Sunday, May 22, 2005

They doubted

It is one little phrase, found in the Great Commission of Matthew, 28:17:

My rough translation-And when they saw him, they (paid close attention to/held on to/gave themselves to), but they doubted.

In the majority of translations out there, this verse is, more elegantly, translated as: And when they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.

A translation is an interpretation. Throughout our human experience of being in dialogue with Scripture, we have taken the words in Greek and Hebrew, and tried to render faithful translations into other tongues, striving to discern the intent and purpose of the writers, redactors and interpreting communities. Nothing is more basic to a beginning of understanding-we have to be able to read the words before we can begin to understand them, and not everyone can or should spend several years in school learning Koine Greek and Classical Hebrew. So, most people are dependent upon translators. And most translators do their best to acknowledge their preexisting biases and understanding of Scripture before they begin to grind Greek into English (or any other language). Parthenos can be read either as virgin, or as unmarried girl; it definitely makes a difference which word the translators choose to be understood as meant by the writer. On the one hand, we get a miracle-on the other, a socially unacceptable but perfectly natural situation.

I’m an amateur in translating NT Greek, but in this case, I think my translation is the more accurate, based on the rule of simplicity taught me by my Greek professor. You don’t add words to the meaning if they are not there, or, in some cases (which aren’t as common as one would think), clearly implied by traditional usage. The words, oi de edistasan, translate simply as “but they doubted.” There is a distinct word in Greek for “some”: tis. If you want to be picky, it can also mean: anyone, anything, someone, something, any, a certain, several. It isn’t in this Greek text, or in any variants of this text yet discovered. If the author of the text that came to be known as the Euangelion, “good news” or “gospel,” of Matthew had meant that some doubted, “he” could have easily said so. Some certainly did doubt; apparently all of them did.

So, why “some”? Why is it the overwhelming tendency to understand this verse as implying that some of the disciples doubted, but some did not? Is it to posit that at least of few of those knuckle headed disciples had attained a perfect faith? If they could do it, there is certainly hope for the rest of us. This would be my suspicion.

But I still prefer my translation because it takes into account that we journey both in faith and in doubt. In the context of the Great Commission, the risen Christ is giving his authority, to speak of God and to live in God, to the disciples. They, in turn, are to take this authority and their faith and go into the world, sharing this experience of God and offering a new understanding of our relationship with God and with each other. If they had to wait until their faith was perfect, very little would have gotten done. As a side note, the only other time this word for “doubt” is used in the NT is also in Matthew. The context is that of Peter walking out onto the stormy sea. When he doubts, he sinks. But Peter, who comes across as having major impulse control issues in all of the gospels, is so very emblematic of humanity. We plunge ahead in faith and in doubt.

A cornerstone of Weslean theology is that we are “going on to perfection, by faith in grace.” The assumption is that one can achieve perfection in this life. Indeed, one of the traditional ordination questions asked of candidates for ministry is “Are you going on to perfection in this life?” (hint-the correct answer is “yes”). As to what “perfection” means, that is a topic worthy of discussion in its own post. But this understanding of our relationship with God is that we are always striving to be made perfect. I find this an interesting juxtaposition of active and passive verbs. And to me, it has always implied that a relationship with God that perfectly reflects God’s relationship with me is something we all journey towards, in faith that it is desirable and achievable. But it never implies that we park our doubts at the door. We carry them with us, but make the journey anyway. We know that people can’t trot across the surface of the water, but we give it the old college try, for a moment. We realize how ridiculous it is to expect that humanity will ever be at peace in our relationships with each other, but we continue on working for it, occasionally giving our lives for it.

This text from Matthew, in my own translation, acknowledges that our doubts are part and parcel of who we are and they go on the journey with us. Call them baggage, if you like, but I guess I rather think of them as windows of opportunity. Opportunities for God to reach out to us, remind us of God’s presence, and pull us closer.

God of now and then and in between, we give our deepest thanks that you are the God of our hearts and the God of our history. You promised to be with us always, even to the end of time. Remind us that your “always” is past, present, and future. But Lord, even knowing that, we confess that “in the meantime” living is not easy for us, for today some of us are fragile. Some of us are remembering painful moments or feeling alone. Some of us struggle for direction and discernment. Some of us are longing for the past or wishing the future would come quickly. We know you love us but we waver, even as we worship. O God, we knew your faithfulness yesterday. Assure us of your presence today. Empower us to live as your disciples. Amen.

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