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Translating God’s Message: A Homily on Faithfulness
David L. Baad

The following homily was given in both middle and upper school chapels on March 10, 2021. You may watch the middle school daily worship service here.

Hello. Ni Hao. Bonjour. Hola. Guten Tag. Shalom. Asalaam alaikum. All ways people greet each other in different languages.  

Do you ever wonder about how and why humans invented language? We operate at ESD every day using English as our main means of interaction. For some of us listening today, it was the first language we heard and spoke. For some here though, it is not. We have members of this community who first heard and spoke Spanish, French, Chinese, Korean, or Arabic before they heard even a word of English. There are probably other languages that fall into this category of which I am unaware. I was lucky growing up to hear French spoken frequently in my house. I am grateful that my daughter heard French, Arabic, and even some Amazigh in her childhood. It has sparked an interest in both of us as to how and why people have developed communication in different ways.

Humans developed language - oral and written - to help them fulfill their basic needs. Words were used to help us protect ourselves - warn each other about danger, cooperate with each other to defend against a threat, bargain with each other to trade for food, and other things that helped us survive. As humans evolved and we were able to ponder things other than our survival, we used language to express ideas that are more abstract, concepts that are not right in front of us but instead allow us to dream, to imagine, to love, and to hope. Ancient humans wrote stories to explain their existence. Examples include 5000-year-old writings from the cradle of western civilization - Mesopotamia - The Enuma Elish, The Epic of Gilgamesh - stories that predate the Bible. The Bible itself is the text many in our culture use for that purpose. Three religions we are familiar with - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - take their origins from the same writings.

One thing about language is that it can often give us clues about what people in that culture think are important. For instance, as I have explained before in chapel, the Ancient Greeks had four different words, which can be translated into English by our word “love.” You might say, “well, that is way too many!” Why do you need four words to say the same thing? Well, imagine for a minute the love between two spouses. Is that the same as the love between two best friends? Is that the same as the love between two siblings? Is that the same as love between a parent and a child? The Ancient Greeks had a word for each of these. We do not. Figuring out why may tell us something about the Greeks, maybe about ourselves too. 

To understand our virtue of the month, “Faithfulness,” we recite a quote from the book of Proverbs. The first line of that passage is, 

“Do not let loyalty and faithfulness leave you.” 

It exhorts us to cling steadfastly to that which is important to us. 

I hope all of you know, though, that neither the Old nor New Testament was written in English. The first was written in Hebrew, the second mostly in Ancient Greek. The Bible has been translated into English many times in the last centuries so that it can be easily accessible to English speakers. In fact, the website Bible Gateway offers us 61 different English translations. Now to be fair, there are not huge differences in the words among many of these translations, but they do differ. Let’s take our Proverbs 3:3 passage we are using for “faithfulness” this month as an example. At ESD, we use what is called the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It says,

“Do not let loyalty and faithfulness leave you.” 

However, here is a sample of some of the other translations of the same passage:

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you - English Standard Version 

Here the word “loyalty” has been replaced with the word “love”. Are love and loyalty the same thing? I think most would say “sometimes”. When do you think they might differ?

A second translation:

Let not chesed (grace, benevolence, and compassion) and emes (truth) forsake thee - Orthodox Jewish Bible

Here the Hebrew word chesed - usually translated as something like “grace or compassion” is used instead of loyalty. Our virtue of the month “faithfulness” is replaced with the Hebrew “emes,” usually translated as “truth.”

A third translation:

Let not mercy and truth forsake thee - (King James)

This comes from the King James Version - the translation of the Bible into English in 1611 that was widely used in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition into the 20th century. Here “loyalty” has been replaced with “mercy,” and like the Hebrew version “faithfulness” has been replaced with “truth.”

So you can see that this one short passage - just eight words - has been translated into English in at least four different ways using four or five words that, while related put different meanings, different emphases on the passage. There is an interesting discussion to be had about the first word of the coupling. How does changing the word from loyalty to love or compassion, or grace or mercy change the passage’s meaning? However, since our virtue this month is faithfulness, let’s focus instead on this change from faithfulness to truth.

Here are some questions that come to mind:

  • Why might the modern translator have switched the word from truth to faithfulness?
  • Do you need a truth to which you are faithful to lead a fulfilling life?
  • Is there a truth you are taught to be faithful to? Does ESD teach you a truth? Should we?
  • Is there a truth you need to figure out on your own?
  • Is there a truth we can agree on? Should there be?

I think most would say that to lead a fulfilling life, a person should develop a truth, a set of foundational principles by which they should act. With the humility that comes with the knowledge of my own imperfection, I believe my truth lies in the Gospel passage we read today, 

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.”

I believe that by knowing Jesus, falling in love with Jesus, that brings me closer to God and leads me to a fulfilling life. There are also people who I love very much, though, who do not think this is a truth. My life experience has told me as well that there are others out there in this world who lead fulfilling lives, lives I respect and admire for their goodness, who also do not agree with me. Hmmmm. 

So maybe we need to go back to our various translations of our faithfulness passage from Proverbs. We saw that depending on who was doing the translating, the passage’s assertion - there are ideas in life we must hold onto - can be expressed in a variety of ways. Maybe the lesson here is that the ideas themselves - the truth - can also be explained in a variety of ways. Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist may say the truth differently, may translate the truth differently. But maybe no matter what, it is God’s way of saying His truth in the language, in the way, He needs us to understand. 

At ESD, we teach you a truth that is summarized in the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal church. There, the faithful are asked to commit themselves, 

“To seek and serve Christ in all persons, strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”

While most of us here are not Episcopalians and some not Christian, my hope is that this truth can be translated easily into the language of the principles that form your foundation. 

My prayer for our community today is that this desire to ensure that we are respecting the dignity of every human being unites us in a common purpose and provides us all the truth by which we build our lives together.