Interpretation and Tradition

Interpretation and Tradition

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

“Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” — Luke 24:45-47

To understand the event of the cross has always been a challenge to Christians. To the world his death is simply another in the sad history of young people dying at the hands of human hatred, cruelty and lies. To us it is the hinge of history. Why? Our lesson for today declares one important way we have answered and continue to answer the question why; we say “Thus it is written.” The Scriptures of Israel prophesied that in the end God would return to his people and that they would cause him to suffer and then cast him out.

This statement assumes that the Jews represented the whole human race in the rejection of Jesus, that the Romans did the deed of crucifixion but that the Jewish establishment colluded. Jews and Gentiles, you and I, crucified the Lord of Glory, and that is our shame. To blame each other as if someone were innocent and not everyone guilty is just a vulgar self-justification.

To appreciate the difficulty of interpreting the Cross we should first appreciate the difficulty of the claim that the Creator of All appeared among the things he created as a young vagabond Jew. That there is a creator is evident, that the creator was the young man Jesus is improbable, even ludicrous; but it is also the existential powerhouse of Christian faith and life. By “existential” I mean, “experienced in the ordinary relationships, actions, moods and emotions of our daily life.” We attest that faith in God in general is helpful in so far as it orients us to expect a revelation of God in particular, but that faith in God as He has revealed himself to be, the person of that young Jew Jesus, is not merely helpful, it is the powerhouse of divine energy. Faith in “Jesus as God” delivers the Holy Spirit, the “Lord and Giver of Life!” Next Sunday is Pentecost when we celebrate the gift of the Spirit, the gift of divine energy and eternal life, and the gift of truth from the Spirit who spoke through the prophets. For this reason we can say “Thus it is written.”

Writing is a defining component of language as language is the expression of self. It is virtually impossible to know someone who does not speak at all, not even in signs, and we cannot remember without a written record. Let’s not take time here to refine my claims, because refinement is not necessary to the point I wish to make. Human groups identify themselves by means of stories; each tribe has a founding story; Greece has Homer and the Trojan War, Rome has Aeneas and the flight from Troy, the USA has the Spanish missions and the English colonies, stories of two great European cultures. The first followers of Jesus in their bereavement had the story of Israel and Judah as told by the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, the founding text of their Jewish identity, which they for the most part read in Greek translation. (This is important because we know from our English translations how different the translated sense can be from the original sense. This slippage of meaning happened in the beginning and is not a later, unfortunate phenomenon. The first Christians read a Bible already blended from Hebrew and Greek, already attesting the cultural confluence that makes Christian theology such a successful blending of Athens and Jerusalem, of Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, a world religion for a universal empire, a fountainhead of diversity. This constitutive openness to cultures is still a part of our theology as we continue to speak to whatever culture is present in whatever language is spoken. We are not antiquarians, nevertheless we are framed and focused by the past, the prophetic texts of the “Thus it is written.”)

It is time to ask, “What is written?” The texts of the Greek OT (LXX for the 70 translators) like the texts of the Hebrew Bible (MT for Massoretic text) prophesy mostly in general not in particular and the core contention of the prophecy is that God will save the world from sin and death, that is, that he will give his human creatures, whom he made in his own image a part in his own immortality. The great theme of the MT is therefore Life and death, like all the serious texts of all times and places. There is only one story, the story of how we humans fell into death and how we shall rise from it again. I have recently been re-reading the story of Gilgamesh from the Akkadian version, which dates from the late third millennium BC, but is earlier even than that. I call it “the first novel,” because it portrays love and the vicissitudes of love, the pride that brings a fall, the death that follows the fall, and the quest to reverse the outcome. Pride, excess, loss, and regret are all there, at the beginning of writing. The prophets of the OT deal with the same substance, life and death, with this great difference from for example Gilgamesh. For them death will be reversed and life will triumph, therefore all the suffering is faced in faith, suffused with hope, and open to love.

For this reason the NT focuses on the prophecies concerning the one who is humiliated and then exalted, made to suffer and then comforted, killed and then restored to life. I quote and paraphrase now at some length from Joel Green and Mark Baker, (Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, 2009). Most of the material comes from the Psalms, especially 24, and Second Isaiah. In the Psalms, the “suffering righteous” “…has enemies that plotted against him, abused him … /divided his clothes, offered him a drink, …/was betrayed by a table intimate, forsaken by his friends, one of whom denies him and follows at a distance, so that he must suffer alone, /is innocent but maintains silence, /experiences anguish and abandonment by God, /anticipates his own vindication and is in fact vindicated at his death and declared to be ‘Son of God’.” So far the Psalms, the most quoted section of the OT in the NT. There is also the figure of the “suffering servant in Isaiah 40-53, and it too played a part in this earliest attempt to come to terms with the murder of the one they believed was God. They identify Jesus as the suffering righteous one of the prophets.

This means that our faith in Jesus crucified is deeply rooted in the revelation to Israel that goes back to the beginning of time. It means that our faith is embedded in the faith of Israel and that we are a form of Judaism, the followers of the final Jewish prophet, of the one who not merely speaks the word of God but is the word of God become flesh for our salvation. The prophetic word became the messianic deed and gives us the Holy Spirit who is Life and Truth. The prophetic word affirms not only the resurrection but also the cross, the resurrected one is the crucified one and he comes again still bearing the signs of his torture, his glorified wounds. The resurrected crucified is the way God fore-ordained to rectify the mistakes of pride, to heal the wounds of violent desire and to make of His creation no longer a dismal failure but a grand success.