Monday, January 2, 2012

Why Even of Yourselves Judge Ye Not What Is Right?

I've been reading the New Testament lately. This time (this is something like my dozenth time reading it through from beginning to end) I've decided to read the gospels in order of composition -- at least, in so far as the scholars are able to discern order of composition. So I started with the Gospel of Mark, then moved to Matthew. I'm in Luke right now and then will move on to John. I'm also supplementing my reading of the four canonical gospels with other extra-canonical texts, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of James, Dialogue of the Savior, the Gospel of Mary, etc. There's a book out, edited by Robert J. Miller, entitled The Complete Gospels that has a lot of these references together under one cover. This book includes a reconstruction of the so-called "Q" Gospel based on an analysis of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the so-called "Signs" Gospel based on a careful reading of the Gospel of John. Whether or not all of the assumptions these scholars made in creating these "reconstructed" gospels are correct or not, they make fascinating reading and are definitely useful.

The Complete Gospels provide new translations of the four canonical gospels, with footnotes that draw readers' attention to divergences between different available texts, highlight translation problems and provide historical or cultural context. The translation, the "Annotated Scholars Version," also represents an attempt to translate the gospels into idiomatic American English. So, for example, in Luke 12:59, what is translated in King James as "till thou hast paid the very last mite" is translated in the ASV as "until you've paid every last red cent." Despite having lost the solemn cadences of the King James version, this translation isn't obnoxious like the "Good News" translation, which sounds like a 1970s hippy version of the Bible. (Yuck! I can't bear that version.) The goal of the ASV translators was to tip off the readers when the original Greek is more edgy or colloquial (as it tends to be in the Gospel of Mark) or more eloquent and formal (as it tends to be in the Gospel of John), and it more or less works.

If you grew up like me never reading anything but King James, I highly recommend trying different translations, if only because I've found that it breaks me out of certain mental ruts. Sometimes a different translation of a familiar phrase will help me to see things I've never noticed before. Reading the ASV, there have been numerous occasions when I've been startled by a particular verse. I've found myself asking, "Does it really say that in the Bible?" I'll check it against the King James, and sure enough, it says that. But I'd never noticed it before, probably because I'd become so accustomed to reading the text in a certain way: to see certain words or phrases and ignore others. To see the text the way I'd been trained to see it. And the new translation bumped me out of the rut, and helped me to see words, phrases and meanings I'd never seen before, even having read it a dozen times.


I experienced an example of this earlier today, in my study of Luke chapter 12. In verse 57, I found these startling words tumbling from the lips of Jesus, as he taught a rather unruly crowd on his way to Jerusalem:

Why can't you decide for yourselves what is right?

Say what?? That sounded like Jesus had just scolded the people for not thinking for themselves. And that didn't sound like anything I'd ever read in the Bible before.

So, as usual when I've stumbled across an odd turn of phrase in my ASV, I cracked open my King James to see what the seventeenth-century translators had made of this verse. (And to compare the ASV with the words I'd accustomed myself to reading!) I've used the KJV translation as the title of this post: "Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?" Sure enough, that sounds like Elizabethan English for "Why can't you think for yourselves?"

So the next question is, How can I have missed this every single other of the dozen or so times I've read the New Testament cover-to-cover?

When I examined it in context, it became obvious to me. This verse immediately precedes the following, which I'll quote in its entirety:

When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison. I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite. (vs. 58-59)

Now, I've always read this passage rather literally. I'd always assumed that Jesus was here advising people to settle their disputes out of court. This passage had always sounded to me very similar to the Apostle Paul's admonition in 1 Corinthians 6: 1-8 that members of the Church should not sue each other. It also sounded to me something like Christ's teaching in 3 Nephi that "he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil" (3 Nephi 11:29). I'd become so accustomed to reading these verses in that light, that my brain had more or less gone on auto-pilot as I approached the end of Luke chapter 12. I skipped right over the statement in verse 57, assuming that I already knew the moral of this story. It was the ASV that -- by throwing Jesus' words at me in a slightly different way -- had helped me to see what verse 57 actually said on its own merit, and in turn, to see the verses following in a dramatically different light.

Now, there's another curious verse earlier in this same chapter which should have prepared me to read verse 57 differently. It's a verse that has always somewhat troubled and annoyed me. It's the part in verses 13-15, where a man comes to Jesus and says, "Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me." Jesus' response: "Who made me a judge or a divider over you?"

Now, this sounds very similar to what Jesus says in verse 57. Essentially, Jesus is saying to this man, You need to learn to solve your own problems.

Jesus doesn't leave him entirely without advice. He follows his retort with an admonition about the dangers of covetousness -- of materialism. He drives the point home through the parable of the rich man who built a bigger barn, and thought he could now rest easy because of all his material possessions. "But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" (v. 20). And the moral: "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (v. 21).

Now this is a powerful moral... And, again, that's what I'd always focused on in reading this section of this chapter of Luke. Those words "Who made me a judge or a divider over you?" always troubled me, because it ran contrary to the conventional view of Jesus among Christians. Most Christians believe that Christ is the ultimate judge of all of us. Wouldn't it be legitimate to turn to the Divine Judge incarnate in search of justice? Yet, here Jesus begins his teaching with the quip, You need to learn to solve your own problems.

So the discussion at the end of the chapter about settling with your adversary in the way before he takes you to the judge, I realized, is actually a kind of parable. Like all of Jesus' parables, it functions at multiple layers of meaning. On the one hand, this is indeed a teaching against covetousness, materialism, and contention. It is indeed a warning that if we can't find a higher road in the conflicts that naturally arise between us, the end result can be ugly. We can lose, and big time, when we fight each other rather than learn to make peace with each other. But, I also for the first time saw a different layer of meaning here.

This is actually also a parable about the dangers of surrendering one's personal moral judgment to an external authority. Jesus begins the teaching with an explicit statement: Why can't you learn to think for yourselves? The discussion of settlements and judges is actually a parable through which Jesus says, in essence, when you surrender moral judgment to an external authority, you become a prisoner. And you won't get out of prison till you've paid the very last mite (or as the ASV puts it, "every last red cent"). This is about the cost of regaining one's moral bearings, once one has surrendered one's judgment.

This runs so deeply contrary to the conventional image of God, in which we imagine that God despises independent thought. Here we see a Jesus who, twice in one chapter, demands that we solve our own problems and think for ourselves.

For Mormons, this shouldn't be shocking. We have a wealth of scripture that provides a corrective image of God; an image in which the central bone of contention between God and Satan hinges on the whole question of human agency. Satan was cast out because God insisted on a plan governed by human freedom. A plan in which we learn to grow and develop and think for ourselves.

There's a difference, of course, between thinking for ourselves and thinking only of ourselves. And it's precisely in this direction that Jesus points, when he accompanies admonitions to be independent with admonitions against contention and against materialism. The true way to spiritual maturity and independence is a way of putting others first, of accepting responsibility, of taking up one's cross. Luke 12 also contains a very interesting discussion in which Jesus acknowledges the difficulty of this way, when he says:

I have a baptism to be baptized with: and how I am straitened till it be accomplished! (v. 50)

(Compare with the ASV translation that puts it a bit more plainly: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and what pressure I'm under until it's over!")

If Jesus was showing us the way forward into spiritual maturity, then this quote -- which might under other circumstances sound self-indulgent -- is his way of saying, This isn't easy.

But the way forward, if we take it, is a way of trust. That's what all these verses in this same chapter about sparrows and lilies of the field are all about. Jesus wants us to learn to judge for ourselves, to strive for moral discernment. But that doesn't mean we don't need to learn to trust in God in some very ultimate sense. In fact, the only way is to trust completely in God as provider. In other words to let go. That's the definition of faith.


Anonymous said...


I discovered your blog just yesterday and have found your posts to be very fascinating reading, even theologically I don't necessarily agree with you on many things. Looks like you've lived a very interesting life.

With regard to Bible translations, it may be of interest to the Latter-Day Saints in particular that the new edition of the popular NIV (known for its Reformed and anti-catholic bias) has removed the word "saint" entirely from their translation of the Bible.

Personally with regard to Bible comparison, I find comparing an English translation of the Septuagint text with a translation of the Masoretic text of the Old Testament (usually NKJV or ESV) to be enlightening and interesting, especially when it comes to the work and person of Jesus Christ, the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. Much was lost in the decision of the translators of the authorized (KJV) to use the corrupted Masoretic text as the basis of their translation.

Jeff H.

P.S. I sent you a personal message on your Facebook account.

J G-W said...

Hey Jeff, thanks! I checked my Facebook account and didn't find a message. I wonder if you tried messaging an old, deactivated account?

Thanks for the tip on translations!

alan said...

I've always thought that the moral principles of the historical Jesus were far more inspiring than what most modern-day Christians depict him as saying. Since you're also reading the gnostic gospels, I would point you to Mary 4: 25-29:

25) Peter said to him [Jesus], Since you have explained everything to us, tell us this also: What is the sin of the world?

26) The Savior said There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called sin.

27) That is why the Good came into your midst, to the essence of every nature in order to restore it to its root.

28) Then He continued and said, That is why you become sick and die, for you are deprived of the one who can heal you.

29) He who has a mind to understand, let him understand.


Here we learn that "sin" is not what God says it is, to follow incontrovertibly; rather, sin concerns the realm of humans who must themselves decide what sin is for their own good and health. This kind of "Christian morality" I can stomach, but it seems out of like with anything I hear most Christians talking about.

Yes, Mormons have their different spin on the Garden of Eden story: that the "fall" was "good" because it began the whole story, including the human right to agency. But it seems Mormons put "agency" in service of "choosing what God wants for us," as opposed to "choosing what we want for ourselves, which God wants for us when it's good, and doesn't want for us when it's bad."

J G-W said...

I'm familiar with the Gospel of Mary... I actually have more than one published edition of it and have read it a few times.

I'm not sure I would read those particular verses from the same perspective you have... I'm not entirely sure Jesus is saying here that human beings "decide" what is right and what is wrong. It sounds much more to me like he says that we create sin when we act in a way that is out of harmony with our nature, and when we distort relationships with our desire. (It sounds very Buddhist or yogic to me...!)

But I agree with your take on free agency. There is ample scriptural support for the notion that free agency is very much about us deciding what we want, and then accepting the responsibility that comes with seeking that out.

alan said...

Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to imply that we "decide" what is right and wrong down to the core of the issue. For example, no matter how much I want crunching glass to be healthy for me and good for my teeth, it's not. Still, what concerns the human world of health and "sin" is something humans must figure out on their own in every time. The Bible is a good reference for how ancient peoples came to such decisions, but a lot of modern-day Christians assume Biblical morality to be ahistorical. They refuse to look at any moral context other than "what God said" (when in reality, passages concerning "sin" like those found in Leviticus are actually not about what God said at all, but about what humans decided for themselves).

J G-W said...

Yeah... I see... "Decide" is an ambiguous word. It can have the meaning of "discern" or "judge" and it can also have the meaning of "choose" or "fix." I see what you're saying here now, and I agree.

I agree that the discernment of right and wrong is an historical process that involves trial and error. It also seems to me a sound principle that fear, shame, and legalism are not particularly useful in that discernment process... It's often our overreaction to mistakes, or our presumptuousness in judging ourselves or others that constitutes the sin, more than whatever errors were committed. That seems to be implicit in the perspective on sin from that Gospel of Mary quote...

J G-W said...

Alan - There's something I was trying to articulate earlier that I couldn't quite... It actually came to me earlier this evening during my yoga practice. It's that we create sin through our desire. That's why Jesus says -- rather oddly I think from conventional perspectives -- that sin is "like adultery." Adultery is an example of desiring something that does not rightfully belong to us. But there are many, many forms of covetousness that set us off balance... All sin is "like adultery" in that sense.

Jesus says here that he saves us from sin by restoring us to our nature, to our root... In other words, helping us to live into our full potential, and teaching us to relinquish desire for that which we are not.

Really cool quote...

Matthew said...

The two great commandments, on which all the law and the prophets hang, are purely relational. Love is the only real law - everything else flows from that. Sin, then, is not-love - not following the law.

"There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called sin."

What is the nature of adultery but betrayal of trust and commitment. We create sin when we betray, hurt, or alienate each other.

It's all about relationships, really.

And more to the original post, I think that there are so many socially subversive teachings in the NT and the OT it is incredible. Love your enemies? Really? Care for the poor? Minister to the sick? Lose yourself in the service of others?

If people took the sermon on the mount as literally as they did the creation story, just imagine what the world would be like! :)