Romans 16 is one of those chapters in the Bible that is easy to skip over, but is actually pretty cool. It is largely composed of Paul’s greetings to various people in the church at Rome. If you are willing to pay attention and not just rush through it, Paul is saying something here; it’s not just an add-on or afterthought to all the important stuff in the rest of the letter. But that is a subject for another day.
Verse 13 is one I’ve always liked, but there are some translation issues. In the King James Version, the verse reads, “Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.” The Revised Standard Version is similar: “Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine.” In both of these translations it sounds as if Paul is greeting three people: Rufus, Rufus’ mother, and Paul’s mother. If you do a strict word-for-word translation, that’s how it comes out, but it’s rare that strict word-for-word translations are accurate. Language doesn’t work like that; meaning comes from the relationship between words as much as from the words themselves, so it’s possible to get the words right yet still miss the meaning of the sentence.
More than likely what caused translators to take a second look at this is the way that Paul treats his own mother as something of an afterthought. “Say hi to Rufus, a really great guy, and his mother too. While you’re at it, say hi to my mom too.” Really? Paul mentions 27 people by name, four of whom he calls beloved. He mentions three other relatives by name. Personal affection drips from each of these greetings, and yet dear old mom barely gets acknowledged, and only after Rufus’ mother. Something is amiss here. Either Paul has mommy issues, or we’ve missed something in the translation.
More modern translations restore the dripping-affection to the verse. The New Revised Standard Version translates it this way: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother-- a mother to me also.” Similarly, the New International Version translates it, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.” And Eugene Peterson’s magnificent The Message: “Hello to Rufus—a good choice by the Master—and his mother. She has also been a dear mother to me.” Translation is as much art as science—in fact it may be more art than science—and these translations, while being true to the Greek, are also true to the affectionate tone of the rest of the greetings.
Makes you wonder about Paul’s family life. Did his mother die when he was young—not an uncommon occurrence in those days. A lot of women didn’t survive multiple childbirths. Maybe Paul found himself wandering over to Rufus’ house a lot, as much to be around Rufus’ mother as to be around Rufus himself.
Or maybe Paul’s mother distanced herself from her son when he claimed to have heard the voice of a dead man and then went overboard running around following this weird sect of Jews. After all, what’s a good Jewish mother supposed to think of a son like that? And so Paul found himself gravitating, even as an adult, to a woman who was also a believer so wasn’t ashamed of him, treating him as if he were her own son.
Who knows. Perhaps Paul’s mother was fine and she was among his relatives who belonged to The Way, but she was still back in Antioch. There’s nothing wrong with having two mothers, is there?
I wonder what Rufus’ mother thought when she heard this letter read out loud in church? I like to think that she was a little surprised and a lot honored. All she did was welcome Paul into her home, give him a place to sleep and food to eat and maybe a little affection, something in her mind any woman would do, and maybe did do given Paul’s wanderings. But here he is saying to everyone, “She’s my second mom.” How cool is that?
You just never know the effect you have when you love a person.