I have such difficulty reading the Bible. I can’t understand what the words mean. It’s like the characters are speaking in code and I don’t have the key to decipher it. Plus the words themselves keep shifting depending on which translation I read.
Case in point. This morning I was reading the passage in chapter 18 of Luke’s gospel where Jesus tells the ruler to sell everything he has and give it to the poor — then he will be cool. (In Luke’s version, by the way, the ruler is neither rich nor young.) It’s been a puzzler for generations, right? Why would Jesus ask someone to do that? OK, so I think I will have a go at it and I start by trying to read the story as if I’d never heard of it before. Right away I run into problems.
First I pick up the New Revised Standard translation and they start by having the guy ask Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”.
Well, naturally the first thing I think is, “Well, you can’t really do anything to inherit something – it’s just coming to you when your parents die. So maybe he’s worried God is going to disinherit him because he’s been so bad. If he thinks that, then he has a problem, and Jesus is going to have to set him straight about God’s love for his children – like tell him the story of the prodigal son, or the lost lamb, right?” Well, Jesus doesn’t take that route.
So then I think, “Well, maybe I should look at another translation. So I pick up the New Living Translation, and they have the guy saying something completely different: “What should I do to GET eternal life?”
In their version the ruler doesn’t think he has eternal life and he wants to know what to do to get some. He wants some nice rules, like in “How do I get from here to Topeka?” or “How do I get a discount on this?” This ruler sounds kind of simplistic and a little foggy in the brain. So Jesus will have to go easy on him. But Jesus doesn’t take this route either.
So I pick up yet a third translation (the New English Bible), and this time the ruler says “What must I do to WIN eternal life?” Now he apparently sees life as a game to be played or a war to be won and he is asking the really good teacher for a winning strategy. How can we beat the Red Sox next week so we can take the pennant?
Luke intended one of these meanings, and I’m pretty sure at least one of these is wrong. But which one?
We haven’t even started on whether the question asker is a 1) ruler – a real bigshot, like King Herod, 2) a member of the ruling class (a lesser bigshot, maybe a prince or something), or 3) a religious leader (somebody who already knows a lot and has an interest in maintaining the status quo). And we haven’t even begun to start on what eternal life might mean to him.
So I haven’t even got through the first sentence and I’m already tired. Now I have to go find a word by word translation of the original Greek. It makes me tired and I haven’t gotten anywhere. I don’t even understand the first sentence. I mean really grok it.
I don’t just want to make stuff up – I want to know this character’s motivation, why he would be desperate enough to seek a really good teacher out and ask him this serious question. I’m not even sure what he’s really asking, so how can I understand Jesus’ response, let alone apply it to my life?
By the way, the one thing every translation agrees on is that the question asker wants to either inherit, get, or win eternal life. I think most people assume eternal life means “go to heaven.” But hey, I don’t know anything. So I got out my little book called Christianity 101, which purports to explain the “eight basic Christian beliefs.”
If I can believe this book, I must conclude that Christians haven’t the slightest interest in eternal life. Neither eternal life nor heaven is mentioned in the index or anywhere on the pages I leafed through. So maybe it’s a code for something else.
Look, I’m not recommending this approach, which I could call the “can’t see the forest for the trees” approach. I’m probably a lot like this ruler guy myself and I need to learn from his sad fate — walking away disconsolately when he could be grooving at the big party in the sky after he die.
I crave joy too. I don’t really want to be walking around watching the autumn leaves fall and the little ducks quacking as they lift up their wings and fly away south. Left behind while everyone else is having a great time.
But what am I supposed to do? Pretend I understand when I don’t? Join a monastery and let somebody else take the controls? I’m stumped.
How do you ponder the imponderable?