Sunday, November 07, 2004

Do You Want To Know The Truth, Or Do You Simply Want To Win Arguments?

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on November 7, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Luke 20: 27-38.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday of the Year 2004]

Were they trying to discover the truth, or were they simply trying to win an argument?

That question emerges when you know the background of today’s Gospel story from Luke 20.

So here’s the background:

At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (two groups or sects within Judaism) disagreed about a number of important issues: how many books there were in the Bible, the immortality of the soul, the existence of angels, and the resurrection of the dead, to name but a few.

Regarding the resurrection, the Pharisees said Yea while the Sadducees said Nay. The Pharisees accepted the idea that people would rise in some manner after they physically died—they considered it to be a fundamental teaching of the Jewish faith—while the Sadducees rejected the notion completely.

And so one day a group of Sadducees decided to approach Jesus to see where he stood on the matter. They began by quoting something Moses had said in the Book of Deuteronomy (a book that both they and the Pharisees accepted as part of Scripture): “If someone’s brother dies leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.”

Then they set up a very interesting case-study. It concerned a woman who married a man and his six brothers without ever having any children. They obviously thought this extreme example would discredit the Pharisees by making it clear that the resurrection was a ridiculous teaching.

When they were finished, they said to Jesus, “At the resurrection whose wife will [this] woman be, since all seven brothers married her?”

Jesus responded by making it clear that life after death is qualitatively different than life on this side of the grave. On this side of the grave marriage is necessary to propagate the species (this, by the way, is one reason why marriage can only be between a man and a woman: “Adam and Eve” not “Adam and Steve”). But after the resurrection people will not die anymore, hence marriage won’t be necessary any longer.

Jesus ended by quoting Moses again (knowing how much the Sadducees loved and respected Moses). He noted that in the Book of Exodus, Moses referred to God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” the implication being that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still alive somewhere. But all three of those men had lived and died hundreds of years before Moses! Hence, Jesus was saying that Moses must have believed in the resurrection also, if he believed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still among the living.

That’s where the story ends. The next line of the text says that some of the scribes commended Jesus for his response (one of the few times they actually agreed with our Lord!); and then it says “they [i.e., the Sadducees] no longer dared to ask [Jesus] anything.”

This means that, in all likelihood, they were not convinced by what Jesus had said! They did not change their minds on the matter; they continued to live in error. Which leads me to wonder: When they came to Jesus that day, were they trying to discover the truth, or were they simply trying to win an argument? Did they really want to understand the truth about the resurrection, or were they simply trying to score a victory against their arch-rivals, the Pharisees?

Because of the way the story ends, I think it’s clear that their minds were closed from the start. That’s why the words of Jesus had little or no effect on them.

I mention this today because I’m convinced that there are many people in our culture right now who are just like the Sadducees in this story. That is to say, they are much more concerned with winning arguments, than they are with knowing the truth.

I’ll give you two quick examples.

The first one concerns the recent presidential debates. When each of those debates was over, the media pundits focused almost exclusively on one question: Who won? That was the issue that interested them the most: Who won—Bush or Kerry?

And so they spent hours and hours and hours talking about polling data! Their focus was not: Which of these men, if either, was telling the truth? To them, that was a minor concern—although it should have been their first concern.

The second example concerns my recent “debates” in the Westerly Sun on the issues of Catholic voting and so-called “gay marriage.” I’m quite certain that for many readers of our local newspaper, the primary question was, “Who got the better of these exchanges? Was it Father Ray, Deacon Fran, and those on their side—or was it those who offered opposing views?”

But that’s not the right question. The right question is, “What is the truth, and who is telling it?”

Perhaps the problem is that too many of us have confused these two realities: winning an argument, and telling the truth. We presume that if someone is victorious in a debate or wins an argument, it’s a sign that what they’ve told us is true.

Not necessarily!

In fact, sometimes the person who tells the truth is the very same person who loses the argument decisively! And there’s no better example of that than Jesus Christ himself!

In a certain sense you could say that Jesus “lost the argument” he had with his enemies during the course of his 3 year earthly ministry. His enemies, of course, included these Sadducees, and also the Pharisees and scribes. As we know from reading the Gospels, these men were almost always contradicting the things our Lord said. And because Jesus lost this 3-year “argument” with the religious leaders of the Jews, public opinion turned against him. The end result was the event Mel Gibson portrayed so powerfully in his film earlier this year.

The end result was the crucifixion!

But the fact that Jesus was defeated by his enemies and was nailed to a cross did not mean he was a liar!
He still told the truth; in fact, he himself WAS the Truth!

In your life, do you want to know the truth—do you want to accept and embrace the truth—or do you simply want to win arguments?

From today’s Gospel, we know how the Sadducees would have answered that question.

How do you answer it?