I have a friend who loves making the Bible strange.
He finds the quirky places,
reads them out,
and scans your face,
looking for you to be astonished too.
He finds places that don’t line up
with what they always said in church.
And if you have been thinking
that these texts are comfortable,
that they line up perfectly—
then look again: are you so sure?
He knows the Greek, he knows the Hebrew,
If he knows you don’t,
he lays it out before you:
here’s the word, the phrase,
what does it mean?
Here’s one translation, here’s another,
Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale, King James,
ASV, RSV, NIV, NRSV, NEB, NAB, REB, ESV,
—see how they change?
Watch them shift and slip and slide!
Who did this? When? Where? Why?
Tell me again:
the meaning—did it change, or . . . ?
what did it mean then?
what does it mean now?
Eyes wide with wonder,
he scans your face,
daring you not to be astonished:
disturber of the peace,
messer with your mind,
maker-strange of the word.
Why does he do this?
I don’t like this game,
don’t want to be astonished.
Provocation? Titillation? Self-stimulation?
He can’t be serious.
Jesus tells of ninety-nine,
safely in the fold at night,
but one is missing, lost in the dark,
at risk, in pressing danger,
stuck in brambles, wolves closing in,
so the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine
to find the one,
and the ninety-nine don’t mind so much,
because they are the ninety-nine,
and they can turn their flashlight on,
under the covers, safe,
and comfortably read their comfortable Bible,
that means in every line
exactly what they think it means,
that tells them they’re all right.
Let Jesus go to find the one—
that one who also thinks the Bible means
exactly what they always said it means—
The one does not belong,
that one is not wanted
in the fold.
But what if Jesus spun the count
to spare (or mock?) the feelings of the fold?
Or maybe it was really ninety-nine back then.
But now it isn’t ninety-nine,
or eighty-eight or sixty-six or or forty-four
or even really thirty-three.
The many are outside,
they know they don’t belong,
they aren’t invited in,
they don’t want in,
because the comfortable word that’s read inside
assures them that the shepherd
does not, cannot, care for them,
and they don’t even want him to—
this word that means exactly what you always thought it meant,
this comfortable word,
read that way,
says: for them
this shepherd is not really all that good.
What if my friend who loves making the Bible strange
is out there—
what if the truth is out there—
looking for the ninety-nine?
June 27, 2020
Illustration source: https://www.eighthdayinstitute.org/the-word-made-strange. The Greek phrase in the second line is “he emptied himself” from Philippians 2; the Greek in lines 3 and is “in the likeness of human beings” from the same chapter; the Greek running down the right edge says “the unique one” or “the one of a kind” or “the onlybegotten” (with an error—the masculine pronoun, but the neuter form of the adjective).