“Tradition: Only Part of the Formula,” Genesis 29:15-28, I Kings 3:5-12

One of the all-time classic stories that highlight the lack of male observational powers is the account of Jacob’s wedding night in Genesis 29. Jacob has traveled 500 miles to find the love of his life. He has worked 7 years to earn the hand of his beloved Rachel. 7 years! And yet when his new father-in-law pulls the biggest bait and switch in history on him he doesn’t realize he’s consummating his marriage with the wrong woman until he wakes up with Rachel’s older sister Leah the morning after the wedding.

Jacob is certainly not the only newlywed to ask “what in the world have I done?” the morning after, but this story challenges our ability to suspend our disbelief. I don’t know what weddings were like in Jacob’s day. We learn in the New Testament that Jewish wedding celebrations lasted many days and involved much wine (John 2); so perhaps Jacob was impaired by too much wine. But beyond the practical questions of how this could possibly happen are the important issues the story raises about how we make tough ethical decisions. Jacob obviously has a problem, but so does Laban, his new father-in-law. Laban’s dilemma is his paternal obligation to both of his daughters. The traditions of his culture dictate that the older daughter must be married before the younger (v. 26); and Laban justifies his trickery by appealing to that tradition.

For the last 40 years I have not been able to think about “tradition” without hearing the loveable Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” sing “Tradition!” During that entire marvelous musical Tevye is caught in a tug of war between tradition and his heart. His struggle also involves daughters but is more complicated than Laban’s since three of his daughters challenge the traditions of their family and culture in progressively more radical ways. (Quick synopsis: Tzeitel, the first daughter, challenges the custom of arranged marriage; her sister Hodel falls in love with a revolutionary and moves “far from the home she loves” to Siberia where he is imprisoned; and another daughter, Chava, elopes and is secretly married outside their Jewish faith in a Russian Orthodox Church. For details, rent the movie).

Thinking about the “Fiddler” story side by side with Jacob and Laban’s dilemma exposes the sexism of the Hebrew text. While Genesis focuses on the ethical dilemma from the patriarchal bias of its time, “Fiddler” invites viewers to empathize with the struggles of Tevye, his wife Golde, and their daughters. Genesis pays no attention at all to the plight of Rachel and Leah. They have no voice at all in these life-changing decisions. They are merely pawns, property to be exchanged between Laban and Jacob for the agreed upon price of 7 years of labor per each. (See Gen. 29:27-28 for the details of how Laban and Jacob resolve their conflict by Jacob’s agreement to work an additional 7 years for Laban in exchange for the woman he thought he had married the first time around.) And yes, tradition sanctioned polygamy in those days, in case you’re wondering about Jacob having two wives, and if you read the rest of Jacob’s fascinating story in Genesis you will see that he never gets over his favoritism of Rachel at Leah’s expense.

Tradition! How often do we hear tradition used as the justification for why things are done in a certain way? “We’ve always done it that way.” “We’ve never done it that way before.” Tradition is important. We inherit important life lessons from our culture and our families, from history that enable us to move through life without having to reinvent the wheel every time we are faced with a decision. We Americans don’t have to decide which side of the road to drive on every morning or what a red traffic light means. Most traditions are valuable and useful, but that doesn’t mean all are. Slavery and denial of women’s rights were traditions that humanity in many cultures (including our Judeo-Christian tradition) lived by for centuries, and far too many still do. Why? Because well-entrenched traditions that benefit those in places of power and privilege are not easily changed. Such change usually requires great sacrifice and suffering on the part of brave prophetic persons who dare to ask why we have always done it that way.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist denomination developed a very useful paradigm for putting tradition in its proper perspective when it comes to making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making such choices: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. I like the balanced model Wesley provides because it honors the importance of tradition while realizing that traditions are constructs created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.

Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens of the global village must come to grips with. Traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. The latter provides a prime example that is dividing the Christian church and consuming vast amounts of time and energy from a church that should be addressing more pressing issues like poverty and immigration and global climate change.

There is no doubt that a few verses in the Judeo-Christian Scripture condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms. That is the position of the Christian right that tries to make ethical decisions based on only two legs of the quadrilateral, Scripture and Tradition. But if we add reason and experience to the equation, namely the scientific and medical knowledge gained in recent decades, the solution to that dilemma changes. Where Scripture and Tradition base their ethical judgments about homosexuality on the assumption that sexual preference is a matter of choice, modern reason and knowledge teach us that such critical matters are predetermined by genetic coding. That may not explain why things are the way they are or how we feel about it, but it should change radically how we treat people of a different sexual preference and the kinds of basic human rights they should be afforded.

Tradition without the rest of the quadrilateral is too often treated as if it were written in stone. The U.S. Constitution is a good example. As insightful and inspired as our Constitution is, it is essentially a tradition created by human hands. The authors of that great document realized it needed to include a process for changing as situations and conditions required. That’s why they included a process for amending the constitution based on new insights and reason and experience and created a judicial system charged with interpreting the principles of that foundational document as they are applied to ever-changing situations. The Second Amendment is a case in point. The right to bear arms as a concept written in the days of muzzle loaders and militia obviously needs to be re-evaluated in a time when people carry AK 47’s into department stores and family restaurants.

To interpret laws and wrestle with ethical dilemmas by balancing Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience requires great wisdom. One of the other Hebrew texts in the lectionary for this week speaks directly to how important true wisdom is. In I Kings 3 a very young Solomon has just succeeded his father David to the throne of Israel, and the new King has a dream where God offers to grant him anything he asks for. Anything at all! What would you request if God made you that kind of offer? Health? Wealth? Fame and fortune?

Here’s what Solomon says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (3:9).

That’s a great request—like one that a parent would be very proud of if his/her child asked Santa for something for a needy friend instead of more toys or gadgets for herself. And God is an equally proud parent. The Scripture tells us, “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” (3:10-12).

As parents, citizens, friends and foes, and especially as leaders of groups and nations wrestling with traditions and cultural situations changing at warp speeds, we all need the Wisdom of Solomon. We feel as overwhelmed as he did taking on the responsibilities of his kingship. And his request is a most relevant prayer for all of us: “Lord, give us understanding minds able to discern between good and evil.”

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Privacy and Psalms 139

Privacy is a hot topic these days. Facebook is now doing more invasive snooping on our on-line activities so they can send me more ads for adult diapers! Wonderful! People justifiably worry about Big Brother/NSA knowing all manner of information about where we go, who we talk to and what we ate for dinner. The thought police from 1984 have arrived, just 30 years late.

But these are not new concerns. Listen to these words from 3000 years ago: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

That’s from Psalm 139:2-5, a great companion piece for the Genesis 28 text that is also in the lectionary for this July 20 where Jacob is reminded at Bethel that when it comes to God, you can run but you can’t hide. The Psalm takes that wisdom to cosmic proportions: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (vs. 8-10)

Just as our modern technology that gives us 24/7 access to information, news, weather radar, directions and contact with family and friends is both good news and bad news, we can take God’s omnipresence and omniscience (which simply means God is everywhere and knows everything) as either a threat or a promise – it all depends on how clear your conscience is and your understanding of the nature of God. The words of Ps. 139:7 look the same, “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is “absolutely nowhere,” but the intonation of those words sounds 180 degrees different when uttered by someone who lives in mortal fear of a God of wrath and judgment as opposed to someone who knows and trusts the unconditional love of a merciful Lord and Savior.

We sometimes draw a false dichotomy between the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Abba Father God of Jesus to explain the difference in those responses. The truth is that both reactions run throughout Judeo-Christian scriptures and theology because fallible human beings always have reason to fear God’s judgment and long for God’s mercy simultaneously. The lectionary texts for July 20 illustrate that rich diversity beautifully. The alternative Psalm for July 20 describes the “New Testament” God (“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Ps. 86:15), while it’s the Gospel lesson for this day that sounds a loud warning against unrepentant sin ( “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mt. 13:41-42).

No matter how much we wish it were so, life is not a simple dualism between grace and judgment. It is a delicate both/and balance between obedience and forgiveness. Grace is not cheap. It comes with a cross-shaped price tag, and even Jesus knew the awful feeling of wondering if the Psalmist got it wrong. Maybe there are places in “the dark night of the soul” (title of famous poem by St. John of the Cross) where not even the God of creation can go! Quoting another Psalm (22:1) Jesus laments through the agony of crucifixion, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). We’ve all felt that way at some time(s) in our lives if we dare to admit it.

Many years ago I heard a conversation between my in-laws, Bill and May Newman, who at that time had been married 40-plus years. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but they were reminiscing about their dating days. This was long before bucket seats and seat belts changed the way young couples rode in cars. In those days women would scoot over next to their dates in the front seat of the car to snuggle while he drove semi-dangerously with one arm. May teasingly asked Bill, “Why don’t we sit close like that anymore?” He wryly replied, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”

When we feel discouraged and abandoned, like a motherless/fatherless child, remember God’s not the one who moved. God is still everywhere. The Psalmist says we can’t even shake God if we go to the depths of Sheol – that’s Hebrew for Hell. Of all the places one would not expect to find God, hell has to be near the top of the list. I personally don’t believe Hell is a physical place, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or that we have not all been there. Hell is anywhere or any time that we feel cut off from the presence of God, and when that happens desperation sets in; and that is very dangerous because desperate people often do desperate things they would not normally do.

When the Hebrews felt abandoned in the wilderness because Moses was on Mt. Sinai longer than they expected, they built a golden calf and worshipped it (Exodus 32:1-4). When we are afraid and think God’s not watching, that’s a dangerous combination. Under that pressure we may mistreat other people to pursue the false security of wealth or fame. We may try to escape from our anxiety in mind-numbing use of drugs, booze, sex or some other addiction du jour.

That is why we so desperately need to hear the words of Psalm 139 not as a threat by a privacy-invading deity looking for dirt to hold against us. If we stop reading the Psalm too soon that might be the way we feel and be tempted to move away from God or even try to take over the driver’s seat. The same is true of the Jesus story. It doesn’t end on Good Friday, and it doesn’t end with “My God why have you forsaken me!” Keep reading to the end. Like a great novel, God’s salvation history must be pursued to the surprise ending. Luke tells us that Jesus’ great lament was not the final word from the cross. Luke (23:46) records these words of faithful surrender and peace, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

To face life and death with that kind of confidence in God’s protection means giving up our idolatrous notions of self-sufficient individualism and privacy. The lectionary lesson omits the bloodier and more self-serving attempts to justify our own worthiness in Psalm 139 (vss. 13-22); but it ends on a realistic note of humility that reminds us how easy and how hard it is to accept God’s persistent presence in our lives. The final verses say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

God has not moved. God has not abandoned us, no matter how good or bad our lives may be right now. God is ready, willing and able to guide us, but our God is not a God of coercion. The guidance is free, but it comes with one catch – in order to receive it we have to surrender our pride and privacy and be willing to humbly invite God to know us in total transparency.