Sunday, August 31, 2008

Jesus Christ, Wordsmith

It is something of a commonplace in Pauline studies to point out that the gospel forced Paul to exercise a certain ingenuity when trying to express our participation in Christ. He invents a variety of words, often with the prefix sym to indicate our union with Christ.

I have not seen pointed out that Jesus Himself (or, others would say, the evangelists to recorded His teachings) also made use of words not found in Greek authors, either the classical authors or the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament.

"O ye of little faith" is a phrase that appears several times in Matthew's gospel and once in Luke's. The word behind it is one of these neologisms: oligopistos 'small faith'. Here are the uses of this word (and a closely related word oligopistia, smallness of faith) in the gospels (RSV translation):

"But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?" [Mt 6: 30; see parallel at Lk 12: 28]

"And he said to them, 'Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?' Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm." [Mt 8: 26]

"Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, 'O man of little faith, why did you doubt?'" [Mt 14: 31]

"But Jesus, aware of this, said, 'O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?'" [Mt 16: 8]

"Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, 'why could we not cast it out?' He said to them, 'Because of your little faith." [Mt 17: 19-20a]

A few things to note about this word. First of all, only Jesus uses it; Matthew and Luke do not use it as narrators, but only recounting something Jesus actually said. Aside from the first saying, which would belong to the putative 'Q' source, St. Matthew is the only author to quote Jesus using this word. In St. Mark's gospel in the parallel stories, we have similar, but not quite the same, phrasing: "Have you no faith," for instance (Luke has "Where is your faith?"). The story of Peter walking on the water is totally unique to Matthew.
The word makes a handy alternative to apistia, 'faithless', which Jesus also uses, but which obviously has darker connotations.
That faith is something that starts small and grows does seem to be something of a new teaching in the gospel. Faith has a central place in the Old Testament, but with the revelation of Jesus Christ, a whole new knowledge of the world is initiated, and it takes time to rediscover our bearings, once we have 'lost our lives' for the sake of the gospel and 'found them' through faith. There are two particularly well-known examples of partial faith (you might think of more). First, when Mark tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man, and at first his sight is only partly restored (people look like walking trees), commentators from early times tell us that this is a symbol of the ongoing process of enlightenment that begins at baptism and continues throughout our lives. Secondly, when Paul professes that we see now as in a mirror darkly, but then we shall see face to face, we glimpse again the process of belief, that the gift of faith in baptism is not the end but the beginning of salvation, which will only be completed in the next life.
With this in mind, the role of contemplatives in the Church gets some grounding: we are in need of those whose vision has penetrated further into the mysteries than is possible in the secular sphere.
In any case, if we are found 'small in faith', we should be properly chastised, but it should also be a spur to deeper prayer and seeking after God.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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