Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Year B 2015
In the name of the X Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The word tradition has a complicated past. Originally the word meant surrender or betrayal. When used as a legal term the word tradition has to do with the act of delivering something into the hands of another person. For Jews tradition usually refers to the laws and teachings (the Torah) that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai and handed down to the people of Israel.
The Jews were also given a series of precepts to rule their moral and social lives. This included what has come to be called the Holiness Code. The Holiness Code is a term used by Biblical scholars to refer to chapters 17-26 of the book of Leviticus. The name comes from the repeated use of the word ‘Holy’ throughout the text. For scholars who follow the documentary hypothesis, the Holiness Code represents an earlier text that was edited and inserted by the priests who served the Temple in Jerusalem. It is thought that the priests included these regulations because they wanted to extend the practice of holiness to the laity.
Perhaps a better name for this section is ‘The Holiness Collection’. This is because the collection is not really a coherent code, but includes numerous repetitions and a few contradictions. It contains rules for slaughtering animals. It forbids breeding two different animals, wearing clothes woven from two different fabrics, eating shellfish, and warns against sexual immorality. It also gives rules for the washing of hands and for bathing the body.
Nonetheless, Christians have a complex relationship with Old Testament traditions. By the time of Jesus, the great moral principles God had given to Moses in the Ten Commandments had been turned into hundreds of ceremonial rules. People who obeyed the rules thought they were living holy lives. Jesus told his disciples that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5:17–18)
Christians have struggled to understand exactly what Jesus meant. At first reading, this seems to say that all the Old Testament rules and rituals must still be observed. But Jesus and His disciples did not observe many of those rules and rituals, so it could not mean that. There are some who believe we must follow the entire Purity Code. There are others who appear to pick and choose from the list what suits their prejudice. They appear fixated on sexual immorality and pointing out other people’s sins.
Our church celebrates many beautiful rituals and traditions. They can enhance our worship and enrich our lives. Others have been dropped from our liturgies because they reflect the prejudice of another time. For example, our Holy Week and Easter liturgies no longer refer to ‘those perfidious Jews’ because the language was anti-Semitic and had been used to condone violence. Rituals and traditions are passed along to us, not always with clear understanding of their meanings and context.
I remember the story of how one church would always begin their procession into the church by turning to the right and bowing towards the empty wall. The new priest could not figure out why this was done. Finally an old parishioner told him that there used to be an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the wall. It had been taken down years ago, but the people still observed the tradition.
Sometimes it is necessary to question what we do in God’s name. Sometimes it is important to review our patterns of worship and rituals to see how well they serve us now, what their meaning is for us now. Sometimes it is enough to ask the questions. Sometimes we need to temporarily set something aside or leave it all together.
In Saint Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches us that both old and new traditions are important. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:51-52) Whenever our traditions alienate and demean another’s humanity we are betrayed by them.
The measuring stick for all of our traditions is the law of love. The overriding message of Jesus was love. Jesus modeled love, Jesus preached love, and Jesus was love. As Christians who desire to do and live the will of Jesus we are morally obligated to always err on the side of love. This should lead us as to the most obvious, and most important of all Christian traditions, captured so beautifully by the words of Saint Paul:Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1Corinthians 13:8-13) Amen.