A missionary of 40 years was trying to elicit a word for forgiveness. He had arrived, decades before, as a single missionary, and had even spent time living in a communal house with the people. Later he had brought a wife back to the jungle with him and spent his life there, teaching the Word of God in that language. The people all talk about how well he speaks. But one never gets done learning. Who knows if, after all these years, he might finally discover a word he had been listening for all along and just never heard. So he asked a young indigenous man – one who had spent a lot of time in town and knew more Portuguese than most – what was his people’s word for “perdão” – forgiveness.
“There is no word for forgiveness,” was the decisive answer of the native speaker. “We don’t have a word for forgiveness because before, forgiveness did not exist in our culture. After someone offended you, every time you saw him you would always say ‘oh, that’s the person who did such-and-such to me’. There was no forgiveness.”
The man went on to explain that, while there was no cultural word for forgiveness, you could demonstrate it. For example, one demonstration of forgiveness was eating together. He said that after an offense, if you invited that person to your house to eat and the two of you sat down to eat together, that would mean you were reconciled; all was forgiven.
We had a chance to see that put in to practice several weeks later. That same man’s pet tapir attacked Jevon one night while he was outside, alone, in the dark. The animal bit him multiple times and probably would have killed him if someone hadn’t heard him yelling and come to help. The next day the animal’s owner came to see us and to look at the bites and hoof wounds. He expressed sympathy and let us know the tapir had received its necessary end. Then he asked Jevon to come to his house and eat. Actually, the last thing Jevon wanted to do at that moment was clamber into a hard aluminum boat, travel downriver in the hot sun to someone else’s house, and eat there. He wanted to lie still in his own bed in his own house with a fan on him. But he knew that this invitation was about more than just food. So he got up and went. He ate in the man’s house. They talked and laughed and enjoyed the time together. When they were finished, the man said, “Go. It’s in the past now.”
“Yes,” Jevon said, “and everything will scab over and heal.” They all had a good laugh, and Jevon went on his way, thankful that relationships were in tact and reconciliation had been concretely demonstrated.
Did you ever stop to think what life would be like if forgiveness did not exist? If reconciliation was not a possibility?
Or did you ever stop to wonder HOW you would teach about forgiveness and reconciliation if a word for it does not exist in the language?
What do you think the reaction will be when people of this culture hear how Jesus passed the bread to Judas on the night Judas would betray him? How will that story impact them?
The truth is, all of our languages and all of our cultural backgrounds are missing crucial aspects of God’s character and crucial concepts of God’s message. It is the Story of God, as He Himself unfolded it in the pages of Scripture, coupled with applicative teaching, that the Spirit of God uses to open eyes and change lives.
Please pray for us that we will continue to discover this language and culture. Pray that God will continue uncovering the things we need to know in order to teach the Word of God clearly and impact lives from the inside out.