Thursday, August 28, 2014

Again, Not What It Says

The first thing I noticed this week when I read Sunday's gospel lesson (Matt.16:21-28) is that the translation we have on Sunday (NRSV) misquotes Jesus. (Or at least it misquotes the Greek that purports to be Matthew's account of the good news.) Start by reading the text below and see if anything sounds fishy:

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Earlier this week, Steve Pankey wrote a post entitled "When the Bible Doesn't Say What the Bible Says." It's a great post on this Sunday's gospel lesson, and you should go ahead and read that now. (I'll wait.)

Ok, Welcome back.

Now, I want to expand upon that concept he writes about and talk about what happens when 20th & 21st century translators choose gender inclusivity over a literal rendering of the text. Here's the same bit of scripture in the RSV:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

Some might say there's no real difference--other than the fact that the language has been updated to avoid unnecessary distractions that come from gender-exclusive language. Actually, I am all for gender inclusive language when we don't lose an important meaning from the text. But this is one of those cases when we need the original pronouns because the meaning changes without them.

No, I'm not saying that Jesus was excluding women from following him. Well, actually, he probably was--since his was a culture that had very separate and defined roles for men and women--but I don't think he was saying that women could never be his followers. Instead, he probably just didn't think of it that way. But the real issue is one of number rather than gender.

How's this for an awkward translation:

If anyone would follow me, let her or him deny herself or himself and take up her or his cross and follow me. For whoever would save her or his life will lose it and whoever loses her or his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a person if she or he gains the whole world and forfeits her or his life? Or what shall a person give in return for her or his life?

It's awkward, but I think it's important because human nature is to hide in groups.

You know that one team member who never pulled his weight on the projects you were forced to do in college? No one liked him. No one wanted him on her team, but the teacher insisted. And he got the good grade because of all your hard work even though he didn't deserve it. You know that guy? Well, we're him. We're her. All of us. No, not when it comes to classwork, but, at some basic level, when it comes to taking up a cross and following Jesus, we'd rather do that as a part of a group than stand there by ourselves.

Jesus points the finger at us--at each of us. He singles Peter out, and then he expands his condemnatory, challenging stare to each one of the disciples. And now he singles us out. Sure, there's something to be said for whether we as a congregation or we as a community or we as a country are doing what God is calling us to do. But, this time, Jesus is talking to each one of us as individuals.

So, yes, don't read the gospel lesson with all the double pronouns. And, no, I'm not a fan of the invented gender neutral pronouns "zhe" and "zher" because no one I know knows what the heck they mean. But don't lose site of the singular pronouns. Don't hide in the crowd. He's talking to you and me and to all of us as each of us. Will you (singular) take up your cross and follow Jesus? Y'all can figure out how to do that as a group next week. Right now, it's just you (singular) and him.

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