2 Sep 2012
“‘You disregard God’s commandment, but cling to human tradition.’” (Mark 7:8) (+)
This summer I went over to our Tilton Library for their annual book sale and I picked-up a copy of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I brought this book with me last week up to our Youth Retreat for my afternoon, free-time reading. I didn’t get too far into the book at camp, however, because more often than not I ended up using my afternoon free time to take a nap. I still haven’t finished the book, but I am enjoying what I have read so far. A. J. Jacobs began writing this book as a secular Jewish man, which means that he didn’t practice his faith, but as the title indicates, he would experiment for a year with living-out all of the biblical laws as best he could without picking and choosing. By his own count, he found in the Bible more than 700 rules by which to live, which he typed out on 72 pages of paper.
Before you read one word of the book, there is a collage of pictures showing him on day one as this clean-shaven guy in a tee-shirt. Then the pictures show him as his hair and beard grow more and more unruly. In the last picture he looks like a mountain man or a member of the Taliban because the Bible orders men not to trim their heads or beards. This introductory picture-plate gives an immediate indication of how dramatically things can change when a person decides to follow the Bible literally.
It also changes the lives of those around you. I really enjoyed his segment on dealing with women during their menstrual cycle. They and anything they touch are considered unclean once a month. A. J. Jacobs is a married man. His wife was none too keen on being treated as morally unclean once a month. So one day when he came home from work as an editor at Esquire Magazine, he went to sit down in his favourite chair. Just before he did and without looking up from her television program, she told him that she had sat in that chair. It was now unclean. He moved to another, and again without looking up, she told him she had sat there too. She had sat on every chair in the house so that he finally ended up squatting on his toddler son’s stool.
I think this and other examples from the book show us how far we are from being biblical literalists, even the ones who claim that they are, are not real literalists. His attempt to live a biblically explicit life for one year points out that we all pick and choose what commandments we will follow, which commandments we give credence to in our lives as still meaningful. Faith is always evolving, in other words. But A. J. Jacobs points out that the strange commandments are not separated from the morally powerful ones that we still adhere to. This is the bane of fundamentalists. Underneath my vestments, for example, I’m wearing a clerical shirt that is a polyester/cotton blend. Mixing fabrics is forbidden by the Bible (Lev. 19:19). I’m up here standing at God’s altar knowingly and flagrantly breaking one of the biblical commands. I have chosen to disregard it, to interpret it as historically nuanced. I respect it as part of a message about keeping order in God’s creation. I understand and appreciate the intent, but I no longer accept the literal commandment. But next Sunday on the Feast of Brotherly Love we will talk about the commandment to love our neighbour from the previous biblical verse to this one, and I’ll still have on a mixed fabric shirt. The literal contradiction is real, but it is not religiously significant any longer. Again, religion is constantly evolving.
But the reason I share this quite interesting and amusing book with you this morning is because of Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “‘You disregard God’s commandment, but cling to human tradition.’” This is not a plea from Jesus for all of us to try a year of living biblically. I think A. J. Jacobs makes the point that none of us are true fundamentalists. We all interpret the Bible. We have to. It would be unproductive for us to define morality by living like it was 1000 BC. What Jesus calls us out on, however, is the attempt to ignore God’s way by masking our way in God’s clothes. We cling to our tradition, complains Jesus, to the way we think things should be, often times, to the way things used to be, and by doing so we ignore God’s living commandment, His continuing conversation with us.
The Year of Living Biblically makes clear that to take the Bible and religion seriously is not about trying to walk in the footsteps of the people of old, but to seek what they sought, to continue their path rather than retrace it. There were so many commandments to follow because the ancient Jews believed that they were in the constant presence of the Almighty. Here is an enduring truth. In the chapter right after the commandments about not mixing fabrics and also about loving your neighbour, God says to Moses: “‘You shall be holy to me because I the Lord am holy.’” (20:26) What they sought was to be a holy people because they were surrounded by the presence of a holy God. If we are to truly live biblically, then it is not by copying the ways God’s people once lived, but by finding out how God wants us to live today as His holy people. That means not letting our human traditions parade around like they’re God’s commandment. It means living the faith and exploring it. Letting it challenge us and even change us when necessary.
Jesus’ take on holiness, as we just read in the Gospel, revealed that God wasn’t as concerned about the outside of the cup as He was the inside, not as worried about what we consume as the kind of people we really are. So when it comes to the priesthood, for instance, should we be concerned about a male body on the outside or a good soul on the inside? When it comes to marriage should we only be concerned about man and woman or about two people’s love for each other? I know what our human traditions say about these controversial matters, and that’s exactly why I chose them, but where does God’s command lead us? Jesus’ life defined righteousness as reaching out to the marginal and the excluded. Where does that direct us? The Bible, religion, our faith, these are not casual conversations with God that we can conduct based on isolated biblical passages. These are paths to real encounters and even confrontations with the God who surrounds us. This is what God’s people of old believed in their own way, and this is what we still need to believe in today, but in our own way. May we experience the excitement of a living faith so that our traditions never trump God’ commandment. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo