("If the buzzard still won’t eat grass?")
A certain question has haunted me ever since it was first put to me, some twenty years ago. It was put to me by Abdias Coulibaly, the pastor of the Mennonite Church of Orodara, in Burkina Faso, who visited us at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in March of 2006. He put it to me while I was visiting with him one afternoon in his bookstore while we lived there in Burkina Faso. I was talking with him about a new Jula language translation of Mark’s gospel that some linguists were working on in the nearby city of Bobo-Dioulasso.
Although this new translation of Mark’s gospel reflected quite well the Jula spoken in the streets of Bobo-Dioulasso and Orodara and much of northern Ivory Coast, I had a major theological problem with it. I barely got into Mark chapter one, verse 15, and found Jesus quoted as saying, “The time has come; God is king, repent and believe the good news.”
Now, most of your Bible translations, if they’re anything other than a paraphrase, translate Jesus’ first recorded message as, “The time has come; the kingdom of God has drawn near, repent and believe the good news.”
Here were my problems with that particular translation, that "God is king," instead of "the kingdom of God has drawn near": For one thing, it leaves hanging the phrase, "the time has come." The time has come for what? God has always been, and ever will be, king. But more importantly, the phrase “God is king” says nothing new or revolutionary in that society, not for Christians, Muslims or traditionalists. Its even something of a stock phrase used in daily speech, in songs and in sermons in Jula down at the mosque. There are even proverbs like, "God is king; therefore the buzzard will never eat grass." In other words, Don’t expect the world to never change much from the way it is. Because God made it so. But Jesus’ first message, that "the kingdom of God has drawn near," says quite the opposite. Get ready for major regime change.
So, when I told Abdias about my concerns over this new translation, he asked me, “Well, what would you prefer?”
That “The kingdom of God has drawn near,” I said.
“But that will leave people wondering just where is the kingdom of God, if it has indeed drawn near,” Abdias said. “People here may take it literally. Is it as near as the border with Mali, fifty kilometers to the west? Or a little further away, like the border with Ivory Coast, 70 kilometers to the south? If Jesus preached that God’s kingdom has come, but things don’t look all that different, then where is this kingdom of God, and how can we tell that it is near?” he asked.
In other words, what difference does Jesus’ central message make, if, after he preached it and lived it, the buzzard will still never eat grass, and the world continues on as it did before? I highly respect Pastor Abdias and his insight into both the Bible and his culture. As a cultural and linguistic consultant for me, and as a brother in Christ, he saved my hide a number of times as I tried to learn the ropes there. And he posed a very important and perceptive question.
How would you answer it? Here’s my attempt, twenty years later, as we take up again the theme of the Kingdom of God in Mark’s Gospel, at Download KingdomofGod1.doc .
Mathew Swora, pastor
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