by Keith Johnson.
Monday August 3, 2009
from Conversation for the journey
I have a friend named Chet who works at the local UPS store. Whenever I go in to send a package, Chet usually asks a question or two about something I wrote down on the shipping form. I hate the tiny forms and the cheap leaky pens. One day, Chet told me something that has spurred me on to join “the conversation for the journey”. He admitted that he too had bad penmanship but this was only because he was forced to write, from an early age, with the wrong hand. You see, Chet’s parents believed in the age-old superstition that the left-hand is cursed. So whenever they saw their son using his left-hand they slapped it. Chet caught on quickly and learned to do most things, including writing, with his right-hand. Eventually he became so accustomed to using his right-hand that he even forgot he had been born left-handed. Throughout his school years Chet struggled with sloppy handwriting until one day, in a moment of compassion, his father suggested: “Why don’t you try your left-hand?” Unfortunately, by then it was too late for Chet to re-learn how to write with his natural left-hand.
Beginning in the 2nd century, the Christian Church underwent its own hand-slapping campaign. The main focus of this process was the eradication of anything that was too left-handed in its orientation. Although Jesus and all his original disciples were Jewish, the Church labeled the Jews as accursed in the eyes of God. Anything that was deemed too Jewish was expunged from the Christian faith. Some people involved in the early formation of the Church like Marcion, followed this to its logical conclusion, proclaiming the God of the Old Testament to be separate and distinct from the Christian God in the New Testament. By the time of the 4th century, the hand slapping by the Church led to the violent persecution of the Nazarenes, the Jewish descendants of the original followers of Jesus, who were deemed heretics for continuing to observe the ancient rites and rituals of the Old Testament.
I am concerned that the Church has moved so far from the foundations of our faith that we have forgotten our left handed origins. It is impossible to understand what Jesus taught us without an appreciation for the Jewish culture and Hebrew language in which he lived and preached. Even the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, who is known for slapping the hand of Jews (see The Jews and their Lies) once said:
“The Hebrew language is the best language of all … If I were younger I would want to learn this language, because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it. For although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions. It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks from the stream that flows from it, and the Latin’s from a downstream puddle.”
I wonder what image Martin Luther would give for those of us present day Christians who have been limited to the confines of the English translation of our bible? Maybe we drink from the bottled water that translators gathered up from the puddle. Who knows?
Without this appreciation of the origins of our faith, I believe that the Church is losing the understanding of who our God is according to His Word and who we are called to be according to His Will. Rather than returning to an understanding of Scripture in its original linguistic and historical context, our present day Church is moving into the feel-good, nature-focused, undefined, unclear, unexplainable, “what have you done for me lately” God who changes colors like the horses of the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. He is the green god for those who believe in prosperity theology, the black god for those who adhere to liberation theology, the white god for racists, the black and white god for the reconciliation movement, the red, white, and blue god for the conservatives and the rainbow-colored god for the liberals. The aforementioned groups have attempted to limit the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God of both heaven and earth. These and other -ologies, -isms, and -tions are desperately looking for ways to label people and contain God.
A number of years ago I was encouraged by my Heavenly Father to “try my left hand”. I decided to go through the sometimes difficult and always humbling process of learning to be proficient with my left-handed origins. There are times when I feel the heat from the flames of criticism when I choose not to bow down to the noise of the label givers who insist that I stay away from my left hand. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego provide a biblical model for standing up for conviction rather than bowing down to such people. Other times I want to complain like Moses that “I am slow of speech” regarding the Hebrew language. However, I keep hearing the voice of Yehovah encouraging me that He made our mouth, and that He is with me.
When some people hear that I am studying the language and culture of Jesus, and that I am reading a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew, they want to slap my hand. I understand that because of their desire to label people and contain God they are fearful of people like me. So no matter how hard they slap my hand, I won’t be trained like Chet. I won’t let them force me away from the left-handed history culture and language of my prized possession: the Word of God. I have learned to let the Holy Scriptures, according to their historical, cultural, and linguistic context, define God rather than to let social, economic, racial, religious, or gender do the same. I encourage all of those who are not willing to be labeled while on this journey, to extend your right hand of fellowship to reach out to our original family of faith. I also challenge you to “try your left hand” to grasp the Word of God. Remember the words spoken through Moses who also was encouraged to learn to use his original left hand: “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that Yehovah is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other”. Deuteronomy 4:29
Keith Johnson is co-author of A Prayer to Our Father; Hebrew origins of the Lord’s Prayer