Lost in translation

Gen 45:3-11, 15Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, 1Cor 15:35-38, 42-50,Luke 6:27-38

My title I gave to my sermon today is ‘Lost in Translation.’ I wonder how many of you can remember the film with the same title that came out in the early 2000s with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson? Both play characters that appear to be lost in the current situations with their spouses, neither of them speak the language of the country and any nuance is lost on them as they wander through their lives there as they try to make sense of what is going on.

Why have I chosen to begin with a film title? There’s one thing I have noticed and I may have even said it here from time to time. We don’t know the tone of how the passages read out today were said. We tend to take passages from the Bible and read them with no nuance, with no inflection, with no exaggeration or drama. We read from the Bible in the way we have been taught, as though it were dry and always in a written form. But of course, the Scriptures weren’t. The Hebrew Scriptures passed down for years as an oral tradition until they were finally written down. But even then, and can you imagine this, the characters of the alphabet used only had consonants. It wasn’t until later, many hundreds of years after Christ that vowels were added. The Hebrew Scriptures were still dependent on an oral tradition that would only have been passed down through the teachers in the synagogues.

The Gospel of Luke, which scholars suspect was written in the latter part of the first century, was written in Greek. No oral tradition to speak of and wasn’t written on its own. There’s a second part to the story that was penned by Luke and that is book of Acts. Scholars will refer to Luke-Acts as a whole. It was separated by the Gospel of John somewhere in the Canon’s creation, but actually Acts should be read as a continuation of Luke. 

So, to read Luke or indeed any other book of the Bible, we have had to translate it. But in doing so, we automatically think of our social conventions, and place our own suppositions into the story. We don’t take time to intentionally think about the customs, cultural and historical context of when the passage was written in order to understand its meaning more fully, before trying to apply it to our lives in the 21stcentury. There is always a loss in translation of inflection and nuance, but we need to be careful that we don’t lose more than has already been lost. We need to ensure that our reading of the passages is insightful rather than taking it as it is.

Last week we heard about the blessings and the woes in the Beatitudes and this week we have the passage that tends to be read as though we should let people walk all over us and take what they want. After all, that’s what it says in the following verse:

“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”

If you don’t read too much into these passages, or think about them too hard, then it’s quite easy to gloss over what Jesus is recorded as saying. But if you think about how people might react to such tactics, then you might realise that Jesus is being really rather cheeky. He’s being creative with the demands of those who would seek to bully you, or those who would choose to abuse their position in power. 

It really does sounds as though you should lay yourself open to abuse. What’s Christian about that? Jesus doesn’t say anywhere that you must give the abuser the right to do what they want. He doesn’t say that the person demanding your coat has the right to demand it. What he is saying is that if someone demands something from you then you can offer the shirt off your back to go with it.

This was illustrated in the film Les Miserables when Jean Valjean was recuperating in the French monastery and decided to steal the candlesticks. When caught ands brought back to the abbot, he is told that he forgot to take all the other gold and silverware because that was his too. The police were ashamed and confused because they couldn’t make sense of the response of the abbot, Jean Valjean was humbled because the abbot decided not to press charges and his life was turned around because the abbot decided to show how a different way, that of God, could bring positive change into the world.

The abbot did not lose his wit or self-control. He was provocative and creative in his response. If somebody is taking from you only what you are prepared to give, then you remain the victor. Very few people are ever prepared to take the risk of winning by not caring if they lose. We normally fight back with the same method that was used in the first place, which means nothing will ever change. 

What the abbot did was to do exactly what Jesus suggests. A change in the ground rules. Don’t respond in the way the world expects. Respond in the way that God would. After all, you’re a child of God. He’s resident within you, so therefore responding in God’s way should seem intuitive.

Jesus’s life illustrates this perfectly. He accepted the violence without retaliation and creates something new without ever having lost his wits or his control of the situation. We did our worst, through hatred, by nailing Christ to the cross and it didn’t change how God felt towards us. His love is greater than any hate we can assemble.

Joseph did the same in the first reading we had. His brothers expect a savage response – it what they would have done. But it’s not what they receive. Because Joseph chose the gentle route, they could become a family again. Something that Joseph had yearned for since being sold into slavery. If he had done anything else, he would have probably lost that chance.

Our reading from the letter to the Corinthians shows Paul’s exasperation with them. “You fools!” Corinthians, Greek to the core, logical and rational because of the way they have been taught. Philosophical questions about the resurrection body that no-one can answer. The Corinthians are attempting, as many of us do, to make God fit into our world. To make him small; the assumption being that God can only do things the way we understand them. But in fact, we understand almost nothing. The Corinthians didn’t have much knowledge then, and we don’t either. Granted, we have 20 centuries more knowledge then they did, but in actual fact we don’t know that much. 

Paul speaks about a seed turning into a plant. We forget the miraculous nature of this because we see it every day. Somewhere, the miracle of this is lost in translation because we somehow think that God’s creativity can only happen in what we see.

The Corinthians were in danger of losing in translation what Paul was trying to tell them. His exasperation with them shows this. Their logic was killing off this chance of growth into God, of trusting that God’s ways were better then and still are better than our own, today.

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall soon wither like the grass, and like the green grass fade away. Put your trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and feed on its riches. Commit your way to the Lord and trust in him.