There’s a ditty making the rounds on the Internet. A picture of a sweet grandmotherly woman is shown as children shout, "Let’s eat, Grandma!" This is followed by the alternate version, "Let’s eat Grandma!" The punchline reads, "Punctuation saves lives." That little comma changes everything.
In a real-life example, Alexander III wrote the death sentence of a prisoner with the following words: "Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia." Alexander’s wife Dagmar, daughter of the king of Denmark, believed the man was innocent so she altered the punctuation. The revised edict read, "Pardon. Impossible to be sent to Siberia."
Punctuation saves lives.
Punctuation can also save marriages. A hundred years ago, a woman who was traveling in Europe sent her husband a telegram: "Have found wonderful bracelet. Price seventy-five thousand dollars. Is price too high?"
Her husband replied, "No price too high." So she bought it.
When she returned home with the bracelet, her husband was furious. The message he had given to the telegraph office was, "No, price too high." The clerk had omitted the comma, thereby altering the meaning of the telegram. The gentleman sued Western Union and won – over a punctuation mark.
Why am I talking about punctuation? Years ago, translators made a punctuation error in an early version of the English Bible, thereby altering its meaning. Fortunately for all of us, it was later corrected.
The error occurred in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul was teaching about the importance of Christians’ using their God-given gifts.
In a section of Chapter 4, Paul focused on apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – those whom we would now call priests and bishops. The passage explained that the clergy’s role is "to equip the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up the Body of Christ . . ."
According to this translation, then, it is the role of the priest to equip the saints – us. It is also the priest’s job to do the work of the ministry, and to build up the Body of Christ.
What’s the problem? This early English translation included an errant comma that altered the very heart of Christian ministry. In fact, it is not the priest’s job to do the work of the ministry. It is our job.
The correct translation states that the priest is to "equip the saints (no comma) for the work of the ministry . . ." We do the work of the ministry in the world. The priest teaches us how. When this arrangement works correctly, the Church thrives.
Many Catholics are unaccustomed to this model. We expect the clergy to do the spiritual stuff while we earn a living and go about "normal" life. And yet, nowhere in the pages of Scripture do we see this model. God calls each believer to a life of radical obedience in the workplace, at home, at the gym, in our finances. We are to do the work of the Gospel – feed the sick, visit prisoners, care for the widow and the orphan and be Christ’s light in the world.
Our priests should show us the way, then send us forth – which is precisely what they do each week at Mass.
If we don’t use our gifts, the poor remain poor. The lonely remain alone. The prisoner remains in chains. In contrast, when we contribute our gifts for the common good, God is glorified and the world gets fed.
All this from one little comma.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.