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?