A haughty text

At various times in my ministry, I have described myself as a Walmart Theologian.  Though I rarely shop there anymore, my basic test for a theological point is whether or not it will stand up to the Walmart test: can I explain it to a parishioner who I might run into in the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store?  If the answer is no, then I need to work a little harder at bringing the Good News out of the ivory tower in which I have spent plenty of time, down to the grass roots, where people live.  This goal is one of the reasons why I sponsored legislation to authorize the Contemporary English Version of the Bible to be used in Episcopal worship.  It is a text that is theologically sound, translated by scholars, and is still able to be presented “in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for the understanding, both of the readers and hearers” (Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549), published in the 1979 BCP on pages 866-7).

This line of thought came to mind yesterday as we read Psalm 138, as I reflect on verse 7,
7 Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
It returned this morning as I read from the NRSV the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans,
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.


A haughty text, indeed.

Haughty, it seems to me, is no longer a word of the people.  According to Google, it is used 700% less often in literature now than it was in the early 19th century.  While we might have an basic idea of what we think haughtiness might mean, it is so rarely used as to feel like it fails the basic premise of Paul’s writing.  If we are called to not be haughty, then it seems we should maybe find a better way to say it.  The CEV puts it this way,
16 Be friendly with everyone.  Don’t be proud and feel that you are smarter than others. Make friends with ordinary people.
Still a bit stodgy in its construction for my taste, at least the CEV clears up the language a bit.

As we engage with an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture, it would be of benefit to those who we seek to engage with the Gospel if we offered them texts that were able to speak to their hearts, lives, and the way in which they speak.  Though it may never happen that Church Publishing puts out a CEV lectionary book or lectionarypage.net changes over to the CEV, I think it makes sense for parish leadership to evaluate, from time to time, the texts we use, always asking ourselves, does this meet the Walmart text?  Does it live up to Cranmer’s “easy and plain understanding” marker?  Or, is it time to seek out scholarly and sound Biblical translations that can be heard and understood by the majority of those who come through our doors.  Maybe it has just been a haughty couple of weeks, and I’m not suggesting we rush to replace the NRSV at Christ Church, but rather, just a note to myself, as much as anyone else, to take note when the words don’t resonate.  Don’t just shrug it off, but really listen to how the Scriptures speak.  If they are no longer “living and active” in our lives, that is when it is time to think of new ways to read and hear.

When the Bible doesn’t say what the Bible says

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Matthew 16:22

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ first [pseudo] Passion Prediction is fairly well known.  Jesus, having just been confessed as Messiah by Peter, begins to tell his disciples just what that means.  “I’ll have to suffer and die, but on the third day rise again.”  It seems obvious that the guy who just got the “keys to the kingdom” wouldn’t want that kingdom to come to an abrupt end while its founder hung on a cross, so Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord!”

“God forbid it, Lord!” is a clever turn of phrase, but it is also rife with trouble.  It raises questions of hierarchy in the Trinity: can God, the Father, I assume, overrule the Son?  Can God force the Son to do something he really doesn’t want to do?  It also raises questions about the whole confession bit we just heard from Peter.  If Jesus is the “Son of the Living God” and Lord, then what role does his own will have to play in the Messianic work he has come to do?  Finally, it makes me wonder just who Peter thinks he is to rebuke “the Son of the Living God” by invoking the God card?

“God forbid it, Lord!” is a clever and challenging turn of phrase that Peter may not have ever really said.  Newer translations seem to pick up the Greek “hilios soi” as an idiomatic expression meaning “God forbid it,” while older versions play of the meaning of the adjective hilios and say something very different:

  • NRSV – And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
  • KJV – Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.
  • Young’s Literal – And having taken him aside, Peter began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Be kind to thyself, sir; this shall not be to thee;’

The vast majority of the Bible didn’t first exist in a written form.  The stories of the Old Testament as well as the life and ministry of Jesus were carried in the hearts and minds of gifted story tellers, teachers, and ultimately the faithful who heard them told again and again.  They were told in Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, and Greek.  They were the stories of the people, told in their language and their idioms. Two thousand plus years later, we have the difficult challenge of trying to understand the language and culture of a people so far removed from us as to be nearly unimaginable.  Oh, and if Hebrew or Greek are like the paintings of Michelangelo, English is the finger-painted mess of a two year old.

A visual expression of English’s ability to capture the nuances of ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek.

Did Peter really say to Jesus “God forbid it”?  Maybe he did, but I don’t think so.  I think Peter forbade Jesus’ idea of Messiahship and he wanted Jesus to know that in no uncertain terms.  Sometimes the Bible doesn’t say what we think it says, and I find that to be a real gift.  Instead of being a dead book, etched in stone, the Bible is living and active.  It had meaning for the first souls who told the stories of the faith and it still has meaning for us 2,000 years later.  The truth of God’s steadfast love for us doesn’t change, but it’d be hard to argue that the Bible’s call for our response to that love hasn’t been constantly in flux.  That’s part of the life of faith: growing deeper into our understanding of God’s pull on our lives.  That’s why, after 8 years, I still blog about the Bible four days a week.  I am an ever changing person.  It is an ever changing book.