Wednesday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

John 7:1; Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23

It’s What God Says that Matters

I suppose we all have our own little customs or traditions, things we do with family or holidays and anniversaries we celebrate.  Or maybe you have your own routine, and you don’t like it when someone interrupts it.  Well, churches have traditions as well, some more important than others.  Indeed, the Church Year that these devotions are centered around is a tradition, a good one I feel as I write in the “Introduction” to the different seasons, but surely not necessary to being a Christian.  But I would argue that it is a much more important tradition than what side of the stage one places the piano in the sanctuary, or worship center as they are now often called.

But we must always be wary of thinking our traditions equal to the word of God, especially when the hypocrisy is so obvious.  The Pharisees had a tradition that one should wash one’s hands before eating, certainly a practice of which your mother would approve.  But it was not for hygiene but for a religious tradition that they observed it.  When they confronted Jesus with his disciples’ carelessness in this matter, Jesus cited their voiding the Fifth Commandment by allowing someone to vow that income, which he would have used to care for his aging parents, for “sacred” use instead.  The effect was that one relieved oneself of taking care of one’s father and mother in their old age – an obvious breach of the law.  One more matter, though the Pharisees could point to Numbers 30:1-2 as their proof text for this practice, Jesus would not allow the pitting of one biblical passage against another.  The Pharisees were obviously holding to the letter rather than the spirit of the law in Numbers; the Fifth Commandment stands firm.

Jesus refers to the Pharisees as people who “honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” who substitute their own teachings for God’s word (Isaiah 29:13).  And he ends the passage dismissing their tradition with the obvious truth that what defiles a man is what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it.  And so the question now turns to us: Are we honoring the Lord only with our lips, with our own understandings which are tainted with self-interest.  Honoring the Lord with our hearts requires becoming “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” which is our “spiritual worship.” It requires shunning worldly thinking that we may be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind,” so that we may rightly discern the will of God (Romans 12:1-2).  Sin places a cloud before my eyes so that I cannot see as I ought; living with a sanctified and transformed mind, as a living sacrifice to God, allows me to understand God’s will and act accordingly.

Wednesday in the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time (Continued)

I wish to take a moment to speak more about tradition, and this time I want to use a capital “T” when I do it, as in “Tradition.”  I want to make the argument, which some of my Reformed and Baptist brethren may find uncomfortable, that Tradition is a … well, fact of life in the history of the Church, as that concerns her theology.  Again, I am not talking about pianos or even the liturgical calendar, all of which may be dismissed; I am instead talking about what has been handed-down to us by our forefathers and foremothers for almost two-thousand years now.

Let me give an example.  Of course I believe that the New Testament, and even the Old when read in the light of the New, which it now must be with the coming of Christ and descent of the Holy Spirit, teaches the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.  However, as someone who knows Church history, I am also aware that these doctrines were fought over and hammered out in the first four “Ecumenical Councils” in the first five hundred years of that history.  I am aware that we use even today the language and theology of Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine to speak of these doctrines, the vast majority of the Church down through the ages totally unaware of this.  I do not place these councils or theologians above Scripture, but I am aware that they have a subordinate authority that we dismiss at our peril.

I do not say that nothing new can ever be said (Matthew 13:52), but I do say that whatever “discovery” one makes from the Bible must be consistent with what Scripture says and how Scripture has been understood down through the ages – what might be called the “catholic” (universal, general, orthodox) teaching of the Church.  You see, having been in the academy for many years, I know (boy, do I know) that people will interpret Scripture in any number of ways – and university/college/seminary professors are the worst with esoteric and subtle arguments that fool the simpleminded.  (I do not say that all of such are this way; I had many good and sincere professors in my years.)  So how does one resolve the matter?  It can’t just be “my word against yours,” nor does an appeal to reason work as people reason in different ways.  And you can’t just say, “Well, the Bible says x,” when they’re just going to reply, “No, it says y.”  It is precisely here that I believe that Tradition (with a capital “T”) has a very important contribution to make.  I knew thirty years ago that the same hermeneutical acrobatics made to justify the ordination of women to pastor could later be used to justify homosexual behavior – and so it has happened.  Of course they misinterpret the Scripture, but I believe the argument, “The general consensus of the Church down through the ages on this matter is x,” is legitimate and even definitive.  But such a position requires humility before previous generations – who were just as holy and wise as we think we are.

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