Traditions of the elders

Deuteronomy 4:1-9

Psalm 15

Ephesians 6:10-20

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Whenever the lectionary skips verses in a reading, my first question is, “What are we leaving out?” In this instance, we are omitting the reference to declaring whatever one would have gained from parents as dedicated to God and thereby getting oneself off the hook of caring for them (vv. 9-13), and Jesus’ scatological joke about what emerges making one unclean (we all use the latrine, therefore all are unclean).

According to Mack (Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence), chapter 7:1-23Â is one of two carefully constructed rhetorical arguments in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 4, being the other). What makes Mark so frustrating is that the arguments are not designed to persuade, but rather to draw lines. “Well did Isaiah prophecy concerning this generation” is not likely to win any of “this generation” to Mark’s cause. It is instead constructed to show those inside just how right they are, and just how wrong are those on the outside. Do we need any more religion like that?

It is interesting to me that Mark has to define his community over against “the Pharisees, and the Scribes”, in a word, “the Jews.” Mark’s community of christians couldn’t have existed and come to definition without “the Jews.” In fact, Daniel Boyarin (Border Lines) shows that this kind of line drawing defined “the Jews,” and line drawing by “the Jews” defined “the christians.” Each needed the heretic other to achieve a sense of identity.

I wonder if we haven’t created “Islamic fundamentalists” in order to define ourselves as the truly righteous. “They” couldn’t exist without “us:” “we” couldn’t exist without “them.” What if we rejected Mark’s ploy of hardening the lines, of constructing arguments only designed to make those inside feel better about themselves, and engaged in dialog with “the other.”

Sandy Tolan’s book, The Lemon Tree shows what happens when a Jew and a Palestinian confront one another across the threshold of the house they both have shared. He gives us great insight into the perspective of each, and truly, neither could exist without the other. What if we recognized that? Paul works a lot harder than Mark does at trying to imagine what a new humanity might look like that made room for both Jew and Greek. No wonder Paul was so nuts: it’s hard work, and nobody wants you doing it.

3 thoughts on “Traditions of the elders”

  1. I read your rhetorical question of “I wonder if we haven’t created ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ in order to define ourselves as the truly righteous”. I wonder, did we create them? I wonder how they would feel about the fact that we created them? I wonder if that in itself isn’t a statement that defines us as superior? From what I can see, they seem to feel that they are following the words of their spiritual founding father, just as we read from Luke or John and endeavor to follow those teachings.

  2. Vic,

    I take your point that saying we created Islamic fundamentalists puts us in a superior position. But I’m wondering if they haven’t had an equal effect in defining us. Our fear and disdain of Arabs over the last hundred years has led both Britain and America (not to mention other European countries) into some pretty foolish foreign policies. It’s a little like Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby. We each need the other for a sense of identity. What would happen if one party just stopped dancing, or changed the step? The creation of Israel by the United Nations (which was possible only because we thought the Palestinian Arabs weren’t really a nation) continues to have horrible effects 50 years later.

    We need Islamic fundamentalists to be the bad guys in order that we can be the truly righteous just as badly as they need America to be the Great Satan.

  3. Great blog … Part of my “new year’s” discipline this September will be to try to get to St. Mark’s on Tuesday afternoon whenever I’m in town … but when I can’t, it’s good to be able to read your lectionary thoughts.

    Of course we didn’t “create” Islamic fundamentalists – but we have created a two-dimensional image of them that is very easy to compare ourselves with and have us come out absolutely righteous and them absolutely evil. It’s human nature. Kids do it on the playground. Families do it with the “identified patient” in their system. And people all over the world do it with the U.S. There was legitimate anger over past U.S. policy that led the Iranian students to storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran and take Americans hostagein 1979 (not that I agree with the action, but they did have grievances) … but it was also very helpful to set themselves up as righteous against The Great Satan/United States because it kept the people out in the streets chanting “marg bar Amrika” instead of recognizing that their economy is falling apart. You could argue the same kind of political misdirection is happening in our country today.

    The key to all these images is that they are just two dimensional. And that’s where Jesus comes in. Mark’s line-drawing aside, Jesus calls us to see the fullness of our own and each other’s humanity … and shows us the height and depth of what that humanity can be. Maybe you’re right about Paul. Maybe one of the reasons he comes off so wiggy is that he’s of the first generation to really get his hands dirty playing with this stuff — and as a zealot convert to boot!

    It’s all very hard work. Perhaps the hardest part is convincing people (and ourselves) that there are more than two dimensions out there … and that the work is worth doing.

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