The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Luke 17:5-6
As I am deeply immersed in studying the origins and the development of the Bible for my Wednesday night class (you can access recordings of this class here), I took special note that today is the feast day of St. Jerome, a learned teacher, priest and monk in the church at Bethlehem in the fourth century. In addition to being considered one of the most learned persons of his age, St. Jerome is most remembered for translating the entire Bible into Latin, a translation known as the Vulgate.
In the beginning of the Christian church, when Greek culture and language held sway, most translations of the Bible were in the Greek language. With the spread of the Roman empire, that influence had waned, and by the fourth century, most Christians could no longer understand Greek. At the instigation of Pope Damascus, Jerome created the Vulgate (“literally vernacular”) starting in 383. To accomplish this, he went back to the original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament, and his work remained the standard Latin translation of the Bible for sixteen centuries.
Martin Luther would later pick up this tradition of translating the Bible into the vernacular language of the people during the Reformation. It has always been a source of Lutheran pride and belief that each person be able to read God’s Word in their language.
But what happens when something no longer “translates?” I’m talking less about words than certain images that become problematic as times, cultures and sensitivities change. One of those problematic phrases occurs this Sunday as Jesus tells a parable in which he places his disciples in the role of slaveholders:
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table… Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”
Of course, the implied answers to these questions are, “Absolutely not.” In Roman antiquity, these questions and answers would have been normal. To modern ears, the questions and answers are troubling. For people having wealth and power, the analogy to slavery might be helpful; it reminds them of their social privilege and the virtue of humility. For people who have experienced slavery or its legacy, the identification as slaves can be toxic.
How one hears Jesus’ comments will depend on one’s position.
What is reassuring to me is that before he tells this parable, Jesus promises that even the smallest amount of faith will have the power to uproot the largest of trees with the deepest of roots. I assume this means that faith can even uproot the legacy of slavery and its deep roots in the sin of racism.
After all, it is Jesus, the teller of this parable, who on the last night of his life washes his disciple’s feet. It is our master and Lord who presides at the table and invites all to come and dine on him. All the old hierarchies of master/slave and teacher/disciple are erased. Even in the smallest bit of bread and wine we can glimpse a future in which all the disparities of power and wealth that lead to so much oppression in this world are uprooted and tossed into the sea.