Mutually exclusive rightness

Mutually exclusive rightness

Do you prefer being right to being wrong? I think most of us, yes. I mean, being proved right emphasizes that what we’ve always thought, or argued, or felt was accurate all along. It means our understanding of things is on track and unharmed. It means we’ve avoided the trauma of rethinking things, or feeling suddenly uncertain about ourselves and the universe. Being wrong does that, it makes us admit imperfection and rattles other things we think we’re right about. Not to mention it usually means we have to admit somebody else was right, and that can chip away at our self-esteem or feelings of superiority. Ruh roh.

It’s just easier to be right, for pete’s sake. More fun, too. Forget being proved wrong, it’s easier to be right than to have to talk about what’s right and wrong. As in, healthy conflict, good debate, digging into what we believe is true/false is even harder than just assuming we’ve already got it right. It takes energy, creativity, patience, and perspective to be open to other ideas of rightness. Eesh.

Welcome to the world of the Sadducees (the Tsedukim), a Jewish order in the ancient world, like the Pharisees, that was very exclusive, influential, and chiefly concerned with being right. Their particular perspective was to take the Law (the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) very literally at its word. They were totally strict in interpreting their faith that way. Part of that meant not believing in things that the Law didn’t explicitly spell out, like much of the supernatural stuff — angels and demons, heaven and hell, the resurrection and after-life. Didn’t believe it. And they staked everything about themselves on that. Not just their faith, but their entire identities in society. Life’s work, reputation, all that as Sadducees.

In some ways they sound very American…if what we believe is not verifiable, can’t be proved, if it’s supernatural, kick it out because it’s silly. Like plenty of folks treat Jesus, “hey, the golden rule, love people, give to charity, I’m down with some of that Jesus…just not so much all that mystical junk, the dying on the cross, miracles, etc.”

Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees sheds light on that attitude. It speaks to those of us who would treat Jesus as another spiritual/moral teacher in the crowd, but leave the Messiah business behind. It’s summed up real well in a quote from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

I think that’s reality. It confronted the Sadducees in Luke 20:27-38 when they set out to assert their rightness by asking Jesus a trick question about something they felt very sure about, the resurrection of the dead. They lay it out, this conundrum in the Law, where if a brother dies and leaves a widow with no children his brothers are to marry her to foster kids in his name; in their version there are seven brothers who go through this process, marrying this one woman as each one dies childless, and in the end they ask Jesus whose wife she’ll be at the resurrection.

Yikes, good one, most of us wonder those things. What’s heaven like, what happens when I’m there with my first love from grade school and my high school sweetheart and my wife? Trouble. Or will I be able to recognize people at all? Oh, man. Anyway, questions, questions, and this one is put to Jesus by the Sadducees not so much for an answer but to prove him wrong. I think they expected him to be dumbfounded. But nope.

He responds, he talks about that life being a good deal different from this, and more. Read it. And his response does two things to the Sadducees, I think.

1) It offers them a sobering possibility. Because Jesus speaks with authority, like one who knows personally firsthand, and here the Sadducees know they only talk about ideas they’ve learned from other Sadducees. He speaks matter-of-fact about things they can only guess about. And in his answer he not only asserts that there is a resurrection, but it is connected to all these other ideas that are core to the Sadducees’ disbelief — angels, miraculous power, and more. So now if these scholars start to wonder, “What if he’s right” then they’re really opening themselves up to the possibility that everything they’ve been clinging to, everything they’ve built their identities on, could be false. Sobering possibility. Even more because Jesus uses a detail from the Law, their own tactic, to prove it, quoting from Exodus when God speaks from the burning bush using the present tense, “I AM”, to describe his relationship to the dead. Ugh. Hard to ignore, Sadducees. What if he’s right?

2) Now they also have, to me, a better possibility to deal with. I mean, Jesus makes the resurrection sound EXCELLENT. He talks as if this is what is, what was always meant to be, our perfect communion with God and each other. A new and different age, where all is right, and we’re describe as God’s own children. Sadducees can only argue that he’s wrong, and that rather our lives are intended to end one place: a dirt nap, a game over, toes up, pushing daisies, worm food, in the fertilizer business, dead and only dead. But what if he is actually right?

These are the questions for all of us and the way we treat Jesus, and the way we treat our own rightness. Are we brave enough to let some things remain mysterious and consider the possibility that Jesus is right, that we can have resurrection? Can we be flexible with our own identity, whatever we’ve built it on, and weigh other potential ideas of true and false?

Because, after all, later in the story Jesus gives us a picture of resurrected life and what it might mean. After his resurrection he shows us that he’s familiar but different, still human-like but not quite. Remember, he is touchable, bears his wounds, he eats, seems normal, but he can also appear in a locked room outta nowhere, isn’t always recognizeable, and eventually flies off into the sky. Something is up. In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey says it might speak to what our resurrected life looks like:

“I take hope in Jesus’ scars. From the perspective of heaven, they represent the most horrible event that has ever happened in the history of the universe. Even that event, though – the crucifixion – Easter turned into a memory. Because of Easter, I can hope that the tears we shed, the blows we receive, the emotional pain, the heartache over lost friends and loved ones, all these will become memories, like Jesus’ scars. Scars never completely go away, but neither do they hurt any longer. We will have re-created bodies, a re-created heaven and earth. We will have a new start, an Easter start.”

What if Jesus is who he says he is? What if he’s right? Can we stand to be even slightly wrong?

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