12 October 2014

Words matter: the Bible

Words matter.  Changes to words in Bible translations into English make a big difference to the way they're heard and understood, and sometimes can change the meaning.  I've done examples of this before, and will likely do so again, so will name the series "Words matter."

The Douay-Rheims Bible is a translation into English of the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was prepared from the original languages by St. Jerome at the end of the fourth century.

The New Jerusalem Bible is an updated version of the Jerusalem Bible, a 1966 translation of La Bible de Jerusalem.

In Divine Intimacy, today's meditation starts with a meditation on Matthew 9:1-8.

In Matthew 9:2, Jesus says to the paralyzed man, --
Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee.  (Douay-Rheims)
Contrast that with:
Take comfort, my child, your sins are forgiven. (New Jerusalem Bible)
"Be of good heart"
In the Latin: confide, which is the root word for confidence.  This is a command.  It is spoken by Jesus the Christ, Messiah, the Son of God, the Word, through whom all was made, and nothing was made except through and by him. 
In other words, God. 
The Douay Rheims translation refers to the heart, the seat of emotions, courage, all that makes a human person.  Be of good heart:  strong, whole, well, from the inside out.  This is a reliable command, because when God says be about anything, it happens.
"Take comfort"
This phrasing puts the onus on the paralyzed man to reach out and grasp comfort.  He's got to do something:  "take".  What is he supposed to take for himself?  "comfort."  Oh, really?  Lying there, unable to move, probably dirty, hungry, lonesome, maybe in pain? - "take comfort."
I hear some of you say, "Oh, come on.  Everybody knows what it means."
Are you sure?  The plain meaning in English is different.  Frankly, it has a bit of the James 2:16 feel about it, don't you think?  (If you say to someone, be warm and well fed, but don't give them what they need, what good does it do?)
But wait.  There's more.

"Be of good heart, son..." (Douay Rheims)

"Take comfort, my child..." (New Jerusalem Bible)

Let's have a look at the Latin again.  "Confide, fili..."  That is not "my son."  It is, simply, "son."

Nor is it "child."  In Latin, child is puer.  The King James version, and even today's New American Standard (known for accuracy) translate fili as son.

Why the change?

After 1,600+ years, did the Latin meaning "evolve"?  No, it didn't.  It can't.  Latin is a dead language.  Its meaning is static.  It is immune to the changes in common languages.

But there's this:  "Considerable efforts have also been made, though not at all costs, to soften or avoid the inbuilt preference of the English language, a preference now found so offensive by some people, for the masculine; the word of the Lord concerns women and men equally."  --New Jerusalem Bible, General Editor's Foreword, p. v.

In this case, the costs of avoiding offense to "some people" are high.

With "fili," Jesus said "son."  Not anyone's son in particular; just "son."  If Jesus had said "my son," the Latin would read, "fili mi."

The word son conveys many deep meanings.  It explicitly refers to a male person.  It is not sex-neutral.

Sons are important to civilization.  Well brought-up sons are leaders, protectors, providers, and fathers in their turn.  Well-educated men, given their greater physical strength and the inherent ability to focus on getting the job done, have built the infrastructure that supports civilization.  The paralyzed man, beyond the daily physical misery of his condition, endured unspeakable humiliation.  He had to be brought to Jesus on a bed, in public.  He must have been desperate to let his friends do this, or his friends took advantage of his helplessness and just carried him away.  Either way, it must have been awful for him, no matter whether he had hope or not.

In this context, the label of "child" would have been cruel.  A child is weak, undisciplined, helpless, dependent on women.  How in the world would that characterization comfort a man who wanted more than anything to stand on his own two feet, take care of himself, and do man things like build stuff, solve problems, marry?

I can't believe that Jesus would do anything to make the poor fellow feel any worse.  I trust the original account:  Jesus looked directly into his eyes, man to man, and said, "Be of good heart, son."

My speculations about the emotional freight aside, there is even more insidious fallout from the use of the despicable word "child" instead of "son" in this report.

Can a child - puer, below the age of reason - really sin?  While exasperated parents might conclude otherwise, it's generally recognized that children aren't capable of grasping the concept of sin.  That's why calling the man "child" makes no sense.  Using that word corrupts the whole point of what follows.

"Your sins are forgiven."  The power of Jesus' statement was in the forgiveness of real sin - the kind that adults commit.  The scribes got it!  They thought it was blasphemy, because only God can forgive sins.  How it must have startled them when Jesus asked, "which is easier - to say 'your sins are forgiven,' or say, 'get up and walk'?  Here's how to know that the Son of man has the power to forgive sins."  Jesus turned to the paralytic and said, "Get up.  Take up your bed, and return to your house."

The paralytic - not a child, but a fully restored man - did just that.

If Jesus is made to say, "Take heart, child," the story is, well, neutered.  It is warped from reporting the reviving of the spirit of a dejected man, the redemption from the weight of sin and the return of masculine selfhood, to blithe pat-on-the-head condescension by a young itinerant carpenter saying "feel better, kid."  The subsequent healing is immediately, and rightfully, suspect.  Moderns might say, well, he wasn't really paralyzed, people in those days didn't have the medicine we have now, etc.

The word "child" tells the hearer that Jesus demeaned and infantilized the sufferer.  It tells men and women that Jesus sees people as little children.  We all know little children aren't really responsible for their actions; therefore, our sins are easily forgiven, because we're just kids and don't really know what we're doing.

No!  We are not children.  We are sons and daughters, and we sin, and suffer, and then flee from Jesus and all things Christian, because ... because ... why, exactly...?

Here's how I imagine it happened.  Jesus saw the man, being dragged on his bed by his friends, and knew what everyone was thinking, just as he knew what the scribes were thinking later.  Jesus knew the man's intense shame at being dragged out in public like that.  Maybe his limbs were drawn up awkwardly.  Maybe he hadn't been bathed or dressed or even changed, because his friends were in such a hurry to get him to Jesus. And in order to get him through the crowds, they naturally made a scene.  It was horrible.  Jesus knew that, and also knew the man's thought, his deep sense of sinfulness.  Only God knows what that was all about.  Jesus knew.  He looked at the poor fellow with love.  "Be of good heart, son.  Your sins are forgiven."

That, right there, would have been more than enough.  The paralytic forgot all about everything but the steady gaze of the strong carpenter standing before him.  Bed, body, dirt - none of it mattered at all.  The Son of man had just assured the child of God that the dark things were forgiven.

I've known those moments, thank God.  Words fail to describe the awe, the joy.

Possibly he was aware of Jesus saying something to the scribes who were watching.  Unexpectedly, Jesus turned back to him.  "Get up.  Take up your bed, and go to your house."  What??  Yet, somehow, it happened:  the muscles warmed and worked.  He stood up.  People gasped.  He sought Jesus' gaze once more.  Jesus, already busy with others, felt that look, and glanced back.  Warm, amused.  Then he disappeared into the crowd.

The man - strong again, whole, sure of himself - bent down, picked up the bedding, gathered it into his arms.  Standing tall, he walked through the crowd.  He held his head up high:  forgiven.

When we sin, and our ability to act is paralyzed, and we hurt and ache and suffer and fret, this account helps us remember that Jesus knows our need.  He sympathizes as no one else can.  He can restore, in all kinds of ways.

Take your heart to him.  Do not be afraid.  Submit it to his gaze.  He who made your heart cannot hate it, or you; only your rebellion, your doubt, your snark, the mean and selfish acts.  Allow him to clean your heart so it can move again, feel tenderness and love.  Let him touch you deep inside, in the place that's beyond the reach of medicine, therapists, loved ones:  your own, individual, unique self.

Too scary?

In prayer, ask Jesus to show you his hands.  Make yourself look at the gaping holes made by the huge blunt nails from which he hung on the cross.  Look at his side where the soldier thrust in the lance, to make sure Jesus was dead.  The wound is so large that Thomas was able to put his whole hand into it.

Admit it:  Jesus has the right to take care of your sins, your fear, your loss.

In fact, he already has.  But you must accept his love.

Be of good heart, daughter.  Be of good heart, son.

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