Text: John 10:11-18
The Bible uses language that can feel very foreign to us. It is a world of lords and kings and shepherds, of arks big enough to carry two of every kind of animal created, and manna floating down from heaven. It is a collection of books that were written in languages that are no longer spoken today—although modern Hebrew is related to biblical Hebrew and modern Greek is obviously related to the Hellenistic Greek of the New Testament. For sure, for those of us sitting here this morning, the Bible uses words and metaphors and images that are not a part of our everyday experiences. The biblical authors lived thousands of years ago, in cultures very different from those of today.
Translation scholars have long debated the best way to translate a text—whether a translation of text should be word for word, leaving the foreign text sounding foreign to the target audience, and retaining as much of the source text’s linguistic and cultural forms as possible (an approach called foreignizing); or whether a translation should bring the cultural and linguistic information of that text more in line with the culture of the target audience, attempting to translate meaning, but not always through exact word translations (an approach called domesticating). This issue has long been a part of the debate over the best way to translate the Bible, which, as I have already stated, is a collection of books written by men of cultures and languages different from most who read the Bible in translation. The debate is not unfamiliar to Pullen as we, too, have debated how best to manifest the spirit of the word of God through the use of inclusive language when reading the biblical text. (See endnote for the source of domesticating and foreignizing approach.)
One of the most extreme examples of Bible translation was the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament, “translated” by Clarence Jordan during the 1960s, the time of Civil Rights conflicts. Dr. Jordan attempted to make the biblical narrative more applicable by changing the placenames in the Bible to placenames in the deep South where he lived. He changed historical and cultural aspects of the Bible to be like those in the South during the Civil Rights struggles. In his transculturation, Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia. He has Paul addressing his letters to believers in cities such as Atlanta, Birmingham, and Selma. Following is Jordan’s translation of the good Samaritan story.
One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested him with this question: “What does one have to do to be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say?”
The teacher answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your physical strength and with all your mind.’ ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”
“That is correct,” said Jesus. “Make a habit of this, and you will be saved.”
The Sunday School teacher, trying to save face, asked, “But just who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A white man was going from Atlanta to Albany. Some gangsters held him up. After they had robbed him of his wallet and his brand new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.
“Now it just happened that a white preacher was going by. When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and scooted right on by. Shortly afterwards, a white gospel song leader came down the road. When he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas and sped away. Then a black man, traveling in his pickup truck came that way and saw the fellow. He was moved to tears. He stopped, bound up the wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water jug to wipe away the blood, and then laid him on the backseat of the pickup truck. He drove into Albany and took him to the hospital. He said to the nurse, “You take good care of this white man. I found him on the highway. Here are the only $2 I have. You keep an account. When payday comes, I will come back and settle up with you.”
“Now, if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three – the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man – would you consider to have been your neighbor?”
The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Of course the…I mean…the one who treated him kindly.”
Jesus said, “You get going and start living like that.”
Jordan produced his transculturation so that others could get a feel for what it was like to be a part of the Civil Rights struggle in the South. He wanted people to think of that struggle in biblical terms and so he brought the Bible into that different time and culture in actual translation. There are other examples of transculturation, like the inclusive version of the New Testament and Psalms published by Oxford University Press some years ago. It translates the primary biblical masculine imagery of God as Father in the Lord’s Prayer to “Our Father-Mother in heaven.” Such cultural changes to the biblical text are intended to make the translation more acceptable to various groups within modern society.
The debate over the legitimacy of altering any of the historical or cultural facts of the biblical text when doing true Bible translation aside, our text for today, in which Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” begs for a transcultural make-over.. Shepherds are not something that we are very familiar with in our culture, except through fairy tales and fables. The last time I saw a true shepherd was when I was in Tbilisi hiking with Malkhaz and Jack—an eight and a half hour hike over an entire Georgian mountain that nearly killed Jack and me. Actually, we were so taken with the two shepherds we encountered we asked if we could take a picture of them. (Not sure why we were so taken. Maybe we recognized something we had read in scripture.) I thought of that experience as we discussed the John 10 passage in the weekly lectionary group this week. I wondered if there was a parallel to shepherding that might make this text come alive for us. So I asked the group, “Is there an equivalent image in our culture today to that of shepherding that would help us better understand this text?” We couldn’t think of one. As a matter of fact, we agreed that even the text’s comparison of the “good” shepherd to the hired hand was a bit off-putting. Is there an implied message that “hired hands” are less than owners? And before we left that part of our discussion, some in the group named that they had trouble with John’s notion of even identifying Jesus as the good shepherd, suggesting that God and Jesus are one and the same. In the minds of a few, there is a difference in thinking of God as the good shepherd as we read in Psalm 23 and referring to Jesus as the good shepherd. The conversation reminded me again of how our theological presuppositions play significantly into our interpretation of specific biblical texts.
The debate over can we, or even should we, allow the historical and cultural context of the original biblical text say just what it says—for example, to refer to meat offered to idols or levitical dietary practices or even the numerous pictures it paints of marriage—or change them to fit our cultural context in order to find meaning in the texts, is a debate that is not likely to end any time soon. Either way, I want to suggest that whether you lean toward domesticating the biblical text or not, ultimately, the question remains, “What do these biblical narratives mean for us today?” And furthermore, “How do we apply them when they use words or metaphors or images that are foreign to us?”
Setting aside the unfamiliar image of shepherd, setting aside the problems with the comparisons of the good shepherd to the hired hand, and even setting aside the question, “Are God and Jesus the same?” (which by the way I don’t think they are), what might we learn from this text that is applicable for living into God’s way today? How does this text challenge and nurture us spiritually even if its language feels foreign to us?
Listen again as I read verse 18. “No one takes life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. Through all its words and images, John 10 invites us to consider our own power when we come to that moment in life when we will need to choose between laying down life and taking it up. And it is not simply talking about would we physically die for someone or something. There are many other ways that we lay down and take up life. We lay down our life metaphorically when we finally choose to let go of the idea of who we thought we were, when we choose to put down the ought tos and the should haves and the couldas. We lay down our life when we say no to the ego, the “I,” the “me, me, me.” And we pick up life again, as we grow in wisdom, when we learn to say yes to our authentic selves; when we have the courage to be different and value different thinking than that which our culture tells us to value; when we make decisions based on the good of the whole rather than what benefits a few; and when we embrace our shadows and accept ourselves and others, and God as a God of grace.
As I lived with the passage all week the question that kept coming to me was, “What motivates such language and action—“The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. No one takes life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again? What motivated Jesus, what motivated Martin Luther King, what motivated Sojourner Truth? What motivates us when we finally take the risk to “lay down” and “take up life” for ourselves? The answer I have come to is love—not a simple or cheap love. But a love that acts. A love that sees the other person who is different. A love that is gentle with our own hurt and pain. A love that takes risks. A love that looks pain and suffering in the face and stays with it. Such love is what motivates us and gives us the power to lay down life and to take it up again. When we act from love, it makes a tremendous difference in how we live. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When a chap is in love, he will go out in all kinds of weather to keep an appointment with his beloved. Love can be demanding; in fact, more demanding than law. It has its own imperatives. Think of a mother [or father] sitting by the bedside of a sick child through the night, impelled only by love. Nothing is too much trouble for love.”
Jesus made it clear in his living and in his dying that his motivation was love—love of God, the love of self as God’s beloved, and his love for others. His power was in his own decision and choice to lay down his life and to take it up again. He taught us that when we act from love, it does indeed make a tremendous difference in how we live. Our culture offers so many things to motivate us—money, recognition, power, prestige—all of which ultimately fades in time. But those things in life we do because we are motivated by love never fade. They change us. They change others. And they change our world. So, how do we prepare for that moment in life when we are asked to lay down or to take up life? We practice love. We practice loving God, loving our selves as God’s beloved, and loving others. Through all the craziness of John’s gospel, he reminds us that when we act from love, we make a tremendous difference in the world.
This material was taken from the blog: Better Bibles Blog. The entry was written by Wayne Leman.