When I hear the word heaven, these days I think of the lyrics to that old song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but it’s on my iPod so it drums its way into my head on a regular basis. It’s a turn of the century song that paints a satirical and evocative picture of paradise from the perspective of a hobo. My favorite verse goes:
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and brightWhere the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every nightWhere the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every dayOn the birds and the bees and the cigarette treesWhere the lemonade springs where the bluebird singsIn the Big Rock Candy Mountains
The rest of the song is great too—the obviously lawless singer fantasizes about rivers of whiskey, cops with wooden legs, bulldogs with rubber teeth and an afterlife where it is no longer necessary to change one’s socks. Classic stuff.
So, I mention this little bit of silliness, and we had our initial conversation, as a roundabout way of entering into engagement with the Gospel reading today. What we had there, if you recall, were some shocking words from Jesus about the end of things, and ultimately about his vision of Heaven. In his parable about weeds and wheat fields, he communicated a message that congealed in my mind as the disturbing suggestion that “God lets evildoers live now, but in the end God’s going to be throwing these people into a fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, while God’s people rejoice!” I have to admit, if we’re going to have a discussion about the afterlife, I’d much rather deal with jokes about cigarette trees than this sort of imagery!
As you may have gathered during our conversation, our visions of heaven tend to be directed by our context—whether we’re hobos with hopes for an eternally ineffective police force or overworked Northwesterners who think that lying on a tropical beach forever would be just about perfect. What Jesus does in today’s Gospel is speak to us about heaven from the context of the sort of persecution that he knew well—metaphorically I would call it a message about heaven delivered from the Cross recorded by a set of followers who lived out their faith in the midst of those who would have them killed. As Jesus points out here, in heaven there are no more persecutors, and justice is served by a loving and righteous God.
For those of us living outside of the context of persecution, this kind of image of God is shocking. The God we talk about is generally one who loves and forgives—not one who destroys angrily.
Indeed, with a level head we can recognize that this passage’s imagery is only one part of the story. We temper it with Jesus’ commands to love our enemy, and the vision from 2nd Corinthians, for instance, that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, and doesn’t count our sins and faults against us. (As a theologically weighty side note, following one of my favorite Anglican theologians John Polkinghorne, I personally think this should lead us to hope for a heaven where hell is a temporary state—where justice is served and ultimately all things and people are reconciled to each other and to God.)
In any case though, the shocking imagery from this passage draws to our attention one aspect of the nature of the
For a final thought, as citizens of the world pre-heaven, and as those who want to follow God’s will, the corresponding message here is a call to justice and reconciliation—we’re not to seek vengeance or take a “burn in hell” attitude towards those who do evil in this world (God will right things in the end), but we’re to be the metaphorical “sowers of good seed”, working for the vision of a world free from suffering and injustice. In this work, we will be creating for each other the sort of context this side of heaven where the first image that pops to mind when we talk about the afterlife won’t be an end to the sufferings of the present life, but hope for an experience of the continuation of the joys of this existence.