The Traditions of Men

November 16, 2007

I am preparing to teach Mark 7:1-23. Jesus criticises the Pharisees who are ‘setting aside’ (athetein, better, ‘rejecting’, v.9) the law of God to observe their own traditions. This, in essence, is idolatry – setting aside the divine to make way for the creaturely. It is also hypocrisy in view of their profession that they honour God (vv.6-7).

The rabbinic oral tradition was eventually written down as the Mishnah. But where did these traditions come from? James R. Edwards writes: ‘Although the claim cannot be sustained from the OT itself, rabbis promoted the idea that Moses had received two laws on Mt. Sinai, the written Torah and the oral Mishnah. The Mishnah was believed to preserve an unbroken chain of authorized tradition extending from Moses to the “Great Synagogue” of Jesus’ day’, (The Gospel According to Mark, 208).

Does this idea sound familiar?

In keeping with the Lord’s command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: – orally “by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received – whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit”; – in writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing”.

As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras 76, 82)

Spooky, isn’t it!

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The Sower

October 18, 2007

I’m teaching the Gospel of Mark this term and have arrived at chapter 4 and a familiar passage. The ‘Parable of the Sower’ is often preached as the ‘Parable of the Soils’ nowadays, a disturbing psychologising tendency reflecting the anthropocentric nature of much modern preaching. A Christ-centred reading sensitive to the context in Mark’s narrative flow is required and I have not found better than that given in James R. Edwards’ commentary in the Pillar series, which is a joy to read. Edwards writes:

The parable represents the historical inbreaking of God’s kingdom in Jesus, the sower of the gospel. The astounding harvest in v. 8 is an important clue that the growth is not owing to human activity but to God’s providential power. God is at work – hidden and unobserved – in Jesus and the gospel to produce a yield wholly disproportionate to human prospects and merit. The sower’s earnest and profligate sowing, which at first looked mistaken and futile, is vindicated by a bumper crop… Despite resistance and rejection, there is an irrepressible empowerment behind the work of Jesus, as momentous as the generative agency of the seed… Let not hearers suppose the opposition of scribes, Pharisees, crowds and even his own associates, as adversarial as the hardpan, rocks, and thorns of Galilee, will be the last word. Despite discouraging odds, the harvest in Jesus’ ministry will be beyond compare.

Only when this message about Jesus is understood, can we consider the issue of discipleship, the other core theme of Mark’s Gospel. The responsive hearers of v.20 are distinguished from the others by the present tense rather than the aorist. They hear, and go on hearing, and do the will of God as they produce a crop. To them is given the secret of the kingdom – the knowledge that God is being revealed in Jesus. 

I suppose I should add a bit of Puritan colour. I like Matthew Henry’s observations on those who are ever hearing and never understanding:

That of the many that hear the word of the gospel, and read it, and are conversant with it, there are, comparatively, but few that receive it, so as to bring forth the fruits of it… It is sad to think, how much of the precious seed of the word of God is lost, and sown in vain; but there is a day coming when lost sermons must be accounted for. Many that have heard Christ himself preach in their streets, will hereafter be bidden to depart from him; those therefore who place all their religion in hearing, as if that alone would save them, do but deceive themselves, and build their hope upon the sand.