Word of the Week
December 17, 2022
Suntērēō and Sumballō: Mary’s Meditations
But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.
Luke 2:19 NASB20
The Christmas program is over and the gawky shepherds and cute cherubs are headed home for a cup of hot chocolate and a warm bed. We have watched the story of Christmas unfold once again – and then the glow of the evening fades. We are once again caught up in the grind of daily life, almost as if Christmas never happened.
For Mary, the first Christmas was a blur of activity. Arriving in Bethlehem at the end of a long trip, finding that the room they had hoped for was already occupied, improvising shelter for the night. Labor pains were coming closer together, a seemingly endless sequence of painful strain. Then the birth! Cleaning the newborn infant, wrapping him for warmth. Just as she was settling down to rest, the door opened to a ragtag group of shepherds babbling wild stories about angel choirs.
When the last shepherd had returned to the hills, Mary was left with her husband, her baby, and her thoughts. She knew that this night was too important to let it fade away, so she mentally marked it as memorable.
There are two Greek words that summarize her strategy.
First, Mary treasured all these things.
The Greek word for “treasure” here is suntēreō (sun-tey-REH-oh). It only occurs two other times in the New Testament.
- Jesus used it in an illustration about wineskins. Someone had asked why his disciples didn’t follow the old rules about fasting. He pointed out that you wouldn’t fill old, brittle wineskins with grape juice that would ferment and produce expanding gas that would burst the container. Instead, people put new wine in fresh, expandable wineskins. In that way, both the wine and the container would be preserved (Matthew 9:17). Suntēreō is the way to keep from losing the wine.
- When king Herod imprisoned John the Baptist, his wife wanted to execute him promptly. However, the king resisted her plan and “he had been protecting him” (Mark 6:20). Suntēreō describes his efforts to avoid losing the Baptist.
In the hectic hours after Christ’s birth, Mary was making a conscious effort to preserve the memories of the moment. It was too important to forget!
Why was it important to remember everything? Because there was a second step to the process.
Second, Mary pondered these things.
She needed time for reflection so that she could understand what had happened.
The Greek word for “ponder” is sumballō (sum-BAHL-oh), which is used five other times, all in Luke’s writings. The core idea is to come together, to be thrown together in one way or another. Look at the variety in its use:
- Jesus used an illustration to highlight the importance of counting the cost of discipleship. A sensible king, he said, will calculate his strength before he “sets out to meet another king in battle: (Luke 14:31). Here the word describes a hostile encounter.
- The Sanhedrin had arrested Peter and John. After initial questioning, they sent them out of the room and began to “confer with one another” (Acts 4:15). You can picture a lively discussion about possible strategies for handling these troublesome preachers.
- When Paul visited Mars Hill in Athens, a group of Greek philosophers “were conversing with him” (Acts 17:18). This interview was more of an intellectual debate, a clash of opposing ideas.
- Apollos was a rising star in Christian ministry, trained under Priscilla and Aquila. When he began to minister in Corinth, he was highly effective. “When he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace” (Acts 18:27). The encounter between the sophisticated Corinthians and this fiery Jewish orator added a new dimension to the church.
- Paul was traveling to Jerusalem and decided to disembark temporarily, traveling overland to rendezvous with his ship at the port of Assos. “When he met us at Assos, we took him on board” and went on (Acts 20:14). In this verse, sumballō simply describes people coming together.
Clearly, the word covers many kinds of people coming together: Paul meets his ship, armies meet in combat, philosophers meet for debate, religious leaders argue courtroom tactics, and a young leader joins a church.
What does it mean when we read about Mary?
She had been bombarded by an incredible array of startling events, from the initial angelic announcement to the appearance of the shepherds. Between were months of ostracism, the routine burden of pregnancy, an arduous trip and an uncomfortable delivery. All these contradictory events were flowing through her mind like a heated debate. She was a teenager, not a rabbinical theologian.
She wanted to understand what God was doing in her life, and she needed time to reflect on it all. So she made sure she didn’t miss the significance of this night. She treasured each detail and allowed it all to play through her mind in the days ahead.
Do you want Christmas to be more than just another activity to check off and forget? Then learn from Mary. Pay attention so you won’t forget, and let the details bounce around in your mind as you meditate on the meaning of Christ’s birth.
These words illustrate the fact that words have multiple meanings. There are common threads running through each one, but you have to look at the context of each verse to appreciate the specific idea involved. This is why it’s always good to look up the other places where a word is used. Zero in on the context of each verse to determine which shade of meaning is in use.
Interesting note: When Jesus was 12 and spent hours in the temple dialoguing with the Jewish scholars, Mary tucked that experience into her memory as well. Luke uses a related word built on the same verb stem when he records “and His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).
Q – I want to have some precision for teknon, because it seems not clear in your article. Does teknon mean “child in the childhood and teens”? Parents often use the word “child” when their son or daughter is an adult. Older persons may say things like, “I have two children. They are 30 and 35.” You say that teknon means “the place in the family as a child.” Does it mean in childhood, teenagers, or after 18?
A – The reason the article wasn’t clear about age is because the Greek word isn’t tied to a particular age bracket. As in English, the age depends on the context. Sometimes we may talk about a young child in contrast to an adult. But the word can also be appropriate to describe a son or daughter of any age.
Teknon is not age-based. Other words are more specific. Nēpios is almost always a baby or young child, while huios is typically the word you would use for an adult son.
One other angle: Greeks might add the letter iota to make teknon into teknion. This is like the difference between John and Johnny, an affectionate description suggesting youth.
Next week we will be celebrating the birth of Jesus, and our word study will give you a closer look at the experience of the shepherds on that first night.
©Ezra Project 2022