Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Tradition, Tradition!"

There are things that we receive in life from others, things handed down to us from parents, teachers, and other cultural influences. Sometimes we cling to these "traditions" for the good; sometimes not. Do we have "traditions" that we will not let go in order that we may reject evil thoughts, immorality, theft, and the like? What "traditions" have we already let go of that we should be clinging to with all of our strength? (And is love a better motive for hanging on to something than obedience? Or are they so closely related and coordinated as to be indistinguishable?)

(The title for this entry obviously has it's origin in the classic film, "Fiddler on the Roof." Image Source,

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

The Book of Deuteronomy is, according to its Hebrew title, a book of "words," a collection of the Words of Moses, which he spoke to "all Israel" on the far side of the Jordan River before the people of God crossed over to take possession of the Promised Land. (Deuteronomy 1:1, 21, etc.) Deuteronomy 4, therefore, appropriately begins with a command to "listen up!" (šema`, not at all unlike the more famous "Shema" in Deuteronomy 6:4.) This call for attention is one replayed many times in many cultural contexts both today and in yesteryear: in court, when the judge enters the room to take a seat; in the assembly hall, when a speaker rises to begin prepared remarks; in the classroom, when a teacher is ready to begin a lesson; in the sanctuary, when it is time for worship and for the reading of the Word of God; in the home, when a parent addresses a child about a matter of importance.

According to Deuteronomy, Moses played all these roles for the people of Israel. He was in some sense a prophet or preacher, helping Israel hear and obey God's word. He was in another way, Israel's premier law-giver (president, senator, judge; handing out chuqqîm and mišpatîm, 4:1). He was also Israel's teacher (lamad), instructing not just in "book learning" but in practical "how to," hands on demonstrations of what to do and how to act (`asah). The words that Moses speaks here are, like all the words of Deuteronomy, performative. They make a difference in the lives of the hearers. In fact, like the words spoken by God on the first day of creation, they give life to those who hear and obey them. Those who hear and obey these words will live and will successfully enter and take possession of the future that God has prepared for them. Life is a divine gift--a gift from the "God of your fathers"--that is "passed on" (handed down, "tradition-ed") to the children of Israel by these words of Moses.

This word of promise comes also with a word of warning, a command of "thou shalt not." According to Moses, the words recorded here are complete. They do not need any mathematical computation--neither addition nor subtraction--to get them to work out right. They work fine just as they are presented; they'll be ruined by increase or decrease. Thou shalt not add to or subtract from them on pain of forfeiting life itself. (Deuteronomy 4:2; see Revelation 22:18-19.) In this way, the instructions of this chapter (and the book as a whole) are very much like the "10 Words" or "10 Things" (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), the "10 Commandments." The list of God's commands (tsavah,mitsvoth) is complete and succinct. It needs only to do them to live.

But, of course, Israel didn't always do what God had commanded. Idolatry was the first and most frequent of the commandments broken, and it was clearly also the chief offense, the number one law broken, a capital offense. The verses skipped by the lectionary here (Deuteronomy 4:3-5) concern one such incident, when some of the people of Israel allied themselves with the people of Moab and (either for reasons of personal devotion, or, what is more likely, for reasons of marriage, tribal, and political alliance) began to "bow down" to Baal-Peor and to eat (ritually) sacrifices offered to Baal. (See Numbers 25, Psalm 106:28, and Hosea 9:10.) Moses appeals to Israel's memory of this experience to prove the point that obedience to God's commands brings life, while disobedience means certain (and widespread) death. There is some irony here that should not escape us. While the passages that mention the incident of Baal-Peor seem to lay the blame at intermarriage with the people of Moab, we would do well to remember this complicating fact: Ruth (the great-grandmother of King David) was...gasp...herself a woman of Moab. (Ruth 1:4, 4:15-22, etc.) And in the Christian tradition, King David was the "father" (several generations removed) of Jesus. (Matthew 1:5)

When our reading resumes in Deuteronomy 4:6, Moses is giving yet another reason for obeying these words of his. He says that these words represent "wisdom" (chokmah) and "discernment" (binah)--something that is sought by all nations, large and small. If the people of Israel will heed his words, they will become famous, and perhaps envied, throughout the world, especially among the foreign nations that surround them (like little Moab their neighbor, just mentioned, or the major players: Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria). Wisdom and understanding represent the educational "traditions" of the international community of Israel's day. It is no mistake, for example, that Solomon--maker of broad international alliances--is regarded as the founder of Israel's wisdom tradition. Solomon's name is associated with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet, another "preacher") as Israel's consummate teacher. But in our passage such wisdom is distilled in the words of Moses.

Deuteronomy 4:7 speaks of God's nearness to Israel. Given the emphasis of Deuteronomy on the "tradition" of God's word through Moses, perhaps we are to think here of the very proximate "give and take" of an intimate conversation. God is near enough to hear and answer when Israel calls. (But is Israel also near enough to hear and obey when God calls?) According to Deuteronomy 30:14, God's word is very near--lighting on our lips and penetrating to our hearts. (See Paul's quote of this verse in Romans 10:5-13; "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.") If we see these words of Moses as words of faith (which they must be, since Israel has not yet entered the Land of Promise), then we may think of ourselves as part of the very long line of this "faith tradition" of which Moses was already a "child" and recipient as well as a "parent" and promulgator: Hebrews 11:9, By faith he [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. (NRSV)

In Deuteronomy 4:8, Moses continues to make his case that Israel's role is to be an example to the nations, a point of comparison and contrast, especially in the area of "justice"--no nation has laws and statutes that are more righteous than Israel does. Finally, Moses says, guard yourself, guard your soul very closely, so that you do not forget what you have experienced or let the cherished memories fade with time as you grow older. Time has a way of erasing some of the sharp detail of what we have learned. Moses says that it takes a vigilance--a kind of constant study--not to lose these "words" that we have been given. In particular, it takes teaching them (making them known, yada`) to our children and grandchildren. Never is anything ever learned so well as by a teacher, who must master the subject in order to teach it well to someone else.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The Gospel reading opens with certain "pharisees" and "teachers of the law" (aka "scribes," grammateus), who have "come together" (synago) from Jerusalem to meet with Jesus. When they see Jesus' disciples eating bread (literally; or figuratively, any food) with "common," "unwashed" (ritually unclean) hands(koinos, aniptos), they ask Jesus why his disciples do not live according to the traditions (paradosis, "handing down") of the elders (presbyteros). By way of answer, Jesus quotes Isaiah, who says, "these people honor me with their lips (cheilos), but their hearts (kardia) are far from me." It would seem that Jesus is responding out of the notion of God's nearness, saying that the words (of the elders, or of Moses) have landed on the people's lips, but have not yet penetrated to the depths of their hearts. Moreover, in using the word "hypocrite" (hypokrites to describe the people to whom he is speaking, Jesus also emphasizes the difference between hearing and doing, knowing and obeying, between meaningless, empty words and active, useful, performative words. Mark 7:7 reiterates Jesus' point: "in vain (maten) they worship me, teaching human commandments as their teachings." Jesus then drives the point home: they lay aside (or let go of) God's words (the commandments), so that they may grab hold of (and hold on to) human traditions (Mark 7:8).

It seems that Jesus is making a strong distinction between God's commandments and human traditions. He is also making a sharp distinction between that which comes into contact with a person from the outside (unclean, or ritually common food) and that uncleanness which originates in a person's heart and makes its way out in human words and actions. (Mark 7:14-15) "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly." (Mark 7:21-22, NRSV) In other words, the contravention of God's words comes from a human heart that is far from God. Jesus does not directly contradict Moses here (in fact, he doesn't seem much to have Moses in view), he simply shifts the focus. Moses is insisting that the people Israel get the words of God onto human lips and into human hearts, so that they might live; Jesus is insisting that his disciples live the commandments as evidence that it is God's law in their hearts as well as on their lips. In both cases, it is what we do that counts in demonstrating our closeness to God and God's closeness to us.

In other parts of the New Testament, it is clear that this distinction between the "words of God" and "human traditions" is also operative. For example, Paul realizes that his words could have been categorized either way, rejected or accepted, but he gives thanks that when the Thessalonians "received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers" (1 Thessalonians 2:13, NRSV). In speaking of the Lord's Supper, Paul says "For I received (parelabon) from the Lord what I also handed on (paradidomi) to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,..." (1 Corinthians 11:23, NRSV). The same can be said of the gospel itself, which is "tradition-ed" (handed on and received) in the form of human communication. Whether it is received is often contingent on whether it is perceived as the "Word of God" or merely "human traditions." Take the following examples: "Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received (parelabon), in which also you stand,.... For I handed on (paradidomi) to you as of first importance what I in turn had received (parelabon): that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3, NRSV)

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