We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Matthew 5:3

As best we can tell, Jesus did not go up to a high place, sit down, call his disciples to him, and start preaching the "sermon on the mount."  Instead, the author of Matthew collected the oral traditions of Jesus' teachings, sorted them out, and arranged them according to what seemed most appropriate.  Let us credit this author with a desire to be faithful to those teachings so that this arrangement itself reflects them to the best of the author's ability.

That being said, we need to acknowledge the fact that we face a major obstacle in our reading of the sermon if we want to hear what Jesus originally taught.  Jesus spoke first century Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew.  Matthew is in Koine Greek, which was the language of the common folks in that era.  We read it today in English or in Thai, which are a long, long way culturally and contextually from Aramaic.

Let's take just the phrase, "poor in spirit" in Matthew 5:3.  What does it mean?  Commentators tell us that the ancient Greek phrase, πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, is open to interpretation and they differ in their interpretations.  Similarly, the Thai phrase, บกพร่องฝ่ายจิตวิญญาณ, raises all sorts of questions especially in the cultural contexts of Thailand itself.  And in standard, every day English, the phrase is a bit weird.  It sounds rather churchy.  We could get into a long debate about the word, "spirit," and what it actually means in English.  In all of this, we do not know what Jesus actually taught about the "poor in spirit."  No cameras were rolling, no tape recorders were held up, and no one took notes.  All we have is a Greek version of what he was remembered decades later to have taught, which we then try to push and shove into modern day languages like Thai and English.

This is what incarnation is about.  The Spirit works through our convoluted, complex, often dumb human ways of doing things—like having all of these ancient and modern languages that we are constantly trying to interpret into each other.  Our faith is that the Spirit quietly and persistently communicates deeper meanings through all of this, meanings that are important to us today and are in their own way faithful to the spirit of what Jesus taught 2000 years ago in an obscure West Asian dialect.

What we are left with, then, is the necessity of relying on that quiet tug and pull of the Spirit somehow incarnate in this whole process of conveying first century Aramaic meanings into our modern languages.  We are left with faith.  And when we do our best to listen faithfully in the Spirit, what we first discover is that actually we've been given the gift of a rich variety of potential meanings all of which seem headed in the same general direction.  Those meanings build on each other, inform each other, and bring us in the end to a central truth of our Christian faith: Inversion.  Jesus turned everything upside down—and still does.  Stay tuned.