Upon learning that his friend had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and only had three months to live, a cagey old veteran quipped, “You should marry my ex-wife. It would be the longest three months of your life.” When I read this morning’s gospel lesson (Mark 12:13-27), that story sprang to mind. I wonder how many ex-spouses give thanks that “the dead…neither marry nor are given in marriage” and so can avoid eternity yoked to someone they loathe.
For most of us, though, the thought of “until we are parted by death” isn’t one that brings joy. Standing at the grave of a beloved spouse is painful enough without being reminded that there is no marriage on the other side of this earthly pilgrimage. After reviewing the vows in the prayer book during premarital counseling, more than one couple has asked me whether marriages really end at death or whether there’s a chance they could continue in heaven: “You mean I’ll share the best years of my life with the partner I love only to spend eternity as a single person?” Well, not exactly.
It isn’t easy convincing a 25-year-old bride or groom that there is something even better than marriage waiting for us in heaven—something so wonderful that marriage itself would be a detraction from the heavenly bliss that awaits. In fact, it’s hard to explain to anyone (except, perhaps the bitterly divorced) that heaven could involve a level of intimacy with God that renders human marriage obsolete. In heaven—and I use that term loosely—we are all married to God.
As far as the church is concerned, marriage is designed 1) for mutual joy, 2) for help and comfort in adversity and prosperity, and 3) for the procreation and nurture of children. Likewise, marriage images for the world the selfless love that God has for all of creation. What good is any of that when God’s love and will for creation have been fulfilled? As the BMW commercial states, why drive something that’s a lot like a BMW when you can drive the real thing? Why image God’s love for creation when you are already immersed in the real thing?
It’s hard, though, for me to let go of my view of my marriage as a telos or end in and of itself. It feels more important to me than a mere passing fancy. And it does fulfill an important earthly purpose...for the time being. But the real challenge for me (and for the couples who come into my office for counseling) is to realize just how much bigger and grander and fuller our marriage to God will be in God’s kingdom.