This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 20:27–38:

Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman but died childless. Then the second and the third married her, and likewise all the seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.”

Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise. That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called out ‘Lord,’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

Many years ago, Saturday Night Live had a recurring skit in their “Weekend Update” routine that skewered the manner in which the Fairness Doctrine was observed. Chevy Chase would introduce “Emily Litella” (played by the late, great Gilda Radner) to offer a rebuttal to an imaginary previous editorial by the news program. In that time, stations were required to allow rebuttals to any editorializing, but let’s just say that they didn’t necessarily look for the most credible opponent to their position while doing so.

“Emily Litella” would provide an argument based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the editorial, usually based on her being hard of hearing. The one instance that immediately comes to mind was her opposition to conservation of “national racehorses,” going on at length about how there shouldn’t even be national racehorses and that there seemed to be plenty of horses around without conserving them. Chase then interrupted to explain that the editorial was about the conservation of natural resources, and that Litella had the context all wrong. At that point, Radner would smile sweetly into the camera and say, “Never mind!”

This retelling of the challenge by the Sadducees has a genuine Emily Litella vibe to it. The Sadducees have missed the point by not bothering to grasp the context of Jesus’ teachings on salvation, and spend a great deal of time crafting a rebuttal that instead exposes their own ignorance.

Their first misunderstanding is the purpose of the law that they purport to defend. Moses gave Israel the law to govern themselves in this life, in part because the Israelites needed more instruction than just the Ten Commandments. Those laws were intended to establish a nation of priests to convert the world to the Lord, not to bind the Lord himself or establish the laws of heaven. The law was to keep His people in communion with Him for that mission in this life and to provide the clearest path to their happiness and peace.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the law, along with the true role of the Temple, was one of the key issues Jesus needed to correct in His ministry. The law had replaced the Lord for some, just as the Temple did in Jeremiah’s time and would again within a generation of the Passion. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had turned the law into an idol, and some of them hypocritically so.

The larger problem was that the Sadducees chose ridicule over earnest dialogue with Jesus in attempting to denounce the idea of resurrection. Their argument is an elaborate reductio ad absurdum of an afterlife, which they assume will be exactly the same as their worldly life. The Sadducees have no other context in which to imagine an afterlife, having closed their minds to it and to Jesus’ teachings.

It would be akin to two twin fetuses arguing over who will get the biggest womb in which to live after they’re born. All they can imagine is what they already know. The Sadducees are building an argument based on the world in which they already live without knowing — or even bothering to ask — what the afterlife might be like.

Jesus patiently explains what should have been obvious, which is that they don’t know what they’re talking about — because they can’t know. Life in the Lord will be so dramatically different than what we know now that we can’t possibly judge its logic or its conditions. Nor can we even know how we will be transformed by it. The only thing we can do is have faith in it.

The Sadducees’ satirical argument is the opposite of faith. They have no trust or affection for Jesus, and they have no real interest in him either except to puff up the perception of their own authority. Unfortunately, the Sadducees are hardly the last group of people to exploit scripture to do the same thing while ridiculing others, usually out of ignorance to boot. All who do suffer from the same problem as the Sadducees in this instance — a lack of caritas, of self-sacrificial love.

Note, then, how Jesus reacts to these puffed-up authorities. He could have unleashed a few “Woe unto you” barbs, but instead Jesus takes the opportunity to attempt their conversion through truth. He responds to scorn with love, seeing an opportunity to change hearts. If nothing else, Jesus has given them the opportunity to say never mind, at least to themselves.

This stands as a lesson to all who face challenges and scorn over faith in Christ, usually borne of ignorance. We can react in kind to such meanness, but in doing so we waste an opportunity to act in caritas, which could open hearts where we least expect it. It might take a long time, perhaps even years before such people can say “never mind,” and we may not hear it ourselves. However, we can hope to see them when we live in the Lord ourselves and all around us are sisters and brothers in whatever the next world brings us.

Update: At least I’m consistent — I misspelled “Sadducees” in exactly the same way in every instance. I’ve fixed it now.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus” by James Tissot, c. 1886-94. Currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.