Testament Reading: Isaiah 29:13-14
Testament Reading: Romans 14:1-14
am afraid that after last week's sermon more than a few of you may have
been left asking Rey Redington's favorite theological question: "So what?"
That is, I argued that we can discern in the Apocalypse of John the
lineaments of a polemic against writing on behalf of speech. This is not
the agenda one would expect to find in a biblical book, which one might
think instead to be taken up with more spiritual matters, issues closer to
the axis of morality and religion, perhaps to religious authority. And
what has the debate between writing and speech to do with that?
Much in every way, as
Paul might say. In this morning's sermon I want to illustrate the crucial
moral and spiritual relevance of the attempt to privilege speech over
writing. And this time the object of my scrutiny will be Mark chapter
seven, which represents the other side of the debate.
As Bob Jackson used to
say about the wonderful films he screened here, this text moves on many
levels. The surface level is one on which we see Jesus debating the
scribes. They cannot understand why he throws to the winds the traditional
practices of the Pharisee sect, in this case washing your hands before you
Jesus is shown acting
according to the maxim, "The best defense is a good offense," for he does
not address their question for a single second. Instead he charges
them with a more serious offense than flouting tradition. He says
that they are such zealots for tradition that they prefer it to the Word
of God. How so? While the commandment of the Torah bids us care for our
parents, tradition declares one exempt from this duty if one's money be
used instead for a religious donation. And, Jesus says, such evasions are
all too typical of the scribes, who are hypocritical phonies pure and
Yet is it unreasonable
that a law might have its exceptions on this or that point? The Gospels do
not generally seem to think so. After all, Jesus himself is shown
pointedly telling people to abandon their parents even on their deathbed
and to preach the kingdom of God instead! If this isn't the pot calling
the kettle black, I don't know what is!
For that matter, how can
Jesus rebuke the scribes for inflexibility when it comes to healing on the
sabbath and yet be so absolutistic as the gospels make him on the issue of
It seems to me that the
gospel writers are not interested in opposing the principle of fidelity to
the biblical text to that of scribal interpretation, an opposition I am
going to return to on my own terms in a moment.
No, the opposition they
set up is simply between the voice of the scribes on the one hand and the
voice of Jesus on the other hand. It matters not whether Jesus is
consistent in his pronouncements. As they portray him, clearly he is not.
It matters only that he said it.
The authority here is not
that of an authoritative text. No, the text is batted back and forth like
a volleyball between two would-be authoritative voices. Are you
going to listen to Jesus or to those scribes?
But now let's go one
level deeper. When we do, we see that the scene does not after all
represent a confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish scribes of the
first century AD. Several anachronisms make this plain.
First, it seems unlikely
that the scribes would be so indignant at Jesus not practicing uniquely
Pharisaic customs. These scribes were members of a pietistic sect. They
knew quite well that the practices of other Jews did not coincide with
theirs, nor did they expect them to. They would only chide Jesus had he
been a Pharisee and neglected the practices, but then the whole point is
rather that he doesn't even mean to follow them. He teaches another
And, as Bultmann says,
the note that it is the practice of the disciples, not Jesus
himself, that comes in for criticism, implies that the story arose in the
early church. It is the practice of the Christian community, not that of
Jesus, that is under discussion. Jesus is simply being invoked after the
fact, as a fictitious precedent. As if he had had the foresight to solve
the problem before it arose--in which case it would presumably never have
arisen in the first place!
The debate is really one
among two Christian parties, much as we see in Romans 14, where
ritualistic Christians perhaps with a Pharisaic background, are pressuring
their "stronger brethren" to adopt strict ritual practices. Mark's story
is the propaganda of Gentile Christians, Paul's parishioners, who had no
intention of submitting to the alien yoke of Torah observance. Note how
Mark describes the scribal rules as the quaint customs of an exotic
people, the standard view Gentiles had of Jews: "they do plenty of other
things of the same kind, ritually washing cups and kettles and vessels of
And it is a dead giveaway
that the story has Jesus quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek
translation of the Old Testament: "teaching as doctrines the precepts of
men." The Hebrew, which is certainly what Jesus would have quoted to
Jewish scribes (!), has "their fear of me is a commandment of men learned
by rote," a rather different matter, I'd say. And the Hebrew wouldn't have
made the point needed by the writer: man-made doctrines.
A Gentile polemicist
quotes his Bible, the Greek Bible, to settle the question,
attributing his exegesis anachronistically to Aramaic-speaking Rabbi
Jesus. Jesus' holy name is a reinforcement in case the biblical argument
should not be enough. Never mind the fact that the two warrants cancel
each other out: if you've got the pronouncement of Jesus, it would hardly
seem to matter much what the Bible says.
But it is not Jesus who
speaks, and that is theologically important. It is a reader of the Bible,
appealing to the written text and denying that the overbearing voice of
tradition is the final authority. Writing here defends itself as a
religious authority over against the imperious claims of speech.
Let me pause to tell you
a bit more about the oral tradition that is the villain in this passage.
Here is a crucial passage from the Mishnah tractate Aboth, or the Sayings
of the Fathers: "Moses received the Law from Sinai and committed it to
Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets; and the
Prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue. They said three
things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a
fence around the Law" (1:1).
This was the warrant for
the scribes of Jesus' day and for a couple of centuries afterward to
compile a huge corpus of orally transmitted commentary and legal opinion
on the fine points of the Law. Even with 613 commandments in the written
Torah, many things were left unsaid. New situations arose and had to be
General principles set
forth in the text had to be applied creatively to specific cases. For
example, if a scorpion happened to scamper across the floor on the sabbath,
could you grab a kettle that lay ready to hand and trap it? No, because
that would constitute hunting, a category of "work" which you
couldn't do on the sabbath! So said the scribes, in the name of Moses.
Their fiction of
authority was that they were simply passing on the rest of what
Moses had learned on Sinai but had not written down. Supposedly it was all
said there on the mountain top. They were just repeating it. Or at least
unpacking it. And their interpretations had the same binding force as the
Not all Jews accepted
this claim. The Sadducees, for example, rejected the whole body of scribal
tradition and insisted on remaining silent where the text was silent.
See how the two sides are
drawn up, and over what issue: is a written text the authority, so that we
ourselves might read it and come to our own conclusions? Or must we bow to
the judgments of a class of experts who alone know what the text means?
A commanding voice seeks
to control you, but a text will not speak to you at all until you give
it voice by interpreting it to mean this or that. And precisely what it
means is up to your judgment. When you read a text, you are the
authority and must take responsibility, whereas when you yield to the
commands of a speaking voice, to some guru or expert, you abdicate
responsibility, you let someone else be in authority over you.
The same clash occurs in
our Markan text. The writer is rejecting the supposedly authoritative
voice of traditional interpretation, which had survived into Jewish
Christianity, in favor of a written text, that of the Prophet Isaiah in
this case. His own reading of it supercedes whatever the voice of the
scribes may say.
Let's move forward some
centuries to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Let's compare the
theories of religious authority held by Catholics and Protestants.
Both believed in an
inspired, infallible, and authoritative book. Roman Catholics realized,
however, that an infallible book didn't mean a thing as long as that book
was ambiguous. The infallible truth may be in there somewhere, but it's
hard to find, so if you want infallible guidance from it, what are you
going to need? An infallible interpreter, of course! Thus the role of the
Pope and the Teaching Magisterium.
How were Protestants to
evade this logic? Their whole reason for rejecting Papal authority was the
manifest fallibility of the Pope and his cohorts. How were Protestants to
preserve the Bible as an infallible authority and, more importantly, as
adequate by itself? Their answer was the doctrine of the perspicuity of
scripture. In other words, the scriptures are not ambiguous, at least
where it counts. Any sane and reasonably intelligent reader ought to be
able to see what it means and does not mean.
But this claim was and
remains a hollow one. It was immediately refuted by the amazing
proliferation of Protestant sects who of course all read the same text
differently. And they lost no love for one another. Calvin had Unitarian
Michael Servetus burnt at the stake.
And here is something
dangerous about the doctrine of the supposed clarity or perspicuity of
scripture. If you believe in it then you cannot afford to believe that
there is genuine room to differ. You cannot afford to admit there are grey
areas. So how must you regard those who differ with you? They must be
heretics, schismatics, willfully blinded by Satan, or acting from
self-serving motives, or even insane. Those who are so sure the truth is
clear have little patience or tolerance for those who see the truth
So what happened? The
Reformers took their stand squarely for the written text as opposed to the
voice of whoever happens to be sitting on the chair of Peter at the
moment. But they could not live with the implications. They formed their
own magisterium, wrote their own creeds. And those who dared believe that
the text meant something different than Pope Martin said? You know.
Their problem was that
they wanted a univocal and infallible teaching, a law to proceed from
between the covers of the Bible as it once did from Sinai. A law governing
belief and practice. Something we could all agree on and could be censured
for dissenting from. And that a written text simply cannot give.
Why not? It is because of
the essentially ambiguous nature of the written sign. This is what I said
last week. Meaning in texts is always deferred, re-routed, detoured; never
easily discernible, never unmistakable. Most definitely not something we
can all easily agree on. Attend any Bible study and you'll see my point.
Look at the history of
Bible interpretation, and you will see two things clearly: first, the
Bible is a bottomless well of truth and transformation. When the
inquisitive reader seeks encounter with it he or she is not disappointed.
Deep speaketh unto deep. Second, there is little to no agreement on what
the text means in any given case.
I know it seems that at
least the members of a single denomination have reached agreement. This is
why denominations have always debated so fiercely: each is sure that it is
plain that scripture means what they take it to mean. But how do
you suppose they reached the blissful state of unanimity that enabled them
thus to close ranks against those differently convinced?
Of course, what happened
was just that all the members of each denomination read the text, when
they read it at all, through the interpretation of their pastors and
official teachers. It was the spoken voice, not the written text, that
guided them. In the last analysis, all the Protestants had done was to
play the Catholic game. They hadn't invented a new sport as they thought
they had done. They had merely set up the American League alongside the
I am maintaining this
morning that we must invent a new game. One where one no longer wins by
getting agreement. One no longer scores points by producing supposedly
infallible and irresistible truth or commands from the Bible.
The Bible can be only the
peculiar sort of authority a written text can be: one that raises
questions, one that brings truth out of the being of the one who reads it,
and the truth may not be the same for any two readers.
The authority of the text
will be to catch us up short with questions, options, perspectives we had
not thought of. It will challenge us, make a bid for our agreement, but
not simply reduce the mind or the will to dumb acquiescence.
We will find ourselves
sent out by the risen Christ, not with a party line to which we must
convert the nations, but rather like searchers in a scavenger hunt,
chasers after meaning in the winding lanes of the world that is the Bible.
It is a great huge world of many ideas and obstacles, not so different
from the world outside the Bible.
You and I are fellow
travelers in that maze. It will do us no good to complain that it is not a
straight and direct highway with a clearly marked destination. Is that
what you want? Would that be better? Would it be better if there were no
mystery to life? If there were nothing left undiscovered?
The other week I had a
long conversation with a young man fiercely committed to the notion of the
Bible as an infallible guide book. I argued that God has granted us no
such book, for all that we might wish that he had. He asked me why God
would not have done so. My answer was to quote Lessing. He said that if
God himself confronted him, offering truth in the one hand and the search
for truth in the other, Lessing would unhesitatingly choose the search.
Why? Because only the search for truth is suited to mortals. The
possession of the truth is only for God. Only he could survive the
Promethean consequences of having it.
And if you doubt that,
look again at the deeds of those who are sure they possess the truth and
that others who lack it must be evil and benighted. You will see a long
and sorry epic of Inquisitions, pogroms, forced baptisms, Crusades,
Jihads, heresy trials, jailings, beatings, burnings. A history of bigotry
The search for truth
exercises and trains the human spirit; the delusive conviction that one
possesses the truth stunts that growth since it seems to render it
superfluous. The possession of truth then becomes what the legend of
Faust insightfully made it: a bargain not with God but with the devil.
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