thinking theology

In this anecdote from Mark, we hear Jesus chastising the spiritual leadership of his people for mistaking the process of spirituality for the artifacts of religion. This is not a statement against tradition, but about the improper use of tradition.

Think about an apple. Sometimes, the stem is still with the apple, the stem that has united it with the main trunk of the tree through its leaves and branches. The skin protects the apple as it grows. It contains all kinds of valuable nutrients. I use the skins to ferment apple vinegar and make home made pectin to thicken jelly. But not many of us would be satisfied with a pie made only of skins. The flesh inside the apple is juicy and sweet and full of goodness but it needs the skin to reach this stage of wonderful. Once the apple has been eaten, the core remains. Often we throw it out without thinking, but the mystery of the core is the apple secret. It contains the many apple trees of the future. Within one apple, nestling at the star-like centre, lie the seeds that could become five or six trees, producing how many apples?

Every part of the apple is essential. From the nourishment from the tree — where it seems the same as every other apple — to the moment when it is picked and chosen, each apple is unique in itself. One apple is born out of many trees, out of ecological and/or agricultural desire, through careful planning and by happy accident. Religion, too, rises out of collective human longing, and the need to make meaning. Its construction has elements of intention and elements of surprise and inspiration. The stem of each religion, attached by common themes, eventually separates to form something different and unique.

Tradition, the skin that has protected the inner life of the apple, must give way in its own time not because it is less valuable but because its purpose becomes complete. The inner flesh of the apple provides nutrition; it is the fruit that is known for health and growth. An apple a day keeps the doctor away! Its sweetness and satisfaction lasts for a short time, but the memory of it creates a yearning for more. It is consumed in the moment but is remembered by many generations.

And finally the seeds. These are the hope of the future, not just for one moment, one apple, one person, one lifetime, but the promise that life and health and delight are the true experience, the promise of eternal life.

Why does Jesus scold the Pharisees? He is not speaking against the value or power of tradition, but of mistaking one part of the apple for the whole thing. Spirituality begins in the common life, in which one fruit is indistinguishable from another and moves to the particularity of one apple, one person’s experience, only to fall back into the common sea of life, arising from the earth again. The flesh of the apple lives because of the stem, the skin, the elements that bathe it in rain and sunshine. To value only stem or skin would be to miss the pleasure and power of the fruit, to miss the mystery at the centre.

The underlying law that Jesus is addressing is God’s concern for the people of this moment, their needs and dreams, the nature of this particular community. To place tradition ahead of compassion or justice is to mistake the purpose of the whole tree. In the story in Genesis, we bit the apple despite the warning of God and now we have self-awareness and choice. That means that we must be wise and open to the present, neither hoarding the past like dragon treasure, nor lost in the starry dreams of the future. We are called to experience the divine in this moment, this particular situation, whether it is joyful or challenging.

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