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Interpretation and the Spirit of the Law
Whether one likes President Kennedy or not, few would deny that he is one of the seminal personalities of postwar history. He is the leader of the most powerful country in the world, and by implication what some call the Free World, at a time when international tensions are unlikely to escalate. Those who remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion will know how tense the relationship was at the time between East and West, at a point where many feared that an outbreak of nuclear war was imminent.
Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tense relationship is the Berlin Wall. Located in the heart of East Germany, many miles behind the Iron Curtain, after the war Berlin was divided at the time into four military zones, administered by France, the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The Russian sector was effectively part of communist East Germany, but the French, British and American sectors formed a kind of Western oasis in the heart of Communist Eastern Europe, and it became collectively known as West Berlin.
Concerned about the number of its citizens crossing into West Berlin from the East, and in many cases traveling from there to Western Europe itself, the East German authorities erected a massive barbed wire fence around the entire West Berlin to prevent any movement of people in that part of the city. Eventually the barbed wire was replaced by concrete, with machine gun posts erected at strategic points. It is known, famously (or infamously), as the Berlin Wall.
It was not unreasonable that the people of West Berlin felt themselves to be in a state of siege. There was a blockade that was eased by the Western powers with an airlift of food and supplies. In June 1963 President Kennedy felt moved to fly to West Berlin, personally, to show his solidarity, and that of the Free World, with the citizens of West Berlin.
I BIN EIN BERLINER
When he was there he made a famous speech, which was heard by about 450,000 people, a speech that will be written in history and talked about for many years to come. In front of the people of West Berlin the most powerful man in the world shouted the immortal words “Ich Bin Ein Berliner!”
Strangely in recent times we have witnessed an interesting similarity in the words “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – an expression of solidarity with the victims of the terrible massacre in the offices in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”, literally translated word for word, means “I am a Berliner”. It was a way of saying “I stand by you”, “What you went through, we all go through”, “I feel your pain”.
That simple slogan – “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” – was met with scenes of joy and surprise from the assembled crowd. Not least because despite the fact that “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” is translated literally as “I am a Berliner” (or a citizen of Berlin) – what the most powerful man in the world said, in local vernacular, is “I’m a jelly donut!”.
The German language, like any other, has its own subtleties, which do not always stand the logical test of translation. “A Berliner”, to people in many parts of Germany, is a donut filled with delicious sweet jam. What a German would say is “Ich Bin Berliner” – literally translated as “I am Berliner” or “I am a citizen of Berlin”. In English it doesn’t make perfect sense, but in German it’s the difference between an American President offering leadership to the suffering masses of West Berlin and a man declaring to a shocked world that he is a Teutonic pastry.
A GOOD ANECDOTE
In fairness some authorities dispute this story. In particular there is some disagreement as to whether the precise words used by Kennedy were in fact correct. But either way it’s a useful anecdote that helps illustrate a point, and that point is that when the President of the United States of America, briefed and well advised as he should be and speaking of a European tongue not distinct from itself. , can make such a mistake (a small word) that drastically changes the meaning of what he said – how great are the pitfalls we encounter when reading the Bible and trying to ascertain what is being tried of God to say. us?
When we finish our readings in Church sometimes we say “the Word of God”, to remind ourselves that the Bible is truly his word. The Scriptures contain important truths, they are not a Pick’N’Mix where we can decide what we accept and what we don’t. However, the Word of God though, it was physically written by human hands, based on the understanding of the writer, thousands of years ago, by people whose native language is one that most of us are not familiar with, in the context at times. where they live, on land that is not ours.
A simple example is enough – the word “fulfilment”. Often in the New Testament we hear that Jesus did this or that to “fulfill” the words of the Holy Scriptures, which came to us from the Old Testament many years ago. The Greek word for “obey” is plerosai. But according to Greek scholars, this word is difficult to translate correctly, and correctly, in English. When we are told that Jesus came to accomplish something it means that he came to accomplish it. This may mean bringing out its full meaning (ie the Holy Scriptures). It can mean bringing something to its intended conclusion. Or it could mean emphasizing that the Scriptures identified him as the Messiah and therefore, fulfilled his work. This one word has four slightly different meanings.
JESUS EXPLAINS “WHY”
Jesus spent most of his time explaining to his disciples what the true meaning of the Scriptures really is. He no longer needs to introduce, or inform, his followers of the words of their prophets. They were familiar with them, one said. At no point does he say that the Scriptures (which we generally know as the Old Testament) are inerrant. What he does, for the most part, is put it in context, in a way that his followers, being simple souls like us, can understand. Because just by singing the law to us, Jesus explained “why”.
He put the Sabbath in context. He taught us that the laws are there for us, not to be obeyed in their own right for no particular reason. God created the world, and gave us laws because he wants us to live in goodness and harmony. Jesus begged us to love our neighbor and told us that if we serve our neighbor we serve him. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and we fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and sent you home, or naked and we clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison, and we came to you?” “I tell you this, whatever you did for one of my brothers here, no matter how humble, you did for me.”
Love is the foundation of the Christian faith. “There are three things that last forever: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of all is love.” Or as Mark says: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than this”.
THE GREATEST WISDOM OF ALL
Why love? Because that’s the kind of world God wants it to be. There is no academic, no intellectual, no scientific, no scholarly reason why this is so. However, it is clear, through every word and deed, that what illuminates us throughout the Bible, through the entire message of God, is that God’s plan for this world is that we love our fellow man, and treat them with respect, and dignity. That is far, far more important – in the grand scheme of things – than thoughts about whether you should save your cow from the ditch on the Sabbath.
How often do we hear it said, by non-Christians, that the Bible is contradictory? That in one place it seems to say one thing, and then in another it seems to tell us something completely different? In particular, that the words of Jesus in the New Testament appear sometimes to be completely contrary to those of the earlier writings, of the earlier prophets? Jesus was careful not to contradict the teachings of Scripture, but who can deny that the way he interprets it for us sometimes seems very different from the way it appears to us in the Old Testament?
Many scholars have spent their entire lives painstakingly analyzing the biblical texts, carefully studying the cultures and sometimes even learning the languages in which they were written, in order to resolve any perceived irregularities and understand them. everything. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand current issues without knowledge of the historical events that inform current positions. There is no doubt that an understanding of the geography, and the people, and the times in which the Bible is set – perhaps even more than a familiarity with the language – will give us a greater understanding of what it all says. to us.
But the greatest knowledge of all is perhaps a basic, basic understanding of the spirit of God’s word. Why we must love our fellow man, why we must love God, why we must be honest and decent in our relationships with others, why Jesus told us that if we give to our fellow man. man we gave him.
UNDERSTANDING GOD’S PURPOSE
One can understand all the linguistic subtleties of the world, all the cultural nuances and literary idiosyncrasies. One can recite and chant all the laws, all the out-of-context quotations, with appropriate biblical references, idiot style, until one’s heart is content, but only until one understands if why, then there is no understanding of what Jesus was trying to do. to tell us.
When President Kennedy stood before the crowd in West Berlin and spoke his immortal words, there must have been the odd fundamentalist in the audience who thought he was a jelly donut because, after all, he was that’s what he said. Perhaps there is no room for interpretation, there is no possibility that his meaning is lost in translation. These are the words he spoke. It has been said. The President is a jelly donut.
We as Christians must really try to understand God’s purpose. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes it seems like we don’t deserve it. But trying to understand God’s word as well as just reading it and repeating it can be a most liberating experience.
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