So it was that on Monday I came across a tidbit in the Gospel of Matthew that I had seen before, but which now jumped off the page to me. The passage for the day, Matthew 15: 1-20, is a short lecture from Jesus about how religious leaders give lip service to the religious law (Torah) but do not honor it with their actions.
But that is not what intrigued me. What caught my attention Monday was Jesus quoting from Isaiah 29: 13. Jesus does not quote Isaiah precisely, but tweaks the Isaiah passage a bit. Here is how it comes out with Jesus:
“The people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Teaching human precepts as doctrines.
That led me to crack open the commentaries on this passage. What I learned is that Jesus was wading into the controversy of the korban, a First Century Jewish practice of declaring something to be sacred, or "clean," when, in fact, it really isn’t. Jesus criticized the religious leaders for looking for loopholes in Torah by embracing human practices and declaring them clean when, in fact, they are merely cultural customs. Let us not forget that in this, like so much else, Jesus is Jewish and is primarily concerned with showing others how to be better Jews.
As I said, Jesus tweaked Isaiah a bit. The Isaiah passage is focused on worship practices. Jesus moves beyond worship and into life practices. He puts it squarely: how much of what we justify in life as central to religious doctrine is really cultural practice dressed up as sacred?
And that led me to wondering how much korban we do as Christians in the theological debates that so captivate us now. How often do we declare that one of our cherished cultural practices is based on “sacred” doctrine when, in fact, it is really only cultural?
This is a touchy topic, and can cut in several directions.
A century-and-a-half ago, white Americans declared that slavery was sacred, and they found much in religious doctrine to support their position. The Bible is certainly full of justifications for slavery. Yet who among us now would make the claim that slavery is justifiable based on Christian doctrine?
Did the doctrine change or did the culture? Or was the doctrine never really in support of slavery, but those who supported slavery forced the doctrine to support it?
Nothing is more culturally based than marriage customs. That has been true since the dawn of humanity, and is certainly true now. Every society and every religion has marriage rites, and rules governing who may be married to whom. The Bible reflects several forms of marriage, including polygamy. When it comes to marriage, the Bible oozes with the culture of the people who wrote it.
But what about marriage is based on doctrine?
I sincerely believe that God blesses loving relationships, and that two people can be bound together in spirit and flesh in life-long committed relationships. I believe that is at the heart of the gospel, and that St. Paul gives us a foundation of “faith, hope, and charity” that can guide us in all human relationships, including marriage.
Yet we also add layers of culture – human “precepts” – to our marriage customs. Our wedding ceremony in the Episcopal Church is based on the Book of Common Prayer; weddings in our church look a certain way, reflecting our European (English) roots. We've added a few extras in recent years, like "unity" candles. Go to Mexico or India or China, and you will see very different ways of celebrating weddings, all wonderful, and all grounded deeply in their cultures.
Conservatives rightly warn that we should beware of bending our religious doctrine to changes in our culture. Yet how much of that doctrine is grounded in a cultural practice? How much of their opposition to gay marriage is really based on a cultural bias against homosexuality? Do recent votes, like in Maine, against gay marriage prove that gay marriage is wrong, or only that American culture is still much biased against gay marriage?
Liberals warn that the culture is changing, and the church needs to change with it lest it become meaningless to the people it is meant to serve. Yet does the gospel change when the culture changes? Are liberals responding merely to new human precepts? Are there timeless foundations to the gospel that can guide us beyond the boundaries of culture as it changes?
It seems to me that there are. When we discuss the issue of marriage, straight and gay, we ought to be discussing it in the context those timeless gospel values of faith, hope and charity.
True orthodoxy might just get us out of this predicament.
As I understand it, orthodoxy in a Christian context is grounded in the creeds: statements of faith about the triune nature of God and the saving acts of Jesus Christ (note: marriage is not mentioned). Resurrection is central to the creeds, and resurrection knows no cultural boundaries because resurrection comes only by the grace of God through Christ. Resurrection and salvation ought to be our guide in conversations about marriage, whether you are liberal or conservative – and maybe then our conversation might move beyond “human precepts.”