By Steven Norris

     “What did you say!?” My translator looked at me with shock and disbelief. Technically, I had conjugated the phrase correctly, but what I didn’t realize was that the word I had just spoken was also an idiom in that culture for something extremely offensive. Embarrassed, I apologized profusely and tried to go on about my business.

    Translating a message from one language to another is fraught with these kinds of difficulties. Language is highly contextual and often, there are words or ideas in one language that lack a direct equivalent in another language. Other times, it is essential to understand the cultural context of a phrase or idea to fully appreciate the underlying message.

     In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find an extended discussion on the new life that is available through Jesus. There, we read, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs…” (Romans 8:16-17).

     I believe very deeply that language is important. Through our words, we create the realties around us. Words have the capacity to do violence, promote division, and injure as we saw this past week in the Academy Award show. Words also have the power to unite and heal.

     Many in recent years have understandably objected to the idea of being adopted into God’s family “as sons.” What about the daughters of God? Isn’t this phrase sexist in the worst possible sense? Doesn’t this just prove the point that Bible is an outdated relic of an unabashedly patriarchal time?

     However, with a little context, we see that there is a powerful message of equality in this phrase. In the patriarchal culture of his day, a culture where only male descendants were allowed the right of inheritance, Paul is tearing down the walls of division. He is arguing that all God’s children — regardless of biological gender — are adopted “as sons” because they equally share in the inheritance of God’s Kingdom. As such, a child could never be confused for a servant.

     When the Prodigal Son returns home in Luke 15, he is prepared to take on the role of a servant. He believes that he has forfeited his right to be called a son. He hopes to be treated as a “hired hand,” though even that future is far from certain. When the father presents him with a robe, ring, and sandals, it is an affirmation of the boy’s identity as a son.

     As we journey the road the road of repentance and confession this Lent, let us remember that we have been adopted and received “as sons.” We have been received into a community where, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).