Tradition and Transition

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Human beings cannot live without tradition. We use the word is two distinct ways. We speak of traditions with a small t, to refer to the conventions, by which we interpret Tradition with a capital T in response to the needs of the present time.

Personal recollection

I remember in my seminary days being part of a rather exclusive little group. We considered ourselves not only the arbiters of fine taste, but also the defenders of Tradition. We were rather preoccupied with the protocols governing both the dining hall and the chapel.

Our seminary, or theological college as such places are referred to in the Church of England, was the first of such institutions to be established in the early part of the 19th century as the catholic revival[1] within the C of E sought to introduce a greater degree of spiritual formation into the preparation of men for Holy Orders. Being set up along the lines of a monastery, our community life revolved around the daily rhythms of eating and praying together. Our small group understood instinctively that the traditions governing the dining hall and the chapel shaped the identity and the feel of the community. We used the phrase: as is our ancient custom, to both invent and abolish practices we liked, or disliked.

The memory of this makes me smile with both amusement as well as embarrassment at the seeming pettiness of behaving in this way. Yet, what we were doing was simply trying to appeal to a wider sense of Tradition in order to identify who we thought we were in the here and now. We were reacting against what we felt were the loose and slovenly attitudes that had crept into the Church during the 1960’s, and 70’s. For instance, we were aghast that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, when Principal of the college in the late 1960’s had sold the dining silver and replaced many of the serving dishes with blue Tupperware. We revived or in some cases invented from scratch the customs of what appeared to us to have been a more dignified and tasteful past. In this way we were seeking to redefine the identity of the community we loved.

Reflections on the function of Tradition

Tradition with a capital T communicates and shapes a community’s experience of itself in the present by connecting it to the memory of what it has been in the past. However, Tradition also becomes a divisive thing, when in any society different constituencies in response to the pressures of contemporary issues come into conflict over how to interpret Tradition.

It’s all in the way Tradition is used. Whether we look at the history of the Christian Church or that of the American Republic, we see that conflict centers on how different groups appeal to Tradition either to justify, or criticize current practice.

The Bible supports the institution of slavery, the subordination of women, and the repudiation of homosexuality. Yet Christians have appealed to the teaching of Jesus on the primacy of love, and inclusion on the basis of faith, in order to challenge all three. In each age there is a cause célèbre that epitomizes the tensions of living with Tradition. In the 19th Century it was the abolition of slavery. In the 20th Century it was the emancipation of women. In the 21st Century it is the inclusion of homosexuality and gender identity within the concept of faithful Christian identity, not to mention civil rights. Running through all periods is the continual tension within the Christian body between those who appeal to Tradition in support of the Church as the pillar of society, and those who appeal to Tradition itself as society’s harshest critic.

The US Constitution proclaims that all human beings (men) are created equal. Yet the 14th Amendment was required to iterate that all men included black men. It took the 19th Amendment to extend the vote to women. It required the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to put into fuller practice the Constitution’s bold proclamation.

My central point here is to say that the use of Tradition cuts both ways. It’s all in the interpretive approach. Each of us will have an intellectual and emotional predisposition towards Tradition. Some will want to view received Tradition, as evidence that ancient custom is fixed, coming to us out of the mists from an age before time and consequently beyond the challenge of any particular age. The purpose of my seminary memory was to remind myself that there was a time when I had an emotional need to view Tradition in this way. There are others who believe it to be the responsibility of each generation to interpret Tradition in the light of current circumstances so as to ensure that Tradition is continually renewed and able to speak to the needs of the present time. Paradoxically, this was also what I, and my seminary friends were doing. I suspect we all use a bit of both approaches as it suits, because our intellectual and emotional needs for Tradition are not always in perfect sync.

The Gospel

What is true of our experience seems to be also true for Jesus. In Matthew 15 we see tensions in play that are familiar to us from our own religious and political context. In the Gospels we always have two parallel storylines, side by side. There is the memory of actual events in the ministry of Jesus. Matthew records this collective memory of Jesus in a manner that also speaks directly to the experience of the community for which he is writing. In both storylines, as well as in our own time, we see the age-old struggle between different approaches to living in the tense space between Tradition and the here and now.

Interpretation of Matthew 15: the Jesus storyline

Matthew 15 addresses head-on the tensions in the Matthean community between those who are in and those who out. This largely Jewish Christian community has recently suffered the experience of exclusion from the synagogue. It appears they are also struggling with the issue of the inclusion of Gentile Christians within their community. Matthew, drawing upon the earlier record of Mark’s Gospel presents his community with a picture of the way Jesus challenged the uses of Tradition to justify the practices of inclusion and exclusion.

We see Jesus breaking with Tradition and thereby running afoul of the religious authorities, in this instance represented by the Pharisee Party. In Jesus day there was a major split between the Sadducees and the Pharisees within Second Temple Judaism The Sadducees were the priestly, arch-traditionalist group claiming that the only binding authority lay in the Law as Moses had delivered and recorded in the Torah.

Many Jews felt that this ossification of the Law was an imperfect instrument for addressing contemporary needs. The Pharisees addressed the inadequacies of the written Law by holding that the Oral Tradition of the Prophets was equally authoritative. To this Oral Tradition other ritual purity customs had been added which here are referred to as the tradition of the elders. It’s with these ritual customs that Jesus is taking issue. Religions develop rituals that identify those included and those excluded on the basis of clean and unclean. If you wash before prayer you are spiritually purified, if you don’t you remain unclean.

Jesus counters Pharisee criticism by drawing a different distinction. In place of the distinctions between external purity and external contamination Jesus refocuses the argument on the distinction between internal intention, and external behavior. Jesus echoes a more contemporary psychological understanding that the challenge to living a spiritual life emanates from within our internal world – our attitudes and intentions. Jesus uses the image of the human heart to refer to the internal world. Being right with God is not about what you eat and whether you wash or not before prayer. It’s about intention and the conflict between intention and desire. The list of behaviors he condems could be seen as the symptoms of unresolved internal conflicts between human intentions and desires.

Interpretation of Matthew 15: the Matthean storyline

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Judaism of Jesus’ day, i.e. the struggle between Sadducee and Pharisee parties is ended. The Sadducee priesthood dies with the Temple and out of the ruins the Pharisee party emerges triumphant in the form of Rabbinic Judaism. Matthew and his community live on the other side of this cataclysmic event.

It seems to me that in Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees, Matthew sees his community’s struggle with the synagogue where the Rabbis, the descendants of the Pharisee movement have expelled the Jewish followers of Jesus. The Christian community is vindicated in no longer following the rituals of the traditions of the elders by the memory of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees.

In verse 21 the focus shifts dramatically as Jesus journeys into the foreign territory of Phoenician Tyre and Sidon. It’s useful to notice that this section places Jesus outside the Jewish heartland. Jesus moves into the borderlands between Jewish and Gentile worlds. In Matthew’s presentation of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, he resurrects the archaic word Canaanite to identify her. Canaanite was a term from earlier Israelite history and would not have been used in Jesus nor Matthew’s time. Matthew’s point is to evoke the age-old nature of the struggle around inclusion and exclusion. The essential theological points in this dramatic action are as follows:

  • For Canaanite Woman read hated foreigner, a mere bitch in the canine sense – dog being a phrase Jews used to refer to foreigners.
  • Yet, she hails Jesus for the first time in the Gospel as Lord (kurios) and recognizes him as Messiah (Son of David). She alone is the first in Matthew’s Gospel to recognize who Jesus is, and she, a foreign bitch to boot.
  • Jesus seems to follow patriarchal social convention. As a man he ignores being addressed by a mere woman in public.
  • She continues to raise a ruckus. The disciples are embarrassed and just want to get rid of her. This is theological code for the spiritual blindness of the so- called insiders.
  • Jesus finally forced to address her rejects her plea because she is not a Jew justifying his response with: it is not right to give Jewish food to foreigners  i.e.dogs.
  • She outwits him by acknowledging her foreign status and offering a metaphor from the dinner table where the dogs scrounged for food that fell from the table. This she protests is reason enough for him should heal her daughter.
  • Matthew indicates no pause in the exchange but one can imagine Jesus being rather stunned by her response. He now calls her a woman of great faith. Nowhere else does Jesus refer to anyone as possessing great faith. The implication here is that great faith is to be found only among those outside, among the excluded.

Commentators debate the psychological movement that takes place in Jesus during this encounter. Traditional commentators stick with the explanation that Jesus’ response is a test for the woman, and she passes. Personally, I am repulsed by the suggestion of Jesus and God continually testing me to see if I pass or fail. Therefore, I favor the more challenging suggestion that here we see Jesus in response to her challenge, learning and growing in his understanding of his mission. This is the moment when Jesus recognizes that his mission is not only to the lost sheep of Israel. In three chapters, 13, 14 and 15, Matthew presents Jesus moving from family and hometown rejection, to rejection by the religious authorities, to encounter with great faith in the Gentile territory. He seems astonished to find recognition here in foreign parts among those considered unclean and outside the dispensation of Israel.

It seems to me that in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, Matthew is exhorting his Jewish Christian Community to move beyond their racial prejudices and embrace the inclusion of Gentile believers.

Although the Gospel reading for Pentecost 10 ends here, Matthew drives home his point by ending the chapter with what looks like a repetition of the feeding of the five thousand from chapter 14. However, he changes the vital elements of what looks like a repetition of the earlier story to show that this is a new story. In the feeding of the five thousand, the number 5000 is a Jewish number representing the division of the Israelites into five cohorts as commanded by Moses. There were twelve baskets, 12 being the number of the Tribes of Israel. The scraps are collected in a kind of basket only used by Jews. At the end of chapter 15 only four thousand are fed, 4000 representing the four corners of the Gentile world. There are seven baskets, 7 representing the 70 Gentile nations. The scraps are collected in a type of basket used all over the Mediterranean world. The banquet of God is now extended to the Gentiles and those who were outside are now brought inside the Kingdom of God.

Conclusions to be drawn

  • Tradition is always evolving and never fixed for all time.
  • Conventions come and go as a means of interpreting and applying the Tradition to the needs of the Christian community in the present age.
  • As human beings, we have a tendency to cling to our conventions. We mistake them for the entirety of the Tradition and not simply the interpretations of a previous generation.
  • The Early Christian community remembered the moment when Jesus transitioned in understanding his mission. They remembered the moment he moved from a mission to Israel, to viewing his mission in the fuller terms of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah calling all nations into the Covenant with God made originally with Abraham.
  • This memory helped the Early Church to embrace the Gentile world paving the way for the inclusion of the likes of you and me into the Old Covenant, now made new.
  • The abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the inclusion of gay and transgendered persons, the confrontation with systems that sustain the abuse of power that advantage the few at the expense of the many are not expressions of the spirit of our secular, humanistic age. They are signs of the People of God growing, painful step, by painful step, into the realization of the Kingdom of God.

[1] Commonly referred to as the Oxford Movement which sought to reinvigorate the Church of England’s spiritual disciplines and practices through returning to its ancient catholic spiritual and liturgical tradition, largely fallen into disuse during the 18th Century church’s championing the intellect and reason both spirits of the Enlightenment.


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