A Translation Challenge in Matthew

Last week I was working with the W. language team and checking their translation of the final eight chapters of the book of Matthew.  The translation was in very good shape, so we were able to proceed at a pretty good pace.  The goal we had set to be able to check these chapters in eight days was to check an average of 55 verses each day.  On the morning that we were finishing chapter 22 and starting chapter 23, we had checked and revised 44 verses.

So when we gathered after lunch to continue doing the checking, I was feeling optimistic that we would be able to easily reach our goal, and surpass it.  But then we hit the “Woe” sections of chapter 23 of Matthew.  Seven times Jesus gave a strong warning to the Pharisees and the Scribes, two of the religious groups that existed during the times of Jesus and the New Testament.  And both groups knew all the rituals and regulations of the Jewish religion, but they only gave lip service to God rather than serve Him out of their hearts.

There is no question that these “Woe” sections of Matthew 23 are difficult to translate across different languages.  There are many concepts that are rather foreign to people who are subsistent jungle farmers.  How do we translate “Kingdom”, “temple”, “altar”, “tithing”, “proselytizing”, etc.  We did find ways to handle these difficult concepts, but there is one more term in this section that has caused us to discuss it at length.

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The term I am referring to is the word for “hypocrite”.  I have had the privilege to work with a number of Papuan languages and have checked the books of Matthew and Mark a couple of times.  And I am fascinated by the variety of ways in which different languages can handle the same term or phrase.  And this is definitely one of them.

When translating the term “hypocrite”, I have seen that it usually has to be expressed as an idiom or as a longer descriptive phrase.  For example, I have seen “hypocrite” translated like “the lying person”, “the two-mouthed person”, “the two-tongued person”, “the pretending to worship God person”, and what the W. language decided to use, “the person who lies and says, ‘I am a good person.'”

The common thread here is that a hypocrite is one who basically lies, pretending to be one thing when in fact they are the opposite.  They are people who deceive others by saying one thing, but their behavior shows that their values do not match their behavior.  As the idiom in English says, they in effect speak out of two sides of their mouth, which is very close to the Papuan idiom of being two-tongued or two-mouthed.

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In effect, these are nasty, lying, deceiving people who not only are trying to fool men into believing they are good people, but some are even thinking they are pulling the wool over God’s eyes.  And of all possible kinds of hypocrites, perhaps the worst ones of all are the religious hypocrites.  By their words and actions, they try to elevate themselves as someone better than other religious people, and in the end, they tarnish the name and reputation of God, and the true believers who worship God as He requires, out of a heart of humility and selflessness.

No wonder Jesus used such harsh language against the Pharisees and the Scribes in His day.  Not only should they have known how to properly approach God and worship Him, but these men were the religious teachers of the people.  But Jesus calls them to the carpet to challenge their hypocrisy for what it was, and as He said, they were like “white-washed tombs with nice decorations on the outside, but on the inside they were full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of ritual impurities.”

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And yet, when I really study this word and all that it implies, I need to be careful before I brand someone else with this word–hypocrite.  True, it is very obvious in Scripture that the Pharisees and the Scribes were very bad men, but am I that much different.  In degree, yes.  They were fierce and terrible opponents to Christ, and they ultimately had Jesus crucified out of pure jealousy against Him.

But in nature, I am a sinner just as much as they were.  And am I not guilty in many instances of some level of being a hypocrite.  I tell people I will pray for them, and do I follow-up on my promise to do so?  Not always.  Do I dress in my nicest clothes and put a smile on my face when I go to church, sending the message that I am well-to-do and that my life before God is all in order, when in fact I may be falling apart inside, and having doubts about God’s goodness?

We are encouraged in Scripture to make the most of every opportunity (referring to share Christ), but often I have no desire to talk to the person next to me on the airplane.  Do I turn away and pretend not to notice the poor man coming my way who is asking people for a quarter?  Can I truly call myself a “follower of Jesus”, when I act in so many ways that would be contrary to how Jesus would act?

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These are tough questions that do not have quick easy answers.  Each situation is unique.  But sadly, I think I must say that our modern and comfortable Christianity is something we wear on Sundays, and don’t do much with during the middle of the week to demonstrate we are Christ’s disciples who are carrying out His mandate to “seek and to save the lost”, and “to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Dear Readers, I know that I, and perhaps you too, still have a lot to learn in the School of Discipleship.  Jesus has set a good example, and He is our Headmaster.  Let the school of humility, selflessness, love for others, and self-sacrifice begin.

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