Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Subtle changes in understanding

Sunday morning at the Cheung Doi Church of Christ, Angela and I were trying to follow along as they studied in Matthew 5. As I read the Beatitudes in Angela's bible, it struck me that the New Living Translation was significantly different in its translation of the text in a few areas that I did not previously realize. Below are my disjointed, un-M.Div'ed thoughts.

3 “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,[a]
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
4 God blesses those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 God blesses those who are humble,
for they will inherit the whole earth.
6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,[b]
for they will be satisfied.
7 God blesses those who are merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
for they will see God.
9 God blesses those who work for peace,
for they will be called the children of God.
10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.


The first thing is that "God blesses" is used instead of "Blessed are...," or in some translations "Happy are...." This is significant to me, because Jesus gives us an example of how God blesses us. It's certainly not with good jobs, fancy cars, big houses, or junk in this world.

The second thing that can clearly be seen (especially since I left in the footnote indicators) is the subtle differences in translation in verse 3 and verse 6 that have significant impact on how I have traditionally heard the Beatitudes taught or discussed. After studying the Sermon on the Mount at church in the spring, I remember being so frustrated each time somebody said, "Well, it's really about the heart," as if that excused them from action or wrong action. These translation differences, I think, go more toward the message of Jesus in showing that it is about your heart, but that's only a small part of it.

Verse 3

In verse 3, where "poor in spirit" is typically used, the translators opted for "those who are poor and realize their need for [God]." In Luke's version, often called the "Sermon on the Plain," he quotes the sermon as saying, "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God" (6:20, ESV, NIV). But we either don't talk about Luke's reporting, or we add our own "in spirit." But Jesus, who was likely talking to mostly poor people, told them that they were blessed and loved by God and would inherit the Kingdom of God. The NLT chooses to say those who are poor and "realize their need for [God]." Doesn't that make so much more sense? Jesus is talking to a mass of poor people who are obviously looking for something like God. And Jesus delivers, like he always does.

Verse 6

In verse 6, we see the NLT use the word "justice" where usually we see "righteousness." (Sidenote: Luke just says "those who are hungry.") I have usually heard righteousness defined as right-living, meaning doing what is right. In other words, said more clearly, not sinning. The pressure on us is to not sin. I don't think that's wrong. But growing up in the church, I usually saw this practiced as a checklist in making sure we were doing what we were supposed to do (going to church) and not doing what we weren't supposed to (dancing, lying, being bad).

For those who have read The Good News About Injustice or Timothy Keller's Generous Justice, you know that the terms "righteousness" and "justice" are often used together or interchangeably in the biblical texts. Righteousness cannot be achieved without justice; justice only comes about through righteousness. Of course that's an oversimplification, but that's not the point.

What's the point?

The point is how we live our lives as a reflection of Jesus' teachings. When we view it as something that only matters in our heart, we sharply reduce the message of Jesus. If it's all about your heart, then why does Jesus make a specific comment about those who are "pure in heart"? Seeking peace just becomes about making sure you apologize to upset friends. As a result, something we are all called to do ("peacemakers" or "those who work for peace" in the NLT) that could change the world, becomes easy to excuse away when our country is at war and justify revenge killings.

The teachings of Jesus were and still are radical for all faiths and backgrounds. Sometimes it takes a subtle reframing to break free of the tired, old teachings and renew our understanding of the power of God. It's time for us to stop anesthetizing God in order to justify our lack of action.

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