The Humanizing of Tradition

Part I  

I am again watching the TV series The West Wing. The action is set in the first term of a fictitious Democratic presidential administration and this multi-season series aired between 1999 and 2006. I am still watching the episodes in the first series and what is so interesting is that it is possible to trace back the evolution of current political trends to a time when their outline is clear yet, their future trajectory has yet to set in stone. Despite the programs clear liberal-Democrat bias, The West Wing portrays a time when politicians still believed in the importance of political consensus in the service of the best interests of the nation. Thirteen years later, the loss of belief in, the need for, consensus on issues of vital importance to the nation has come to completely characterize a current political scene of governmental gridlock. While this is interestingly instructional, this is not the point to which I want to draw your attention.

In one particular episode concerning a request for the President to pardon a man awaiting execution on death row there is a particularly moving seen between Toby Ziegler, the White House Chief of Communications, and his Rabbi concerning the right and wrong of the death penalty. In his Sabbath sermon, the Rabbi had stated that vengeance is not Jewish. Toby points out to the Rabbi that it is written in the Torah an eye for and eye. Throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy the Torah prescribes the death penalty for a large number of offences mostly, religious in nature. The Rabbi’s reply is powerful. He says that maybe the Torah sanctioned death penalty represented the best teaching at that time. He then tells Toby that the later Rabbi’s who complied the Talmud, which is the collation of later rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, went to great lengths to confine the meaning of the Torah texts to forms of reparation that did not require death. Jewish thought moved-on as a result of a deepening, over time, of the human understanding of God’s justice.

Witnessing this exchange between Toby and the Rabbi offers a reminder that in Judaism, unlike some branches of Christianity, the literal ferocity and violence present in many Old Testament texts cannot be applied in a timeless manner. Later Jewish thought moderates the violence and ferocity implicit in many passages of the Torah. In our relationship to the Holy Scriptures I am pleased to say that our own Anglican tradition of Biblical interpretation follows in this rabbinical tradition of evolving interpretation in response to social and cultural development. Social and cultural development is very often the indicator of our growing into an ever- deepening sense of God’s truth, which Spiral Dynamics understands as a product of cultural evolutionary development  

Part II

The argument we see in Luke 13;10-17 turns on whether or not it is lawful for Jesus to heal the woman on the Sabbath? If this is a story about physical healing, then, as the leader of the synagogue says, why not wait and perform it on a regular day? However, this is a story where the alleviation of physical suffering is a by-product of a moral action. Jesus performs a moral work of God, which he sees as a fitting action for the Sabbath. Citing the exception that allows for animal welfare on the Sabbath, Jesus asks the synagogue leader:

ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?

The weightier part of this woman’s burden is not her physical deformity, but the burden of being morally and ritually unclean. The patriarchal interpretation of the Law places upon her and anyone else who suffers from disease or deformity a burden of moral impurity. Such an interpretation attributes disease and deformity to individual or familial sinfulness. It is from this moral burden that Jesus releases her and claims in doing so he is fulfilling God’s Sabbath command to keep this day holy. In his question Jesus couches the woman’s condition in terms of satanic binding. How do we attribute Jesus’ reference to the binding of Satan?

Unfortunately, dualism still characterizes much popular Christian thought. Dualism posits the notion that Satan is a celestial figure in opposition to God; that the world is the battleground for the war between the forces of Satan and the army of God, a battle between evil and good. This is, and has always been declared throughout Christian history to be a serious misunderstanding that flies in the face of the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. There is no celestial battle, for God is triumphant and supreme. However, in the old myth about the heavenly war between the archangel Lucifer and God, Lucifer- Satan is defeated and we are told his body falls to earth.

We can interpret the fall to earth of Lucifer- Satan to mean that Satan is to be found not as a celestial rival roaming the universe in opposition to God, but as the symbol for the presence of evil rooted in the human heart. As one commentator puts it, Satan exists, because we exist!

The foremost exponent of this view is Rene Girard, a philosopher, we at Trinity Cathedral remember as much loved by Bishop Nicholas Knisely. A Girardian perspective holds that Satan is an anthropological not a metaphysical presence in the world. In other words, Satan is a projection of the hardness and evil that lurks in the human heart in opposition to God. Time and again in the Gospels Jesus stands in powerful opposition to the way the Tradition of Moses falls captive to the hardness of the human heart. History shows that if unchecked even the best traditions and social systems inevitably degrade into instruments of oppression and discrimination.

The example from Luke 13 reveals Jesus in a Giradian light. As a foretaste of the later rabbinic tradition that was to come to flower in the Talmud, Jesus confronts the use of tradition as an instrument for satanic oppression. Satanic oppression is code for the processes by which traditions look for a scapegoat for the collective inability to process projected guilt and fear.

Part III

I was recently asked to articulate in a sentence the essence of my understanding of my priestly ministry.  I believe my ministry is to witness to a personal relationship with God that is lived-out in community where it is forged from within the tensions between the Tradition we receive and the challenges of the lives we live. I trust that for many of you this statement will be confirmed in your experience of me.

We use the word tradition with a small t and Tradition with a capital T interchangeably. The difference between in usage between the two is that small t traditions are non-binding and subject to change all the time.  As Anglican Christians, Episcopalians understand Tradition with a capital T as referring specifically to the Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures and historic creeds. This Tradition is handed-on from one generation to another. So how are we to relate to Tradition with a capital T?

One of the chief characteristics of being Episcopalian comes from our Anglican  understanding that God speaks to us from within that place of tension between the Tradition handed-on to us and the culture in which we live. We understand Scripture to be subject to the interpretation of Tradition, i.e. its meaning is what the consensus or mind of the Church comes to understand it to mean. This interpretation evolves over time. We also understand that both Scripture and Tradition are subject to the scrutiny of Reason. Like Tradition, Reason with a capital R is not just any rational thinking. It is confined to the expression of the higher universal values of love as justice, liberty as freedom from systems of oppression, equality as in non-discrimination.

This place of tension is not an easy place to stay. Our Christian journey forces us to find ways of living lives that are both faithful to Tradition and authentic for the needs of our time. Yet, sitting in this place of tension is what makes Episcopalians stand out in a religious terrain where Tradition is seen by some Churches as a timeless expression of God’s law to be imposed upon culture, and by other Churches as something to be overturned and discarded as a relic of a former age.

As Episcopalians we believe that God communicates through the process of our dynamic interaction with the Tradition. This approach to interpretation is guided by attending to the signs of the times. In last weeks Gospel from Luke 12:49-56 Jesus rebukes his hearers for failing to do just this. He says: you know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? 

In Conclusion  

In Luke 13:10-17 we discover something of an historical paradox. Jesus confronts the leader of the synagogue, whom we can assume to be of the Pharisee party with an interpretation of the Sabbath Tradition that not only humanizes its application, but proclaims God’s desire that this Tradition be honored in a way that unbinds human beings from the satanic, as in heart-hearted, and scape-goating application of Tradition.

The paradox here lies in the fact that it was the Pharisee party that went on following the destruction of the Temple in 70AD to give birth to Rabbinic Judaism. As witnessed by the West Wing encounter between Toby and his Rabbi, the Rabbis began to restrict the unmediated application of the Torah through increasingly,  humanizing interpretation, interpretations later compiled into the Talmud.

Jesus engages the leader of the synagogue who accuses him of violating the Sabbath by curing the woman suffering from curvature of spine. What we can easily misinterpret as Jesus’ opposition to the Law is really Jesus, as Rabbi, interpreting-out the violence of the human heart from within the Tradition with a capital T.

We can do no better than to follow the example Jesus gives us. To do so is to live our encounter with Tradition in such a way that it becomes an instrument for God’s continual desire for the re-forming of human society. In our hands, the Tradition we receive becomes an instrument for liberation from hardness of heart on the long march of the Children of God.


Measuring-up to Luke 11:32-40

Last Sunday, I got to use the new TED-style microphone headset, a result of a generous donation from one of our members – a practice I am keen to encourage through the formation of a Friends of Trinity Cathedral ministry. I first noticed this headset while watching the TED Talks. For those who are not familiar with these, go to Netflix on your TV, or to Ted Talks on your computer. Here are three links to talks I recently posted on Trinity’s FaceBook site. – .UeH2hA7PUFw.facebook

What fascinates me about the TED Talks is not only the content of the presentations, but the style of presentation. Presenters do vary in their presentation styles, yet the TED style is a masterful use of the immediacy of conversation, made possible by the combination of verbal and visual stimuli. This is achieved by the engagement of both our eyes and our ears as pictures, key words, and short phrases flash on the big screen behind the speaker’s head, pithily capturing the meaning of the words we are hearing. So when I said last week: now I have the headset, next comes the big screen above the pulpit, many anxiously snickered, hoping that I was making a joke, but sensing I was not!

The Episcopalian Brand features a strong emphasis on traditional worship. Yet, even Episcopalians are increasingly conditioned by the communications revolution, taking place all around us. As the world shifts from the communication style established by the invention of the printing press, we become less oriented to complex verbally based expression of ideas and argument, and more oriented towards a communication style that skillfully mixes the visual with verbal into the message. One picture speaks a thousand words as the old adage goes, captures the increasing return to the use of visual elements in mass communication, which in the digital age works on our minds and stimulates our imaginations through the skillful mixing of sight and sound. Through our ancient liturgy, a medium of sight, sound, and action, the Episcopal Church is already ahead in the game, so why not take further advantage of modern electronic media to further enhance our core communication modality.

One stumbling block to this is that those of us 40 and over have been shaped by a communication style that uses words to stimulate thoughts and ideas. What you said really made me think is a comment I often receive from parishioners following one of my sermons. Well, I am glad to know that, particularly as I am one who loves the interplay between words, thoughts and reflections. Yet, Jesus has a teaching style that does not aim to stimulate thoughtful reflective connections between words and ideas. Jesus teaching style is closer to that of the TED Talks, in that words are used conversationally to evoke powerful, usually contradictory images rather than thoughtful reflections. It is through his confrontative image based message that Jesus, who is not interested in sparking reflective debate, seeks to change lives. These images don’t flash on a big electronic screen behind Jesus, but on the internal screens of his listener’s individual minds. Jesus communication style uses words to evoke images that challenge us directly in ways that expository teaching and preaching cannot!

Unlike the Buddha, Jesus teaches very little about the internal spiritual life. As I said two weeks ago, even when he refers directly to prayer, he does so by provoking uncomfortable images that direct our attention to the quality of our engagement with the world of relationships around us. Recently in his teaching on prayer, known to us as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus presents an image of shamelessness driving our longing for God.   He provokes the image of the small child whispering daddy or mummy as the way we are to approach God. Note these are direct and controversial images, not complex metaphysical instructions.

Last week, Canon Rhodes shared his sense of relief that it was I, and not him, who had to deal with the Gospel for today. I have spent a week wrestling with this text from Luke. Like the Ted-Talks, Jesus uses words to provoke images that flash across our internal screens. If taken seriously, these images disturb me deeply because when I measure myself, my attitudes, and my actions against these images, I am uncomfortably aware of how far in my discipleship, I fall short.

In what ways do I fall short of being able to live the fullness of the life of a disciple?  To begin with, my alms are given from my surplus and not by selling my possessions. If my surplus decreases, it would seem eminently reasonable to me that the level of my giving should likewise follow.  Is my treasure where my heart can be found?  This is not a comforting image for me because it requires me to examine the question: what is it I treasure? My treasure is not monetary. Yet, it is personal to me. My heart is devoted to the pursuit of my own competence and self-sufficiency.

I have such a vivid picture of a purse that does not wear out and will contain the wherewithal necessary for life in heaven. If I had a big TED screen behind me now would be the time to flash pictures of moth eaten purses and rust corroded strongboxes, contrasted to a scene of living the good life floating about on clouds in heaven. Pictures of heavenly purses which I have been prudent enough to prepare for in advance remind me that this last week GEICO encouraged me to take advantage of my eligibility for an Umbrella Policy, which for a small increase in my premium will give me a million dollars coverage against evil third parties intent on suing me. Yet, what if heaven is not a future event to be prepared for? Jesus is more likely to be suggesting that heaven is here and now and the heavenly purse is one that is unfailingly useful in bringing about good in this world. Resources that are put to use now are less subject to the decay of moth and rust than if they are amassed and horded, left unused in preparation for some future, and largely imaginary state.

Am I dressed for action? Oh most certainly I am. Yet, a more pertinent question is: how am I dressed for action? My early life experience has given me a prodigious skill to anticipate and be ready for whatever trouble might lurk around the corner. Dressed in armor, I am ready for action. Yet, the action Jesus has us picture here is not that of battle, but of expectation and readiness to welcome with joy and celebration being in loving and trusting relationship. The servants are overjoyed at the return of their master. This is an image that looses its power for us until we remember that in Jesus’ world the relationship between master and servant was one of mutual dependency, trust, and protection.

Am I dressed for expectation? This does not mean being ready for the future before it happens. Jesus means that I should be ready in the present moment and in each successive present moment to celebrate because I trust God and am trusted by God. All that energy expended on anticipating the future is futile for none of us knows at what hour the imaginary threat we anticipate will present itself. Anxious anticipation results in our not being ready for what happens to us in the present. If I am ready now, I am always ready and I have no need to scare myself into a state of anxious anticipation of disaster, which never really arrives anyway. Jesus asks us to focus our attention on the only moment in which we are actually living – the present moment is the only moment in which we are actually alive.

How would my life change if I knew that I was going to die next Sunday. I suspect that the next week would be the most life filled experience of my life. Under the impetus of no time to lose I would turn my attention to what really matters for me. This would be the present celebration of love and friendship.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the reading, which precedes the Lucan passage with which I am inviting us all to struggle, we hear the greatest definition of the character of faith ever recorded. This anonymous writer tells us that: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The great American novelist Mark Twain puts a more idiomatic spin on the character of faith when he has Huck Finn proclaim: Faith is believin what you know ain’t so. 

I have a version of Huck’s comment which I tell people when they ask: how can I risk taking the leap of faith when I don’t know what I feel about God or even if there is a God?  I tell them to fake it till you make it. What I mean by this is that in longing for a trusting and loving relationship with God it’s important to live as if what you most long for is – already true!

So, what is it that we must live-out everyday as if it is true? Jesus begins this particular conversation with us with these words: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Note that God addresses us as a little flock, i.e. as a community, not as individuals here. God is inviting us to trust and to relax, to be less preoccupied with getting so that we can respond to God’s giving and emulate God’s generosity in our giving. Jesus tells us it is only through being open to God’s initiative, God’s provision, in sum God’s reality that our deepest needs come to be met.

Is not our deepest need to make a difference through living life as an expression of gratitude and generosity? What we most long for is not only that our need is met, but that we live beyond the confines of our self-centeredness so that our life becomes a source of what makes a difference for good in the lives of others who share the world with us! Let this be our prayer today and everyday.




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