Saturday, October 29, 2011

Words, Words, Words

Just before Mass one morning I handed the server the key and said, "Put this in the tabernacle for me." She left the sacristy immediately to do so.

As I approached the altar for Mass I glanced at the tabernacle, but I could not see the key in the door. "Perhaps," I thought, "she laid it in front of the tabernacle."

When I went to the tabernacle to retrieve the ciborium, I saw no key --not in the lock, not in front of the tabernacle, not anywhere.

I tried pulling the small door open anyway, and it moved. Then I saw it --the server had done just as requested. She put the key in the tabernacle! She had unlocked the door, carefully laid the key inside, and closed the door. I remembered how I worded my request. I didn't say, "Put the key in the lock." I said, "Put the key in the tabernacle." She did as I had asked.

Language can be tricky. My friends from Pittsburgh still talk about gum bands and tubes, and say, "Yuns." I have to translate: rubber bands, tunnels, and y'all!

When we communicate with people of other languages and cultures, we have to be aware that our figures of speech may be misleading or incomprehensible to them. If I say, "He kicked the bucket" or "He bought the farm," most Americans understand these expressions as metaphors for death. In another language or culture our expression may be taken "literally" (word for word), and my affirmation of death is misunderstood.

Failure to understand language and culture can muddy our interpretation of Sacred Scripture. When scholars study the Jewishness of biblical expressions, they often discover new interpretations of the biblical accounts.

For example, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom (cf. Matthew 19:24). The New Testament uses the Greek word kamÄ“lon, which undoubtedly means "camel." But, if we translate that expression back into Aramaic (the language Jesus was likely using when he made that statement), Jesus may have said  the Aramaic word gamla which can mean either camel or rope. "Camel" strengthens the incongruity, but "rope" makes more sense.

When Jesus advises the crowd that if the eye causes one to sin, he should tear it out (cf Mt. 5:29), he is using a figure of speech. It was not a command that we should maim ourselves, even though the great second century theologian Origen took the passage literally and mutilated himself. The imagery means take appropriate steps to avoid sin.

Again in the sermon on the mount, Jesus speaks of a good eye and a bad eye (cf Mt 6:22-23). It is possible that Jesus was using a first century Jewish idiom in which "good eye" (aiyin tovah in Hebrew) meant generous, and bad eye (aiyin ra'ah) meant stingy. That passage in Matthew takes on a different tone when read in the light of that imagery.

Our ability to communicate, to understand another's words, is one of the best gifts God has given humanity. Words are so powerful that the Bible uses that very term, logos, to describe the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).

The importance of words and communication are obvious in today's culture (text messaging is one minor example) and in our economy (I wonder how many satellites we can put up there). Yet for all our technology, for all our iPads, Bluetooths (or is it Blueteeth?), lap tops, etc., we have to ask whether we really are communicating.

Given how easy it is to mis-communicate, to misinterpret, to jump to conclusions, we are well advised to slow down and give thought to what we hear and say.

Happily for President John Kennedy, the people gathered in Berlin for his visit knew what he meant when he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," even though many knew that a Berliner was a type of donut.
Whether communicating with a server in the sacristy or trying to interpret a passage from sacred Scripture, I recognize the need to pay attention to the meaning of the words and the expressions in which they are used.

I like knowing that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." I like the proximity and the challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Norm! You've written a very eye-opening post. I'd no idea that when Jesus made the comment about a ' the eye of the needle', He must have used the Aramaic word 'gamel', or 'rope'. As you've said, both images are totally incongruous--and, having seen for myself the 'eye of the needle' door on leaving the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for myself, it makes perfect sense!

    I cracked up, reading that the server took your instructions so literally. Poor girl. I hope she wasn't too embarrassed. :)

    Pat Finnegan (aka "Irish")

    ("Pnina" is my Hebrew non-de-plume; an Israeli guide gave me the name in 1984!)