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.


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