Holy Skubala!

In Philippians 3:8, Paul uses a cuss word.

“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,” it says in the King James Version.

Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake Mushrooms

And where it says dung, the original Greek word is ‘skubala‘, which is translated by people smarter than me as the first syllable of ‘shiitake‘. It’s also translated by other people smarter than me as ‘dung‘ or ‘garbage‘ or ‘refuse‘.

Star-Trek-IVNot everyone agrees that Paul deliberately dropped the S-bomb here, but the fact that some people think he did is pretty interesting. Especially in light of what Paul says elsewhere about what Spock describes as ‘colorful metaphors’ in Star Trek IV (left):

  • “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” – Ephesians 4:29 (NIV) (Incidentally, this is the verse that Christian rock band Building 429 took its name from.)

    Building 429

    Building 429

  • “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” – Ephesians 5:4 (NIV)
  • “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.” – Colossians 3:8 (NIV)

Paul clearly sees swearing as sinful, yet some scholars say he swore – in the Bible!

It’s tempting to side with the folks who translate the word as garbage, rubbish or dung, but I wonder if that’s not just taking the easy way out.

Consider the whole passage in context:

“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them [skubala], that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” – Philippians 3:4b-9 (NIV, except for the word in parentheses)

swear-words2Paul isn’t exactly making a subtle point here, is he? I’d say he’s pretty worked up about the matter at hand. Maybe he’s so passionate about this point that he’s willing to disregard his own teaching about vulgarity, in order to emphasize it in the strongest possible terms. (Why say ‘spade’ when you mean ‘flarking shovel’?)

Of course, even if one were able to definitively answer the question, ‘Yes: Paul swore’ or ‘No, he didn’t’, that knowledge wouldn’t move us any closer to Christ, would it? In fact, the Apostle himself would probably call the entire debate a bunch of skubala, wouldn’t he?

In case you’re wondering what led me to this topic, the S-word (in English) came up when I was meeting some Christian friends this week.

A buddy told of a fairly recent experience he’d had during an extended worship event he attended. After being reminded of the skubala reference, he looked at the fancy cups on the altar table and listened to the eloquently written and earnestly sung worship songs; he gazed up at the prayerfully constructed banners on the wall and recalled the carefully written talks he’d listened to that day, and declared, ‘This is all skubala’ (although he used an English word that starts with S, not the Greek one).

And he had a point. Pretty much the same point that the Apostle Paul had when he used the word to describe his uberJewishness.

All our religious trimmings and trappings; and practices and rituals – in and of themselves – are worthless. My church attendance record, my blogs, my worship songs (the ones I’ve written and the other ones I sing), are really nothing but skubala.

In fact, all of the religiosity in the world and seven bucks will get you a small coffee at Starbucks. If we’re in Christ, none of that stuff is necessary. If we’re not in Christ, not even all of that stuff stacked on top of each other will make a speck of difference.

This thought is like a splash of cold water for me – a little invigorating, a little alarming – but I need to be careful not to take it too far.

After all, if it’s all skubala, why bother with any of it? If everything is meaningless, why bother with anything? Why bother with baptism? With communion? With worship? With church?

When I re-read Philippians 3:8, though, I don’t see Paul saying these religious rituals and attributes are to be avoided, merely that they pale – overwhelmingly – in comparison with the Grace of God. It might be like the way the word ‘hate‘ is used in many places in the Bible – to emphasize and exaggerate priority, not to describe revulsion or actual scorn.

And you’ll notice that Paul, despite his possibly pottymouthed preaching, didn’t toss all ritual to the wind. Most tellingly, in Acts 16:3, he circumcised his friend and protege, Timothy.

Of all the rituals for him to perform despite their skubalasticity, Paul chose to continue (at least some of the time) to perform the one that’s most painful, most sacrificial – and therefore the one that could be assigned the most earthly meaning! (Look how religious I am: I let a tentmaker cut off a piece of my manhood, without any anesthetic. God has to love me now!)

So maybe Paul’s point isn’t that all skubala needs to be flushed away, but that we need to keep our ritual and decorations, our pomp and ceremony, in perspective. As long as we look at them as tools that neither help nor hinder God in His ability (or inclination) to save us, but can help us to enter into that salvation and live up to what we’ve already attained through Christ, a moderate dose of religiosity can be useful.

And in that frame of mind, these tattered tapestries and messy melodies don’t cease to be skubala by any means. But maybe they become a sort of holy skubala.


Peace be with you.

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About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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3 Responses to Holy Skubala!

  1. Pingback: The S-Word | Disciplehood

  2. Edwin says:

    Skubala means what it means. The fact that Scripture is God-breathed, inspired and infallible doesn’t mean the amanuenses were. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Paul cussed and therefore sinned; fine, the truth remains. Self-righteousness is feces (Is 64:6 a menstrual rag) to the eyes of a perfectly Holy God. Scripture is infallible, but Paul – the amanuenses – was a fallible sinner. A parallel example: Moses, Job, Jeremiah. Habbakuk and Asaph complained against God’s providence and decree bitterly. Is complaining against God sin? Yes it is! However Scripture records their sinful complaints infallibly, in order to show us the riches of His redeeming, forgiving, patient, long-suffering and loving grace towards His wayward servants.

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