Right Use of Our Tradition (Some Observations on Mark 12:18-34)

[A]nd many may have the Scriptures, and yet be very ignorant of, and strangers to, God’s Holy Spirit; as the Jews were, who had them read in their synagogues every sabbath day, and yet Christ told them, “Ye neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” (Penington, Works, III, 284)

The words Penington quotes (“Ye neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.”) are from a passage in chapter 12 of Mark in which the Sadducees confront Jesus with their intent to deny the doctrine of resurrection. They, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe it possible to rise from the dead, and they make their case to Jesus by posing a comic scenario through which they subtlely suggest the doctrine of resurrection is likewise ridiculous. Relying upon their knowledge and sophistry, the Sadducees appear to be satisfied with their way of using the tradition. In verses 19-23, they challenge Jesus:

Master, Moses wrote unto us, If a man’s brother die, and leave his wife behind him, and leave no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed. And the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: and the third likewise. And the seven had her, and left no seed: last of all the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, when they shall rise, whose wife shall she be of them? For the seven had her to wife.

Jesus responds by diving deep below the surface of their silly question to reveal the error that had enabled them to ask it, namely, the words Penington quoted: “[They] neither know the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” After identifying the underlying cause of their ignorance (and after delivering a short lesson on the status of those risen to new life [25]), Jesus proceeds to refute the Sadducees’ “argument” against resurrection. His means of doing so mocks their self-assured but limited vision that Scripture’s truth can be discovered by reason alone. And beyond that, Jesus seems to be having fun at the Sadducees’ expense, for his manner of refuting their argument precisely mirrors their own attitude and technique in presenting it: Jesus likewise begins with a reference to Moses, and then echoes the Sadducees’ flamboyant confidence by implying his logic is so obvious and unassailable that he also needn’t make the reasoning explicit. He says:

And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err (26-27).

In his brief retort, Jesus uses two syllogisms to make his point. As both are implied, I’ve deconstructed them to reveal the logic of his argument:  

Syllogism #1

1st premise: If God is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;

2nd premise: And, if God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living,

Conclusion: Then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living.

Syllogism #2

1st premise: If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living;

2nd premise: And if they have physically died,

Conclusion: Then there is resurrection from the dead.

Using logic, Jesus has adeptly, cleverly beaten the Sadducees at their own game. The Sadducees’ method of interpretating Scripture is to strip words of spiritual meaning and then subject their lifeless husks to the overbearing rule of reason. The Sadducees would claim truth is served thereby, and that they – as literalistic logic-choppers – are the master purveyors of it.

Jesus does believe in resurrection but not as a result of the argument he’s presented, which is as specious as the original question the Sadducees posed. Resurrection, as a concept, cannot be proved or denied by means of logic, emotion, study, sophistry, will, or presumption. Neither can it be understood before one has come into the knowledge of God (Jn. 17:3); it is Christ inwardly known who is the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25). C. S. Lewis shows the limits of intellect when he states:  

What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything (A Preface to Paradise Lost).   

Had the Sadducees asked a genuine question, they would have received a genuine answer, as does the scribe in subsequent passage (28-34). The scribe has asked: “Which is the first commandment of all”? (28), and Jesus answers him:

The first of all the commandments is Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment (29-30).

Jesus refers to the Law given by Moses (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), which calls the individual to rightly order his life, to gather his whole inward being (heart, soul, mind, strength) to one end: to love God.  To prepare the individual to receive heaven’s master, integrating principle of life is the Law’s purpose, and Jesus echoes this intent by gathering the Law’s many particulars into one commandment.

Right use of the Law is primarily to guide Man toward integrated wholeness (perfection); the Sadducees recognize a different primary use for the Law: the promotion of social order. The Law becomes a means to order society through regulating social behavior and relations. Their nonsensical hypothesis of the seven brothers with one wife speaks to their need to define right relationships between and among people: “Whose wife shall she be”? they ask. That resurrection could pose an unresolvable absurdity in social relations is for them sufficient reason to discount it altogether as a doctrine of faith.

In addition to misapplying the Law, the Sadducees fragment it into minute particulars. For them, ethical life consists of fidelity to whatever precepts or duties are prescribed for particular situations. Their approach fragments moral life into something like a paint-by-number picture: when all the tiny, separate spaces have been filled with the prescribed color, there’s an image, but it lacks creativity and life, just as the Sadducees observance of the Law – point by point – lacks the Life the Creator would have us know.

The Sadducees fragment the Law, and their hypothetical resurrection story trivializes it. Neither the fragmented nor the trivial is found in Jesus’s answer to the scribe’s question: “Which is the first commandment of all?” (28) Jesus repeats Deuteronomy 6:4-5 in all its dignified formality. In so answering the scribe’s question with the original formal language given by Moses, Jesus affirms the tradition is to be revered; it stands as a repository of impermeable, sacred Truth. In his own words, the scribe recapitulates the statement he’s heard. He thereby models the right approach to Scripture and tradition, as he is “duly applying them to [his] own state[s]” as George Fox wrote in his journal (Nickalls, 31). With the truth of Scripture resonating in his soul, the scribe can rely upon his own less formal speech to affirm what the tradition has held in keeping for him and for all. Having heard the scribe join with this commandment, Jesus can encourage him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God” (34).

There is one more point Jesus makes about the tradition and the need to have its precepts live within one’s own being. This point is brought forward in verse 31:

And the second [commandment] is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

In adding this second commandment to the first given by Moses, Jesus provides an example of continuing revelation. When the Holy Spirit – that which has given us the tradition – is known, it will lead us whither it will into new understanding. Though new understanding can arise, it will be of a piece with the old, for both new and old arise from the same source, the same Holy Spirit of Truth. Says Jesus in preface to this new commandment: “And the second [commandment] is like” [unto the first] (31). Such continuity can only be revealed; it cannot be produced, for its mark is so delineated and refined as to be inimitable as life itself, for that is what it is.

These two stories in the book of Mark (the encounter with the Sadducees [18-27] and the exchange with the scribe [28-34]) are back-to-back for this reason: they contrast right and wrong use of the Scriptures of our tradition. Wrong use is displayed by the Sadducees: spurious imposters who meddle with religion – employing worldly means and seeking worldly gain. Right use is evident in the scribe who shows the Scriptures’ precepts to have become inherent to his being. The way Scriptures and the tradition are used – rightly or wrongly – is the end result of that which begins with character: that is, whether the drawings of Truth are heeded (Jn. 6:44), or whether they are ignored and scorned. The two stories show the result of each choice. Additionally, these stories contrast Jesus’s evaluation and response to these different natures: taunting mockery to the Sadducees or earnest encouragement to the scribe.

It is the authentic, devoted seeker who speaks genuinely in simplicity of heart, who alone comes into the knowledge and kingdom of God. It is he who will be resurrected to new life; it is he who will come to affirm the tradition and sustain its vitality; and it is she who will come to read and understand the Scriptures “with profit and great delight” (Nickalls, 32).   

For he that knows truth, that hath received from God the thing the Scriptures speak of, how easy is it to him to understand the words that speak of that thing! But he who hath the knowledge of the thing but from the words, how easy is it for him to misunderstand the words! (Penington, Works, IV, 27)

The Raising of Lazarus, 1642 Rembrandt
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2 Responses to Right Use of Our Tradition (Some Observations on Mark 12:18-34)

  1. I love this, Patricia! The connection between the Sadducees’ question and the scribe’s question immediately following had never occurred to me. But that, as you observe, is the difference between revelation, which surprises, and creaturely reasoning, which has no power to rise above the level it started from. Or that’s an insight I see implied in your sentence “Such continuity can only be revealed; it cannot be produced, for its mark is so delineated and refined as to be inimitable as life itself, for that is what it is.”

    Thank you also for reminding me of C. S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, which I haven’t looked at in a long time. Your quotation struck me as if I were reading it for the first time:
    “the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything.” It reminds me of my undergraduate career, when I think my one goal in llife was to impress other people with my own superiority.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, John. So often Scripture stories use contrast to point out the way to proceed and the way not to proceed when attempting to enter the Kingdom. In this passage, as well as the John 8 and 9 chapters, it’s the group’s failure that is contrasted to the individual’s progress. This choice of the individual to exemplify the right way underscores the necessity for each person to take responsibility for him- or herself in preparing the way of the Lord, and not to allow social pressures – chosen or unchosen – to interfere with that clear beckoning within to choose truth, choose life.

    I found that C. S. Lewis quote in a wonderful book titled _The Year of Our Lord 1943_ by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs explores the thoughts of five Christian intellectuals (mostly English but some French) who felt that World War II – regardless of Allied victory – would leave a world bereft of spiritual and moral power. The book traces these five intellectuals’ grappling with how to regenerate a living culture, and independently they came to the conclusion that education grounded in Christian understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the human being was the best hope. (One of the five, Simone Weil, shared my contempt for the totalitarian effect the group [“the social beast”] can have on the individual, and this, as I’ve noted often in my writing, is the biblical view.)

    Other than Lewis and Weil, the other intellectuals the book traced were Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden.


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