One of the misconceptions many "good folk" have is that our Scriptures basically show us how to get into heaven when we die. Though at times our Christian Scriptures (and a few of the late Hebrew Scriptures) talk about eternal life, our sacred authors' main focus is on life right here and now. People of faith are expected to do more than just one day go through the pearly gates; we're expected to live our daily lives in a way that gives us life long before our physical deaths. In many ways, eternal life is just a continuation of the life we've already discovered on this earth.
That's why, for instance, the gospel Jesus resuscitates three individuals: Jarius' daughter, his friend Lazarus, and the subject of today's passage, the widow of Nain's son. If Jesus had come only to show us the way to heaven, why would he have brought people back to this life? He would have rejoiced that the dead were already eternally happy with God in heaven. As a Pharisee, the historical Jesus believed in an afterlife. But today's raising of the widow's son demonstrates he was also interested in making this life as fulfilling an experience as possible.
On the other hand, today's I Kings pericope was written at a time in salvation history when no one knew about a heaven (or a hell). Our sacred author presumes this is the only life we'll ever know. So it's important that Elijah bring the widow of Zarephath's son back to life - not only for the boy's sake, but also for the greatly improved quality of life which the widow would experience by having her son grow old with her.
Unless we appreciate the importance of this life, we're liable to miss some of the most significant messages our sacred authors are trying to convey. Following God in the right way should make this life enjoyable. Our biblical writers are committed to showing us that right way.
If Paul, for instance, were only interested in getting into heaven, why did he become a follower of Jesus? He could have accomplished that feat by just being a Mosaic law-abiding Jew. As we hear in this letter to the Galatians, his conversion certainly created more problems for him - especially from many of his fellow Christians - than he ever had to deal with as a faithful Jew.
In today's passage, he stresses that he once was so content in the traditional Pharisaical interpretation of faith he even persecuted those who, because of their experience of the risen Jesus, had begun living a different kind of faith. Yet, once he himself encountered the risen Jesus on the Damascus road he also began to experience the life-changing value of becoming another Christ. That encounter came with a broadening of his mind. He seems to have immediately and instinctively understood that in the plan of the risen Jesus, non-Jews were on the same level as Jews. Gentiles should be permitted to convert to Christianity without first converting to Judaism. That's the "gospel" Paul preached; that's the "good news" that constantly got him into trouble with conservative Christians. Yet as he insists in today's passage, his gospel was "not of human origin, but it came directly through a revelation of Jesus Christ."
I fear we've so emphasized eternal life, that we've totally ignored the value of this life. Our Christian faith doesn't just consist in keeping special rules and regulations which guarantee we'll one day get into heaven; rather, as Paul testifies, it's also doing what's necessary to daily encounter the mind-expanding risen Jesus. He presumes such an experience will change our lives for the better just as it changed his.