Lost in translation; open to interpretation

“It must be true. I read it on the internet.” Some people use a different standard, believing, “It must be true. I read it in the Bible.” Many hold that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God; inerrant (no errors) and infallible (trustworthy). I approach the Bible more as Wayne, my CPE (clinical pastoral education) supervisor put it—the word of God; written by the hands of man. Wayne’s version would explain how the sinner’s Bible (thou shalt commit adultery) came into existence and has become a collector’s item.

At the beginning of Lent, my spirituality group discussed whether we favored Martha or Mary from the Bible (Luke 10:38-42). Listening to group members’ explanations made me realize how diverse interpretations are, even among people who generally abide by the same beliefs. It’s no wonder different religions have a hard time agreeing.

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42 NIV

Jesus comes calling; Martha welcomes him; then busies herself with the tasks of serving. Her sister, Mary, is not helping with food prep and Martha asks Jesus to mediate. Let’s evaluate Jesus’ response using the lens of three questions attributed to Socrates: “Is it true; is it kind; is it necessary?”

kind true necessary questions.png

Ask before you speak…

Was it necessary? Martha asked, so yes, an answer was necessary. But Jesus sided with Mary; pitting sister against sister. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” What was Jesus thinking to allow himself to be drawn into the sisters’ squabble? When my granddaughters argue, unless violence is imminent, their parents try to have the girls resolve problems without a referee intervening, “Work it out for yourselves.” It is better for relationships if we can avoid triangulating conversations. In this case, Jesus could have encouraged Martha to speak directly to her sister. Also, Jesus could have empathized with Martha and volunteered to assist, “I see why you’re stressed. You have a lot of people to feed. Let me help. Many hands make light work.”

Was it true? What really happened and what was lost in translation? We can read what is written, but it’s hearsay, recorded many years after the episode occurred, possibly by someone who wasn’t even an eyewitness to the event.  Misunderstandings can arise because of multiple layers of mis-translations, not unlike whispering a message from person to person to see how communication gets distorted.  It’s likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic, so unintended inaccuracies could occur when a word or story is translated from Aramaic to Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English. Add differences due to Jesus’ culture and the chances for inaccuracies increase.

Was it kind? Martha’s request was imprudent but what about Jesus’ response? He takes sides and scolds Martha, his friend and host. Readers of the passage can only speculate about whether this was a planned or spontaneous visit; as well as the size of the entourage. Martha might have been understandably frazzled as she tried to prepare a meal for her guests, without being able to call for pita delivery. Her efforts were then demeaned by being told that Mary had made the better choice to sit, not work. If everyone sits and listens, no one eats.

Where would we be without Marthas; who willingly provide hospitality and hearty meals? Our culture is inclined to value busyness and the pursuit of productivity; comparing hectic schedules as a badge of honor. We also need to cultivate Mary qualities to ensure we take time for quiet and solitude. So when a friend invites you for a meal, a gracious guest seeks a Martha/Mary balance of doing and being; not only expressing delight for the companionship but willingly helping with preparing the repast.

© Joan S Grey, 25 Mar 2016

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