. We can welcome the new thing God is doing.
And God is doing something new! This novelty upsets those whose imaginations are so stunted that all they want is more of the same. But God’s novelty offers hope for those who find themselves in any way oppressed. God’s novelty offers hope to anyone who hungers and thirst for righteousness.
To regard the life to come as no more than a continuation of the here and now ends up trivializing both this life and the next. It means imagining nothing more to existence than golf on earth and golf in heaven. But to recognize that the next life is a new birth, a new age, the unveiled sight of God — this brings out the dignity of both that life and the one we are living now.
When the vision of God is recognized as the substance of the life to come, then even the hard times we now experience are found to be redeemed. For, truth be told, that vision of God shines so brightly that even through the failings of this life we can glimpse the glory of the next.
I have spoken these words to you in the name of the God whose vision will be our eternal joy: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Copyright 2001 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.