Sermons

Sun, Jan 20, 2019

Lost in translation

Series:Sermons

In Wales, road signs are put up both in English and in Welsh.

Normally, of course, there are no problems.

On occasion, however, when temporary signs have been erected…

it’s all gone horrible wrong.

There was a sign on the road between Cardiff and Penarth that read, in English:

“Cyclists dismount”;

but, in Welsh, it read, “Bladder disease has returned”.

Another, in English, read, “Warning! Blasting in progress”;

but the Welsh read, “Warning! Workers are exploding”.

Topping them all, however, was the sign that read, in English: 

“No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only”.

And I’ll let you work out how it happened, but the Welsh read:

“I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”.

 

All humour aside… 

translating something from one language into another can be extremely fraught.

Potentially, it could be physically dangerous.

It could also cause great cultural offence.

In all languages, words have a range of meanings and nuances…

and there is never an exact verbal equivalence.

Often, we only know what the sense of a particular word is because of its context…

either, because of the way that it’s used in a sentence or paragraph––

that is, because of it’s literary or linguistic context;

or, because of the word’s cultural context––

remembering that so much of the meaning of words comes from our culture…

and not from the word itself.

However, when we don’t have access to that culture––

for example, when we’re dealing with historical documents––

then we sometimes have to make guesses.

That frequently happens when people translate the New Testament.

And our reading, this morning, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians…

is a good example.

Most of our English translations go something like this:

“You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to dumb idols. Therefore, I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, “Let Jesus be cursed”, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord”, except by the Holy Spirit”.

Such a translation is rife with inaccuracies and with guesses.

Bear with me––

I’ll try not to get too technical in clearing up what Paul is saying here.

 

First, note the context.

He’s speaking about what happens in worship.

And he begins by referring to what they did before they became Christians––

when they were “pagans”––

claiming that they worshipped “dumb idols”…

or, if you like, gods that were not God.

The next word, “therefore”, is crucial.

It indicates that what he says next follows on from that and is dependant upon that.

Thus, they are not inspired by the Spirit of God… 

and are still behaving as “pagans”…

when they say, “Let Jesus be cursed”.

And this is the point where the translation gets reallydodgy.

The two contrasting sayings are direct parallels in the Greek.

Literally, “‘anathema’ Jesus” and “Lord Jesus”––

with most scholars translating the Greek word anathema, as “cursed”.

In both cases, there is no verb.

That’s not uncommon in Greek––

when it’s the verb ‘is’, it’s often omitted.

But that doesn’t happen with other parts of the verb ‘to be’.

So, at the very least, the two parallel expressions are “Jesus is ‘anathema’” and “Jesus is Lord”.

The next problem is translating the Greek ‘anathema’ as cursed. 

While, the word has come down to us in English with that meaning…

translating it as ‘cursed’, here, doesn’t make sense.

It’s hard to imagine any context… 

within which the Corinthian Christians would pronounce Jesus as ‘cursed’––

certainly not in the context of their worship.

And Paul’s language here…

especially in the Greek…

very clearly implies that this is something that is happening––

it’s not a hypothetical.

 

What translators have ignored is that that’s not the only meaning of the Greek word, anathema.

It can also mean a gift dedicated or sacrificed to a god.

It was especially used for a particular type of gift known as a ‘votive offering’.

And this is where the cultural context becomes critical.

Most of the members of the Corinthian church were Romans.

And, within Roman religion, one’s relationship with the gods was understood in a sort of commercial or contractual way.

There was even an expression for it…

which translates as “I give so that you give”.

In other words, for them, religion was a relationship of mutual obligation.

Gifts demanded reciprocation.

If a god did something for me, then I was obligated to do something for the god.

But it also worked the other way as well.

If I gave a gift to a god, then that god was obligated to give me something in return.

So there was this whole cultural phenomenon…

where people would place gifts in temples…

in order to secure some benefit from a god.

Now…

I think that makes more sense of what Paul is saying here.

So, let’s try translating it again...

“You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to dumb idols. Therefore, I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is a votive offering”, and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord”, except by the Holy Spirit”.

What Paul is contrasting, then, is two very different approaches to worship…

and two very different understandings of God.

The former presupposes a God who…

in real terms… 

exists to meet our needs;

or who can be manipulated to do so.

All I have to do is give something to God…

and God will reward me.

But especially to understand Jesus as a votive offering…

would seem to imply an attitude…

or a theology…

whereby Jesus was humanity’s gift to God…

in order to obligate God into saving us from hell and damnation.

Such an attitude…

such a way of thinking… 

Paul suggests, is not of God.

Instead, Paul claims the proper attitude is recognising that “Jesus is Lord”.

Now, within that world and culture…

that was both a religious and a political acknowledgment.

A common expression of allegiance was to say, “Caesar is Lord”.

It was an oath or a promise to be loyal subjects of the Empire.

Except, here, that oath or promise is to Christ.

It’s an acknowledgment that rather than God existing to meet human needs…

humans exist to ‘serve’ God’s purposes in the world.

What Paul is trying to suggest to the Corinthians…

is that faith in Jesus demands a radical change in their understanding of God…

and in their religious orientation.

 

Now, we live in a different world from the ancient Corinthians.

And yet, we face similar temptations.

How often do we think…

or act…

as if God exists to make me feel better…

to protect me from the bad things in life…

or to save me from hell and damnation after I die…

especially if I’m good…

or I believe the right things?

Such an attitude is one that has pervaded many of our religious traditions down the ages.

But it can also be more subtle than that.

When, subconsciously, we believe that God exists to meet our needs…

then it’s not much of a stretch to think of God as blessing our prejudices… 

our cravings… 

or our cultural and political biases.

 

If, however, we start to think that we exist for God…

then everything changes.

 

Powered by: truthengaged