During the last year and a half of pandemic life, I found a new hobby. I started translating the Bible. I began intending to paraphrase it to make it accessible to my kids, to address some issues with traditional word choice for certain ideas, like ‘faith,’ that serve to distract from the intended meaning rather than draw us closer to it. I meant to work based on several English translations and check in with the Greek to clarify specific words and phrases.
I quickly discovered I couldn’t keep doing that, that I was finding too much new meaning and understanding by looking carefully at the Greek. What started as a project for my kids has been a large undertaking that is leading me into new understanding of the Bible, Jesus, and what it means to be human.
A friend, Brandon Rhodes, and I began a podcast called Found in Translation where we talk through what I’ve been finding there and highlighting specific words and phrases of how I handle the translation in particular ways, sometimes choosing between existing translation decisions and sometimes translating in ways I haven’t found anyone else do in those places. Whether others actually care about the information or not, Brandon and I have had a blast getting a chance to talk with each other regularly and wrestle with the ideas.
I’ve also had the opportunity to share the insights I’ve been finding with my church community. I started my translation project in Matthew, and our church has been teaching through Matthew every Sunday for the past several months. I don’t teach every week, but about every six weeks or so, I have the opportunity to share what I’m discovering in the scriptures by diving deeper into the Greek language and then reflecting on it prayerfully.
I decided to share here what I’ve been sharing with my church community. I want to take the time to put my reflections into a more organized space. I think I’ve found things worth meditating on, and finding words to communicate the ideas helps me clarify them for myself as well.
For the passages that I have shared teaching with my church community, I am going to post the text of what I taught. For the passages in between, I’m going to do a shorter reflection, finding words to clarify how I’m understanding these passages after looking into them so carefully. I hope you find it helpful for you. I know it will be helpful for me.
Here is the teaching I gave on the very beginning of Matthew. It covers the first 17 verses, which can be difficult to teach on since it’s a genealogy, but I think I stumbled onto ideas worth exploring, even in that short section.
The full life in God we aspire to requires both lamenting the suffering in our own lives, the lives of others, and the pain of all creation. It also requires finding beauty, gratitude, love, and joy in all those places. It’s so difficult to do, and even more difficult to do alone, but every time we practice together, we can experience the mystery of holding both at the same time, and that experience makes it more possible each time.
The Magnificat, Mary’s Song, Luke 1:46-55
My soul glorifies the Lord,Common Prayer, https://commonprayer.net/evening-prayers, by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The Lord looks on me a lowly servant; henceforth all ages will call me blessed.
The Almighty works marvels for me. Holy is God’s name!
God’s mercy is from age to age, on those who are faithful.
God puts forth an arm in strength and scatters the proud-hearted.
Casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly.
God fills the hungry with good things, sends the rich away empty.
Protecting Israel, God’s servant, remembering mercy,
the mercy promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham, Sarah and their children for ever.
The words of the Magnificat are a great example. The hungry exist. The ‘lowly’ which we would probably call ‘marginalized’ in the vocabulary we’re more used to, exist. We can and should grieve those things. But we can and should also celebrate that God fills them up too. That God cares for Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants forever. And we get to participate in that.
Here are words appropriate for reflecting at the final vision of all things being remade into a world that is good through and through, New Creation present and future:
Revelation 21:1-7 (NRSV):
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
On Friday, we honored when Jesus was on the cross and declared his work to be done. Today we celebrate Christ declaring the struggle completed and death being no more, that people will live with God and God will be with them, giving the water of life.
Most of the rest of chapters 21 and 22 are a vision of the New Jerusalem, an image of the Divine Reign literally being on earth as it has been in heaven.
That vision, I believe, is another way to share what Jesus taught and was pointing to in his teaching and serving during his life. The Sermon on the Mount is a blueprint, not of a city, but of a people and a way of life together.
In fact, the whole book of Matthew is meant to be a message of enacting Jubilee. Matthew was a tax collector, whose life where he wasn’t living justly, wasn’t living the way of the Lord, the way of Christ, was largely about greed and exploiting the marginalized. There are many ways to focus the narrative of Jesus’ life and teaching, and it makes sense that Matthew would do it through the lens of justice for the poor and marginalized.
I’m going to start us off in Matthew 1 today, just the introduction to the story, but it’s an introduction worth noticing the fine print, reading between the lines a bit. The translation below is my own. If you’re interested in reading the footnotes I included that explain some of the decisions and what is happening in the original language or are curious about to look at other sections of Matthew, you can view the whole book here:
1 Here’s a record of the origina of Jesus, who is the Messiah,b descended from David and from Abraham:
2 Abraham fathered Isaac, and Isaac fathered Jacob. Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers. 3 Judah and Tamar were the parents of Perez and Zerah, Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, 4 Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, 5 and Salmon fathered Boaz. Boaz and Ruth were the parents of Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, 6 and Jesse was the father of King David.
David and Bathsheba (who was Uriah’s wife) were the parents of Solomon, 7 Solomon fathered Rehoboam, Rehoboam fathered Abijah, Abijah fathered Asa, 8 Asa fathered Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat fathered Joram, Joram fathered Uzziah, 9 Uzziah fathered Jotham, Jotham fathered Ahaz, Ahaz fathered Hezekiah, 10 Hezekiah fathered Manasseh, Manasseh fathered Amon, Amon fathered Josiah, 11 and Josiah fathered Jeconiah and his brothers when the people were captured and stolen away to Babylon.
12 After they were captured and stolen away to Babylon, Jeconiah fathered Shealtiel, Shealtiel fathered Zerubbabel, 13 Zerubbabel fathered Abiud, Abiud fathered Eliakim, Eliakim fathered Azor, 14 Azor fathered Zadok, Zadok fathered Achim, Achim fathered Eliud, 15 Eliud fathered Eleazar, Eleazar fathered Matthan, Matthan fathered Jacob, 16 and Jacob fathered Joseph. Joseph was Miriam’sc husband, the Miriam who birthed Jesus who is called Messiah. 17 Therefore, there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the forced relocation to Babylon, and fourteen from the forced relocation to Babylon to the Messiahd.e
There are three main things I take away from this section. Honestly, they’re pretty obscured by time and cross-cultural realities.
First: the declaration that Jesus is the Christ, Messiah, Anointed one in the line of David and Abraham. Essentially, this is trying to tell us that Jesus is a crucial point in the story of God’s people. The story that starts with Abraham with a family that would match the stars in the sky, that would bless the people of the whole earth. Jesus brings that story to a fuller reality. It’s also the story of a Divinely guided reign, leading the people in the way of the Lord, yet as we know, the rulers meant to love like God didn’t. Jesus is bringing this story also to a fuller reality. Jesus is the one appointed to guide the family back to its purposes.
Second, genealogy is a story. In our culture, we use them as data. And reading you a long line of data in the form of a list of names sounds like a really boring thing to do. Most of our instincts when we get to a genealogy in Scripture is to skim or even skip it. The whole first 9 chapters of Chronicles is genealogy. It’s hard to get through. But that’s partly because of cultural differences and frankly, biblical illiteracy. The readers of Chronicles and Matthew were meant to be so familiar with all the names in these genealogies that it wouldn’t be boring but like a retelling of all the stories they knew. Every name is supposed to call to mind the stories of those people. It’s a way to summarize story after story when time and space on the page (or scroll) is short. In Chronicles, it summarizes all of human history from Adam up to David, where it slows down and tells David’s story more fully before moving on to the stories of the Kings of Judah.
Here in Matthew, it does something similar, from Abraham to Jesus. It’s meant show the connecting thread between all these people, to emphasize that it’s not just a series of random individuals who happen to be related but one continuing story. It has a beginning, a middle… and then we slow down to see how it ends.
Even more interesting, and unprecedentedly, it includes women, Gentiles, immigrants receiving social services, a sex worker. It includes both people who seemingly deserve to make up the lineage of the long-awaited Messiah, like Abraham and David, and those who seem like they should be swept under the rug because they would do nothing but contaminate the bloodline. But they’re not there begrudgingly, included because they’re inconvenient facts. They were chosen to be included, added contrary to cultural norm. They’re here ON PURPOSE. They ADD value, not take it away. Jesus’ whole message is about God’s values being incomprehensible to how human cultures based on power and status determine value. Jesus includes the marginalized in his reign as integral parts, not as defects or afterthoughts.
Third, the numbers don’t add up. David seems to count twice, or Jehoiachim is missing, or… in either case, the claim of three sets of 14 perfectly spaced doesn’t quite work. It’s close, but not quite. The point of 3 sets of 14 it is intentional though. It also happens to be the same as 6 sets of 7. Seven being the number of completion, it’s no accident that Jesus brings us to the 7th set of 7.
Not only is that a general indication that Jesus is inaugurating the completion of God’s work begun with Abraham, which it is, but it’s also pointing to something else.
It’s a reference to Leviticus 25 (NRSV):
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. 3 Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. 6 You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; 7 for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.
8 You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. 10 And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. 11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. 12 For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
The rest of the chapter goes on to give more details of how to handle things to make this plan work and why it’s important. It includes things like voiding all land sales, redistributing the land fairly across all families every 50 years. It includes people taking each other in to provide if anyone “falls into difficulty” (there’s no question of why they fell into difficulty and if it’s an approved reason or not…). Sales must be fair. If someone buys land 5 years before the Jubilee, it’s supposed to be prorated accordingly compared to a sale that happens 40 years before the Jubilee. It prohibits people being enslaved because of debt. They can work to pay back debt, but all debts must be forgiven at Jubilee. And immigrants who don’t know about Jubilee must be compensated fairly anyway.
What’s the rationale? “so that you may live on the land securely.” It goes on to say not to worry about how they’re going to provide. Yes, it seems counterintuitive. How’s that going to work? There won’t be enough food in the sabbatical years or the Jubilee years! It’ll throw the economy into chaos! But according to scripture, it’s a necessary component of living securely. We must care for the land and our livestock and each other and ourselves in rest and trust. We must care for each other and prioritize justice for all and not just accumulating more and more for those who are privileged to have things go their way.
And that is the good news about Jesus according to Matthew. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the divinely appointed prophet-priest-ruler who brings the promise to Abraham to fruition and the vision of David to reality. Jesus is living proof that that story and its promises are for everyone, especially the marginalized. Jesus is the beginning of the end, the end of disregarding the way of the Lord in favor of the way of power and exclusion. The end to disregarding Jubilee.
Now, if you were paying attention to the math, Jesus isn’t the Jubilee, but he begins the final countdown toward it. He completed the 6th set of 7, preparing for those who came afterward to be the 7th set of 7 generations.
There’s no historical record that Israel ever actually followed the instructions for a Jubilee year from Leviticus 25. Not Israel or Judah, Egypt or Persia, Assyria or Babylon, Greece or Rome or the United States. And we can’t live securely on the land until we do. Jubilee is justice. Jubilee is freedom. Jubilee is love. Jubilee is truly living.
Jesus’ teaching and his example and his death and resurrection and all the rest of what the Word speaks to us is the way toward Jubilee. The sermon on the mount is the manifesto. Jesus ushers in the next set of seven generations in the genealogy, and those of us who follow are the generations after that, leading finally to completion when all creation will share a Jubilee, and when that happens the New Heaven and New Earth, with the New Jerusalem laid out with gates that never close and filled with whole groves of trees of life along the banks of a river of the water of life will take shape.
Our call is to follow, to be the next generations in that seventh set of seven generations and carry us closer to Jubilee. To live the type of life Jesus lived and do the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s how we get through the six cycles of oppression and violence and injustice in Revelation to see chapters 21 and 22 to be and see and rest and share New Creation.