Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Must Keep or Will Keep?


This Sunday, we will hear Jesus say to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." At least that's what we'll hear if we're reading the NRSV. If your church uses the NIV, you'll hear Jesus say something close but, as I would argue, substantially different: "If you love me, keep my commandments." To look at a side-by-side comparison of John 14:15-21 in the NRSV and NIV, click here.

The Greek word in question is "τηρήσετε," which is the second-person plural future active indicative form of the verb "τηρέω," which means "to watch over" or "to guard." The NRSV (and most English translations) render that word as "you (pl.) will keep" or, as we say down south, "y'all will keep." The NIV (and a few other translations like the KJV) change the verb from the future tense and indicative mood ("will keep") to the present tense and imperative mood ("keep"). One is a description, and the other is a command. That seems like a substantial difference to me.

I must confess, however, that I don't know Greek very well. With some help, I can translate the Greek text into English, but I my ability to convey nuance is severely lacking. I do understand, however, that there is no such thing as a future imperative. You can't tell someone to do something in the future tense. Think about it: how do you tell someone to buy a loaf of bread without telling him or her to buy it now? How do you temporally restrict that request to the future? How? Well, I suppose you use the indicative instead: "When you get to the store, you will buy a loaf of bread." That's not imperative. It's future indicative, and one might well ask what the difference is.

Well, to my ear, there's a huge difference. Although it might only be in the way I hear it, the indicative seems like a description of the beloved life, and the imperative seems like a prescription for it. The "if" looms large here. Note that Jesus doesn't say, "If you keep my commandments, I will love you." The condition depends on the love not the action. But when that is translated in the imperative, it sounds like an offer of love with strings attached: "If you love me, [you'd better] keep my commandments." Maybe I'm making more of this than I should, but I know how easy it is for me to invent conditions on God's love that don't actually exist. I crave that unconditional, "I will love you no matter what," and that's easier for me to hear when the Greek text is left the way it is--indicative instead of imperative.

As I work toward Sunday's sermon, I'm working from the outside in. The first and last sentences in this gospel lesson are the conditional statements of the beloved life. The end essentially repeats the beginning: those who love me will keep my commandments. But our liturgical focus is on the middle part--Jesus' promise of sending the Advocate to his disciples. I want to hear those comforting words. I want my sermon to be a proclamation of hope in the midst of challenge. But I have to get past the "if-then" bookends that bracket that message. Hearing the "you will keep my commandments" as a description of a love-inspired relationship with Jesus helps me get there.

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