The Sadducees were mad. Irate. Ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated, out for revenge. They hated Jesus.
Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the main temple and confronted the Sadducees, who were making money off of religious rituals expected of Jews. He told them “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Luke tells us that from that point forward the Sadducees were looking for a way to kill Jesus. Jesus threatened their profitable relationship with the Roman empire. He threatened the social, religious, financial, and political benefits being a Sadducee gave them. He threatened their identity and wealth and security.
This could not stand.
And now Jesus is back in their temple, on their turf, teaching their people.
The Sadducees approach Jesus not with curiosity or a desire to understand, but because they want to discredit him and his message in the eyes of the people on whom their power and their livelihood depends.
This was no mere academic, theological inquiry, but an intentionally disrespectful attack on someone they wanted to see gone. Sadducees were known to encourage conflict with – rather than respect for – their teachers. They were more stern than the Pharisees in recommending punishments for crimes. The Sadducees were so full of themselves, so convinced of their own rectitude, that they couldn’t even begin to imagine that their view on any theological issue, including resurrection, was anything but the one, right, obvious view. (Anytime we encounter people who believe that their perspective is the one and only right and obvious truth, this should be a red flag for us.)
For Jesus, writes Matthew Myer Boulton, “this is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that being his follower will include (times) of tranquility and times of conflict with the powers that be.” You can almost hear his disciples ask themselves, “Why are we following this guy? He seems to get in a lot of arguments.”
Learning to navigate conflict with grace is an essential tool for anyone who strives to live out the love of Jesus in our complicated world. Take any human institution – political, corporate, religious or cultural – and you will find leaders whose motives are often mixed. (Having worked in higher ed, hospice, and the church, institutions with the noblest missions, I have often been stunned by the ways top brass sometimes seem less interested in those they are serving and more interested in reputation or the bottom line. Because they are made up of imperfect people, even institutions that we might expect to be run in an ideal way can be rife with conflict. It can be so discouraging; When we are working for an organization with a great mission; we think things should really work well; and then you discover the administrators are ruthless or there are other major issues. It can be very disappointing. I suspect many of us have had that experience.)
In his response to the Sadducees argumentative interrogation, Jesus gives a master class in the art of crucial conversations. How he responds to the Sadducees is a model for how we can respond when we are in the throes of conflict, too.
When the Sadducees approach Jesus, he likely remembers their last confrontation. He is not happy that their religious practices exploit the poor. He knows that they have very different views on what it means to be a faithful Jew. Likely, he can sense that their questions aren’t motivated by a desire to understand or build connection, but by a self-serving attempt to maintain their power and wealth. And he likely picks up on their hatred of him.
How do you feel when you sense someone is angry with you? How do you feel when someone is verbally attacking you? Or interrogating you? How do you feel when it seems that someone is more invested in their point of view, than in you and your relationship? And how do you feel when someone becomes argumentative with you in front of others? That surely raises the stakes!
In such situations, most of us – if not all of us – become automatically defensive. We may withdraw or attack in return.
But, that is not what Jesus does. He doesn’t speak to the Sadducees contemptuously and say, “You money-grubbing, good-for-nothing jerks.” He doesn’t say, “Who do you think you are?” He doesn’t attack them in return. Nor does he turn his back and walk away.
Instead, Jesus engages in a crucial conversation. The authors of the book of the same name describe crucial conversations as “a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong.”
After the earlier confrontation where Jesus called the Sadducees robbers and challenged what amounted to their “quasi-religious” mafia, emotions were running strong. Their opinions varied about the resurrection and more; and the stakes were high – who would the people follow? Jesus or them?
How does Jesus handle this?
He meets the Sadducees where they are. He goes to what the book’s authors call “the pool of shared meaning.” In this case, knowing that the Sadducees only recognize the Torah, the first five books of Jewish scripture, as authoritative, he doesn’t try to use the words of the prophets or the psalms to open their minds. He uses what they value, what they both hold in common: the example of Moses. Jesus’ response is masterful for the way he embraces the very prophet whom the Sadducees revere. Brilliant!
Can you imagine if in an argument between Republicans and Democrats, both groups referenced the actual words of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights? Or, in a debate between Evangelicals and progressive Christians, both turned to the words of Jesus? Or in a difference of opinion between two married partners, both reflected on the words of their vows? And then, in each case, were open about their interpretive lens and discussed what the words they hold in common mean to them?
Even though Jesus knew the Sadducees were attacking him, that their motives were not pure, he answered them directly, calmly, and kindly. By taking the Sadducees questions at face value, Jesus plants the seeds for a safe conversation. He takes the high ground.
Finding our way to calm when we feel under attack or in the midst of conflict is not easy, especially in a public setting. But, it is possible. Our faith, our spirituality, can help.
Do you have spiritual practices that help you feel grounded and at peace? If you do, do you remember to use them when you are triggered? If you don’t, here are a few ideas:
When you are under a verbal attack, you can pause and become aware of God’s presence; You don’t have just allow the emotions to run the program; that takes practice. You can take a deep breath, and offer a brief prayer of trust; you can bring into your heart the love you feel (or want to feel) for the other person or group. (If you’ve been attacked a lot, it can be hard to feel love for the other person or group); you can set an intention to be build the relationship while expressing what you want; the authors of the book say this is one of the keys – if you can drop within and ask yourself what you want and think about how you want to build the relationship, this can rewire us from intense emotion and settle us into a way that allows us to engage;
Another thing you can do, you can remember what you appreciate about the other person or group; that can really shift the energy, too. You can use the tools of visualization to activate your religious imagination. For example, you can imagine the hand of the gentle Shepherd is at your side; or see yourself rooted and grounded in love or as a being of light; or alongside the Buddha, or floating on the sea; whatever works for you. These imaginative tools can rewire you inside so that you can respond in a calm manner.
With God’s help, there are so many ways to shift from the anxiety and stress of conflict to peace and calm. If you need help learning some of these practices or you want to begin a group at church to explore some of them, please let me know. In an era of so much anxiety, in 2022, the anxiety of the world, the anxiety we carry, the anxiety around us is profound. It is what drives a lot of the conflict – political , cultural, interpersonal, inter- church – wondering if everything is going to be OK is what sets people off. All of these spiritual practices give us a place inside ourselves that counter anxiety, that can help us work through anxiety. In 2022 there may be nothing more important that we can do as a church community, as a spiritual community, than to develop those tools, those practices, those ways of connecting with God in that moment of our highest triggered state – so t hat we don’t contribute to the anxiety and violence, but we find new and creative ways forward.
That being said, even when we’ve done what we can to find inner calm, sometimes it’s not possible – we are in another state and there is no bringing us back we can say to the other person or group… “I’m feeling too upset right now to talk. I need some time to cool down and re-find my peace. Let’s make a commitment to find another time to address this issue when we can listen to each other for mutual understanding.” Not simply to win the point, but to understand each other and build the relationship.
We may need to say, “Let’s have a private conversation – not in front of the kids or our colleagues or the team. Let’s cool down the heat we are feeling right now so we can work through this together.”
We can also say, “It may seem like there are only two options in front of us, but with a little time, I trust other options will emerge and we can find a creative way forward together.” We are often presented that it is “this or that.” But that’s not true – there may be all sorts of other ways we can move forward together.
We also need to remember that even when we follow the example of Jesus and use the tools of Crucial Conversations, we can not control how other people will respond. As the authors of Crucial Conversations say, “I am the only person I can work on with any true success.”
More important than winning any argument or resolving any issue is showing up in love.
The outcome of some of the most significant conversations we can possibly have – when relationships are in trouble or decisions need to be made at the end of life – don’t always lead to the outcome we want.
This is where the content of Jesus’ response to the Sadducees comes in. Matthew Myer Boulton offers that we can understand Jesus’ message to us like this , “For you are children of the resurrection, and you can carry yourself accordingly, not only in the age to come, but even now. Be emboldened, be strong, be assured, be poised — for come what may, God will not let you go, anymore than God has let Abraham and Sarah go…To God, all of them are alive! Listen: you shall not seek death, but neither shall you fear it. For the God of Abraham and Sarah… is God not of the dead, but of the living!”
Our God can be the third partner in every crucial conversation. It is possible to address problematic issues and build relationships at the same time. It is possible, as Jesus showed with the Sadducees, to speak with others calmly and lovingly even when they are disrespectful and argumentative.
Trusting in God’s love – in life and in death – can give us the confidence we need to handle the greatest challenges this life presents. No matter what the outcome of our crucial conversations, even when they seem to fail, we can trust that God can bring new life, resurrected life, out of our most harrowing moments – even death. There is nothing we can face, if we are open to God’s gracious, loving activity within our own hearts, that can not be transformed into new life. Amen.