Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Badly translated Bible – 'Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness'

This blog entry is the first in a series where I'll look at words and passages in the Bible that often get translated badly. I want to do this because I think it can make a real difference to how we live; what we read shapes our thinking, which then shapes our behaviour. I hope it's not just an academic exercise that actually ends up getting in the way of real change (here are my recent thoughts on that).

Let's begin, then, with Matthew 6:33. Jesus has been telling his followers and a wider crowd that they shouldn't worry about material things like food and clothing. Instead, Jesus says this:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

These are three popular versions of Matthew 6:33, firstly from the New International Version, then the New King James Version, and finally the New Living Translation.

What strikes you about this verse? 'Seek first the kingdom of God...' What does that mean; what is this 'kingdom of God' all about and what does it mean to seek it? Let's look at the second half of the verse for a clue: '…and his righteousness' or maybe '…and live righteously'. So the kingdom of God is about living a righteous life, it seems. I suppose that means don't murder, don't steal, love God and your neighbour, don't be jealous of what other people have; the stuff in the Ten Commandments and in the New Testament teaching on morality. Maybe... I'm sure that's part of it. But let's take a closer look at that phrase, 'and God's righteousness'? It's time for some Greek!

The word that most Bibles translate as 'righteousness' is the ancient Greek word dikaiosune. From what I've read, its meaning certainly includes what we would call 'righteous living' or 'righteousness', in the sense of living the right way. But it also carries the meaning of 'justice', which rather changes the sense of Jesus' comment in Matthew 6:33:
But seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added to you.

Seeking God's justice is rather more challenging than seeking his righteousness, it seems to me. Especially if you think of the latter as being mainly about your personal devotions; how much time you spend on so-called holy activities like praying or reading the Bible. Jesus' instruction is changed from being something like this:
Make sure you're living an outwardly good life, trying to follow my commands as best you can. And make sure you're doing a lot of praying, studying and reading.

...to something like this:
Make sure you're joining in with what I'm doing, bringing justice, peace and reconciliation to the world.

It's good to pray, study and read. It's good to not steal or murder. But perhaps Jesus is calling his followers to something bigger in this passage. If he did really have more of the global picture in mind, rather than merely the personal, then 'Seek first God's kingdom' becomes a marvellous invitation to join with God in his work of reconciling the world to himself, of bringing what Hebrew people, both ancient and modern, call shalom

Post script

The inspiration for this blog post came from Brian McLaren's book, 'The Last Word and the Word After That'. In a passage looking at how we might understand the good news of Jesus Christ as being more than 'Go to heaven when you die', McLaren says this:
I tell people God loves them, God accepts them, God isn't holding their sins against them, God wants them to follow his way. I ask them to rethink their lives, to be ready for a new beginning. I tell them how God sent Jesus to invite us to follow him and live in the way God wants us to live. I tell them that Christ died for their sins and that the Holy Spirit can enter their life and begin transforming them. I tell them they truly can be transformed. I invite them to make their first priority to seek God's kingdom and God's justice.

Here are a few links to definitions of that Greek word dikaiosune. You'll see the definitions tend to include both 'righteousness' and 'justice' although the Bible translations rarely pick this up.

Dictionary of Spiritual Terms
Greek lexicon at Bible Study Tools

1 comment:

  1. I'm really looking forward to the rest of this series!