When I was in college, I served as a co-youth ministry director at the Episcopal Church of my youth. I vividly remember one random afternoon, as I checked my cubby-called-a-mailbox, the retired assisting priest approached me with an offer. Essentially, he wanted to teach a Bible study for our students on the use of four letter words in Scripture. Apparently, our modern, American, English translations of Scripture are very polite in their handling of ancient near eastern idioms, and Father G. wanted to open the eyes of our students to what the Bible really said.
For no other reason than I liked my pay check, I declined his offer.
As the years have gone by, and as seminary has forever ruined me, I’ve thought back on that encounter with Father G. and often thought that perhaps I should have said yes. The Bible is full of idiomatic subtleties that our linguistic and cultural milieu makes us miss. We miss humor. We miss anger. We miss pastoral sensitivity. And as was the case in the Hosea lesson for yesterday, we miss important contextual details.
I’m thinking about Father G. again today as I read the lesson from Ecclesiasties appointed for Track 2, Proper 13, Year C. Somewhere along the line, I learned what “Vanities of vanities” really meant, and being male and perpetually immature, I chuckle every time I read Ecclesiasties 1:2 as, “Bull ****,” says the teacher, “Bull ****, it’s all bull ****.”
This is probably one of those items that should have gone in the “things I learned in seminary that I’ll never tell another soul about,” but I do wonder how preachers can and should parse out these idioms for their congregations. I’m fairly certain that nobody uses the phrase, “vanity of vanities” anymore. How do we make it coherent to our listeners, without pulling a Mark Driscoll or Michael Battle and cursing from the pulpit?