Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Blessed English Translations

The Beatitudes are so called because each one starts with a Greek word, Makarios, which was rendered Beati in Latin and, most commonly, Blessed in English. That being the case you might expect that the underlying word used by Matthew would have something to do with blessings, or with being blessed. Nope. Makarios, the word Matthew uses, is unrelated to the Greek words for either.

A lot of commentaries on the Beatitudes tie themselves in knots attempting to explain why people who are clearly have not been blessed are described by Jesus as being so. They are missing the point. Others treat Jesus' words as if they are a list of things we have to do or be in order to be blessed by God: legalistic nonsense! You'd think there were enough rules and regulations in the Old Testament for anyone (613 is, I believe, the traditional count) without adding more (and Jesus is explicit, later in the sermon, that the Law stands as it is: no adding or taking away from it).

A few English translations render makarios as 'happy' instead of 'blessed'. That too is another word entirely. So what does makarios mean?

Originally makarios simply meant 'free from daily cares or worries' - which has an obvious link with later on in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? ... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
But words in all languages are living things, with multiple meanings and implications, and makarios found itself being used in a conventional formula:-
  • "Makarios is the family man with his children" - because they were both his security for old age and the security of his line for future generations.
  • "Makarios is the rich man with his wealth" - because that protects against hard times when they come.
  • "Makarios are the pious on their inward well-being" - because that allows them to face future vicissitudes with equanimity.
  • "Makarios are the religious on their experience of God" - who will presumably ensure their future.
The link to the original meaning is reasonably clear for these, but then the meaning developed a bit further to become something more like 'congratulations' - for a new child, for a profitable business deal, for progress on piety or religion, and so on.

The other link in the chain to the Beatitudes comes with the adaptation of that formula to the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) where it is used (especially in the Psalms) about the peace and security which comes from doing things God's way:
  • Makarios is the nation whose God is the Lord; the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance (Psalm 33:12).
  • Makarios is the man whose hope is in the name of the Lord (Psalm 40:4).
  • Makarios is the man who thinks on the poor and needy: the Lord shall deliver him in an evil day (Psalm 41:1).
  • O Lord of hosts, Makarios is the man that trusts in you (Psalm 84:12).
  • Makarios are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times (Psalm 106:3).
  • Makarios are all they that fear the Lord; who walk in his ways. You shall eat the labours of your hands: makarios are you, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be as a fruitful vine on the sides of your house: your children as young olive-plants round about your table. (Psalm 128:1-3).
That final one is a bit longer but gives a nice parallel to the earlier Greek example of the family man and his children.

So the meaning of makarios is somewhere in the range from 'free from care and worry', through 'secure for the future' and 'secure in God' to 'congratulations' (on securing your future).

There is at least one English translation which uses 'congratulations' for the Beatitudes; personally I feel uncomfortable congratulating people on their devastating loss or crushing oppression, however secure their future in God might be.

There is clearly no simple single English word which reflects exactly the resonances of makarios in Matthew's original - never mind Jesus' probable underlying Hebrew word ‘eshrê. So, pre-empting some future posts discussing other parts of the Beatitudes, I am currently inclined to go with 'secure in God', along the lines of:-
  • Secure in God are the spiritually poor, because they are already part of God's kingdom.
  • Secure in God are those who have suffered devastating loss, because they will be comforted. 
  • Secure in God are the crushed and oppressed, especially the landless poor, because they will inherit the land.
and so on.

In the end the Beatitudes are about bringing hope to the apparently hopeless and a future in God to those who feel they have no future.

A final thought: it's the Feast of St Brigit in a couple of days; if you click on the picture above, or on this link, it will take you to a poem called Brigit's Feast, which seems appropriate in a discussion on the Sermon on the Mount.

Thursday, 18 January 2018


It shouldn't be a surprise that spiritually important people like bishops would struggle with a passage from Jesus which begins by saying that it is the spiritually poor to whom God's kingdom belongs. Nonetheless, I do find the Bishop of Oxford's booklet, Exploring The Beatitudes, which is promoting his 'Contemplative, Compassionate and Courageous' vision for Oxford Diocese, to be disappointingly detached from what Jesus said.

Even in the 21st century people forget that the 'Sermon on the Mount' - which the Beatitudes are the introduction to - was a Jewish preacher speaking to a mostly-Jewish audience about the Jewish scriptures (which we know as the Old Testament), as recorded by Matthew in a strongly Hebrew-influenced dialect of 1st century Greek.

Instead we look at Bible translations which emphasise the smooth elegance of Tyndale's 16th century English. The unfortunate way these very English versions  bury Jesus' radical announcements of God's concern for those who are at the bottom of the heap is presumably considered a price worth paying by those near the tops of their various heaps.

Here in Caversham we are in the third year of our Partnership for Missional Church initiative; one key focus of PMC is on seeing what God is already doing in the community around us and where we can join in. The Beatitudes give us a picture of which people and groups of people God is particularly focused on, which should help to guide us.

I plan to look at the Beatitudes individually over the coming weeks, so I won't jump into them here, but there are a number of things to notice about the Beatitudes as a whole:
  • They are the introduction to a longer 'sermon', not a standalone passage. As such they are intended to catch people's attention, introduce later themes and topics, and to help listeners to see, personally and collectively, where they themselves fit in with Jesus' message.
  • They are an announcement of hope, justice and affirmation for those who have been crushed and marginalised by the 'business as usual' of an unjust world, as well as for those who want to do something about it.
  • They are succinct, even spikily terse, with every word carefully chosen to deeply and powerfully resonate with Jesus' listeners.
  • They are deeply rooted in Old Testament Scripture.
  • They are individually and collectively cohesive. In particular, each beatitude comes in two linked parts - "blessed are ... because ...". The inevitable multiple possible meanings which come from translating ancient languages can be narrowed down both by investigating their Old Testament roots and by seeing which potential meanings resonate with one another most powerfully. Collectively there is a clear pattern to the way they are organised and an obvious link-back from the last beatitude to the first.
As an example of the difference the above can make, consider the third beatitude, rendered by most English translations as "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth". Obvious questions are: what exactly does 'meek' mean here, how on earth does being meek relate to inheriting anything, and is Jesus telling us we ought to become meek or is he announcing something good to those who already are?

More detail on this in a later post, but for now I'll just say that 'meek' refers to those who are oppressed and crushed, with a specific application to the landless poor. Also the word Tyndale translated 'earth' really applies to 'earth' in the soil sense, rather than the whole world, and from there it extends to arable land and hence to useful land in general. In the Old Testament a family's land was their inheritance and could not be taken away for more than fifty years - not that rich landowners had ever taken any notice.

So that third beatitude can be rendered in English as: "Blessed are the landless poor, because they will inherit the land". Which surely makes more sense - although commentators today would need to fill in background which Jesus' original hearers would have known only too well.

This post is quite long enough, I reckon. So do have a happy and blessed 2018. (Blessed'? What does that mean?).

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Last Word?

I once knew a middle-aged lady whose marriage fell apart after the kids left home. A while after her husband moved in with someone else she found a lump on her breast ... which she carefully ignored ... and ignored ... until at last she could ignore it no longer.

She underwent treatment for the breast cancer and came through. During her phased return to work they found a secondary in her brain, which killed her. At her funeral a neighbour said:
"It's hard to believe in God when something like this happens."
I knew another middle-aged lady who had a very difficult childhood. In her twenties and early thirties she fought back and thrived, making something special of her life. Then the demons caught up with her, gradually tearing much of what she had achieved apart and eventually killing her:
It's hard to believe in God when the demons win.
I can see the point, but for me it is far harder to not believe in God when such things happen. To not believe in God is to say that disease and demons have the last word.  To me, God is about meaning and purpose even in the midst of destruction and despair, about Resurrection when evil seems to have won.

For those of us who do make it through middle-age there is another 'd' waiting - decay. The longer we live the more we fall apart. In God I can even see meaning in that; but without God there is little to learn, or at least not much future in learning it.

I believe God has the last word: after disease and demons and decay and despair have done their worst, God still has something to say. And God's final word is about hope and love and life and purpose and a new future in a world of justice and peace and meaning.

But sometimes I do feel very, very tired.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Bombastic? Overblown? Serenity!

... and they were absolutely marvellous.

I'm talking about the melodic metal band Serenity, of course (named after the ship in Firefly apparently).

Last night we went to a concert at Koko in Camden to watch Delain headline with Serenity and Cellar Darling in support.

The doors opened late, and it took some time to get the sellout crowd into the venue, so we missed the first half of Cellar Darling's set. Apparently there was some sort of mishap as they started, which may have put them off a little, but they sang several interesting folk-metal songs. Mostly they were accompanied by the hurdy-gurdy, as well as the usual drums and guitars, which made for an original sound; although my favourite song was one accompanied by flute instead (which I now can't remember the name of, sigh). The lead singer is definitely a talented musician.

Serenity were up next and really hit the ground running with Deus Lo Vult,  the highly dramatic instrumental which opens their new Lionheart album, continuing with United from the same album. Four older songs followed before the set peaked with the title track of Lionheart. They finished with Follow Me.

There are lots of things I like about Serenity: they are a really powerful band, musically, vocally and lyrically, yet they understand and use light and shade, heavy and gentle, slow and fast. Their frontman Georg Neuhauser, who is also their songwriter, has a remarkable voice, yet they ring the changes on vocals, with a second male voice in the band and a guest female vocalist for some of the songs.

It helps that Neuhauser is apparently a history lecturer so he has interesting things to say on the historical themes which the band so often sing about. Although it has to be said their Lionheart album is something of a whitewash of Richard the Lionheart, who was a complex and not always honourable leader: the album is more about the legend than the reality.

What about the headliners, Delain? Hmm. Koko was sold out last night, so there was a vast number of people in a limited area. Add to that a bevy of six-footers who felt they had to stand right in the centre, blocking people's view, along with the rudest crowd I have seen at a melodic metal concert: pushing and shoving their way around. I was feeling downright claustrophobic and Delain took forever to come out, so I wasn't at all enjoying myself by the time they did.

It was the last night of the tour and Charlotte Wessels' voice sounded quite badly shot to me, so maybe they had to spend time working on her throat so it could survive one final night, hopefully without damage. Wessels has a very distinct timbre normally, which was missing last night - so much so that at first I wondered if they had a guest singer themselves.

Nevertheless she hit the notes and the whole band sang and played well. A particular treat was that they did have a guest singer: Marco Hietrala, who came out and did the male vocal parts to several songs which they don't normally perform on tour; I especially enjoyed Control The Storm.

I don't really like going to London for concerts, because the journey back is always grim; the wonder of privatised rail: first-class prices for a third class journey. Last night/this morning the train was standing room only - just four coaches so what can one expect - and a points failure outside Slough added to the delight. Still we got home eventually, and it is always good to see live music.

To finish with a bit of enthusiasm: a song which Serenity sadly didn't do last night, but which I think is brilliant:-

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Judgement & Exclusion

There's rather a lot about judgement in Matthew's account of Jesus' life. In part this makes sense as the people he was writing to were attempting to come to terms with the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem and the suffering which accompanied it.

So this is introduced in a series of stories and parables highlighting the faithlessness of the religious leaders in Jesus' day and the judgement which would surely follow after they persecuted first Jesus and then his followers for so many years.

Finally, the end of chapter 23 and the bulk of 24 addresses the consequence of this, bringing together the terrible suffering during the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the hope of Jesus' eventual return into one terrible apocalyptic warning. We're bad at apocalyptic today so we tend to get lost in this passage but it most likely made sense, even brought a sense of comfort and meaning, to its early readers.

Then in chapter 25 the scope widens and we get three quick parables about judgement more generally, which are potentially easier to follow and apply today. These parables, known traditionally as The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, The Parable of the Talents and The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats are all parables of judgement.

Interestingly, given the traditional  Protestant religious focus on 'Salvation by faith not works', all three parables are most immediately about actions. Equally interestingly, given the traditional religious focus on avoiding 'sin' - refraining from doing forbidden things - all three are about people's failure (or not) to do what they should have done; no-one is criticised for doing something wrong, just for failing to do something right.

In the first, ten young women are chosen to accompany a bridegroom to his wedding feast. Five of the ten are prepared and ready when he comes, so they are welcomed into the feast in places of honour. The other five were not ready when he came and they are excluded: the bridegroom says he does not know them.

In the second parable a wealthy man goes on a journey so he gives his servants portions of his immense wealth to use while he is away. This is a tremendous opportunity which two of the servants use, whilst the third buries the wealth away and tries to go on with his life. When their master returns those who used the opportunity are praised and "given charge of many things"; the servant who deliberately failed to use the opportunity, however, is sharply criticised and thrown outside "into the darkness".

The final parable has Jesus returning in glory to judge people from all the nations. When he judges he does so on the basis of how they have treated those in need around them. He says the way we have treated the neediest is the way we treat him, and he separates people on this basis into those facing eternal life and those facing punishment.

Literally the word translated 'punishment' in that final parable means 'pruning' or cutting away, so again the implication is that judgement is about separation: separating those included in God's Kingdom from those who are excluded from it.

The basis for that separation is either what we do or, maybe more likely, on the underlying attitude: an attitude of expectancy which leads us to make sure we are ready and prepared; an attitude of trust which leads us to make use of opportunities God gives us; and especially an attitude of compassion for those we see in need.

And, in the end, inclusion means life and exclusion means death. How we live matters.