“WHAT NEW TRANSLATIONS LEAD TO”
By: Rev. José F. Morales Jr., Transitional Regional Minister Of the Central Rocky Mountain Region Of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United Stated and Canada
Deuteronomy 10:1-6a (CEB)/2 Timothy 3:14-17 (CEB)/Psalm 1 (KJV)
Sermon preached during Opening Worship McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois Monday October 24, 2011 (McDays 2011)
I wanna tell you about my homeboy “J”. He’s real name is Jerome, but we used to call him “J” on the basketball court. Jerome was passionate about words; he was quite the linguist, quite the polyglot. And you know what he did with that gift? He went to two cities, Jerusalem and Rome, with a group of linguistically gifted linguists including women, and translated the Bible into Latin. St. Jerome, with this group of translators, gave us the Vulgate Bible.
Oh, I gotta tell you about my guy John. (We used to call him “J” too!) My dear friend, John, we were close. Before he passed away, we were Facebook friends. John liked to empower people. He believed that common folks should have power. And so he did what he could to see that happen: he translated the Bible into English. And boy, were the ‘powers that be’ mad at John Wycliffe!
And I gotta tell you about Tommy. Tommy was shy, kept to himself a lot. But Tommy held his own. He, like Wycliffe (who died, by the way, when Tommy was four years old)—he wanted to empower people too. So he devoted time to copying bibles; he copied the Bible at least four times— maybe more. And this copying, this closely engaging the text, led to a spiritual revolution for the church. You maybe have heard Tommy. I was close to him and so I could call “Tommy.” But you probably know him as Thomas a Kempis.
Before there was MLK, there was ML. And Martin Luther had just had it with his bosses. He felt that they were abusing their power, and that his people were on the receiving end of that abuse. He knew that in order to reform things, he needed, among other things, to equip the people with the Bible. And so a year after Luther got fired (aka excommunicated), he had published the Bible in German.
Martin’s friend, Eramus of Rotterdam (known in th hip hop/rap music scene as “E-Rott’)—you know—he was upset with the bosses too, but he neither quit nor got fired. But he felt like a massive change needed to happen; like the Church had loss its way, had forgotten its roots, and so he turned that Latin New Testament back into Greek.
A few years ago, not that long ago, some pesky Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples and even Evangelicals got the crazy idea for the Common English Bible.
The passage from Deuteronomy 10 that we just heard… well, I don’t know if you noticed but it mentioned that the people, as they prepared to go on their journey, carried a copy of the Ten Commandments with them: a written, bound copy. The closest thing they had to written scriptures. When it comes to the practice of writing down Sacred Story, Deuteronomy 10 is, well, as our very own Ted Heibert put it, "This is where it all began!"
What even more interesting for us today, especially in the context of celebrating the old King James and the new Common English Bible, is that they’re carrying a new copy of the Ten Commandments, a re-write, a second printing, not the King James tablets or the Vulgate tablets, but the CEB. The first tablets, after all, were smashed. Now, I'm not endorsing that we smash all the King James bibles in motel room nightstands, and that we launch an assault against the Gideons. Oh no! I still love my weekly dose of readings from the Psalms in the King James. Don't you smash my old tablets. But it is interesting that we see in Deuteronomy 10 the beginning of the printed scriptures and the re-printed scriptures.
Now... to be sure, the main point of Deuteronomy 10--and of all of Deuteronomy--is the journey, not the tablets, which is why I decidedly ended our reading with that parenthetical yet pertinent first sentence of verse 6: "Now, the Israelites had set out from Beeroth-bene-jaakan to Moserah..." It's about the journey. Remember, Church: Deutero-Moses is speaking (chapter 1, verse 5) from "beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab," about to enter the Promise Land. The point is the journey toward new life and transformation, toward true community and just neighborliness, toward the promise land.
The journey is the point; but this doesn't mean that the written scriptures they carry are pointless. Carrying the text mattered, especially in light of what happened right before taking off to Moserah. My ministry colleague from Denver Rabbi Rick Rheins notes, they were thinking of carrying a golden calf instead. A golden calf, that is: a god shaped in our image, a safe, do-it-yourself god, a god of convenience, instead of a God of covenant and conviction.
Conversely, the stone tablets they bore on the journey, and the God to whom they point--call for radical covenanting with a radical God: to a God who conquers pharoahs and the emancipates the enslaved; a God of abundance even in the wilderness, a God of quail and manna and water flowing from a rock; a God of justice and righteousness; a God who does the doing and the shaping; a God of covenant, a God of conviction. The stone tablets, the words inscribed on them, call for revival, renewal, revolution. Revival, renewal, revolution.
Oh but the tablets plot thickens! You see, this story of the writing down and re-writing down of the sacred story is couched within Deuteronomy, which is a re-write of the Law: a second telling, a new version or translation (dare I say), of the original. The story of the re-writing of the tablets is part of the re-reading of the Law.
So within the bible, we see the re-engaging of the text, the deutero-readings and -renderings of the Sacred Story; and how that spiritual practice can lead to renewed faith, to personal and communal revolution. A new version of written scriptures confronting a golden calf.
Oh but the Deuteronomy plot thickens even more! You see, the people our seminary president Frank Yamada hangs out with--that is, Old Testament scholars--believe that a scroll of Deuteronomy (or an early version of it) was found by King Josiah. And as the story goes, 2nd Kings 22, he was so moved inspired and moved by this revision, retreading, of the Law/Instruction/Torah that it led to an awakening, a renewal, revival, of Israel during his reign. 2 Kings 22.8,10-11--"The high priest Hilkiah told Shaphan the secretary: 'I have found the Instruction scroll in the LORD’s temple.' ... Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, 'Hilkiah the priest has given me a scroll,' and he read it out loud before the king... As soon as the king heard what the Instruction scroll said, he ripped his clothes." Thus... revival, renewal, revolution. Upon hearing the written word ("faith comes by hearing..."), King Josiah encountered the "true and lively Word...sharper than a two-edge sword," and the journey, the revival, the revolution, for Josiah and Israel begins. It does seem that every new revision, reading, rendition of the Sacred Story has led to revival, renewal, and revolution.
As the story goes, 72 elders gathered in the 3rd century BCE to translate the scriptures, eventually giving us the Septuagint. This early Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures revolutionized the Jewish faith. The Hebrew God learned Greek, became bilingual, cosmopolitan, global; and it transformed the intellectual-spiritual life of Judaism and gave impetus to that Faith's redheaded stepchild, Christianity.
Revival, renewal, revolution...I guess this is what new translations of the bible lead to.
St. Jerome's Vulgate Bible initiated a period of rich theological exploration, which enriched the Church throughout the Latin speaking world. It inspired the Church to re-engage its Book with vibrancy and imagination.
Revival, renewal, revolution...Apparently this is what new translations of the bible lead to.
John Wycliffe's English Bible did in fact give power to the people, and not just in England but as far as John Hus, the great reformer in Bohemia. A new translation empowering the people! So much so, that his critics declared: "The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity." Oh, this English bible become more than a toy for the impoverished laity of England; it become a platform, a catapult, for the Peasants' Revolt some years after Wycliffe's death: a revolt that called for justice and equality, a revolt fueled by the spirit of the Prophets, who because of Wycliffe, now spoke English.
Revival, renewal, revolution...So this is what new translations of the bible lead to.
Thomas a Kempis' reprinting of the Sacred Story, and his constant engagement with it, fostered the re-emergence of Word-centered spirituality, a spirituality embodied in Deuteronomy and by Christ, a spirituality that is still operative today, still energizing the Church today.
Revival, renewal, revolution... this is what re-readings of the bible lead to. Martin Luther and Eramus forced both ancient Catholicism and prepubescent Protestantism to re-examine the journey the Church was on. Erasmus, with his Greek New Testament, reminded us from whence we came; and Luther, with his German gospel, incarnated the word for a German people, reviving their collective faith and amplifying their collective voice.
Revival, renewal, revolution...I guess this is what new translations of the bible lead to.
We, the English speaking world, have before us a new translation, the Common English Bible.
So… what revolution, what revival, will the Common English Bible spark? What revival …must!... the Common English Bible spark? Because we the Church are due for a revival! Oh, the Common English Bible has come to us at just the right time because we are... due... for a revival!
Our sterile state may be due to our lazy settling for a first reading and then putting it down. But it is when we stop re-reading that we get into trouble; after all, static, archaic readings lead to static, archaic faith. And this static faith has got us stuck, stuck...in cartoonish conservatism and impotent liberalism...in rigid fundamentalism and flimsy liberalism...bibliolatry on one end and biblical allergy on the other. Static faith, faith content with a first reading, has ironically led to a biblical illiteracy incapable of sustaining us for our journey. The journey, after all, is the point.
Yet the book of Deuteronomy reminds us that vibrant, dynamic faith--faith capable of sustaining us for the journey--always requires a “second” reading. Our Faith at its best is deutero-nomic. This is why Paul admonish Timothy to "... continue--continue!--with the things you have learned and found convincing." And this is why the first Psalm praises the one who (verse 2) meditates on the law. Meditation is nothing less than the openness to second readings; meditation is deutero-nomic in nature. Meditation fosters fruitful faith:
"And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season..." As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “The Law is not an end but a beginning… It continues to scatter seeds of justice and compassion…" The fruit, after all, is the point.
Our great, deutero-nomic Rabbi Jesus inspired dynamic faith by doing his own second reading of the Law in his Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said… But I say…” And to this day, his readings invite re-readings, his second looks continues to scatter seeds of justice and compassion.
Maybe, I hope, the Common English Bible will inspire us to take a second look. For it seems that every second look has led to revival, renewal, and revolution.
And what revival, what renewal, should our second look initiate? Where should we be headed in our journey after re-encountering the Sacred Story?
Well, if we choose to journey with Israel from Beeroth to Moserah , and get to the middle of this Instruction Scroll that shaked King Josiah at his core, we encounter some of the most radical social teaching--radical re-ordering of life--in all of Scripture: we find a radical gospel that calls for the year of release where all debt is cancel, a prophetic command that holds those in power in check, and an adamant call for justice for widows, orphans and resident aliens. And... we encounter a call for a deeper, intimate relationship with God through worship and praise!
May this be our journey! Upon re-reading the Story...May we stand against the pharoahs that enslave the human family! May we tear down the strongholds of exploitation and bondage! May we rebuke the demonic -isms and phobias that dehumanize our sisters and brothers! May we stand with the widows and orphans, with the outcasts and aliens, with the ones this world labeled 'unclean' and 'illegal.' May we have a holy impatience for injustice! May we may leave our golden calf of self-centeredness and journey with this reviving, renewing, revolutionary God! ...May we worship God with song and dance, with prayed spoken and enacted! ...May we serve God with blended knee and dirty fingernails!
"Now, the Israelites had set out from Beeroth to Moserah..."
The journey is indeed the point. So, Church, let's go! Let's join the caravan! We've got work to do. Let's go...And please... please... bring your bibles.