The Sadducees’ Question

Today’s gospel, Luke 20.27-38, contains an important question about marriage and the after-life. I have heard countless homilies in which the priest referred to it as a ‘trick question’ put to Jesus with the intention of disconcerting him, but a few years ago, someone much more familiar with Jewish tradition than most Catholic priests, said, ‘No. It was the kind of question anyone would ask of a rabbi, because the intention was not to trick but to explore the meaning of the Law. In the debate that followed, the Sadduccees would undoubtedly have maintained their view that there was no resurrection of the dead, but they would have argued their case rather than just dismissing the views of others.’

That remark has stayed with me because I think we have a tendency to interpret the gospel in the light of our own beliefs about ‘how things were’. We have a similar tendency in our judgements about other people and their motives. Recently, I listened to a young and fervent Catholic talking about the attraction Islam held for him. He spoke about the tradition of daily prayer (which Christians once shared but have now largely lost) and the way in which Islam marked out times and seasons with feasts and fasts (again a tradition we have largely lost) and the distinctiveness of Muslim dress and behaviour. To a casual eavesdropper, my friend might have been an object of suspicion: someone being lured to Islam by the draw of a superficially attractive lifestyle, in essence no different from that of the old ‘smells and bells’ brigade or even, dare I say it, Benedictine monasticism. But to me he represents the same sort of challenge posed by the Sadducees’ question. How do our beliefs about Christ and his Church affect our way of life? How do we live our faith?

I think we have spent many years trying to make Christianity, certainly Catholicism, easier; and I’m not sure it has really worked. Take the Eucharistic fast, for example, which has been whittled down from twelve hours to three hours to one hour, so that it barely registers. Or the way in which we have played around with fasting and abstinence, so that outside of monasteries or religious communities there is often confusion and misunderstanding. Most important of all, I’d say, is the way in which we have reduced the personal commitment to prayer times in common with the rest of the Church. Many lay people do, of course, say the Divine Office; but as a Church-wide phenomenon, the honouring of the different hours of prayer no longer exists. The latest Theos report goes so far as to suggest that we are now so embarrassed about Christianity that many Christian parents do not want to pass the faith on to their children. If that is so, there is something radically wrong.

May I suggest that today would be a good day to spend a few minutes reflecting on our own faith and how we see its transmission. Do we really believe in sharing it with others; and if so, do we need to make some changes in what we do and how we do it? Are we, like the Sadduccees, exploring questions we keep at one remove from our core beliefs, and how do we answer my young friend, who clings to Christ while aware of the enchantments of Islam?


8 thoughts on “The Sadducees’ Question”

  1. It is ironic that a lot of people admire Muslims because they take the demands of their faith seriously, in the same way that the majority of Christians used to. I can remember as a child, not being allowed to play outside our garden on Good Friday because it would upset the neighbours.
    Also Sundays without the shops being open.
    We lost a lot when Sunday just became ‘another day’.
    The danger is when the outward display of faith becomes a screen or a substitute for actually living according to its beliefs – the expression ‘whited sepulchres’ is a perfect description. (Having undergone Ordeal by Evangelicals at university I saw enough of that to last a lifetime!)

    • Hypocrisy and mediocrity are, alike, the bane of religious life — considering that in the widest sense, not limiting it to those of us who live in monasteries. But I wonder whether Christians have become too much assimilated to secular society, unable and unwilling to stand out in any way?

  2. Perhaps Christian parents who do not want to pass their faith on to their children should not be calling themselves “Christian” in the first place?

  3. English people have always been reluctant to demonstrate their feelings or beliefs as they do not wish to or be seen to upset anyone. We may have religious beliefs but we don’t want others to know that we do. We are frightened to express our beliefs. Combined with the loss of the formalities associated with Sunday, Christianity is withering on the vine.
    I was an atheist for nearly fifty years. I was reborn as a Christian by my search for an inner peace , strength and love as my wife moved inexorably towards death. We both started to attend Church together and found God’s love for us and everyone else. His calm, grace and love was there more important than anything materialistic. This inner feeling transcended everything. I began to view everyone differently. I felt forgiveness and love towards my fellow beings. I read the gospels and saw the simple message of God’s love and peace. Love Him and thy neighbour. This is the Christian rock.
    I am no longer afraid to express my belief. I don’t worry that I will be accepted, abused or ignored. I have God’s love and strength within me.
    A simple “God bless you” or “Peace and love be with you” goes a long way and will be accepted because the recipient can see if you mean it.

    • That is very moving: thank you for sharing your story of conversion. However, I don’t think the reluctance to be seen as Christian is a purely English phenomenon — and my young friend with the attraction to Islam actually comes from a country with a much more exuberant Christian culture than ours. Much to ponedr and pray about, I think.

  4. Perhaps our times of prayer and observance of traditional Christian practices have waned due to the advent of 24 hour media and entertainment. The have a great attraction as we can just switch on and watch or listen or participate 24/7 – something of a distraction from our duties and responsibilities as a professed Christian.

    I know, that I would welcome a midnight deadline and close down of main media, to avoid that temptation – but the off switch is readily available.

    I know people, even Anglicans, who observe the Fast before communion of 12 hours, and I keep to the 3 hours myself. We also follow the days of fasting and abstinence. And these same people tend to attend Church on Major Feast days and receive communion. Certainly, my parish does try to celebrate Saint’s days and other festivals as they arise on the appointed day. Although we observe the Anglican Calendar, most feasts are shared with the Catholic Calendar.

    I say the daily office (Anglican) morning and evening, and where technology comes handy, Compline on my mobile, in bed as night prayer.
    (so tech does have it’s place).

    Trick questions about faith and belief are often posed by people to Christians, it’s how we deal with them – with grace and listening, instead of dismissing them. We need to have confidence that people will come to understand if we treat them well, and don’t retire into our comfort zone of Cliche’s and pat answers. Far better to admit we don’t have an answer at the time, but will come back to them when we have prayed and reflected on the question.

    And the poster above, who points out that a Good Morning and God Bless is often received well, even from those who don’t profess a faith.

    I am always encouraged when Baptism families come to church. Probably, 90% of whom, may never enter a church – these are opportunities that we have to meet them where they are and to spread the message by a good welcome and friendly and helpful reception.

    We hold a Baptism recollection service each year, where we invite Baptism families to come and to remember the joy and peace they felt on that day and event. It’s quite successful and we have found that many eventually become members of the Church, often being baptized themselves and confirmed, often at the same time as their baptism. The numbers are not huge, but they are steady as God works in their lives. Our maintaining ongoing contact with baptism, wedding and funeral families is part of our mission and pastoral care – but it bears fruit, often in unexpected ways.

    Evidence for me anyway, that God is full of surprises.

    • Yes, there are MANY lay people who give a very good example in their personal commitment to prayer and service, their observance of feasts and fasts, etc. The problem, as I see it, is that the Church as a whole (I speak, obviously, of the Catholic Church here) no longer expects or supports that commitment in the way that she once did, and, as a consequence, there has been a great weakening. When prayer and other practices are left to the fervour of the individual, there is a tendency to become minimalist.

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