One of the most attractive features of our Anabaptist tradition is that it doesn’t take tradition too seriously. Of course, Anabaptists have their own traditions, but they can – and have been – shrugged off when necessary. That’s one of its hallmarks, saying: “Okay, this or that praxis may have been useful and good way back then, but let’s go a different way now, in the full confidence that God’s creative spirit will lead us in the footsteps of Jesus.” Some examples of traditions that Anabaptists have occasionally dumped: paid church leaders (bishops, priests, pastors)? Don’t need ’em. We’re all priests of God. Liturgy? No, it stifles creativity. Creeds and confessions? They shackle our minds and hearts.
One of the areas where Anabaptists in the past proved more timid was in their use of Bible translation for challenging the powerful. At the beginning that wasn’t true. Luther basically copied Hans Denck’s and Ludwig Haetzer’s translation (1527) of the major prophets for his new translation. Denck was a politically engaged Anabaptist rebel: at that time translating the Hebrew prophets was considered a risky political action. It was a means of obliquely criticizing contemporary politicians and thereby fomenting rebellion. But those were the early years. Later, under pressure to defend their orthodoxy, Anabaptists held on to traditional translations – where they did offer some new emphases, it was usually in internal matters (internal church relations).
I think there’s lots of room for new, creative Bible translating. I want to offer an example from the Beatitudes, in an effort to show that a new reading is necessary to let Jesus’ message of empowerment for the Kingdom (King- and Queendom?) really strike home.
But first a simple question: Ever wondered why Matthew says “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, but Luke says “Blessed are the poor”? The traditional reading over the centuries has been that according to Matthew’s version we (potentially everybody) are poor in spirit, and therefore this passage applies to us all, even if we are rich by any earthly standard. Recently I came across two commentators, who entirely independently of each other, offer a surprising alternative. Ton Verkamp says that it’s wrong to translate “the poor in spirit” as “spiritually poor”. What’s meant is “the deeply impoverished”; they suffer from a physical poverty that hurts their spirit. (So that excludes many of us.) Shortly after reading this, I came across a passage in ‘Adversus Marcionem’ by my favourite Church Father, Tertullian. He writes in Latin that Matthew’s phrase means “the needy … for no less than this is required for interpreting the word in Greek.”
So actually Matthew is saying the same thing as Luke! It’s about the poor, stupid. For me, this understanding is far more consistent with the entire context of the Beatitudes and the message of Jesus than all this phoney, spiritualizing talk about the rich who are poor in spirit. For me, the interpretive tradition needs to be set aside for something new, something Anabaptist.
But that’s just for starters. Now I come to my main point. What is this business about “blessedness”? I’ve struggled with that for years. My pastors have struggled with it in their sermons. Theologians have struggled with it in numberless tomes. Hundreds of years of interpretive tradition struggle with it, and this ongoing struggle is a sign that we still haven’t really figured out why the desperately poor, the hungry and the mourners are “blessed” or “happy”.
Indeed, these passages in Luke and Matthew have been used to console desperate people for millenia. “You may be suffering now, you may only have one bowl of rice a day, but in heaven everything will be alright. You can’t do anything about the here and now, but just believe in the life to come.” – And I ask myself: Is that really what Jesus wanted to teach us in the Beatitudes? Didn’t he say that he’d come to set at liberty those who are oppressed? Didn’t he tell us that we can move mountains, if we trust in him? Didn’t he tell us that if we knock, the door will be opened? Didn’t he even say that we will do greater works than he himself?! (Jn 14:12) The general thrust of an Anabaptist understanding of discipleship is: Follow Jesus and change the world!
So what’s with the “blessedness” then? How can this be brought into an Anabaptist understanding of world transformation through active love and justice and peace? That’s where I’ve learnt something valuable from Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Melkite Greek-Catholic archbishop (who is also an Israeli citizen). He asks: Since we know that Jesus taught his disciples in their common mother tongue, Aramaic, which word would Jesus have been using here, that was later written down in Greek as “makarios” and was then translated into “blessed”?
He answers that there are two alternatives. But neither of these terms is as passive as “blessed”. They have an active element. They encourage action. I don’t know about you, but for me: that sounds more like Jesus. Empowering the poor, the hungry and the outcast! So I tried it out.
“Jesus said: Those who are bitterly poor, you are hereby empowered, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn, I empower you, for you will be comforted. Come on!, those who are meek, for you will inherit the earth. Let’s go, you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled. You are now authorized, you who are merciful, for you will be shown mercy. Roll up your sleeves, you who are pure in heart, for you will see God. You have been called, you peacemakers, for you will be called sons and daughters of God. Those of you who are persecuted because of righteousness, I have empowered you, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
This reading has its problems. But it has one additional virtue. It makes you want to ask: “Okay, just how and in what way are these suffering and visionary people supposed to act, in order to attain the kingdom of God? How are they to participate in Jesus’ renewal of the world?” And that’s a useful response. It makes you want to continue reading the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells us just how that’s supposed to look in practice.