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Kettle Logic


Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 29:13-14

New Testament Reading: Romans 14:1-14

Text: Mark 7:1-13

I 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 eat. 

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 simple.

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 divorce?

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 practice altogether.

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 bronze. Imagine."

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 prescribed for.

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 original.

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 differently.

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 National League.

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 and barbarism.

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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