Column: Though languages change, God’s message is constant

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Many years ago, when I graduated form high school, someone gave me a dictionary that I still have, despite its limitations.

After all, as a living organism, the English language has developed over the years. We use many words frequently that did not exist back then, such as email and Internet. With advances in technology, our vocabulary has expanded.

The English language, like other modern languages, possesses a much broader vocabulary than the ancient languages, such as Greek and Hebrew. In particular, classical Hebrew has a considerably smaller vocabulary. Often, a single word will have several meanings. That sometimes poses a problem for our understanding.

We find a good example of that in Sunday’s first reading,Mal 3:19-20a. God is speaking to us: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” That sentence contains two words that we should examine more closely: “fear” and “name.”

Usually, when we hear the word “fear,” we think of something negative. However, here the word “fear” means “respect,” rather than dread or terror. It has a positive connotation.

Alternatively, we might translate the world as “holy in awe.” Once again, it is a necessary part of a healthy relationship with God. That is why the Bible often encourages “fear of the Lord.”

Similarly, the word “name” means more than the label we attach to an object or person. Here, it means “reputation.” Of course, we should note that also in English, the word “name” can mean “reputation.” A person’s reputation reflects that person’s qualities and what that person has done. Similarly, God’s reputation describes the many admirable qualities of God and what God has accomplished.

Consequently, the phrase, “fear my name,” can be translated “respect my reputation” or “hold my reputation in awe.” That way, the phrase makes more sense for us. Whenever we pray the Our Father, we say something similar in the phrase: “Hallowed be thy name.”

We should remember that in this passage from Malachi, it is God who is addressing the people. In later Judaism, the proper name of God disappeared from everyday speech. Only the high priest was allowed to pronounce that name, once a year, in the Holy of Holies.

Consequently, when people would refer to God in ordinary speech, they would often use the phrase, “the Name,” meaning the unpronounceable name of God. It became a synonym for God.

In any case, the prophet Malachi is encouraging us to hold God in high respect and honor. Only then can we hope that the sun of justice will shine on us “with its healing rays.”

Leave a Reply