If properly understood, the cockroach could be a terrific symbol of Christianity, not because of its repulsive or disease-bearing traits, but simply because it's still here on earth, increasing and multiplying as you read these words.

Cockroaches existed long before dinosaurs and probably will be around as long as this planet lasts. They constantly adapt and evolve. Whatever killed off the dinosaurs didn't faze these pesky bugs. Not only did they evolve enough to deal with that particular problem; exterminators warn that they continue to evolve even today.

Our faith-ancestors also adapted and evolved. And, like cockroaches, they accomplished this during periods when some of their contemporaries, either refusing or unable to change, became as extinct as dinosaurs.

Old-timers

Jesus deals with Jewish dinosaurs in the Gospel: Sadducees. As you hear Luke's narrative, imagine the hymn "Give Me That Old Time Religion" playing in the background (Lk 20: 27-38).

Through the centuries, Sadducees achieved a prominent place in Jewish society. They were not about to jeopardize that position by evolving their beliefs. Because the earliest Jews believed the Torah was the entire bible, Sadducees also limited their Scripture to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They didn't think Jeremiah or Isaiah was inspired by God, nor did the theology in I and II Kings resonate their faith. That's why, when Jesus argues with them from Scripture, He uses Exodus: one of their five inspired books.

Sadducee spirituality revolved around the Jerusalem temple. Mostly priests, they had little respect for the new-fangled lay reform movement to which Jesus belonged: the Pharisees. This latter group emphasized the Law of Moses more than temple worship, accepted a much larger biblical canon, and, a little over a century before Jesus' birth, started to believe in a life beyond this life.

This last issue is the flash-point in the Gospel. Sadducees thought the fourth martyred brother's statement in the first reading (II Mac 7: 1-2, 9-14) was heresy. "It is my choice to die at the hands of men," he shouts, "with the hope God gives of being raised up by Him."

Because these classic arch-conservatives never evolved a beyond-this-world-faith, they challenge Jesus' belief with their seven brothers-one wife story.

Transformation

Jesus' counter-argument depends on two points. First, He presumes Yahweh's burning bush statement about being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is in the present tense, proving these three are still alive 600 years after their death. Second, He believes the afterlife won't be just an eternal replay of this life. Things will be different after we die. Normal human relations, including marriage, will be transformed.

Today's Jews basically descend from Pharisees. Sadducees eventually disappeared after Rome destroyed the temple in 70. Only those courageous Jews who evolved their faith would continue to multiply offspring.

In the same way, Christians today descend from Jesus' first-century followers who evolved in faith beyond a belief in His imminent return. Those who insisted on thinking He would come back quickly simply fell by the wayside.

Paul hints at that evolution when he prays for endurance in the second reading (II Thes 2: 16-3:5). Altering his earlier belief, he's starting to see his faith turn into a lifetime commitment. "May the Lord," he writes, "direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ."

Of course, if you adopt the cockroach as your mascot, there's one problem: You'll constantly have to surface what parts of your faith must evolve, so the faith of Jesus will continue to exist and thrive 2,000 years from now.

(11-08-01)