Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hebrews 10:24

“And let us consider one another to stir up love and good works.” (NKJV)

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (NIV).

For many years—most of my adult life really—I read the NIV translation of the Bible. This verse in Hebrews played an important role in how I understood relationships among Christians were supposed to work. That is, I thought we were supposed to spend time imagining ways to spur others on to love and good works: we were supposed to pay attention to how and whether others were loving and doing good works, and think of ways to prod them into doing what they should be doing. In the end, such a reading of this verse becomes nothing more than a license for busy bodying.

Reading the passage in Greek yesterday, I was surprised to discover that the King James tradition provides the more accurate translation. Instead of considering how to spur one another, we are to consider one another into [resulting in] the stirring up [inciting, stimulating] of love and good works. To tell you the truth, the Greek is ambiguous. I can see why modern translators might want to provide an easy solution. It is reasonable to assume that the love and good works are done by the “one another” whom we are to consider, and the preposition (into) implies a causal relationship; so with a little translator’s license we have an easily readable translation that “makes good sense” to modern Protestant English readers. And why not? What else would we consider in others except how to make them better?

St. John Chrysostom read this verse very differently. Faced with the same ambiguity of text, he provides a very different interpretation, one that calls for humility and considering others as better than ourselves. St. John asks, “What is, ‘let us consider one another’? It means if a certain one is virtuous, let us imitate this one. Let us look upon him so as to love…. For from love all good works come.” For St. John, the stirring up of love comes from considering others who are more virtuous than our selves. Of course to do this one must actually believe that others are more virtuous.

The shift in perspective is telling. St. John assumes that we look for what is good and emulable in one another, not for what needs to be fixed—and then to consider how I am supposed to help fix it. And isn’t this our usual (sinful) tendency, to see what’s wrong with one another and to think we know how to fix it. Instead, the writer of Hebrews is calling us to stimulate love and good works in ourselves by considering what is good and virtuous in others.


Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

Could this be another interpretation that would be consistent with St. John Chrysostom?

To consider another person can also mean to put the other first, to live for the other, the way that Christ lives for us. When I consider how great a gift Christ gave me in living for me and inviting me into eternal life - making eternal life possible!, I am stirred up to do good works (or to become like him) as a free and loving response to his gift. I feel the same response when I consider the love my husband has for me. The good works stirred up in me as I freely respond to the love of Christ or my husband or my children or anyone else God given me to love and be loved by, might not be the same as the good works they do. They will simply have the same quality of freedom and love.

This understanding might not be different from what you are saying, but I think it moves away from wanting to change our natures to wanting to become persons, participating in loving and bringing into existence other persons - the only good work there is.

But, maybe I've been reading Zizoulas???


Anonymous said...

I meant to say at the send that maybe I've been reading too MUCH Zizoulas.


Anonymous said...

I hve been reluctant to get into the original greek, but here is another interesting translation that sort of agrees with your interpretation.

24 And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works,

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

Fr. Michael said...

What struck me was that the original Greek is somewhat ambiguous; but then again Greek is not my native language. But Greek was Chrysostom's native language. I wonder if the ambiguity is due to an idiom that he understood but we do not. That's why I have given so much weight to his interpretation: it is so different from almost all modern readings. Chrysostom's interpretation assumes a humility that focuses on repentance rather than on changing others.
To Barbara: Your Zizoulian interpretation is nice, but it is not Chrysostom's. He says, "It means if a certain one is virtuous, let us imitate this one."