Be Mature Like God

A sensitive translation turns a bad-news message into a good-news message in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Maui flowers

Blooming flowers on the island of Maui

Good writers and speakers know that words can be tricky things. When we use a specific word in our speech, we first of all have in mind its explicit or primary meaning. That meaning would be expressed in its dictionary definition.

But words also carry an aura of emotional associations that you may not find expressed in the dictionary definition. Those associations, however, affect how other people hear the word and how they react to it.

Let me give an example. When I was in the army, I was being trained to do counter-intelligence work. Our schooling involved training in conducting interviews as part of security checks we might pursue in determining whether a specific person should be given clearance to classified material.

When you conduct those interviews, the instructor told us, never open the conversation with the question: What is your relationship to so-and-so? If we did, we ran the risk of the interviewee clamming up. Why? Because the English word relationship is the word we usually use in referring to a romantic or sexual connection. If we use the word relationship, the interviewee is likely to get defensive and say little. They will feel we are prying into something very intimate.

Instead the instructor taught us to use the word association. What is your association with so-and-so? This question will likely get the interviewee to open up and talk freely. Why? Because the word association is a more neutral and less intimate way of describing a personal connection. A sensitivity to the choice of word we use is critical to the effect we want to make.

This sensitivity is also important to translators, especially Bible translators. Translators have to be aware of both the denotative and the connotative meaning of words both in the original language and in the receptor language. Carelessness here can end up in a Bible translation saying something very different than what the original Hebrew or Greek wants to say.

Translating the Sermon on the Mount

One clear example is a famous sentence from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus gives his famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) counsel that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We usually find it one of the most difficult things Jesus ever taught.

He ends his discussion with a sentence in verse 48 that reads in the Kings James Version: Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. This classic phrasing has been preserved in later English translations, including the modern New Revised Standard Version which I customarily use.

The Greek word that is translated perfect is the word teleios. One of its meanings is perfect in the sense of complete or having fulfilled its purpose. But in English, the word perfect has the connotations of something that is statically flawless but also lifeless, like a diamond without any imperfections.

That translation, however, makes this verse in Jesus’ teaching off-putting for the average reader and the average person sitting in a church pew. We think Jesus is advocating something impossible. None of us is flawless in our personalities or our actions. To be human is to be imperfect. And if to be perfect is to be statically lifeless, who wants to be perfect? So we are inclined to brush off Jesus at this point.

An Alternate Translation

But there are other legitimate translations for the word teleios. When it is used in association with persons, its meaning can be full-grown or mature. If we translate the sentence using this choice of word, then Jesus is saying Be mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is mature.

Now to my book, that gives the sentence is totally different emotional flavor. When we use the word mature, it conveys less the sense of flawlessness, but more an association with the process of growing up. There is nothing of the static about growing mature. It is a journey. It bubbles with life and life-shaping experiences.

This translation is fully consistent, I contend, with its context. In 5:43-48, Jesus is teaching his disciples to love their enemies. The rationale he gives for this counsel is that that is how God loves humanity. God makes his sun shine on both the evil and the good. He sends rain on both the righteousness and unrighteous. God loves even those who hate him.

This is the model for how Jesus’ disciples are to live. But obviously none of us reach that standard instantaneously. We grow into that standard, almost always through a process that involves many failures and setbacks. But if we are serious about growing up, we hang in there with all our failures trusting that God’s Spirit will continue to work a slow transformation within us.

So with this choice of translation, Jesus is commanding us to grow up so that our lives come ever closer to exemplifying the example of maturity set by God. Now that for me is good news counsel, not bad news. And it all hinges on the choice of wording that the translator chooses.

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Yet Again I’m Surprised by What I’ve Read Many Times Before

Bible text: Jeremiah 29:1-14

I’ve been reading the Bible or hearing it read all my life. Many of its texts are as familiar as those nursery rhymes my mother taught me as a toddler. Yet I can be reading an old familiar passage and something in the text jumps up and slaps me in the face. Then I slap my palm against my forehead and I say, “Why haven’t I seen that before?”

That happened to me two weeks ago. I was preparing my sermon for the upcoming Sunday. The lectionary had assigned Jeremiah 29:4-7 as the Old Testament reading.

The passage is a fragment from a letter the prophet sends to a group of Judean exiles. They were relocated to Babylon in 597 B.C. as a part of the settlement that the Babylonian king imposed on the submissive government of Judah when he besieged the city of Jerusalem. The exiles included the boy king, his mother, nobles, priests, and productive artisans of the city.

The exiles were pining to return home. Word from a prophet named Hananiah assured them that they would return soon, within two years. But Jeremiah says Hananiah does not speak the word of the Lord. Their exile will indeed be long, several generations long.

In his letter to the exiles, Jeremiah tells them that the Lord is calling on them to settle down in Babylon. They are to build houses, plant gardens, marry and raise families.

 Then comes this word from God: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The exiles are to look upon Babylon as if it were their new home, for in fact it will be their home for generations to come.

These are familiar words. I’ve read them many times, but I had never quite appreciated what startling counsel is coming from the Lord. The Lord is telling the exiles to seek the welfare of their enemies. The Babylonians after all are the ones who carried them into exile. Some ten years later they will return to Jerusalem to snuff out Judean independence, to capture the city, to burn the temple, and to raze the city to ground.

The exiles are to work for the welfare of Babylon in spite of all the empire has done and will do to them and their homeland. Furthermore they are to pray for their enemies.

Now those are the words that jumped out at me and slapped me in the face. I had heard them before, but never stopped to soak in their import. The exiles are to pray for the Babylonians.

To give a modern comparison, it is as if God were to tell Americans to pray for Al Qaeda and seek its welfare. We would be outraged. So must have been those Judean exiles. Who is this God that is asking for such an absurdity?

 Yet that is the word of God to those exiles. How surprising can this God be?

 We often think that Jesus is unique in his vision when in the Sermon on the Mount he counsels his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44). Now Jesus was unique, but not every point of his teaching is. The essence of his teaching on loving our enemies is already present in the Old Testament in these words of God to the Babylonia exiles. I had never seen that before.

 Many Christians have traditionally regarded the God of the Old Testament as a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament as a God of love. It’s a false reading of both testaments. As this passage in Jeremiah makes clear, there is a deep continuity between the vision of the Old and the New. We need to be acutely sensitive to that reality.