The other day I was reminded about the rich man coming to Jesus asking Him how he can get eternal life (Matt. 19: 16-26). Like almost in every time, this was also one of the important things people talked about in Jesus’ days. The standard answer was: do the commandments. However, it appears that Jesus knew something about him and his reputation. Jesus mentions 5, not 6 commandments about relationships with others. He leaves out the 6th commandment which prohibited coveting, i.e. greed, always wanting more. Coveting happens when you are not at peace. The man says he’s kept all the commandments. Jesus asks him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t tell this to other people, because it is not an issue to them. But, it is, for this man. The man is greedy – and greed has no place in the world to come. He has not learned yet that he has a sacred calling to use his wealth to move creation forward. Jesus promises him that if he can do it, if he can trust God to liberate him from his greed, he will have a ‘treasure in heaven’. The man cannot do it, and he walks away. Important to note: Jesus takes the man’s question about his life then (heaven) and makes it about the kind of life he’s living now (earth). Jesus drags the future into the present, promising the man that there will be treasure for him if he can do it. That raises the question: What does Jesus mean with that word: ‘heaven’.
Actually, all that Jesus taught, and all what the prophets taught, what all Jewish tradition pointed to, and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one. The day when God’s will be done on earth as it is now done in heaven: the day when earth and heaven will be in the same place. That is the story of the bible: Life in the age to come. Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously. Now.
Let me give an example: Around a billion people in the world do not have access to clean water. People will have access to clean water in the age to come and working for this access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come. That is what happens when the future is dragged into the present!
Paradoxically, it often happens that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die, talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now. Yet Jesus taught us to pray: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. On the other hand, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now, talk the least about heaven when we die. If you believe that you are going to leave and evacuate to ‘somewhere else’, then why do anything about this world? A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to a full engagement with it, all with the anticipation of a coming day when things on earth are perfect as they currently are in heaven.
Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and, and bring it to earth. Also then, always anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one.