The Table Connection – Week 3


Lost in Translation

by Kalyn Stralow

Scripture Reading – Matthew 5:1-20

My husband, Josh, and I recently had the opportunity to develop and teach a weekend seminar on personal finance. Now, we’re both huge Dave Ramsey fans (and admittedly nerdy), so financial health – especially within the church – is a passion of ours that we discuss a LOT (#superfunatparties).  At this point, it requires minimal effort for us to be able to give our views, supporting arguments, and overturn most objections on this topic we care about.

A minor detail about this seminar: it was for a multicultural audience from at least half a dozen countries of origin, with a live translator planning to do word-for-word translation on the spot. And that changed everything about how we prepped. Suddenly, we were developing an entire script, deeply considering our audience, analyzing our word choices for idioms and phrases that wouldn’t translate well, simplifying for clarity, and trying to dissect whether our financial recommendations were universally relevant or based on our own underlying cultural values and assumptions. The content was the same, but the “effortless” suddenly felt so much more complex, with a language and cultural element to keep in mind.

Usually, I speak to an audience with a similar frame of reference, and I don’t even think twice about the cultural allusions that roll off my tongue. And neither do most of the people listening.

When Matthew opens his account of the Sermon on the Mount, he’s doing the same thing. He’s a Jewish man, writing for a Jewish audience, and he is recounting the message of Jesus, who was also a Jew, deeply immersed in the culture of His people, speaking to His own Jewish audience. They were all drawing from the same well of shared history, assumptions, sacred texts, and pop culture that allowed both Jesus and Matthew to communicate clearly.  They didn’t have to think about clarifying what was meant by “poor in spirit,” or how salt could possibly lose its saltiness, or why Pharisees and scribes were the standard of righteousness.

These same phrases can trip us up today. They confuse us into wondering what Jesus could possibly have meant.

Is Jesus saying we can lose our salvation?

So, am I more righteous than a Pharisee? They don’t seem super great in the Bible…

And wait…is the “kingdom of heaven” different from, you know, Heaven?

None of these are questions that Matthew’s original audience would have been asking. These confusing-to-us phrases were clarifying to them, bringing Jesus’ message further into focus and leading Matthew’s readers toward a natural conclusion about who Jesus is. But we lose much of that richness in translation, across language and across time. And when that loss has us asking really crucial questions like, “Wait, is Jesus saying that we can lose our salvation here?” it sure seems worth some extra effort to dig a little deeper.

We can apply some of those same cross-cultural communication principles that Josh and I used for our finance course as a starting point. Who is Jesus speaking to in this passage? What phrases or metaphors is He using that I don’t totally understand? At its most simple, what is this passage saying? Which of my own cultural norms am I trying to overlay on my reading of this text?

It’s absolutely worth the effort.

After all of our prep, when Josh and I taught our Personal Finance class, we still discovered things that we had missed. We used expressions that didn’t translate perfectly. Or we forgot to consider cultural differences that meant our audience had a totally different perspective on family dynamics than our other classes had.

And you know what? It was still a meaningful class! They learned, and we learned, and we will have better tools to use as we go forward.

If you feel overwhelmed by all you don’t know when you read Scripture and think you need a seminary degree to understand it, don’t be discouraged. Invite God into your reading of His Word. He can meet you where you are, with the time and energy you have available, and teach you truth. As you continue to grow, and learn, and hunger, and study, He will continue to clarify and teach you in greater detail.

Here’s my challenge for you as you read Matthew 5:1-20. If you read something that seems uncomfortable or confusing, don’t skip past it this time. Pray over it. Ask questions. And don’t be afraid to do a little research. May His Word be “living and active” for you this week.

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” Romans 11:33


Further Reading

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