“Father, did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?” I get some pretty interesting questions sometimes. And a lot of times, the questions can come with a lot of connotations. This question is simple, but there’s actually a lot going on within it. Here’s another one: “If God is all-powerful, can he create a rock so big that he can’t move it?” The first question was good, but this one, not so much. It comes with an element of doubt and a little mockery, not unlike the question that Jesus tries to answer today.
So another day, another argument between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his time. Probably most of us are familiar with the Pharisees, the ones that Jesus is usually arguing with in he Gospels. Today, he’s arguing with the Sadducees, another religious group, but the thing is, these guys didn’t believe in the resurrection. They took the YOLO (You Only Live Once) thing to the extreme!
The Sadducees were a lot less strict than the Pharisees, religiously speaking. They believed in the Torah and the Law, but they also collaborated with the Romans, which made them pretty wealthy and influential in government matters. This frequent contact with the Roman society may have seemed like a good thing at the time, but it slowly affected their faith as well by contaminating it and distorting their concept of God.
They are arguing with Jesus about heaven – which they don’t believe in, by the way – and they show that they have a very different idea of God. Just a hint: if you’re going to argue about heaven, don’t do it with the Son of God. He’s been there! The Sadducees are totally missing the point. They are trying to think about heaven in earthly terms, applying their human restrictions to God.
Now these pithy arguments of the Sadducees might seem as silly as that question about whether God can create a rock so big he can’t lift it. We might think that we have very little in common with the Sadducees, but in reality, we are very much like them. Like the Sadducees, we live in a world that is full of non-Christian influences that can contaminate our faith. It may not seem like a big deal, but it can start to divert our focus to be only on the things here and now. That’s why so many Catholics in recent years have become “cafeteria Catholics”. It’s so easy to accept the Church teachings that fit into today’s popular culture. Things like serving the poor and being non-judgmental are great examples of this. Recently, there was a photo going around the Internet of Pope Francis embracing a man afflicted with tumors. All these things are good, but they are easy to agree with! It’s so much more challenging to accept the teachings of the Church that go against the popular culture, especially in the area of sexual morality.
See, when we start to pick and choose like this, we make the same mistake that the Sadducees made. We aren’t letting God be God. We are putting him in a nice, controllable box, cutting him down to our size. When we do that, we miss out on the greater things that God wants to give us, and the only things that can satisfy our deepest longings.
There was an interesting story that I heard recently that I think fits into this topic perfectly. The story goes that there were some Christians who were walking together on a barren plateau on their way to heaven. They were all carrying their crosses, just as Christ commanded, and were all bowed down under the weight of the crosses. It was fairly uncomfortable for them. One of the Christians stopped, laid down his cross, and dropped to his knees in prayer. “Lord, I want to follow you,” he prayed, “but this cross is just too heavy right now.” He heard no answer, so he took out a saw (which he was so conveniently carrying, I guess), and cut off about a foot of his cross. So he continued on his journey with his customized, ergonomic cross, and it was still very uncomfortable, so he prayed again, “Lord, you know what’s in my heart, right? You know I love you, but I am just not strong enough to carry this cross. It is too big for me.” Again, he heard nothing, so he took out the saw and cut two more feet off the cross. Eventually, he and his companions came to a huge chasm. There was a great abyss that was separating the plateau they were travelling on with the other side, where the road to heaven continued. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to jump across, so he looked around to see what the other Christians were doing. He noticed that they were laying their crosses over the chasm like little bridges, and walking across them to the other side. Smiling, he followed suit and laid his cross down – only to find that it was three feet too short! By cutting his cross down to what he was comfortable with, or what he thought was more manageable, he had inadvertently cut himself off from God, like the Sadducees.
Probably as you’re sitting here today, you’re noticing that there are some people you know who aren’t with us today at Mass, possibly because some have fallen into the trap the Sadducees fell into – cutting God down to their size. For some people, they think their relationship with God is just fine. They aren’t axe murderers or suicide bombers, so that’s pretty good, right? Maybe some people, and some of us here too, have become content to pick and choose from the all-you-can-eat buffet of Catholic teachings, not really making a commitment, but enjoying a few morsels of wisdom and joy here and there. It’s easy to forget that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, and that God has so much more to give us – like eternal life!
St. Ignatius of Antioch was the first to call the Church a “Catholic” Church, meaning that the Church is universal. Yes, it means that the Church is worldwide. Yes, it means that the Church is all-embracing of people from all nations and cultures. But more challengingly, it means that the Church embraces everything that God asks of us universally, not just the parts that are popular with our culture or that are comfortable for us.
So what do we do to help ourselves, as well as those who aren’t here with us today? First, we have to pray for them. I don’t mean thinking about them once in a while or keeping them in mind, I mean actually taking the time to pray for them. It should matter to us that this church is usually three times as full on Christmas Eve than it is today. It means that some people may have been seduced into putting their friendship with God in second place. This is not an opportunity for us to judge them or think less of them as individuals. They are children of God, just as all of us are, and so we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Because of that relationship, we really should pray for God to bring them home.
Secondly, we should try to understand better the Church’s teachings, especially the tough ones that we have trouble understanding or agreeing with. There is a wonderful website called “Catholic Answers” that strives to address issues that we might have with some of the teachings of the Church. You’ll find them at catholic.com (original, I know). The better that we understand these things, the better we will be able to help others understand them, and stir ourselves and them out of our Sadducee-ish slumber.
Finally, we can invite them. I can usually see all your faces as you sit in the pews, and I can read it on your face at times when things get boring. Yes, Mass can appear to be boring, especially if you’re coming alone. That’s some of the reason why I think a lot of people don’t come. But I’ve also noticed that some families that come every week make a social event out of Mass as well by sitting together, talking afterward, and enjoying each others’ company. Maybe you can reach out to someone you know who doesn’t go to Mass, inviting them to sit with you if it makes them more comfortable. The start of Advent is only a few weeks away, so now is a great time to help them start fresh.
God has so much in store for us, just as he did for the apostles, and just as he did for even the Sadducees. But to really receive the fruit of it, we have to be open and willing to embrace all of it, even when it becomes a challenge. As we receive the Body and Blood of the Lord today, let us answer that challenge by living heroic lives dedicated to God, and in so doing, share life with him forever in Heaven.