Four hundred times the word tyrant is used in one of the early English translations of the Bible, the Geneva Bible, translated in 1560. But the King James Version, translated in 1611, doesn’t use the word tyrant once. It had only been 51 years, so we know that language doesn’t change that much that quickly. It is obviously King James who didn’t want anyone to associate him with being a tyrant and therefore question his rule from a biblical position. There are a number of English translations that change the meaning of some key original words just enough soften their social and political impact. Think about it: if you are commissioned by someone to translated the Bible who is part of the political regime, part of the status quo, part of the keeping things in society as they are, and you have a choice between two possible meanings of a word, one of which sets Jesus unquestionably against the person who writes your check every two weeks, which word are you going to choose? English translators, and American and European theologians have been hedging their biblical interpretations forever. That’s the problem with our readily and freely non-critiqued acceptance of the English Bible we read. Sometimes we have to read between the lines. We have to read the historical context more than just reading the words.
What is really going on here? It is the overarching influence of the oppressor to try and take our biblical eyes off of them and place them on personal morality. “It is the abortions that people have that are an affront to our Christian principled nation. It is gay marriage that is ripping at the core of our country. It is because we are not allowed to pray in schools, that’s the reason for the declining morality in the United States.” But the reality is that’s the old bait and switch. You just been had in Three-Card Monty. They set it up a long time ago, so much that you can’t point to anyone specific as the wizard pulling the strings behind the vail. It’s been baked in the American system since its inception, since the slave master read the Bible to the save and taught them “Slaves, obey your master.” Don’t allow your goals of self-righteousness to remove the overarching biblical mandate to love mercy and do justice. In fact, the question that you must ask is who told you abortion, gay marriage and prayer in schools should be the top political priorities of every Christian?
Since they are not prioritized in the Bible, who prioritized them for you?
Where did you get that priority list from? Who is telling you what Jesus said? I’m telling you, stop listening to these minstrel preachers, these plantation preachers. Their job is to keep you on their property. Their job is to whip you into submission to them and get you to say your name is Toby when your real name is Kunta Kinte.
What the oppressor and his system did was whitewash some words. They made them almost innocuous to make them less threatening to the political powers that be. A great example of this is the word “righteousness.” The word translated as “righteous” in most English versions lends us to believe that the word is referring to individual spirituality. You know, being holy. But that word’s original meaning is much more expansive than that. The word means both spiritual and social righteousness. Justice would be a much better English word for this word that would actually fit better with the context of Jesus’ use of it. Take as an example Matthew 5:6, where Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
When most people think about this in their Euro-American context they’re thinking “Oh, I need to read my Bible more. I need to pray more, fast more, study more to show myself approved.” But the verse takes on a decidedly more precise and more comprehensive meaning if it is translated “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled.” The context that surrounds this verse is all about justice, it’s all about a social and spiritual awakening of an oppressed people. It’s all about justice within a politicized and thus polarized world. And this fight, in a real sense, is against personal piety. This fight is against individual holiness that turns people into these self-righteous, “holier than thou” hypocrites.
Take a look at the famous and often quoted Matthew 6:33 “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.” But now put justice in righteousness’ place. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His justice…” Seek His Kingdom and His justice. His justice is a clarification of His kingdom. That is, the first thing we should seek is His justice. Fight for justice against the oppressor and the very thing that the oppressor has denied you (a sustainable wage to meet your basic needs), and you will have enough of. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice and all these things will be given to you as well.” Everybody’s fed and clothed in His kingdom. What does it mean to seek His kingdom? It means to seek His justice, pursue His justice in the world as it already is in the kingdom of Heaven. Under this translation, justice becomes the first thing and not a side piece to our pursuits. Justice is not something we add, it is something that we do. It is what we prioritize, even over our pursuit for our basic necessities in life. In fact, that’s how those who are oppressed are going to get their basic necessities met
Yet another critical example of this pervasive and oppressive phenomenon has to do with the word translated as “tribulation.” The word translated as “tribulation” comes from Greek word meaning to press or to hold down—that is, to oppress. With that, this word should not be translated as tribulation, which can suggest personal problems and struggles that occur. This word should be translated as oppression, which only occurs by intentional political domination. When this word is rightly translated as oppression, Jesus’ political meaning comes to life. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you shall have oppression, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” The prophecy of John through the Book of Revelation then becomes more than just interpretation of the end times, but a powerful call for defiance and coalition when confronted with political domination. Jesus says in Revelation 2:9 “I know your oppression and your poverty.” The great prophecy of Revelation 7:13 now says “Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes–who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said “These are they who have come out of the great oppression; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
With all of this in mind, let’s end with our beginning text.
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” 41 Jesus was indignant.
The New International Version got it right. The King James Version says that Jesus was moved with compassion. This is a huge difference in interpretations. The NIV apparently takes into consideration the earliest manuscripts found, and seeks to be true to them. Even one of the most world renown New Testament scholars in translation, Bruce Metzger, admits he could understand why copyists would alter the word for indignant here. It’s because they didn’t want to see Jesus here in that way—angry with a man who begged to be healed from his disease. But John Mark, who wrote the Book of Mark, had no problem seeing Jesus angry as seen in other scriptures in Mark.
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning…”
Jesus didn’t send him away with a strong warning so much as He send him away with a lot of anger. The phrase here interpreted as a “strong warning” was used to describe a snort of a horse, as in a snort of anger. Jesus sent him away with a snort of anger. Now what was Jesus so angry about? Before we answer that, let me say this. Jesus wasn’t sending the diseased man away as much as Jesus was sending him back. That is arguably a more accurate translation. Now read v.43 again.
“With a snort of anger, Jesus sent him back.”
44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
The man came to Jesus begging and on his knees because he had just been to the priest who obviously treated him badly like they treated all lepers, like they treated all outcasts, like they treated all outliers. Jesus was very angry about how they treated the diseased. He was very angry at the religious community. He was very angry about their conspiratorial involvement in social and political oppression. He was very angry that they were so complicit in their participation with keeping people down in the name of God. Jesus was very angry at the establishment who would cause a grown man to have to grovel on his hands and knees just to be helped, just to be absolved, just to be accepted in society.
But why did Jesus tell the man not to talk to anyone? He didn’t want the man to get caught up in talking about his healing. He wanted the man to act on his healing. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:20, “The kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power. It is when we act, it is when we manifest our power by confronting the powers that be that we pull down strongholds—ways of thinking that go against the kingdom of God. We pull down oppressive ways of thinking by confronting oppressive systems. It is high time we get angry about some oppressive things and go show ourselves to the powers that be. It’s time we get angry when we see someone who has been rejected by the system that’s supposed to help them. It’s time we get angry because people are about to get thrown off their healthcare insurance and will have no recourse to be healed. We need to get angry with the majority of the Congress and Senate, angry with the incoming President, angry with voter suppression, angry with police brutality, angry with the entire oppressive political process and do something. Take action. Get angry.