Note: Prior to reading this, I want the reader to understand a few things. It has been a long time since I have written something like this. What follows is my perspective on a paraphrase of the Bible, but more than that, it's the truth I came to see through it. This is about so much more than The Message. I make no efforts to be politically correct. I don't think I need to. Even if you don't agree with my perspective on The Message, or my faith, I ask you to consider the rest of what I have to say. Please, please, read down to the end.
As part of my New Year's Resolution, yesterday I decided to read The Message, Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of the Bible, for my devotions. I had never read The Message before, except for excerpts quoted in books. To say I don't think highly of Bible paraphrases is putting it lightly, but the opinion is not based on much personal experience. I currently read the ESV, and aside from that I most frequently go back to the KJV, although I have also read a few other translations.
Reading The Message for myself was about putting my religiosity aside. It was about actually reading something for myself instead of just forming opinions based on what I read from other sources. I basically picked up where I was reading and ended up reading Matthew 20 - 24, which I had to do online, since I don't have a print copy. I decided, that as much as I wanted to, I was not going to pick up my ESV Bible and compare while reading. Having said that, this morning I read through the same chapters in the ESV.
As I was reading through the passages, a lot of it, especially the parables, didn't surprise me too much. It reminded me of how a speaker might expound on a passage in his message to simplify it or help the reader understand what is being said. I felt that there was some inconsistency in the language used. Peterson seemed to randomly switch between staying close to the original text and using modern language and analogies.
There were several times I found myself going "Really?!" in disbelief at how Peterson said something. At other times, I admit I had ideas of how he could have said something better. Before I go any further and get to the real point of my article, I want to say this: What I'm not saying is that people shouldn't read The Message. I can see that it could be useful, and also allows the reader to understand what something might look like today, that we can't necessarily relate to in 2015 North America. However, I do not think it can be read as the Word of God for solid teaching and instruction. It could be a useful supplement, but I don't think it should be used as a primary source for teaching and searching for truth.
As I read, I think the chapter that unsettled me the most was Matthew 23. Here Peterson deviates a lot from Jesus actually said and replaces with modern analogies. Where Jesus pronounces woes on the scribes and Pharisees, Peterson writes "I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds!" (Matthew 23:13) The ESV translation says "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" In the following verses, where the ESV uses "Woe to you", Peterson uses "You're hopeless".
This made me stop and think. Jesus would not say that. I really couldn't believe that Jesus would look at a group of people and call them hopeless. I couldn't believe that Jesus would write the scribes and Pharisees off as a hopeless case. Why would Peterson say that? I admit, there are times when I look at people and think they're hopeless, when I
allow myself to believe they will never come to the light. But that is only when I forget about the great redeeming power of God. It's only when I look at them through my limited human perspective and forget the deep love and compassion God has for them. No, despite what Peterson said, the scribes and Pharisees were not hopeless.
Later last night, I lay in bed pondering this. And I got angry. Staring at the ceiling in the dark, in a whisper I shouted "No! No!" I was angry that someone would put those words in the mouth of Jesus. And slowly tears filled my eyes and began to slide down my face. To suggest that Jesus would look at someone and call them hopeless?! Yes, that was enough to make me cry.
As I continued to ponder this last night and today, I concluded it was simply impossible. If Jesus looked at the scribes and Pharisees and said "You're hopeless!", in essence what He was also saying is "I can't help you." Let me add some further context. At this time, Jesus is speaking in the temple just days before he is arrested, beaten, stripped naked, and crucified for ALL HUMANITY. It is mere days before He is to go to the cross, die a brutal death, be buried, resurrect, and thereby conquer sin and death. And He's telling the religious leaders they're hopeless? If Jesus were to imply that they were a hopeless bunch, then He's also saying that the sacrifice He Himself is about to make, the greatest one this world has ever seen, is INSUFFICIENT.
No, the scribes and Pharisees were not hopeless, and I do not believe that Jesus ever would have wanted someone to think that. In fact, Jesus held ALL THE HOPE IN THE WORLD FOR THEM. Jesus said a lot of hard things in His ministry, and there are a lot that I cannot understand. But I cannot accept this idea. If you look back two chapters when Jesus is speaking in the temple, He shares a parable and asks a question of the religious leaders. After they answer, it says "Jesus said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.'" (Matthew 21:31b-32, ESV)
When I read those last couple verses, I can gather that the religious leaders were far from the kingdom of God. But there is absolutely no indication that they were beyond redemption. Just to make sure I wasn't totally in left field with my ideas, I checked Merriam-Webster's definition of "hopeless". Some of the definitions were "having or feeling no hope"; "unable to be changed"; and "incapable of redemption or improvement". If you serve Jesus, let me ask you this: Does that sound like something your Redeemer, THE Redeemer, would say? I also looked up "woe", as used in the ESV, just to make sure the word didn't mean hopeless or something. According to Merriam-Webster, "woe" as an interjection is "used to express grief, regret, or distress." I also looked up the word in Greek as used in Matthew 23, and it is indeed an interjection, "A primary exclamation of grief", according to Blue Letter Bible. From this evidence, I can certainly conclude that Jesus did not think the scribes and Pharisees were hopeless. However, He was deeply grieved over them. He extended the same invitation to them as to everyone else, but they weren't willing to receive it.
I want to take this further and relate it to my own life, and also speak into the lives of my readers. No one is hopeless. No one is beyond the redeeming power of Jesus. (The one case where I hold back is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, and I'm not going to involve that in this discussion due to my limited understanding.) God has carried me through a lot of pain and brokenness. I know the hope that is found in Jesus. I have experienced some intense battles. One truth I'm learning is that the Gospel is sufficient for all things, and I choose to believe it even when I'm not immediately changed the way I want to be. Even when my spirit and flesh are at war with each other, and I allow flesh to win, I still cry out to Jesus, because I know that Jesus is my ONLY HOPE!
Now I want to say to my reader that you are not hopeless. No human being is so sinful or so religious that God cannot save and redeem them. His grace extends to everyone. And I want to say to everyone, no matter what you have done, or where you find yourself, you are NOT hopeless.
To the liar, the cheat, the thief, and the fraud. You are NOT hopeless.
To the the rapist, the molester, the trafficker, the brothel owner, the pimp, the prostitute, the hustler, the john, the exotic dancer, and the porn star. You are NOT hopeless.
To the slave owner, trader, and beater. You are NOT hopeless.
To the fornicator, adulterer, homosexual, and ashamed or unashamed sexual addict of any kind. You are NOT hopeless.
To the abusive, negligent, or absent parent or spouse. You are NOT hopeless.
To the murderer, the terrorist, or the drunk driver that left a trail of broken, bleeding hearts. You are NOT hopeless.
To the mother and father that left your unborn baby bloody, dismembered, and disemboweled in the garbage at the abortion clinic, and to the doctor that did it. You are NOT hopeless.
To the mentally unstable, the depressed, the alcoholic, and drug addict. You are NOT hopeless.
To the medicator, the one hurting yourself to cover up a deeper pain, the one who thinks this world would be better off without you, or the one who thinks you just can't face one more day. You are NOT hopeless.
To the politicians and courts who are corrupt, who allow unspeakable injustices in our world, who allow parents to murder their children, who allow doctors to help people kill themselves, and who try to educate our young children in immorality. You are NOT hopeless.
To the broken, bleeding, abused, orphaned, widowed, lonely, enslaved, and abandoned. You are NOT hopeless.
To the person bound to the letter of the law, to the self-righteous, the religious, and the scribes and Pharisees of today. You are NOT hopeless.
If I forgot or didn't mention you, I want you to know something too. You are NOT hopeless.
No matter who you are, where you've been, what you've done, or what's been done to you, you are NOT hopeless. Jesus is HOPE. Jesus is LOVE. Jesus is GRACE. Jesus is REDEMPTION. And that extends to EVERYONE.
You are NOT hopeless. Jesus wants YOU!