Forget the Commas

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

The following column is a sermon that I preached on August 13 at the ordination of my friend Geoff Browning. The texts for the sermon are Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 5: 13-16.

Women and men of the cloth are known to preach out against all kinds of sinfulness, both real and imagined. I’ve heard sermons that admonished against chewing tobacco, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and dancing the hustle. Some members of the clergy use the pulpit as a hedge against bad theology—saving the members of their flock from falling into a sure perdition for giving an inaccurate accounting of when Jesus shall return with both barrels of the predestination shotgun blazing with hell’s fury.

Not me. This evening I’m going to preach out against the comma, that lowly punctuation mark with the power to clarify and to confuse.

Let me be quick to assure you that I don’t hate all commas. Some of my best friends are commas; but it’s possible that these familiar words have been punctuated incorrectly in our English translations. Perhaps an alternative punctuation may shed some light on what it is, exactly, that God requires of mortals like me and you.

“God has shown you” the Prophet tells us, “what is good; and what does the Holy One require of you, but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I’ve always read this passage as a list, three ideas separated by two commas, such that God requires three separate but not incompatible virtues: justice (comma) kindness (comma) humility. For a Presbyterian preacher that’s a very comfortable list, because we’ve all been taught to preach three-point sermons filled with references to a Trinitarian God. Here the Prophet gives us three points, and, conveniently, Christian tradition tells us that God the Father is just, God the Son is kind, and God the Holy Spirit enables us to walk with humility before our God. Couldn’t be better.

It occurred to me, however, that the Prophet probably wasn’t a Presbyterian. Not only that, the words first were written down in a language that doesn’t use commas, and thousands of years before the invention of the comma in any language. We only have commas in this passage because, to the English-speaking, Trinitarian Christian translators of the Bible, commas make the language flow with linguistic and theological eloquence.

So, what if the insertion of these commas is a mistake? What if the Prophet didn’t mean to give us a list of three virtues, but rather one virtue described three different ways? Maybe it would be more faithful to the Prophet’s intent to place parentheses around kindness and humility, so that kindness and humility are virtues that help us to understand what it means to do justice in a way that is pleasing to God. We are to do justice that is born of kindness and marked by humility before God.

The bad news is that when you read the Prophet’s words without commas you lose the benefit of having a list. If you’re working down a list you can say things like “OK, so I’m not doing justice—I haven’t figured out how to live my life and organize my priorities in such a way that the world’s poor and hurting are helped, but I’m kind and humble, and two out of three ain’t bad.” If the divine requirement is that we do one thing, that is, practice justice that is marked by kindness and humility, then we cannot presume that having the right justice politics and following sound justice ideologies or repeating the correct justice slogans will excuse us when we act like arrogant jerks.

Godly justice cannot be cold or dispassionate. It must be rooted in the warm soil of kindness and nurtured by love.

After all, it is hard to arrive at a standard for justice that is objective, evenhanded and universal. Justice is a concept that so easily is politicized and so frequently swayed by ideology. Justice has different requirements for a Palestinian girl in Hebron who is unable to walk to school and a inmate at Guantanamo Bay who is unable to defend himself in a court of law. Justice is debatable. One person’s justice could very well be another person’s terrorism.

Kindness, on the other hand, is universal. Kindness is hard to define, exactly, but we all know kindness when we see it, and justice that is rooted in kindness will be more dependably just than will justice rooted in ideology or politics, especially when kind justice is also humble justice.

Humility moves us toward a kind justice because really, who are we to think we can be anything but kindly just to others? When it comes to doing justice by walking humbly with God, a little dose of Calvinist guilt helps us to live faithfully.

The witness of our Presbyterian tradition is very clear: we are sinners who have been saved by an irresistible grace and delivered by that grace into the arms of an infinite love that will never forsake us or forget us.

As beneficiaries of God’s unfathomable goodness, we must not presume to be so special that we can ignore the needs of others. Humility requires that we take notice when God’s children cry out for justice. When a single mother, widowed by genocide and civil war must fear for her children’s safety in Darfur, or when a single mother, abandoned by society in the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free, must send her children to substandard, under-funded, dilapidated public schools in East San Jose while the children of Cupertino go to the best schools in the state, we cannot presume to be above taking notice, to think that we are so important that we can leave the heavy lifting of justice to others.

God has shown us what is good, what God requires of us: to do justice by being kind and by having the humility to understand that we must never consider ourselves too important to become involved in the problems of the world.

I think this is what Jesus asks of us when he gives to us the work of being salt of the earth and light of the world. Living a good and godly life isn’t just about following an ideology or about getting one’s politics right; rather, we are to be a transformed people whose changed lives make the world a better place for all God’s children.

And certainly God’s children cry out to us, looking for people who will respond to the Prophet’s call: to do justice by living lives of merciful kindness that are rooted in humility before God.

So to hell with the commas. That’s my prompting to you. Throw out the commas in Micah’s call and see how it affects your understanding of what God requires of us in lieu of extravagant sacrifice. Do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. No commas. It all the same.

12 thoughts on “Forget the Commas

  1. Ben–

    Very well said! I’m so glad you don’t mean ALL the commas, however. As a writer, I’m somewhat addicted to periodic sentences, so I’d be bereft (not to say speechless) without commas. They can clarify, as they are supposed to, just as well as obscure.

    Peace (and justice and kindness and humility),
    James

  2. I agree with James, that too few commas can sometimes lead to confusion. My favorite example of this is the author’s acknowlegment:”I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa and the Pope.”

    Of course Ben’s sermon isn’t really about commas; commas are the hook. The sermon’s about the meaning of justice, and I find it wise and thoughtful.

    Good work, Ben, as always.
    John

  3. Bravo!!! I count my self fortunate to hear the word of the Lord from Ben Daniel. He is a man with mind and heart. We are blessed to hear your words!

  4. James, John, Ronn and Michael…This is a good group! Thanks for your kind words.

    I have to admit, that I tried to write this sermon without any commas. I thought it would be cleaver, but I found it impossible. I guess I’m not so anti-comma after all!

    Cheers, (I mean Cheers!)

    Ben

  5. Sarah,

    Thanks for stopping by, and congratulations on your survival of Philly!

    Let me say again how happy I am with the gathering here: James is a friend and colleague, a Melkite pastor with whom I just had a marvelous conversation about iconography, John is my Father and one of my favorite writers, Ronn was my childhood pastor and has been a lifelong friend and mentor, Michael is an old and dear friend from college, and Sarah is a member of my congregation who is entering her final year at Harvard Divinity School.

    I wish I was pouring drinks!

    Ben

  6. Hi Ben,
    Did, you get, my email? Michelle, had a, couple, of questions, that she needed, answered.
    commas eh?

  7. I expected a sermon on the amendment about bearing arms, because as far as I can tell the interpretation is all about commas.

    I liked the reminder that it is only our translation that gives us commas. A good thing to tell ourselves that all our understandings are tentative.

    Alice

  8. Thanks Alice,

    Yea, the second amendment’s commas are tricky. The second amendment, it being necessarily written with arcane grammatical rules, shall cause confusion to those who try to understand it today.

    Cheers,

    Ben

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