Sunday, 13 February 2011

there are never enough second-person pronouns around when you need them

The trouble with the English language these days is that we only have one word for 'you.' Even my rudimentary grasp of schoolboy French remembers that our nearest neighbours can distinguish between you, the individual, and you, a whole bunch of people (as well as you, a chum, and you, someone dead important).

That is has taken me this long to notice our deficiency in second-person pronouns suggests that it has not been the greatest obstacle to communication. Mostly we can figure out whether it is one person being addressed or a group of people from the context in which you appears. (While any good Glaswegian will helpfully get round the problem by using the plural youse - as in, "Are any of youse goin' doon the chip shop?")

Difficulties can occur when translating from a language with more than one form of you, into modern English. Sometimes the meaning is lost in translation.

Both Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of our scriptures, distinguish between singular and plural second-person pronouns. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes:
"My Greek professor at college was from Oklahoma. He liked to say that most of the you's in scripture are y'all's. That is, almost all of the second-person pronouns are plural in the New Testament. Same is true with the Hebrew. The Bible isn't addressed to a person but to a people."

Along with a wider cultural shift towards individualism, Christians too easily personalise their faith to something that is between God and them. Society often prefers it that way. "Religion is something that should be kept private," is a line columnists trot out whenever a public demonstration of faith makes the headlines.

We should be wary of too much emphasis on me. It is easy to see how the gospel of personal salvation so often preached can lead to a distorted faith that is self-centred rather than focused on one's place in a community as it relates to God.

God calls us to be part of his people, his community of the faithful, through whom we become partners in his mission. From the story of Israel to the emergence of the New Testament Church, the Bible is an account of the way that God is shaping his people to be a force for salvation to the nations.

Our personal faith, then, has to find its place and expression within the context of God's people. When somebody says, "I don't need the church to be a Christian," they are removing themselves from the very body through which God shapes their journey - and that of the world - towards wholeness.

This is why so much of scripture dwells on how we relate to each other. In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ sets out a blueprint for how we should live as part of the family of God. You (plural) are the salt of the earth. You (plural) are the light of the world. In today's gospel reading (Matthew 5.21-37) Jesus spells out how we must resolve disagreements and manage our anger towards each other before it destroys us.

His message, as pressing today as it was when he preached it, is, "Sort yourselves out. God has work for you to do. Together."

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