Transmogrifying the Gospels

Transmogrifying the Gospels

As I was studying the Gospels for my latest book, Writing in the Sand, I came across the passage in Matthew where Jesus is telling his students (that’s the proper Greek term) how to embody the kingdom; that is, the new way of life he espouses. As I see it in the Greek text, this is what he says: “Take care of the sick, wake up the lifeless, restore the rejected, and get rid of the daimonic.”

Here is the way this passage is usually translated: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure lepers, and cast out demons.” This is what followers of the Gospels are supposed to do? Miraculously heal the sick? Go to a funeral home and raise the dead? Go looking for leprosy and cure it? And get involved in ghoulish exorcisms? I don’t think so.

These traditional translations maintain irrelevant and absurd ideas of miracles that contradict nature and naive notions of demons. No wonder people are avoiding the churches in great numbers today. They are watching television and consulting the Internet, all the while becoming educated and sophisticated. The way the Gospels are still presented is insulting to their intelligence.

My translation is entirely faithful to the original Greek. For example, I say “wake up the lifeless,” instead of “raise the dead.” In the story of the prodigal son, about a young boy who takes his inheritance and squanders it in a spree of reckless spending, the father says, when the son finally returns home penitent, “My boy was dead and now he has come back to life.” The word here for “dead” is nekron, the same word in “raise the dead.” But the father doesn’t mean that the son was actually dead; he wasn’t himself, he was gone, beyond himself, lifeless.

Why have ordinary people, for centuries, been told from the pulpit that they should follow the example of Jesus and raise the dead? Why not “help those who are lifeless or soul-dead to come back to life”?

Why have we been given the example of Jesus doing miraculous cures, when the instruction is to take care of the sick? The word for “heal” is therapeuete — therapy — which comes from a word for “nurse” and means “to care for.” I can understand the order to care for the sick but not to heal them miraculously.

One more: “Cast out demons,” we’re told. But the Greek word is daimones, daimons not demons. A daimon is an inner urge that takes over a person, like an alcoholic’s need for a drink or a jealous person’s wild suspicions. We need to get rid of the daimonic urges that incite us toward conflict, but is that “casting out demons”? I don’t think so.

The Gospels have been presented time after time as simple-minded, anachronistic stories that have little relevance to twenty-first century life. As long as this goes on, people will shun them, looking for something more intelligent in their place. But Gospel spirituality is of special importance today, as we struggle toward creating a world community of cultures. The Gospels teach an end to xenophobia, paranoia, and narcissism — neurotic tendencies in individuals and groups that keep real community at bay.

The passage from Matthew summarizes what it means to be a follower of this spirituality today: In every situation, you are a healer. You take every opportunity to wake up your society to a thoughtful life. You work toward a community in which those normally rejected, like lepers of old, are brought back in. Finally, you do everything possible to calm negative urges in yourself and others to make a peaceful world. That should keep you busy. (Matthew 10:7-8)

The beauty of this spirituality is that it’s not centered on you. You aren’t making yourself into a model of virtue or spiritual accomplishment. And yet, by going outside yourself, paradoxically, you find the fulfillment you long for.

In this spirituality you cultivate both your humanity — the joy of life, deep and simple pleasures, close ties — and your spiritual vision. You pray and you play. You care for your body and your world and, at the same time, zone out in extravagant meditation and prayer. The Gospels model this multidimensional life, which is a good cure for an excessive, self-denying, and masochistic spirituality.

By the way, “transmogrify” is a made-up word, a wild and witty exaggeration that means to transform completely or oddly. The dictionary gives a simple example: the transmogrification of a cucumber into a pickle. Maybe it’s time to translate the Gospels carefully, instead of transmogrifying them.

Thomas Moore’s newest book is Writing in the Sand: Jesus and the Soul of the Gospels (Hay House, May 2009). See

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