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On Translation of the Gospel

Like most Lutheran clergy, a large part of my first semester of seminary was spent learning biblical Greek. Two weeks before the semester started, my classmates and I reported for Summer Greek, spending eight hours a day every day for two weeks learning conjugations and declensions. The coursework in Greek continued through the rest of the semester. In later semesters, we put the knowledge we had learned in Greek to work, translating passages from the New Testament to better understand the intricacies of these ancient texts.

Some of my colleagues continue to translate the assigned Gospel lesson each week from the original Greek as the first step in their sermon preparation. I confess, I do not do this myself anymore. While I appreciate and am grateful for the lessons I learned in seminary, the truth is that there are plenty of biblical scholars who are a lot smarter about these things than I am and I am happy to make use of their work. I will still occasionally translate a passage or part of a passage myself, but for the most part, I don’t find it to be the best use of finite time in a week of ministry.

I do believe, though, that translation of the gospel is the most important thing we need to learn as followers of Jesus Christ. (Note the shift from Gospel to gospel here; Gospel referring to the four Gospels of the New Testament and gospel referring to the good news that, in Christ, God is reconciling the world by God’s grace.) I often describe myself as “so Lutheran it hurts.” As a Lutheran pastor, I have taken a vow to preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Central to what we believe as Lutherans is the doctrine of justification outlined in Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession, namely, that we are justified by grace through faith, that we are reconciled to God not by any works or merits of our own but purely by God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

This understanding of justification is what kicked off the controversies that led to the Protestant Reformation, the splintering of the Western Church, and one of the greatest cultural shifts in human history. Luther came to this understanding and began teaching it after being driven to the scriptures by his own existential angst. Luther was driven by the question, “How do I, a sinner, find reconciliation and justification before a righteous and angry God?” I believe that his answer was and is true, and beautiful, and is perhaps the greatest gift of my theological tradition to the church catholic.

The problem, though, is that I don’t hear many people today asking Luther’s question. Most modern Americans (especially those born after 1965) wouldn’t think to ask that question. We live in an era of infinite choice, where freedom itself is defined as freedom of choice, including the choice to not believe in a righteous and angry God. Presented with such a God, few modern Americans are wracked with existential angst; rather, they simply choose not to believe in such a God.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how good and beautiful and true our answer to a question is, if it’s the answer to the wrong question. And while I don’t hear many people asking Luther’s question, I do hear people asking questions that (I believe) the gospel has the capacity to respond to. Those questions are often much closer to the question of the author of Ecclesiastes, who wrote, “Meaningless! Meaningless!…all is vanity, and a chasing after wind.” I hear very few people asking how to find justification before a righteous and angry God, but I do hear a lot of people asking, “What does it all mean?”

These questions can be just as deep and driving as Luther’s question was for him. “I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. I’ve got the beautiful wife and the kids and the nice car and the good job and the big house in the suburbs, but I still feel empty inside. What does your gospel have to say to that?” “I’m constantly being told that I’m not good/smart/pretty/skinny/successful enough, and at the same time I’m told that I can have it all and that if I don’t there’s something wrong with me. What does your gospel say to that?” “We got the last of our kids out of the nest, and then we looked around and realized we don’t know each other anymore. What does your gospel say to that?” “I built my life around my husband, and now he’s gone, and I don’t know why I get out of bed in the morning. What does your gospel say to that?” “My beautiful, bright, successful daughter blew out her knee playing softball, got hooked on painkillers, and is now addicted to heroin. What does your gospel say to that?”

This is where translation of the gospel comes in. Just because none of these questions is Luther’s question doesn’t mean that the gospel doesn’t have an answer, and it doesn’t make Luther’s answer to his question any less true. But if we lead with our answer to the question we’re comfortable answering rather than addressing the deep, painful questions of God’s beloved and hurting people, then no matter how beautiful and true that answer may be, it’s not the gospel.

That is the kind of translation we need to be teaching not just every pastor, but every layperson as well: the ability to translate the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ to address the deepest hurts of our broken world. That kind of translation can’t be written up and put into commentaries or posted on websites. That kind of translation can only happen in the one-on-one. It can only happen when we’re willing to enter deeply into the hurts and heartaches of our neighbors, listen deeply to their uncomfortable questions, and then help them to hear and understand the truth of God’s never-failing, steadfast love for them. That kind of translation is deeply holy work, and it is in fact the true work of the church.

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