Christian Sadducees

Luke 20:27-38

What is the difference between a Baptist and a Roman Catholic?  What distinguishes a Lutheran from a Presbyterian?  What makes the United Church of Christ stand out from, say, a Congregationalist church?  Or are they the same?  How is the Episcopal Church dissimilar to the Methodist?  Or—here’s one for you—what makes the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA) distinct from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (the PCUSA)?

Frank Schaeffer is a modern-day pundit on these and related questions.  His name might be familiar to you.  If it is, this might be because he is the son of a well-known pastor, theologian, and author named Francis Schaeffer, the founder and long-time director of L’Abri, a sort of retreat center in Switzerland.  Frank, or Frankie as he was known in those days, grew up at L’Abri.  We might think of him as the quintessential P. K.—pastor’s kid, or priest’s kid.  Through books like Portofino and Crazy for God, he tells what it was like to live in the shadow of such a well-known man of God—the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.  If you tend to put priests or pastors on pedestals, you won’t want to read these books.  Then again, you probably should.

Anyway, Frank Schaeffer doesn’t really answer these questions—what the difference is between a Baptist and a Roman Catholic and so on.  Instead, he points out the folly in it all using humor in his novel Portofino.  The work is fiction, told through the eyes of thirteen year-old Calvin Becker; but Frank told me himself in a recent e-mail message, it is “based on the truth of what happened in my family.”

So, Calvin’s dad was a minister of the PCUSA.  One day, unfortunately, this denomination had a falling out over its understanding of the rapture.  So heated was this intra-denominational debate that a split ensued.  The new denomination called itself the PCCUSA, or the Presbyterian Calvinist Church in the USA.

A few years later something similar happened, so another new denomination was formed, this time called the PCCCUSA, or the Presbyterian Church of Christ and Covenant in the USA.

But eventually even this newest denomination wasn’t solid enough on matters of doctrine.  So finally, yes, another new denomination formed, where Calvin’s dad served out his days as a minister of the PCCCCUSA, or the Presbyterian Church of the Calvinist Confirmed Confession in the USA.

Schaffer makes his point, yeah?  On the one hand, there are indeed differences in how followers of Christ interpret the scriptures.  But, on the other hand, why do these differences have to result in so much division?

In today’s Gospel passage we encounter a peculiar—a particular—a picayunish—denomination of the old world: the Sadducees.

They are a small Jewish sect defined chiefly by their beliefs about the Torah, or so they say.  They don’t trust midrash, traditional interpretations of the scriptures given by generations of rabbis.  Instead they believe only what the scriptures say.  In this way they are very much like that modern-day group of Christians that says, “No creed but the Bible.”  For them, tradition has no place.

But also, the Sadducees are materialists.  That is, they believe that life consists of no more than the here-and-now.  This belief is indicated by the first words of today’s passage: they don’t believe in the resurrection.  Another way to put this is that they don’t believe that human souls live on after the body dies.  As a corollary, by the way, they don’t believe in angels either.

And, accordingly, they try to trap Jesus with a rather ridiculous question.

“Jesus,” they say, “we’ve got one for you.  Seven brothers walk into a bar—”

Okay, I know, that’s not what they really say.  But they might as well!  Their whole question, they think, is designed to show just how foolish it is to believe in the resurrection.

Moses gave us the law for our own good, they claim.  And one of the laws requires us to take care of the widow of a kinsman.  That’s a wonderful law—for this world.  But c’mon, Jesus, can’t you see how ridiculous it is to try to carry these laws over into a so-called afterlife?

I love Jesus’s answer—in which he refutes a couple of the Sadducees’ ideas at once.

First, he says that there are indeed angels.  The afterlife, as it turns out, is not to be compared to this world.  For in it, resurrected human beings are made like angels.  They cannot die anymore.  But neither can they marry.

But second, and this is even better, Jesus effectively says that the idea of resurrection is all over the place in the Torah.  You don’t need midrash to find it.  That story of the burning bush, for instance: when God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” he is proclaiming them to be alive.  Right now!  For God is not the god of the dead, but of the living.

The Sadducees, then—despite their beliefs to throw out tradition, that midrash didn’t matter, and that they should trust only the Torah—however noble these beliefs may sound—in the end the Sadducees still needed to figure out what the scriptures meant for them today.  They were a denomination of the old world organized around the authority of sacred writings.  But they rejected tradition.  They were therefore left to their own, modern-day interpretations of those sacred writings.

Here’s the trouble—and it’s the same trouble for those who reject tradition today: the Sadducees were products of their time.  They looked to Moses’s law, written to a people wandering in a wilderness about to enter a promised land.  But they themselves lived in a very different world from Moses: a world of Roman occupation; a world of Hellenistic thought.

Moses’s law still applied, sure.  But much had changed between then and now.  Generations of godly rabbis had prayerfully sought to address these changes all along the way, and to apply the scriptures accordingly.  Traditions had been established and developed.  Why would the Sadducees want to reject these?

But human nature is like that, isn’t it?  From early on we reject tradition and its close sibling, authority.  Think of a toddler’s favorite word, “No!” followed closely by a second favorite, “Mine!”  Think of the pulling away from authority and tradition that is adolescent angst.  I used to teach middle school and high school Latin.  And every year the same question would come up: “Mr. True,” the students would say—and I’m sure they weren’t trying to trap me—“why do we even study Latin?  Isn’t it a dead language?  How will Latin help me get a job when I graduate?”

We want to forge a new way ahead, don’t we?  That’s human nature.  We’re survivors, planners, strategizers.  And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.  But at the same time we all too often want simply to throw out the past—history, authority, tradition!  Like modern-day Sadducees, we think we know better.  Why do we need history to forge a way forward, we ask?  We have technological knowledge unlike anything before our time.  So why even bother with history, with Latin, with tradition?

And in thinking so we become proud of ourselves, arrogant even, thinking that we know better; that our understanding of the scriptures is more right and true than anyone else’s; that we don’t need history, tradition, or authority.  And we divide into factions—peculiar, particular, picayunish factions—even within our own parish!

But, like it or not, we are products of our time.  Like it or not, we modern-day American Christians don’t really know all that much.

The Bible teaches us that, by the way.  And if you care to round out the picture, so does tradition.


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