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Lost in Translation: Rethinking Authority

Speaker: The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

January 31, 2021

Sermon, January 31, 2021
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Lost in Translation: Transforming Authority
Mark 1:21-22 NRSV

There are moments in life which hold the keys to the future in ways beyond our imaginations. We all have moments like this. These are destiny/ fork in the road moments or what we might call, in a theological Christian context, grace or providential moments. It was the start of my Senior Year at Grinnell and on my desk were two very different applications representing different lives to live. Both were completely filled out and ready to send. I could only pick one. I had spent the past four years as a French Major at Grinnell with one full year (the previous one) in Nantes, France. I had also spent those four years as the right-hand assistant to the chaplain of the college working in religious life and even in France had become the regional young adult rep for Nantes to national French conferences in Bretagne and Paris for the gay-Catholic group David et Jonathan. A French Major and a church nerd—even while studying abroad for a full year. Finally, professionally, I had to make a choice.

On one side of my desk was the application that would send me back to France as a teaching assistant after Grinnell. That would be the path towards a future of language, teaching, and translation. It would help me continue my love affair with Stendhal, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Campus, Sartre, and a language that transformed my confidence. I hoped to become a translator—to bridge cultures and understanding, broker peace, see deeper into story and meaning.

On the other side of the desk were the applications to attend seminary (Emory, Yale, Divinity Schools) and pursue community organizing in the Church for the cause of LGBTQ inclusion and probable ordination.

In the end, of course I chose seminary.  I became a translator, not for French Philosophers, but in the local church: a translator for God and the ancients into modern, relevant, compelling Spiritual nurture. A minister studies Scripture, tradition, and conscience, and engages ritual and community for the sake of translating mystery into meaning and the ancient and static into the relevant impactful. My job is to translate the ordinary and the ancient into the Sacred and the emerging.

Translation, especially in religion, isn’t an exact science, but it is an offering of one way of saying something and creating meaning. One thing you learn as a language major is that no translation is absolute or universally authoritative always and forever. Translation must always be redone, it is never the final word, must always be repeated and revisited. Today, then as one of your translators, I need to point out that our Scripture passage today has been mistranslated over the centuries in a harmful way for our understanding of authority, Jesus, and the Church.

Today, our Scripture Passage from Mark 1:21-22, is only two verses, but they are the very first two verses describing Jesus’ ministry and purpose on earth and in history. This is the first word describing the nature of the power of Jesus and what makes our religion salient in the oldest Gospel—the Gospel of Mark is the template used by all the other Gospels. This matters and how we hear it matters for how we translate and interpret everything which follows. What is the cause of Christ? These are two verses that the Church has always used to justify its power in the world as the Body of Christ, but I believe upon a deeper study that the English translation we are presented with and our modern assumptions get in the way of the true meaning of this passage and therefore the true source of Jesus’ power and transformation. 

“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Our text today is about where authority and meaning come from. This is especially important in the emerging times when all forms of authority are up for debate. In the verses preceding our Scripture reading for today from Mark, Chapter 1:1-20, Jesus has just had enough time so far to presumably be born, get baptized, and call his very first disciples all within just 20 verses. Now he walks right into the first synagogue he comes across and starts talking! He starts talking and when he does this, he causes excitement! This is the first description of Jesus in active ministry, so there are four assumptions made through a casual reading of the English translation which we must address today as we are needing to reframe the meaning of authority in religion:

First, we wrongly assume that authority here means institutional authority or dominating authority because that is how we use this word in modern, American English. We need to look at this word “authority,” for it is problematic beyond measure in the history of the church. We want this to be absolute, defined, and above those who are like Scribes, but here is the rub… that isn’t what the text shows. The word translated as “authority” here is exousia in the Greek and it comes-up seven times in Mark (1:22, 1:27, 10:42, 11:28, 11:29, 11:33, and 13:34). In almost all of those instances, Jesus tells the Disciples that he refuses to tell them the source of his authority and that it is mysterious. They are not to talk about it. Exousia isn’t an authority like a housing authority or the authority of robes and stoles and clergy and hierarchy. It is rather closer to the other translations of exousia which can also mean freedom, permission, and the liberty. Jesus isn’t being recognized for his creation of new rules and systems of power or some kind of intellectualized ordination, but he causes awe and wonder at his liberty and his freedom to speak new truths. It isn’t his authority but it is his freedom that makes him relevant for his time. Can we say the same for ourselves? 

Second, it isn’t an either or between the freedom of Jesus and the study of the Scribes. As we see later in places like Mark 9:11 (for example), Jesus has nothing fundamentally against the Scribes or grammateus in Greek. He actually relies on their wisdom and Scholarship to make his points. I always feel bad for the scribes here. They are only doing what they are called to do. The grammateus were not secretaries or writers, but ancient sources show that they were the scholars, the academics, and really the clergy and teachers of the day-to-day running of the institution. Scribes come in many forms as it is just a sort of unspecific term, but they are the ones with the institutional authority and wisdom. When read in the totality of the Gospel of Mark, the text isn’t meant here to trash the Scribes and the ordained ministers.  It is to say that the freedom and the liberty of what Jesus said offered a new contrast. The power of Christianity comes from creative freedom. 

The Scribes are who we are today as the institutional Church. Jesus is the outside “authority” of freedom, creativity, and liberty that brings new thinking to the old structures. Notice that he does choose to occupy traditional spaces still like synagogues even as he does something new. There is a respect for the older forms of wisdom. Yet…Jesus occupies the undisciplined and creative intellectual space of the artist and the philosopher. The text here and elsewhere implies that you need both!

Professional outsider, humorist, philosopher, consummate New Yorker, and high school dropout Fran Lebowitz said in an interview with Martin Scorsese in the just released Netflix documentary, Pretend It’s a City, talks about where new ideas come from in intellectual spaces. While standing over a scaled model of the City of New York, Lebowitz proclaims: 

“There is a lot to be said for being in physical contact with other artists.

Hanging around.

Hanging around is important.

There was Max’s and a million places and a million places before that.

And that was New York. That was Paris.

That was different times different cities.

But it’s very important.

…Do you know what artists sitting around in different bars and restaurants talking and drinking and smoking is called…It is called the history of art. Okay.” 

Turns out it is also called the history of emerging, relevant theologies. 

Most ministers like to think we are prophets. I don’t kid myself. I know what I am. You need the Scribes (like me), but you also need the free and the sharp critics (who are hard for us to hear at times) like Fran Lebowiz and like Jesus to shake things up. Good religion requires both. Our traditional interpretation of this passage as an either-or and a building up the “authority” of Jesus as institutional rather than liberating does us a disservice as Christians navigating a post-Pandemic reality. Today is the day to challenge this translation.  

But that does bring me to the third misinterpretation. As Mainline Protestant, Connecticut, “on the green” Christians, when we picture Jesus walking into a religious institution and making a fuss, we accidentally imagine what we know. We imagine subconsciously pews, guest preachers we have had (as if Jesus were pulpit supply), and a quiet and respectful audience. This could not be further from the reality of the place where Jesus taught.[1] The Scribes were sort of debate referees. With three services a day, the synagogues of Jesus’ time were wild community centers of debate, prayer, and didn’t require a set leader. In synagogues rather than the temples, many philosophies were welcome. Think of a combination of a quaker meeting meets a good debate at a town hall or a room full of French philosophers and artists debating existentialism in a 1920’s Paris Café! The space where Jesus came to gain recognition was a marketplace of ideas. As Fran Lebowitz describes, “Do you know what artists sitting around in different bars and restaurants talking and drinking and smoking is called…It is called the history of art. Okay!” When we picture the setting, we picture a place that isn’t use to disruption, a status setting, but that isn’t what Jesus encounters. 

Finally, the last assumption about this passage is subtle but important. In Mark 1: 20, the last verse before our reading today, the subject is the newly called disciples. It reads, “Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” Then our passage starts, “They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” We assume here when we read that “they were astounded” that the people in the synagogue were astounded, but the subject never left the newly called disciples—fresh off the boat! When new things are preached, when norms are broken, when freedom rings, when libertine thinking emerges—the text doesn’t necessarily imply that the Scribes were offended or the people in the synagogue were astounded. My interpretation is that Jesus first and foremost astounds his own followers. Maybe that is what leadership in times of change looks like!  

With these things in mind, here is maybe a better translation as we enter a time in need of new thinking: “After making some new friends and followers at the beach, Jesus finds a synagogue and enters into debate with the locals sharing new and free ideas and creative thinking. This was different from the teachings of the local ministers, but they welcomed it and didn’t kick him out or shut him down. People are moved to ask questions. Jesus asks questions too. At this, Jesus’ new friends from the beach were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having artistic freedom of thought rather than from the traditional teaching.”

Finally, I tend to make friends with people who don’t like church. I rarely tell them what I do for work. Most people, it turns out, never ask. I listen. I hear. I hear the fear of churches, of clergy, and the assumption of our self-importance. It is important to hear these things and to feel them. Church friends, our passage today isn’t a condemnation of us Scribes. Scribes and the existing institution are the foundation of Jesus’ work as we see in other parts of the Gospel of Mark, for example Chapter 9. Likewise, it isn’t a naming of Jesus and his new found authority as the domain or the inheritance of the modern Church. In fact, Jesus never admits where his freedom and liberty (authority) comes from. It certainly isn’t ours or the disciples’ authority to claim in the narrative of the Gospel of Mark where we are today. The location of this passage not as we imagine in a white church on a town green but in an ancient artists’ café, an ancient venue for debate, a space of sharing of ideas shows that it is a balance of both the presence of the academics and the radical free ideas that creates newness, freshness, art, and theological and Holy Spirit innovation! Finally, we must see that this sort of intellectual space for which we are called to foster in our own lives and communities will probably surprise our friends and colleagues more than the strangers. They thought they knew what they were getting! 

I didn’t end-up as a French professor or translator, but I am here as a humble translator of the Sacred—ready to be challenged, for I am but a Scribe of the establishment. Here is my translation for today: We are called as the modern, soon-to-be post-Pandemic Church to rethink our role, to be surprising, and to embrace the freedom-liberty of Jesus that is different than what we have prescribed for ourselves and our lives and our churches. Let’s see what God will do! Amen.

[1] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1974/09/i-have-a-question/what-were-synagogue-services-like-during-jesus-time?lang=eng

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

Associate Minister

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