Cats, Widows, and Sadducees: Conventions Crucify. Tradition Resurrects.
A Sermon by The Rev. Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Sunday, November 10, 2019 – Proper 27, Year C
In the name of Jesus who liberates us to be free, whole, and loving. Amen.
Over the last few years, I have discovered that I have a remarkable gift. I am a superb cat-sitter. I am not particularly fond of cats; but cats absolutely adore me! Some of the cats I look after enjoy ululating rather loudly when they’re hungry, and this morning’s Gospel reminded me of the popular Zen “Fable of the Ritual Cat.” For those who haven’t heard this Fable, it’s very short, and goes like this:
When a spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise (it probably ululated) that it distracted the monks from their spiritual discipline. So, the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during their evening spiritual practice.
Years later, long after the teacher had died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the noisy cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up during the evening meditation. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote complex scholarly treatises about the important, spiritual significance of tying up a cat for all meditation practices.
This fable and this morning’s Gospel (Luke 20:27-40) teach us about the dangers of mindlessly following conventions. In today’s Gospel Jesus has an encounter with some Sadducees. Sadducees were the elite class of landed Jerusalem gentry who operated the Temple and wielded power from that religious base of operations. Sadducees recognized only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) as authoritative, so they denied the resurrection because they insisted, according to their conventional interpretation of the Pentateuch, that resurrection was not explicitly taught in their Scriptures. Their denial of the resurrection was like a cat they had to keep tying up for centuries. The thing about tying up cats is that it is cruel.
In today’s Gospel the Sadducees test Jesus by tying up a widow in a hypothetical predicament to argue for their denial of resurrection. And the convention in which their hypothetical widow is tied up is also cruel. The Sadducees – all of them, men – for their argument’s sake overlook the widow’s personhood. The widow in the Sadducees’ argument has no say in who her body belongs to and to whom her body is given away, as if she were livestock. She is tied up in a centuries-old convention and she has no say in what men decide about her body, her marriages, and her childbearing. Groups of powerful men, utterly tone-deaf to women’s voices, are still making decisions about women’s bodies, marriage, and childbearing (1) because they’ve always tied up women, like cats, in conventions that make absolutely no sense, especially to women. Jesus speaks Truth to these Sadducees. Jesus uses their own Tradition – the Pentateuch itself – not only to unburden the Sadducees from their ignorance about resurrection, but to also liberate widows, and for that matter those of us who have nothing to do with marriage, from heteronormative conventions that make absolutely no sense.
Jesus uses Tradition to critique, reform, and redeem Convention. As young people say today, Jesus “claps back” at the Sadducees, by citing the unimpeachable words of Moses himself recorded in the Pentateuch to refute the Sadducees’ conventional denial of resurrection. Sadducees recognized only the authority of the first five books of the Bible, which they believed contained no teachings of resurrection, so Jesus masterfully responds with quotes from the Book of Exodus itself. Jesus says,
And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the burning bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive. Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For [the Sadducees] no longer dared to ask [Jesus] another question.
Now, you married people here this morning, I love you, and I give praise and thanks to God that you have been blessed in your sacramental covenant to God and to one another. For single folks, those who have been divorced, or widowed, or are fighting the slings and arrows of outrageous dating apps, or are simply called to the single life, Jesus has a holy and life-giving Word for us in today’s Gospel. In his time, marriage was essential to survival, especially for women. So, Jesus says,
Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
The Good News, friends, is that through Baptism we are all children of God, being children of Christ’s resurrection. We have been liberated from the shackles of conventions that no longer make any sense. Jesus applies life-giving Tradition to critique and redeem cruel Conventions that tie up cats and widows and crucify us.
In his book No Man Is an Island, trappiest monk, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion, Thomas Merton writes powerfully about the difference between Tradition and Convention. Merton writes,
Conventions are the death of real tradition as they are of all real life. They are parasites which attach themselves to the living organism of tradition and devour all its reality, turning it into a hollow formality.
Tradition is living and active, but convention is passive and dead. Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it. Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine. Therefore, convention easily becomes an evasion of reality. It offers us only pretended ways of solving the problems of living – a system of gestures and formalities. Tradition really teaches us to live and shows us how to take full responsibility for our own lives. Thus tradition is often flatly opposed to what is ordinary, to what is mere routine. But convention, which is a mere repetition of familiar routines, follows the line of least resistance. One goes through an act, without trying to understand the meaning of it all, merely because everyone else does the same. Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving – born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way. Convention is simply the ossification of social customs. The activities of conventional people are merely excuses for not acting in a more integrally human way. Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its interior decay. (2)
Think of all the people who have little or no consent over their own lives or bodies because of the Conventions powerful men thoughtlessly force upon them. How will we, as followers of Jesus, actively apply our Christian Tradition to spiritually nourish and live in solidarity with widows, orphans, and immigrants, who have no say in how their lives and bodies are treated? We, like Jesus, need to “clap back” at today’s Sadducees who idolize Conventions that crucify widows, orphans, and immigrants for the sake of inane arguments that are neither life-giving nor relevant, and no longer make any sense.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel that we are all children of God; children of the resurrection. Children of the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebecca, and the God of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Children of the God not of dead Conventions that crucify, but the God of a living Tradition who is Christ Jesus; the Holy One who liberates and raises all of us to new, free, and unending life in Him. It’s time to untie the cats, liberate the widows, and invite Sadducees into new understandings of their own Tradition. We and they can set ourselves free from Conventions that are still tying up and crucifying the most vulnerable among us. In the words of today’s Epistle, “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that [we] were taught by [Christ]” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), so that all people may have life and have it abundantly. May it be so, in Christ’s Holy Name. Amen.
- Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955) 150-151.