It’s easy to lose the meaning of what you try to say when your words are translated into a different language and a different culture. Kentucky Fried Chicken got off to a bad start opening a franchise in China when their slogan, “Finger-lickin’ good,” was translated, “Eat your fingers off.” And a Swedish company missed the mark trying to highlight its vacuum cleaner’s high power with a slogan that in English became, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”
So of course it’s difficult to translate into our idiom, across 4,500 years of linguistic and cultural differences, what the scriptures teach us about how to live well, about how to live in what we call the kingdom of heaven, the “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” that Jesus said was the reason for his coming (John 10:10 The Message).
Your time of waiting and yearning for that abundant life is over, he said (Mark 1:14-15). Life better than you could ever dream of is spread out on the earth (Gosp. Thomas, log. 113). Open your eyes, and see it. Learn from me how to live well. And “great crowds followed him” from all over the country, and he taught them where to find that life and how to live it (Matt. 4:23–5:2).
So why don’t we see it, and why don’t we live it? Have we lost something in the translation? We’re making an effort, and God must see our effort, like God saw the effort of Israel around the time of their Exile. “They come to my Temple every day,” God said, “and seem delighted to hear my laws. They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf. ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. [‘We have tried diligently to practice our religion.’] ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have done much penance, and you don’t even notice it’” (Isa. 58:2-3a NLT).
And God answered them in a way that’s easy to translate, easy to understand. “I’ll tell you why,” God said! “It’s because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting [even while you’re practicing your religion]. You keep right on oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is that what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord” (Isa. 58:3b-5 NLT)?
Joining a church; attending worship on Sunday mornings; putting your loose change in the offering plate; reading your Upper Room every morning; meeting in your little prayer-and-study group; holding a fundraiser to support the church budget: These things all sound good and may even help. Any one of them can be a good place to start, but they’re no place to stop. They leave us in the situation of the little boy who fell out of bed one night. As he was being comforted by his mother, she asked him how the accident happened, and he said, “I guess I just lay down to close to where I got in.” Perhaps the biggest problem we face as members of the church, is that we’re always laying down too close to where we got in. We forget Garrison Keillor’s observation that belonging to a church doesn’t make you Christian any more than parking yourself in a garage makes you an automobile.
The practice of our religion is helpful, even necessary. But unless it changes our way of living in society; unless it leads us to correct the social and economic injustice that builds privilege for a few upon the continuing disadvantage of the many; unless it provides for an equitable redistribution of wealth so that no one has more than they need and no one has less than enough; unless it leads us to create a political system that puts an end to the oppression of anyone who is disadvantaged; unless our practice of religion feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, houses the homeless, heals the sick, gives the prisoner a way out of prison, provides hospitality to the stranger and sojourner among us – unless we do these things, all of our prayers and petitions to God, all of our favorite faith practices, will fall on deaf ears. We will look and look and never see the abundant life that God has spread all around us, and we will never learn how to live as well as God creates us to live.
But in telling us where to find the abundant life we seek – among the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted – Jesus also told us how to live that life well – instructions that often are lost in translation. And for that I turn to Elias Chacour, former archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and All Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Knowing Aramaic, the language of Jesus,” Chacour wrote, “has greatly enriched my understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Because the Bible as we know it is a translation of a translation, we sometimes get a wrong impression. For example, we are accustomed to hearing the Beatitudes expressed passively: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied; blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” and so forth.
But the original word for blessed, Chacour wrote, “does not have this passive quality to it at all. Instead, it means ‘to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, repent; to become straight or righteous’. . . . When I understand Jesus’ words in the Aramaic,” Chacour continued, “I translate like this: Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied. Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.
“To me,” Chacour wrote, “this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately. I can hear him saying, ‘Get your hands dirty to build a human society for human beings; otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless.’ Christianity is not passive but active, energetic, alive, going beyond despair” (from Chacour’s book, We Belong to the Land).
How do we live well? How do we realize God’s blessings in our life? How do live the more and better life than we ever dreamed of having? We get up, go ahead, move, do something, get our hands dirty building a human society for human beings, all of them, especially those who are living farthest away from it now.