Sunday, February 06, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
13Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
14Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
15Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

I’m pretty sure I was in grade five when I received my first Bible. It was small, and red, and presented by a nice older man representing something called the Gideons. He might just as well have been an alien visitor from another planet.

Speaking as a member of the unchurched, a boy who had never been to church before, the thing that strikes me now was the lack of context. Why give every ten year-old in Mount Albert a tiny Bible? We were encouraged to read it, I remember that much, but I don’t remember much of the visit beyond that. Having never encountered a Bible before, I may have even given the first few paragraphs a go, but the book begins with the “begats” in Matthew, hardly stimulating reading for your average ten year-old.

And it turns out, the tradition continues. Outside the bigger school boards in Toronto and Ottawa, the Ontario branch of the Gideons is still busy visiting schools and handing out Bibles. The current version is still red, with a number of children’s faces on the cover, and the title “The Little Red Answer Book.”

I learned this from a recent article in the Waterloo Record, along with the surprising fact that 200,000 ten year-olds in Ontario are still getting Bibles. There have been recent objections from parents (hence the article) and a School Board vote to continue the practice in Waterloo schools.

I guess I would categorize this information under the heading “you know you have been in Toronto a long time when.” But it gets even more surprizing: According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in 1998, 79% of hotels surveyed said they had Bibles in the room; that figured jumped to 95% in 2006.

I have to say, however, that my favourite fun-fact related to this is the Provenance chain of hotels, based in Oregon, that decided that rather than discontinue the practice of having a Gideon Bible in the room, they would supplement it with copies of the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. Suddenly there is a small library of religious texts available, yet it remains unclear if they will track down others on request. One is tempted to call the front desk and demand a copy of “The God Delusion,” the new go-to guide for atheists.

Back to my little red Bible, I do remember scratching my head at the language. I had heard of Shakespeare, Mount Albert isn’t that far into the woods, and this Bible had the distinct sound of Shakespeare. You might say the Gideons were behind the times in giving out copies of the King James Version of the Bible, but you might also argue they were ahead of their time.

2011, you see, is the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the King James Bible, also known as the Authorized Version, and journalists and scholars have already started to spill ink on the topic. And if you’re looking for a good book on the topic I recommend “God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible” by Adam Nicholson.

The articles seem to breakdown into a few consistent themes:

1. The KJV is the only real version worth reading, all the others are terrible;
2. The KJV does more to develop the English language that any book before or since;
3. The 400th anniversary is a literary celebration and not a religious one since the church has turned its back on the KJV anyway.

I guess I would say ‘not really, true and true.’ The KJV is remarkable, if slightly inaccessible to the average reader, it is an anchor of the English language, and we have largely turned our backs on it. But not today. Today we turn our attention back, beginning with verse 18. First I will remind you of what Jenny read, then what she would have read if she was standing in the same place in 1887:

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

I don’t know about you, but I think ‘jot and tittle’ is much more fun than ‘the smallest letter, and the least stroke of a pen.’ And this is precisely the argument that various authors have made: modern translations have sucked the poetry out of the scripture and made it too literal, too prosaic to delight or inspire.

Okay, now you’re just itching to know about ‘jot and tittle.’ Of course you are, who isn’t? First let’s get tittle out of the way, a word that has made generations of schoolboys giggle and simply means the dots on top of the letters ‘j’ and ‘i.’ There is nothing as small as a tittle, except maybe a jot.

A jot is defined as ‘a tiny amount.’ Like the smallest amount you can imagine, and therefore likely smaller that a tittle. Jot is one of the rare words that comes to English from Hebrew, having first passed through Greek. So ‘yod,’ the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet becomes ‘iota’ in Greek and eventually ‘jot’ in English. Ask Carmen nicely and she will sing you the Hebrew alphabet song, the same one that she teaches to graduate students (who suddenly feel like pre-schoolers).

William Tyndale, priest, scholar and eventual martyr, wrote about 80 percent of what would become the KJV and he phrased it this way:

One iott or one tytle of the lawe shall not [e]scape tyll all be fulfilled.

Writing 75 years before the committee that would put together the KJV, Tyndale wrote with an economy of language that was poetic and understandable at the same time. And Matthew 5.18 Is a sterling example: in both the New International and the King James the emphasis is on the law itself, and the way in which the law is fixed and cannot change. “Not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law” is a rather wooden way of saying that the Law is immutable, and Jesus did not come to take it away.

Tyndale’s version, however, shifts the focus from the law to the reader: “Not one jot or tittle of the law shall escape till all be fulfilled.” He chooses ‘escape,’ a word with Anglo-Norman roots, and the opposite of ‘to capture.’ In other words, he takes something static like alterations to the law and adds a strong verb instead. The entirety of the law cannot escape us, we are captive to it, and it will not let us go.

So if I’m correct, and we are captive to the law, what does this mean? Let’s try a for instance.

The pioneering women in the in the 60’s and 70’s who entered parts of the workforce dominated by men reported that they had to work twice as hard to achieve half of what the men around them could achieve. In other words, they were compelled to prove themselves at every turn, because conventional wisdom held that they couldn’t do it was well as the men could.

Back to Jesus: The disciples were considered inferior to the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, and were continually being challenged to prove themselves, to establish their religious credibility. In other words, they had to work twice as hard to achieve half as much in the eyes of the population. They were pioneers, and as such they had something to prove.

And Jesus makes sure his disciples understand this even before they head out into the world:

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Not only are the disciples captive to the law, but they have to exceed the righteousness of the other religious leaders in order to the kingdom-worthy. Except when they can’t. In that case, and in our case, they would depend on the forgiveness that Jesus freely gave, the same forgiveness he extended to the foolish disciples throughout the Gospels.

Being captive to the law does not mean giving children little red Bibles. I don’t think being captive to the law means setting up little religious libraries in hotel rooms either. No, being captive to the law means following in the way of Jesus best read in the KJV:

36Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38This is the first and great commandment. 39And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt. 22)

Being captive to the law means loving God and loving your neighbour. Do these, and not a jot or tittle will be missing. And this means being seen to love God and love your neighbour, never hiding your love under a basket. Why go to church? To love God. Why give away hamburger and clean needles? To love our neighbours. We have tended to make it seem more complicated that it need be, but Jesus is all about clarity: “14Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” Thanks be to God. Amen.


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