Saturday, June 21, 2014

Semantics, Nuances, and Recontextualization

Matthew 5:48 says "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."

What would happen if we took that scripture at face value? Personally, I think I'd throw my hands up and say, "That's it! No hope for me. I give up!"

Fortunately, this little scripture is a prime example of the mistakes people often make when trying to grasp the scriptures and religion in general. I have noticed that these mistakes most frequently are caused by our failure to understand three particular principles.

1.  Semantics: the study of the meanings of words and phrases in language
2.  Nuances: a very small difference in color, tone, meaning, etc.
3.  Recontextualization: to place (as a literary or artistic work) in a different contex

Every scripture has layers of meaning--not to mention the distinct possibility that any given scripture might contain more than one true interpretation.

Going back to the scripture above as a sort of case study, what is Christ really saying when He commands us to be perfect?

Lets look at the semantics first. If we were fluent in Greek, we could go back to the original text and discover worlds of meaning that are currently hidden to us. Sadly, it's all Greek to me. :) On the bright side, scholars have done a great deal of the legwork for us and provided their findings in the footnotes. (I thank Heavenly Father for the footnotes frequently; they are such a blessing to my personal study!)

In the footnote for verse 48, it says that the Greek word which was translated as "perfect" can also mean "complete, finished, fully developed." This is probably old news for most of you, but when I discovered this in the footnotes a few years back, it was monumental! There WAS hope for me! This verse had an entirely different message than I had been taking away previously.

To consider another possible nuance to the word "perfect," I have thought about what I do when I work on a piano piece. I perfect it. (Verb, not noun; emphasis on the second syllable instead of the first.) In other words, God commands me to be perfect and then sends me to earth where I work on perfecting myself. But even that is not quite right...

The subtext to this verse, which I believe to be the whole point, is a matter of context. Christ is teaching these things at the beginning of His ministry, but we would be remiss if we assumed for even a moment that He wasn't perfectly aware of His ultimate calling and purpose. He was here to atone for our sins, and everything He taught pointed and was inextricably linked to His final act of the Atonement.

It's far too easy to be sitting comfortably in our little homes, reading a handful of words and dismiss them out of hand for their lack of pertinence or immediate clarity. In this way we cheat ourselves of the blessings of enlightenment! When Christ commands us to be perfect, He does so with a perfect knowledge of our capacity to become perfect only in and through Him! THAT is what this verse is all about. It is in essence an invitation to recognize that we can't be perfect, (or whole or fully developed,) without His saving grace, and a call for us to know Him better that we might fully access the power of His Atonement through His saving ordinances.

This is just one of many little examples I keep in mind to help me remember that even when something does not make sense to my mortal mind, there IS meaning and purpose there. I live my faith by trusting God that I will eventually understand and leave the rest to Him.

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