Thursday, January 9, 2020

Alright, Steve

Yesterday, I wrote about the phrase in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17) that I found most interesting: "to fulfill all righteousness." After making a humorous and snarky comment about my appeal to the CEV despite almost derailing his attempt to get the CEV added to The Episcopal Church's list of approved translations for public worship when I added the less-popular ESV to his 2012? General Convention resolution, my friend and colleague Steve Pankey noted that he's focused on a different phrase in the same passage: "well beloved." I hadn't thought as much about it, but, now that he's mentioned it, I can't stop thinking about it either, and I have a Sunday sermon to finish, so here goes.

When Jesus comes up from the waters of his baptism, Matthew tells us that he (and it was just him, it seems) "saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him." Then, Matthew recalls, a voice from heaven spoke (and we're not sure who heard it) and declared, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Although without any exegesis, the sentiment expressed in that phrase sounds both like something any child would want to hear from a parent and like the kind of thing only a twelfth-grade English teacher or a British royal would say to a child. Parent: "Child, with you I am well pleased." Child: "Thanks, I think."

But, as soon as I mention the antiquated nature of that phrase "well pleased," I must admit that there aren't many alternatives. The CEV isn't terrible--"This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him."--but it isn't great either. The Message is even worse--"This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life." I think the sentiment is expressed more clearly--more parentally, if that makes sense--but it seems to have lost the nature of divine speech. Although God is speaking about God's Son, it's still God who is speaking. Even worse than that is the CEB--"This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him." Actually, that might be a reasonable rendering of the Greek, but it seems so shallow. How can happiness convey a real sense of delight that this pivotal moment in Jesus' life and in Jesus' relationship with God the Father must convey? There's a reason that the NRSV, ASV, ESV, NIV, GNV, MEV, KJV, NASB, and WEB all use "well pleased." Why mess with a good thing?

What does the Greek say? As my friend has surely seen, the word translated as "well pleased" is εὐδόκησα, which is a first-person aorist active indicative singular form of the verb that means "to seem good" or "to take delight in" or "to be favorably inclined towards." In other words, God declares, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with/in/by whom I am well pleased." It is, pretty much, what the majority of translations say it is--well pleased. Still, I may not have a better way of saying it, but speaking around it, describing it, and repeating it have value because, as Steve's focus on this phrase suggests, how we understand what this means has significant implications not only for Jesus' relationship with God but also our relationship with God.

The Greek word comes from the roots that mean "good" (eu) and "to think/seem" (dokeo). In other words, we might say that God looks at Jesus and says, "Seems good to me!" It is, at its core, a statement of approval. There is a sense of assessment coupled with the sense of joy. It isn't merely a parent enjoying time with a child--"This is fun! You make me happy!" It's also a sense of declaring something good--"I am well pleased with you because you have made me proud." Although this is fairly depicted as a tender father-son moment, it's a mistake to over anthropomorphize God's statement. The Greek text doesn't give us a God who is "joyful" (χαρά) but a God who esteems positively Jesus, the Son of God. That might sound limiting and detached, but I mean it as something far richer than the moment of happiness that the CEB would give us. This is a statement of lasting approval, of divine affirmation. The term "well pleased" implies a sense of anthropomorphized pleasure, but the root is still clearly divine speech--to think good.

What does this mean for Sunday? I'm not sure yet. It may mean that I'm rewriting a sermon. (Thanks, Steve.) But, more importantly, I think it may mean that the waters of baptism are the means by which righteousness is fulfilled so that God might esteem us as good, too. We'll see what comes together in the next few days. And thanks, Steve, for bringing me back to the text in a fuller way. I'm always grateful for your partnership and friendship.

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