My oldest sister, then but a tyke, embarrassed our family by drowning out her entire VBS class belting “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” at the final assembly. (Ethyl Merman would have been impressed.) She liked the song; she believed in it; she was letting the whole world know! I was not yet born, so I missed the humiliation.
In 1530, Luther wrote an important but often overlooked treatise On Translating because he loved the Word of God; he believed in it; and wanted to let the whole world know of its gracious Good News. Luther was a translator himself – he translated the entirety of the New Testament from Greek into German in twenty-nine days. He worked through a translation of the whole Bible twice in his life, unintentionally establishing the foundation for contemporary German. Luther’s 1530 essay contains a brilliant insight: for people to understand a translation, the translator absolutely must understand the people, how they express not only complex but basic terms and insights. Luther’s phrase was, “I have to look the people right in the mouth.” He would walk around Wittenberg visiting his parish and the shopkeepers, asking the butcher what this or that cut of meat was called, talked to the serving maid about her tasks when milking the cow. Once he had his people engraved on his heart and inner ear, he set about the task of shaping his translation of the biblical stories in ways readily understandable. The Archangel Gabriel was not allowed to dump a cerebral, puzzling word of speculative theology on Mary. He greeted her; she asked him what his greeting meant; and he told her in terms she grasped. Luther, through Gabriel, was able to look Mary “in the mouth” so he could look US in the mouth.
This coming Sunday’s readings [4 post Pentecost] introduces prophets, apostles, and the Lord of Glory saying things which need interpreting and even translating. Otherwise, we miss the gracious message we hear. A true prophet of God tells of God’s desire NOT for wrath and destruction, but peace for the Creation God has declared TOV! [good!] The sometimes puzzling, prophetic utterances are confirmed when the peacemakers’ work can be experienced [Jeremiah 28:5-9]. Actions themselves can be valid translators of meaning.
St. Paul was not known for concise, easily comprehended bullet-points about sin, righteousness, grace, and faith. Paul’s writings are complex [eg. Romans 6:12-23] because the topics — sin, righteousness, grace, and faith — are complex realities themselves. It is fortunate for us that Paul never tried to dumb down or simply offer the bottom line for issues which themselves demand careful and full interpretation. Pastors study Greek and Hebrew, sometimes even German, Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic, to search out the many meanings imbedded in the scriptural writings. Paul’s writings deal with the heart of living and loving as God’s righteous folk, and it is vital we grow in understanding of these difficult but gracious words. That is the goal of the translator / interpreter / preacher.
Matthew 10:40-42 addresses hospitality: gracious care for the hungry, the outcast, the poor, those whom we identify as “not like us,” or looking South Carolinians in the mouth, “folks who’re from off.” To have loving regard for the stranger, symbolized as offering a cup of water to “one of these little ones,” is to show loving regard to the Lord of Glory himself. To welcome another is to welcome God, for ALL are God’s people whether we or even they are aware of it. God is truly present because God’s life-giving Spirit was breathed into all of us at our forming.
We may not be able to muster the ins and outs of Greek and Hebrew, but we can listen to words of grace addressed to us in proclamation and sacrament for our own benefit. Then we, too, begin our work as translators when we exhibit holy hospitality in our manner of living, sharing Jesus’ love with the little ones, checking in on friends and family by phone, email, texting, and ZOOM meetings, even sending a card or letter like our great-grandmothers did. Holy living is our principal means for translating, something James 1:19-25 suggests is being “not only hearers but doers of the Word.” And that, brothers and sisters, is how we become Jesus’ sunbeam translators!