First, it is helpful to note that God rewards every man according to his works:
Mt 16:27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.Now, one could say about these verses that the payment for one's works only goes so far as to distinguish between heaven and hell and not also between different levels of honor in heaven. But, what then should we make of the following verses?:
Rom 2:6 For he will render to every man according to his works
2 Cor 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.
2 Cor 11:15 So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
Rev 22:12 Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.
Mt 5:19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.If one can be the "least" or the "greatest" in the kingdom of heaven, does that not imply that there are levels of honor? I can't be the "greatest" until there are people who are less than me.
Mt 11:11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Mt 18:4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Jn 14 has an enticing verse that may bear on this topic as well:
Jn 14:2 In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?Note that the RSV translation says there are many "rooms," in which case this verse would just mean that there is room for everyone (or, at least, many people) in heaven. It would not imply anything about levels of honor. But the DRV and the KJV translate this verse as "there are many mansions." Now we have a different picture, one of many rooms on separate floors.
The Jerome Bible Commentary says, "there are no grounds for understanding 'many' to mean also 'many kinds' or 'degrees.'" However, the Ignatius Study Bible points out that John also uses the phrase "my Father's house" in 2:16 for the Jerusalem Temple. It goes on to say that the "many rooms" would make the "Father's house" similar to the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, "which had several courts of worship, chambers for storage, and living quarters for priests." Relating the Father's house to a temple would in fact imply levels of honor because we know that, in a temple, each courtyard represents degrees of closeness to the "holy of holies." There are separate floors in the temple as well.
Furthermore, St. Augustine, has this to say:
But the many mansions point to the different grades of merit in that one eternal life. For there is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory; and so also the resurrection of the dead. The saints, like the stars in the sky, obtain in the kingdom different mansions of diverse degrees of brightness; but on account of that one penny no one is cut off from the kingdom; and God will be all in all in such a way, that, as God is love, love will bring it about that what is possessed by each will be common to all. (Tractate 67)With the varying commentary on this verse, I am not certain if this verse would be helpful in making the case for levels of honor in heaven. I leave it for the reader to decide. There are other interesting verses as well:
2 Cor 12:2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.In the first verse, Paul mentions the "third heaven." I see this most often interpreted in the follwoing way: the first heaven is the sky, the realm of the birds and the clouds; the second heaven is outer space, the realm of the sun and the stars; the third heaven is the place where God dwells. However, 2 Enoch adds to this 4 more levels within God's dwelling place. If Paul were borrowing from this tradition, then we could have here another verse that proves my point.
Col 1:16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities--all things were created through him and for him.
In Colossians, we see the hierarchy of angels. This is also seen in Rom 8:38; Eph 3:10; 6:12; Col 2:15. A hierarchy not only orders individuals with different responsibilities, but also orders their rank. So, it could be said that the angels at the top of the hierarchy have a place of greater honor in heaven than those beneath them.
All of this is very interesting, and it shows that there is, at the very least, an implication in Scripture of levels of honor in heaven. And once we have established that, we can proceed to consider Mary as holding the chief place among all the saints.
For more on this, see the following articles:
- Equality and Inequality in Heaven
- Quick Questions [see the third question]
- Heaven: Why Are People So Happy There? [see the subtitle: "Different Rewards in Heaven"]
- EWTN Q&A on Levels in Heaven
- Explaining Purgatory from a New Testament Perspective [this article also talks about the seven levels of heaven]
- Heaven [see the subtitle: "Attributes of Beatitude"]
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Heaven [see the second paragraph]