Homily: Jesus and Tradition

Catholic Tradition

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Gustav Mahler

Tradition is essential for any family, community, or society to survive. Tradition literally means, “to hand on,” to hand on to the next generation the wisdom, culture, resources, and knowledge from the previous generation. This is of course extremely important for the survival of the group and its members: you have to know where to find food, where the dangers are, what works and what doesn’t, and then, what’s good, true, and beautiful that makes life meaningful and more enjoyable. It also means handing on traditions of great inspiring figures of the past, the stories that bind us together: of where we come from, and why we’re here, who we are, why things are the way they are, and where we believe we’re going. Tradition helps us to understand our role in the great drama of the story of the world, and what might be beyond it.

But each generation also has the task of discerning the value of particular traditions, if something should be added, changed or dropped. Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist, and author of Twelve Rules for Life, has a 15-part lecture series on the psychological wisdom of the stories in the Book of Genesis. Such things as man’s courageous venturing from the known to the unknown, living by the rules of the world, the importance of sacrifice, being prepared for the looming potential disaster, why the great enemy in tradition is a dangerous serpent, and the practical effects of the Fall from Eden. Peterson, who doesn’t publicly identify himself as a Christian (although he says he was brought up as one), strongly warns against dismissing the biblical stories as  simplistic superstition, but rather (whatever else they might also be) they are fundamental wisdom handed on through highly developed stories, which have the power to teach the most important truths of humanity.

So tradition is important, but not the most important thing. Tradition is a means to an end, and the most important thing, the end, is the overall success of human flourishing, individually and communally. Not just the biblical stories of Genesis, but also the biblical law in the other early books, were understood as the instruction book for human life, given by the author of life. Moses says to the people in our first reading, “Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live… In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’”

Tradition is important, but not the most important thing. Tradition is a means to an end, and the most important thing, the end, is the overall success of human flourishing, individually and communally.

And so that sets the stage for our theme today: the role of Tradition in relation to the Law. As a little background to the Gospel Reading, the Pharisees were a popular subset (a sect) within Judaism whose intent was to promote the holiness of the people of Israel. They took the ritual holiness codes in the Law that applied to priests preparing to enter the Temple to offer worship, and then they applied those codes to everyone in everyday life. You can see the good in that—because you can see the hypocrisy of living one way on the Sabbath and then a life inconsistent with that the rest of the week, or the hypocrisy of those who appeared to be good holy men on the outside, but their interior life was disordered, abusive, and selfish. The intent of the Pharisees was to set up a protective barrier around the Law, so that even if you sinned against the traditions of the elders (the Pharisees), you won’t necessarily have broken the Law of God. The problem was that eventually the traditions of the elders became detached from (and more important than) the Law of God, and traditions developed which even contradicted the requirements of the Law, because the spiritual heart of the traditions of the elders was not the same as the spiritual heart of the Law of God. The result was the very pharisaic hypocrisy the traditions were supposed to prevent.

One difference between these two sets of laws concerned ritual washing of hands. The law only required ritual hand washing of the priests going into the temple. But the tradition of the elders required ritual hand washing of everyone in all sorts of circumstances. The Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat with unclean hands?’ Jesus responded, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.’”

Now, the lectionary skips a section here. Jesus gives an example of what he’s talking about, and he refers to the tradition of “quorban.” Quorban meant a thing that was dedicated to God. The Pharisees were using this tradition to claim their possessions and property were reserved for God, and therefore could not be used as resources to support and take care of their mother and father in their old age. So the Pharisees had added this human law, quorban, to subtract from the law of God, the fourth commandment to honor father and mother.

Jesus ends that section by saying, “You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.” And then our gospel reading picks up with the next verse, “He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” And then in the end of the reading, Jesus gives a rather impressive list of the things that defile.

[Not part of the Sunday Homily: Our English translation renders these:  evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. Courtesy of Dr. Brant Pitre (on whose reflection much of this homily is based) and Dr. John Bergsma, I would like to give a brief unpacking of these things that defile the heart, based on the Greek words as given in the Scriptures:

  • hoi dialogismoi hoi kakoi  “evil thoughts” or “evil deliberations.” It doesn’t mean an involuntary thought. It means evil plans or evil designs. This is something that is voluntary; hatching an evil plan.
  • porneiai, “sexual immoralities,” any intentional use of one’s sexual nature (in thought, word, or deed) apart from the nuptial act in the context of the nuptial, matrimonial covenant. Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said here, perhaps we’ll talk about that later.
  • klopai, “thefts,” from the same root from which we derive “kleptomaniac.” 
  • phonoi, “murders,” intentional killing of an innocent person. 
  • moicheiai, “adulteries,” specifically sex (or more generally, a tempting relationship) between two people not married to each other, when one or both of them is married to someone else. This is more grave than fornication, because it is fornication that also sins against the promise of faithfulness in the marriage promises.
  • pleonexiai, “greeds, avarices,” ‘a strong desire to acquire more and more material possessions or to possess more things than other people have, all irrespective of need’ This is not a condemnation of wealth, but the disordered lust for wealth that leads one into other sins
  • poneriai, “evils,” a general term, related to the term for the Devil, ‘o poneros, the “Evil One.”
  • dolos, “lying, deception, trickery, falsehood.”
  • aselgeia, “perversion, godlessness,” living without any prayer, worship, or thought of God, living in a (depraved) manner oblivious or rebellious to God’s goodness
  • ophthalmos poneros, “evil eye,” in this context, looking upon the goods (personal qualities or possessions) of another with evil intent (related to greed, also related to uncharitable thoughts toward those who have what one is envious of)
  • blasphemia, “blasphemy,” a verbal attack on a person’s reputation, name, or dignity, whether a human or divine person. (rash judgment, detraction, calumny, slander)
  • huperephania, “pride, arrogance, haughtiness,” self-aggrandizement, self-centeredness, narcissism
  • aphrosune, “foolishness,” thoughtlessness, imprudence, rashness, recklessness]

What makes a person clean and righteous is not a matter of exterior washing of hands, but a matter of interior cleansing of the heart.

We sometimes fall into the popular error that Jesus came and abolished all those impossible-to-keep requirements of righteousness, and streamlined it all into the simple, Love God and Love One Another, and it’s so much easier now. But over and over we see that Jesus didn’t make it easier—he gives us the difficult, narrow way. It’s a lot easier to wash your hands than to cleanse your heart. It’s a lot easier to show justice to your neighbor than love for your enemy. It’s a lot easier to shout for the crucifixion of others than to deny yourself and embrace your own cross.

Ok, so last thing. Sacred Tradition. This is often a sticking point between Protestants vs. Catholics, between “sola scriptura” vs. “Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.” Clearly Jesus does not condemn human tradition per se, or even Jewish tradition. More than once Christians are exhorted to follow oral tradition, and to obey those who teach from the Chair of Moses. Jesus condemns human tradition that gets in the way of following the law of God. Catholic Tradition doesn’t presume to create an additional protective boundary around the law of God, the way that the tradition of the Pharisees did, more demanding than the law itself. Catholic Tradition is the practical living out of the New Covenant Law of God, which includes the Sacred Scriptures. The Tradition develops as the Church encounters new questions and challenges to faithfully living the Christian life, both as the communion of the Body of Christ, and as individual members of it. The Discipline of the Sacraments, the difficult moral questions, the rubrics of liturgy and worship, the spiritual writings of the saints, the dialogue with new cultures and ideas, and the development of philosophy, science, and technology.

Sacred Tradition is the culture that feeds the Catholic imagination, inspires thousands of years of art, music, sculpture, architecture, schools, hospitals, and saints; Catholic tradition and culture allows us to stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants, that our lives might be filled with the faith, hope, and love for what awaits those who love God and walk in his ways.

[Not part of the Sunday Homily: A particularly difficult question someone might be wrestling with is, if Sacred Tradition is administered by the clergy, and right now I’m having a hard time trusting the clergy, how do I trust Sacred Tradition?

A reasonable question. Sacred Tradition is not primarily the work of the clergy, it is also the work of the Church, the saints, the mystics, and the sense of the faithful. But it is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gave us the Advocate, and the promise that the Church would withstand even the gates of hell, until the end of the world. The clergy have always been sinful, even Peter, Judas, Andrew, John, and the rest of the Twelve, and every ordained man ever since. It was Peter who ruled that gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and that the prohibition on unclean foods was no longer applicable. Based on what? Based on the grace of his episcopal office, the grace of the Holy Spirit, working through sinful men. “‘Twas always thus, and always thus t’will be.” Even the most egregiously corrupt popes did not change Church teaching to accommodate their sinfulness. One (I forget who) is noted for saying, “I know the good I should do, I just can’t do it.”

While sinful clergy might be able to enact unworthy legislation in the fiefdom of their own jurisdiction, there’s a huge difference between that and the deposit of faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It’s not that we hold church documents (encyclicals and such) to be divinely inspired. But we hold that whatever Christ meant when he gave us His promise of divine protection and guidance for His Church, it means that we can have confidence and faith in the Church because we have confidence and faith her Lord and Protector. We might struggle with aspects of the teaching of the Church, but that’s different than popes and bishops putting forward their own sinfulness as the basis for changes in Church teaching. The teaching of the Church is trustworthy not because we trust in the clergy, but because we trust in Jesus Christ.

The Sacraments convey grace, no matter how sinful the minister, because Christ is the primary agent of grace in all the celebrations of the Church’s sacraments. As St. Augustine said in his commentary on the Gospel of John: “When Peter baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes… When Judas baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.” The Church could hardly have survived if it depended on sinless members, or sinless clergy. The perennial challenge of the sinfulness of the clergy is in a way a testament to the life of the Church not relying on its clergy for its life. It gets its life from Christ, the true head and fount of the Church.

Lastly, as an aside. The Catholic Church differentiates between Sacred Tradition, and human traditions. That the clergy is male is repeatedly affirmed as part of Sacred Tradition. That the clergy is celibate is a tradition–it is not part of divine revelation. That Christ was born of the perpetually-virgin Mary, who was immaculately conceived, and at the end of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into heaven, is part of Sacred Tradition. That Jesus was born December 25 is a tradition. Not everything that Catholics do is Sacred Tradition: fish on fridays, Mardi Gras, house blessings, Catholic schools, and bingo, these are wonderful Catholic traditions, but they are ancillary, not essential. They do not belong to Sacred Tradition (well, bingo, maybe…). The “development of doctrine,” is the application of the principles found in Sacred Scripture, informed by the wisdom of Sacred Tradition, which has accompanied the Sacred Scriptures from the beginning. There is a harmony among the writings of the Early Christian Church that does not rely on the Scriptures, but rather on the common Christian culture (spanning many human cultures) handed down along with the Scriptures. This Tradition was, and continues to be, essential for the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, in what is authentically Christian. It is, in a sense, the Spirit of the Church. And since the Church is the Body of Christ, and His Spirit is the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit. our trust in the Church is our trust in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.]

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