Sunday, November 10, 2013

the importance of orthodoxy

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I suspect that it is difficult for most people to read today's Gospel text and not feel some sympathy for the woman in the Sadducees' example – Elizabeth Taylor at least got to chose her seven husbands! But to fully understand what is going on here, some historical background is required … apologies to those of you for whom this is familiar information.

The type of marriage the Sadducees are talking about here is what is called 'levirate marriage.' The idea was that if a married man died childless, his brother then married the widow. The first child of that marriage was treated as being that of the deceased man, rather than his biological father, and was the heir to his property. It might seem odd to us, but it fairly widespread practice in many cultures throughout history. 

It's strangeness to us lies, I suspect, in our modern notion that the focus of marriage is about satisfying the romantic notions of the adults marrying; but our obsession with the individualistic aspects of marriage would seem equally bizarre to cultures who saw the heart of marriage as being about the begetting and rearing of children, both for the perpetuation of the family line, and out of a sense of duty to wider society. With the birth-rate in Ireland having declined steadily over the last number of years, to the point where it was recently announced that it has fallen below the replacement rate and continues to decline, there is arguably something about such an attitude to marriage that our modern society needs to rediscover.

Continuing with our history lesson however we must next look at why the Sadducees were presenting Jesus with this somewhat ridiculous example. It was because how their religious beliefs differed from the Gospel that Jesus was preaching. Truthfully, we don't know a great deal about the Sadducees; any more than we do about the Pharisees really. We have a lot of information about both groups from various sources; but unfortunately that information tends to be somewhat contradictory, so that despite all different accounts, we have little that amounts to clear knowledge about either. We do know, however, that the Sadducees did not believe in any kind of a personal afterlife; and that they only saw the first five books of the Bible as being authoritative.

It is because of their lack of a belief in the resurrection of the dead that they challenge Jesus with their hypothetical case about a women who was widowed seven times. What they are really trying to do is make fun of Jesus and what he teaches. If what you claim is true, they say, then whose wife is she? A woman can only have one husband, but she has been married seven times. When they all rise from the dead, who gets the woman?

But Jesus takes on their challenge and defeats their arguments. And because he knows that they only accept the first five books of the Bible as having authority, he basis his case on that, so that the Sadducees can't try and dismiss his arguments on those grounds. He has rooted his case on the Scriptures on which their own faith rests.

Why does he do so? Why does he bother with their arguments in the first place? And why does he deal with them in a way that at least has the possibility of being persuasive to them? Theirs is a fairly minority view – what does it matter if a few do not believe in the resurrection? Indeed, assuming they are otherwise faithful Jews, why care at all if they differ on a point of doctrine? Isn't the important thing that they lead good lives?

Well, clearly not. The fact that Jesus wasn't willing to take a 'live and let live' attitude to beliefs that differed from his teachings tells us two things: the first that Orthodox doctrinal views matter – which is a fancy way of saying that it is important that people believe the right things. Why? For the reason that Jesus came to earth to bring us that teaching: to save people from theirs sins and the salvation their souls.

The second thing it teaches us is that if Jesus was a stickler for passing on to people the full truth of the Gospel message, so should we be. We don't have to be obnoxious about it – Jesus makes his points politely and respectfully, unlike the Sadducees attempt to mock and ridicule with their hypothetical widow; but we must firmly point out to others where their views differ from the Orthodox Teaching of the Church. Because their salvation depends on it; and because we have a duty to make disciples of all people, so does our own.

And so I end this morning by praying that you will have the strength and courage to follow the example of Jesus and gently but firmly correct error where you find it – whether in the faith of others, or indeed your own – even as I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen.

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