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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

20th JUN 2021

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

They were filled with great awe.

According to most reputable scholars, there is a translation error in today’s text from the Gospel of Mark. I suppose this should not come as any great surprise, as translating any document, old or new, is a tricky business at best, often involving subjective judgment and opinion. Just ask anyone who has ever tried to translate Hungarian into English; or English into Hungarian. It is not as easy as it at first may seem. So, we should probably cut translators of Scripture a lot of slack, as they tackle questions of meaning and nuance from centuries ago.

In the grand scheme of things, the questionable translation in today’s text actually might not amount to much. “They were filled with great awe.” Now, a literal translation of this line in the original Greek might yield something more akin to, “They were frightened with a great terror.” In other words, something rather different and stronger than simply being awestruck, as our translation suggests. Perhaps the experts who settled on awe were themselves a bit fearful or uncomfortable with the thought of Jesus’ disciples, having just been saved from drowning, being nevertheless terrified out of their wits. After all, Jesus had just told them, “Do not be afraid.” So, surely the Evangelist, the translators probably reasoned, must have meant to write awe instead of terror.

But the text does indeed say terror or fright. The disciples were shocked and alarmed, to put it mildly. Keep in mind after all that Jesus, by trade a carpenter from landlocked Nazareth, is here speaking his words of comfort, “Do not be afraid,” to seasoned commercial fisherman who knew well the whims of the Sea of Galilee. They may have rightly, if silently, questioned our Lord’s expertise when it comes to understanding the fickleness of the deep. What does he know, might well have crossed their minds. On the other hand, they had also just witnessed or experienced the presence of God in the sudden calming of the waves. Enough surely to put the fear of God into anyone.

Fear is actually one of the most common themes of all Scripture. According to those who apparently have time to keep track of such things, the admonition, “Do not be afraid,” or its equivalent, occurs well over one-hundred times in the Old and New Testaments combined. Someone with a savvy sense of marketing has even written a book suggesting that the command of our Lord and other biblical figures, “Do not be afraid,” occurs exactly three-hundred and sixty-five times in the Bible, conveniently one occurance for each day of the year. Well, not quite… But the idea did sell books.

“Saul was afraid of David.” So our first Reading tells us this morning from the First Book of Samuel. But the fear experienced here, it seems, is of a different kind or caliber from that found in our Gospel account; but it remains fear, nonetheless. David, you will remember, had come up virtually out of nowhere to become in a sense a great military leader of ancient Israel and thus, perhaps inadvertently, a rival of Saul, the reigning monarch.

Saul for his part, as our passage today begins, seems intuitively to have recognised that something is amiss, that alliances are shifting, and that he is losing his grip on power to the upstart David. Even his son Jonathon has made a covenant with David, whom he loves, in effect renouncing his right to the throne of his father, Saul. No small matter. What mixed emotions Jonathon must have experienced, torn between love of his father and love of David, his father’s rival.

And frankly, If I had been David, I think I would have been afraid not only of Saul, who so casually throws a spear David’s way hoping to pin him to the wall, but of the palace intrigue of which he seems suddenly to have become such a part, though this is not explicitly mentioned in the text. There is arguably nothing more to be feared in public life and society than an obviously unhinged leader, as Saul was quickly becoming, one yet still wielding great power and still commanding the loyalty of his troops.

But wait: There’s more. For, if there is any human emotion more fraught than fear itself it is probably love. And in some sense there is no human emotion or experience which makes us more vulnerable -- more anxious and fearful -- than love itself. Will it be understood…? Will my love be accepted and reciprocated…? Will family and community approve of my love…? Questions most all of us have faced at some point in life.

And so, in the midst of threat and alarm and fear comes the troubling -- or reassuring depending upon your point of view -- love story of David and Jonathon, arising suddenly out of nowhere like a storm on the Sea of Galilee perhaps. Jonathon loved David as his own soul, the text tells us matter-of-factly. Love, I suppose, does not get more genuine than that. Scholars have for centuries sought to explain the love between Jonathon and David; more frequently of course to explain it away. Was it an instance, and perhaps an endorsement, of gay love…? Was it, on the other hand, simply a matter of what contemporary sociologists and anthropologists call homosociality; or what Hollywood calls a Bromance, a deep and abiding friendship between two men…?

Well, if the scholars cannot agree an answer to the questions raised by the love between Jonathon and David, I am afraid I cannot either. Sorry if I disappoint you. But in a sense I am glad the question is there in Scripture for us to ponder; even though of course the writer of the Book of Samuel presumably did not realise it was a question in the first place. Nor apparently did David and Jonathon.

On second thought, perhaps the translators of the New Revised Standard Version, the translation of Scripture we use in our liturgy each Sunday, were on to something after all. The disciples were filled with great awe. The power of God, be it expressed in the forces of nature or in the love of two people, must always fill us with great awe and respect. “Have you no faith?” asks our Lord of his disciples, knowing that understanding and knowing God at work in our world is always a matter of faith; always a matter of trust. “Have you no faith?” It is a question our Lord asks us as well.

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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