Money Worship, Occupy HK and Luke 18.18-30: An Inconvenient Righteousness

Tags

, ,

18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.” 21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” Luke 18.18-30 (NIV)

Occupy HK has occupied much of my Facebook news feed. Many organizations have paid attention besides just the newspaper. The blatant human rights violation of the police crackdown even has Amnesty International on alert. During this time, I’m also in dialogue with people with all different opinions. One consistent argument that comes up is finance. It goes something like this. China won’t crack down on HK because it wants HK to do well financially, but the protesters do not. The logic goes, if HK remains peaceful, it’ll thrive like China and will eventually provide more freedom. No money? No freedom.

I think it’s worth our while to see what Luke had to say about the issue of money from one passage that is apparently about money. Since I’m writing on Luke, I might as well share my thoughts in how Luke’s message is relevant to the present discussion. In the NT, the passages that often have less to do with government may have the most to say about the present situation. I’ll have to ask my readers to think outside of the legalistic box for a moment. That passage is Luke 18.18-30. In this familiar passage, this rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The word Luke used to describe the young ruler indicates that he was possibly part of the religious elite, perhaps even a ruler in the synagogue. In Jesus’ day, the religious elite held both power and money. To his question, Jesus answered with a series of commandments dealing with sexuality (adultery), life (murder), private property (stealing), words (false testimony) and family (honor parents). These commands are sample texts from the Bible that deal with almost every facet of life. It even deals with enemies with the prohibition to murder. The rich young ruler answered that he had kept all such commands. Jesus then told him that he lacked one thing which was to sell all that he had and to give to the poor. Thereafter, he would have eternal life, presuming the command to follow Jesus was part of the deal. The narrator of the story says, “When he heard this, he became very sad because he was a man of great wealth.” Luke never failed to mention his wealth in his rich description. He sprinkled the passage with wealth. Jesus then said that it was very hard for the rich man to enter the kingdom of God, maybe even harder than a camel going through the eye of a needle. Some commentators prefer to see the word “camel” as a Greek misreading of the word for “rope” in Aramaic, but whether it is camel or rope, Jesus’ point remains the same. It’s damn near impossible, barring divine intervention that something this large can pass through the eye of a needle. The disciples themselves also focused on how much they had left to follow Jesus. The contrast then is between those who had hoarded and those who gave their wealth. The story of Zachaeus only makes it clearer that salvation came to Zachaeus and that sign was the fact that he was willing to leave it all behind for the poor and for reparation of those whom he wrong (Luke 19.8-10).

Although we often like to focus on money when reading this passage, I want us to read it from a first-century peasants’ eyes for this exercise. When Jesus called people to follow him, many were not rich like the rich young ruler and Zachaeus. The rich who followed Jesus were rare in the Gospel records. For the poor, they too left something to follow Jesus, but didn’t have to leave very much. For the rich here, Luke characterized him by his social advantages: he was rich. In other words, he was unwilling to leave his social advantages because if he did, his action wouldn’t just affect him but also others around him. Surely, the rich young ruler was obedient to the sample commandments. Those commandments made him a moral man. Society endorsed such a moral man. In fact, his morality was convenient because any decent man wouldn’t cheat on his wife, murder people, steal, lie or dishonor parents. These are convenient truths. Jesus however was after an inconvenient truth. Jesus was after what held him back, his social advantages. What does this have to do with our Christian worldview when arguing a social issue such as Occupy HK? A lot!

When people argue that society would be better off in the long run, they are arguing about financial advantages. They think that financial advantages would result in the ultimate good for the society. In fact, the very leader who ordered the murder of hundreds of students on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Deng Xiaoping, also argued the very same thing: if the country was prosperous, progress would come. Nothing got better! Only the rich got richer in China.

To make matters worse, people that tend to think of HK as a relatively good society tend to be the same ones who stand to benefit from it. I’ve never met taxi drivers or cleaning ladies who think that they are benefiting from the economic growth of HK, and I’ve talked to plenty of them. Did you know that one out of seventy people in HK are either in poverty or on the verge of falling below poverty line?  In fact, I know of some young people who graduated from reputable European universities making wages that aren’t much more than when I was young and HK is one of the most expensive places to live on earth. Their parents might argue that if they study hard, they will benefit from the system the way their parents benefitted from the system. Such is not reality. At the same time, every single person I talk to who argues for financial welfare as part of social wellness benefits from the system. Essentially, they are arguing for their own benefits and have mistaken their personal advantages as advantages for the whole society. Someone asks me why many Diaspora Chinese, especially those in North America can’t appreciate the plight of the HK poor. The answer is simple. If they didn’t benefit financially from the system, how in the world would they be able to move to Vancouver (or any big and comfortable North American metropolis) to begin with? You need money to move and you need money to buy a house in rich metropolitan areas in North America. Have you check housing prices in Vancouver or San Francisco lately? To argue from financial advantage when you’re part of the privileged from afar is immoral!

When I hear Christians argue in terms of finance, alarm bells also go off because the argument once again is often about financial benefits for the city. Then, we need to ask the next question, “Beneficial for whom?” Unlike the US, HK’s social hierarchy separates the rich from the poor drastically. As if this is not bad enough, only recently did the government impose minimum wage, something we take for granted here in North America. That is the HK society. Its wealth was developed around disparity.  Thus, there is no reason for Christians to argue in such terms even if they do so based on what they see. Yet, there’re even more reasons scripturally not to argue in terms of finance. Based on Jesus’ discussion with the rich young ruler, the financial part, his social advantage, was the very thing that kept him from inheriting eternal life. Barring a miracle, he would NOT enter the kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus was calling for all his disciples to give up their social advantages for others. Jesus called for radical sacrifice. I suspect that if Jesus were here to listen to our debate, the first call he might make would not be for us to be a little bit more moral. Rather, he would immediately call the Christians to stop using finance as an excuse to gain further personal advantage on the one hand and to support such an oppressive system on the other. He would especially be on the case of the Christian leaders (much like this rich young ruler) to lead by example. How many of us who are moral, religious and know our stuff would heed this call?

What was Jesus after when he was talking about eternal life, salvation and the kingdom of God? He was after an inconvenient obedience. The place to start is to abandon the logic of financial advantage or convenience as the ultimate good for Christians.  Jesus was not against rich people or wealth. He was against using wealth to justify living a life we WANT to live rather than living a life God wants us to live. Someone asked a multimillionaire, “How much is enough?” The answer he gave was, “It’s never enough.” That seems to be the argument of many middle-class Christians because to say “enough” requires inconvenient obedience to Christ.

Material Possessions, the Final Judgment and Hong Kong Protests: Reflections on Luke 13.1-9

Tags

,

In the week of Hong Kong protests, Christian communities have had various reactions.  One reaction deserves our attention.  The Jireh Foundation held a prayer meeting, reported by Hong Kong Christian Times here in which the CEO Chan Auyeung said that the use of force was a reasonable response by the police. She also said that people need to be congratulated for being against the protest because after all, the protest was “unlawful”.  She said that the anti-protest Christians were the truly sanctified ones.  In a condescending way, she said that she would only “pray for the protesters.” Another speaker also told all the Christian leaders of the protests (so many of them are Christians) to bow in humble prayer instead of doing what they were doing. Of course such a prayer meeting would be incomplete without some kind of appeal to the sovereignty of God.  And they surely did just that.  Let’s see what Jesus actually taught about the sovereign eschatological judgment of God in his own teaching in Luke.  Prayer meetings don’t trump truth!

I’ve been writing a Chinese commentary on Luke and I happened upon Luke 13.1-9 as the Hong Kong Protests kick off. In this account, some people were talking to Jesus about certain political situations involving revolution (a historical situation that has no historical evidence for us to pinpoint the exact event) against the Romans. The people asked for Jesus’ opinion on such Galilean politics. Understand that Galilee was sometimes places of revolutionaries (what NT Wright calls brigandage). Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Jesus’ answer is intriguing because his question shows the following assumptions. First, he assumed that both the revolutionaries and the questioners were imperfect human beings, sinners, if you will. Second, he assumed that the questioner actually believed that his being alive made him more righteous than the persecuted and dead revolutionary.

Let’s pause to see how these two assumptions apply to the present situation in Hong Kong. In the vitriol between factions, people tend to assume that their version of truth is the only version and that they have the perfect understanding. For Christians who take Jesus’ word seriously, this assumption is false. Furthermore, some Christians even rejoice in the suffering of the persecuted students because they “did not break the Hong Kong law.” Such narcissistic righteousness also goes against Jesus’ ethos. In fact, Jesus called such self-righteous people to repent in light of the coming judgment. What must they repent of?

The story that leads up to Luke 13.1-9 actually sheds light on what Jesus said. The story in Luke 12 starts with a warning about coming judgment and then Jesus gave a example on how people would be judged. Someone asked Jesus to mediate on family inheritance in Luke 12.13. Jesus talked about the rich fool whose sole concern was to hoard, thus condemning the person hoarding inheritance. Why not hoard? Jesus then told his disciples that there were more serious issues than hoarding material possessions in Luke 12.22-59. Not to hoard is an expression of faith in a just God. Now, faith is an easy escape for the most naïve unless we take seriously what Jesus said. Jesus’ condemnation was against the hoarding fool, the rich! Someone told me that Jesus also loved the rich.  Sure, he did, after they sold their material possessions to feed the poor (cf. Luke 18.18-22; 19.8-10)!  Jesus didn’t hate the rich; he hated GREED!

Contrary to the popular understanding that Jesus said that material possessions were completely valueless, we must take seriously his condemnation of the greedy rich. His point was to raise the issue of greed through the dispute over inheritance. In Luke 12.13, clearly someone was unjust and greedy. Jesus condemned such greed, whether rich or poor, but especially against the rich. Thus, the overarching principle for which one should repent should be greed over material possessions. The eschatological judgment against which Jesus warned will be based on where one’s heart is. Luke wrote to Theophilus, a government official and an immensely wealthy man.

Let’s think about what implications such a teaching of Jesus had on such a person.  The teachings of Jesus should actually scare those who were rich towards themselves but poor towards the poor and towards God. In light of the Hong Kong situation, it is easy to condemn the students or protesters. Jesus’ teaching however condemned the uncontrolled capitalism (in the situation of Hong Kong) that breeds greed. It is a morally bankrupt ploy to appeal randomly to the sovereignty of God without understanding of what that actually meant biblically. That’s the overarching Christian principle. The greedy rich (obviously, not all rich people are greedy) will face a most severe judgment. That too is a promise of God.  It’s time for some Christians to stop kidding themselves and others.  People should both stop doing violence to the poor and to the biblical text. Prayer meetings don’t trump truth!

Render to Caesar … to God? Separation of Church and State in Hong Kong?

Tags

, , , ,

It is fitting for this blog to be discussing the Hong Kong Occupy movement because that has been the hot topic right now. Hotter still is an open letter written by a head of a denominational seminary there (whose name will remain anonymous, let the readers understand) who argues for the separation of church and state as a part of the excuse for non-involvement in the dialogue on social justice. He cites Matthew and Mark on rendering to Caesar taxes as the proof texts for separation of church and state as well as political laissez faire. He basically says that due to the separation of the church and state, the church must remain completely neutral in the present state of affairs.  It is my honor and privilege to inform him that his proof text is blatantly WRONG. This blog will look at what such a text mean.

The Passage

In Mark 12.13-17, Jesus told the Pharisees and Herodians to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s and God what was God’s. The great irony of this account is the cooperation between groups that were originally not always friends. The Pharisees had led Judaism in Jesus’ day. The Herodians were the Caesar’s mid-level managers in the Judea area. Jesus’ ministries had brought potential enemies together. The passage itself shows that the two parties were trying to catch Jesus at his words. Jesus’ action was only to avoid getting caught with the words and nothing else. The Jews did not look upon Caesar’s image too kindly. Caesar was not merely the colonist who took over the Jewish land, but his image on a coin amounted to a kind of veneration given rightly to a divine being.

Although we may question whether full-blown Caesar worship existed in the time of Jesus or whether such veneration really attributed divine status to Caesar as coins seem to indicate, Jesus’ answer points out the tension without compromising either politically or religiously because Jesus’ answer can move either direction. First, He satisfied their inquiry by saying to give to the image of the coin. Second, He said to give to God what was God’s. In other words, Jesus was saying, “Why don’t you think about what is God’s? Then give accordingly.” It is an enigmatic answer that doesn’t provide a clear and direct answer.  This reply satisfied their inquiry of whether any of the money goes to God or to religious institution. We simply can’t make doctrine out of such a statement by Jesus. Its sarcasm is also quite pointed because the Pharisees surely knew that everything belonged to YHWH their God.  Yet, they themselves could not go further to state that everything ought to go to God.  The presence of Herodian would jeopardize the safety of these Pharisees.  By not going further and saying, “Everything belongs to YHWH. Does it not?  We have no king but YHWH,” the Pharisees were caught in their own trap.  The Pharisees lack of response to Jesus’ enigmatic shows their difficulty.  Jesus, by this ironic answer, actually pointed out the Pharisees’ own dereliction of duty to YHWH.  In Mark, in fact, this discussion was part of the greater conflicts with religious leaders that ran pretty much through Mark 12 climaxing with Jesus’ condemnation of the oppression of widows which I have already discussed in my previous blog post (but on the Lukan version) and book as well as my preaching. In the audience of Mark, they were faced with their own religious issues of whether to stay completely within their faith community or to move out into a more Jesus-centered form of worship. These accounts only point fingers at the guilt of the original religious leaders.  I’ll discuss more of this in my upcoming commentary on Mark in Chinese, ready to publish next winter.

Matthew 22.21 has the parallel version of the same story. Matthew’s story makes explicit what was implicit. Matthew 22.18 points out clearly that the men had evil intent in asking the question. The rest is pretty much the same with the same confrontation about other issues with the religious leaders resulting in Jesus’ woes and eschatological discourse in Matthew 23-25. Certainly, Matthew’s audience not only had to deal with separation from their own religious community but also the final destruction of the temple. Matthew showed the fault of those who plotted Jesus’ death to encourage his own readers to reach out beyond the confine of their own circles into other groups (e.g. Matthew 28.18-20). It has nothing to do with separation of church and state. To milk separation of church and state out of it is nonsensical madness. It does nothing but increase the injustice that is in Hong Kong society.

The Background of the Coin

What if, for argument’s sake, we take what this head of a seminary say seriously?  We must look at what the coin actually says.  Now, if we follow the logic that Jesus approved unconditionally of the coin and thus advocated separation of church and state, then we need to look at what inscription Jesus was referring to and whose image Jesus was talking about. In order to understand the inscription, we must examine potential inscriptions that were on coins. Two general categories of inscriptions existed in the denarius in Jesus’ time. One proclaims that Caesar is somehow “divine”. The other proclaims Caesar to be Pontifex Maximus, a Latin way of calling someone the supreme leader. The best sample would come from the Tiberius coin where Tiberius is called the son of “divine Augustus”. In other words, Tiberius was a kind of “son of god”. On the opposite side of the coin had a picture of Livia, the wife of Augustus or the goddess Roma holding some kind of scepter to demonstrate her authority with the title of Pontifex Maximus. We can’t imagine Jesus agreeing to ALL of such political propaganda in his saying now, can we? To the Gospel writers, Jesus was the true Son of God. These other political sayings on the coin effectively went against everything that Jesus stood for. If we were to adopt the literal understanding without considering that Jesus was only using a clever rhetorical ploy, we are at risk of ruining our very theology in our desperate need to find proof texts for separation of church and state. Is it worth the risk to hijack Scripture in this way? As I always said, the problem is not the text. The problem is the interpreter!

PS. I’m not in favor of lousy scripture quotes, but I’m in favor of the separation of church and state principle as it was originally framed by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to Danbury Baptist Church:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802.

Sample Scriptural Manipulation by the Western Religious Right (III): Obedience to the Government and 2 Peter 2.13-14

Tags

,

In my blog a while back, I discussed the usage of Rom. 13 by one author. Here, in this blog, I will detail another usage of a superficially similar passage in 1 Pet. 2.13-14. I say “superficial” because even though passages may share the same topic, their contexts, both historical and literary, will create different meanings. The Meaning The typically superficial reading of this passage resembles the other interpretation of Romans 13 which simply says to obey all governing authority with no consideration of the context of the Greco-Roman Empire. Consequences of Misreading The author states rightly that the idea of government established by God is not explicit (p. 81). He could just stop right there, but he goes on. He states, “The idea … is hinted at when Peter says that Christians are to be subject ‘for the Lord’s sake.’” He believes that the government has the function of punishing the evil such as N. Korea, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. The only trouble is, he’s assuming moral high ground when he lists these countries. I hate to say it, US policies, especially the right-wing policies of past administrations, have not endear ourselves to many in the middle east, Asia and South America. The mistake here is to assume that evil resides in others, and not in us. He explicitly argues that the US government’s role to punish “others” and being the world’s policeman. There’s no parallel here with 1 Peter where even if the government was going good (and it was not), it was doing good on behalf of the world. Neither the US nor the Romans were ever granted the position of the world policemen. This mentality has to change or Christians who support such US policies will continue to be sneered upon and despised by the rest of the world. In his reading of 1 Pet. 2.13-14, he states that there is widespread agreement in the Bible that God had established the government for the benefit of humanity. This however does not mean that everything God allows is morally good. There is a vast difference. He does not distinguish between an observation and ideal-laced assumption. Appeal to widespread agreement assumes that also all faithful interpreters also agree with his interpretation. Such is not the case, even if we survey superficially the commentaries written on 1 Pet. 2.13-14. Regarding his view of obedience to government, this author calls 1 Pet. 2.13-14 as God’s moral standards. Quite clearly, we can’t debate that! Of course not. After all, evangelical theology is full of such thoughtless clichés. The fact is, I have already shown that this was not loosely about “morality.” (p. 61) The sayings addressed a certain situation the real historical audience faced.   Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil disobedience be considered immoral? Would Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth disobedience to the Nazis be immoral? No wonder he never had King, Bonhoeffer and Barth in his bibliography because these recent examples alone prove that biblical interpretation is quite varied and situational. His utter disregard for these examples only shows to me that if he existed in the time of Nazi German or 60s US society, his theory would be in complete favor of the powerful oppressive forces. Let’s expand that a bit to the rest of the world, shall we? How about those who resist the religiously oppressive regime such as China, N. Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, and many parts of the world? He clearly does not elaborate on these examples, hinting at the fact that he is unaware of global issues that require a more global interpretation of these verses instead of the American evangelical “oasis” from which he reads the Bible. If he reads the passage carefully, the real point is not the nature of divinely ordained governing authority. The real point comes at 1 Pet. 2.15ff where the church was called to do good so that society could not criticize its existence. What good is the church doing? That is the real question. The thing I object most about his treatment of the passage is his rhetoric. The arrogance of his tone is amazing in that he makes straw men of opposition point of views and just knocks them down triumphantly. He also assumes that those who disagree with him do not preach 1 Pet. 2 because he asks, Have you decided that you wont preach on Romans 13.1-7? Or that you won’t preach on 1 Peter 2.13-14?” I do preach on those passages, just not in the thoughtless colonial paradigm that he does. Apparently, he calls those who disagree with him as those who selectively preach the Bible. I hope by now in my blogs that I have demonstrated that he is the selective writer, not the other way around. In his view of government, we can see the selective use of certain texts with no regard to other texts or even the historical context of the said text. Revelation was rarely quoted and when quoted, usually misquoted. The author of Revelation did not have much good to say about the Roman government. When he quotes Revelation, he almost always neutralizes the text, either because he wants to support his own view or that he is completely ignorant of Revelation. The best example is his usage of Rev. 18.3, 9 where “sexual immorality” is viewed as the modern evangelical prudish morality. Such is not the case, the sexual vocabulary in Revelation is mostly about faithfulness to God or walking in line with God’s ideal. In short, it is disturbing that works by such a scholar has been so widely used by evangelical systematic instructors. I don’t believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for a long time for those who are trained under this textbook

As always, the problem is not the text. The problem is the interpreter.

Thinking before Thanking

This week, I interrupt my usual discussion about misused scriptures by the Religious Right to talk about giving thanks.  I see a lot of thanksgiving on Facebook with the thanksgiving challenge.  It’s pretty delightful to see so many thankful people.  There’s a lot to be thankful for and there’s a lot of theology going into giving thanks.  I will use this post to discuss briefly about our thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has always filled the pages of the NT and quite often the lips of Christians who like to quote verses (Eph. 5.20; 1 Thess. 5.18; Heb. 13.15).  While I do not deny the very important practice of giving thanks, especially to God who has given us many blessings, I can’t help but think that we really need to use our brains to hear what we’re saying when we “give thanks always.”

I always get a kick out of athletes who give God all the credit for all that happens. “I give thanks to God for my last minute touchdown.”  “I thank God for winning.”  How about this one? Someone finds a load of cash on the ground.  “I thank God for this money. I sure needed this money. Besides, these people probably wouldn’t come back to get the money anyway.”  I can make an endless loop of such thanksgiving, but do you see where I’m going with this?

If God helps one team win, does it mean he condemned the other team then? What if BOTH teams prayed? Was God biased?  Would thanking God by taking someone’s money be a good or bad thing? What if that someone really needed the money and prayed to find the money?

The fact is, we sometimes frivolously thank God for all the things because they centered on us instead of on God.  This is something all Christians need to watch out for.  If not, our thanksgiving is just one more sad effort in creating the Creator in our own image.  We then become God!

Sample Scriptural Manipulation by the Western Religious Right (II): The Problem of Gun Control and Luke 22

Tags

While the last blog was about how one author supports his own take on the environmental issue. This blog will be about gun control. Let me say that, as an American, I feel that there is some merit on gun possession but also stricter gun control. My concern is not about pro or anti gun control. My problem is the way some people justify the right to bear arms to the extent of twisting scripture that clearly teaches the opposite to fit their agenda.

 

The Meaning

 

One author cites Luke 22.36-38.

 

“He said to them, ‘But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, ‘it is enough.’”

 

Any careful reader will see that the bringing of the two swords made the carriers of the swords transgressors. The word “transgressors” in Greek simply means someone who breaks the law, like a brigand. The literal meaning of the Greek word is “lawless.” (cf. LXX Is. 1.5) In the Galilean environment, if we read Josephus the Jewish historian who led troops of rebels from there, those who carried swords are rebels against the government. They have then trespassed against the law. When reading Scripture, we should not just read the words but get the force of those words from wider context. This is what I teach my first year students whether at the BA or masters level. Let’s see what happened with the swords.

 

In Lk. 22.49-51, Jesus’ followers (Luke did not say) first asked whether they should strike, and then one took action. Jesus’ reaction was an annoyed, “No more of this” and healed the person whose ear got cut off. Based on Jesus’ reaction of “no more of this,” his view of bearing sword for this particular instance was decidedly negative. Let me summarize the evidence.

 

  • Jesus called the sword carriers lawless brigands only to appeal to the problem of revolution again in Lk. 22.52.
  • Jesus rebuked the sword carriers and had told them to put the swords away. This explains why Jesus said that “it” is enough. He didn’t say that TWO swords “are” enough. He said that “it” is enough. We can’t help but to see that Jesus was talking in frustration about their singular (i.e. “it) misunderstanding of his meanings in telling them to carry a sword. Surely, Jesus could use sarcasm in frustration! In reality, Jesus was merely saying that the situation was so dire that it would require people to carry swords. He was not telling them to carry literal swords.

 

Consequences of Misreading

 

This author commits the classic mistake of not studying words such as “sword” to see how an author used it to describe the situation in the entire scene of Jesus’ arrest. When reading a narrative, the plot of each scene determines meanings of the words. Authors further use words specifically in the narrative of the whole book to discuss various aspects. The careless reader can further commit the elementary mistake of not looking closely at the way Jesus talked about the disciples as being trespassers.   A simple word study will point to the meaning as being primarily negative.

 

Instead, this is the way this author concludes about gun possession.

 

“When Jesus says, ‘It is enough,’ it is immediately in response to the disciples showing him ‘two swords,’ so ‘enough’ is best understood to mean ‘enough swords.’ … When Jesus says, ‘It is enough,’ he means that two swords are enough … there is no hint of rebuke. But that means that Jesus is encouraging his disciples to carry a sword for self defense … It is true that later in Luke 22 Jesus rebuked Peter for cutting off the right ear of the servant … but this was because he did not want his disciples to attempt to atop his crucifixion or try to start a military uprising against Rome …”

 

The fact is, the passage is not about weapon acquisition. Even when he gets the plot, he still misses because he sees weapons as the main issue and not some other issues. Clearly the final result was Jesus’ command to put the sword away, but the author is so eager to push the right to bear arm by saying that this in fact does not really mean not to carry sword for that circumstance. What good is the sword if it is not used? This exegetical gymnastic has once again violated the basic reading of a narrative by letting the conclusion of a narrative judge all the previous material. Surely, we can’t twist stuff that comes straight out of Jesus’ mouth (so it is perceived), but some do so to push their agenda.

 

If we put the author’s gun situation back into the scene in Luke, it makes gun owners illegal sinners because that’s exactly what Jesus called them. By misquoting such a passage, this author actually achieved the opposite effect. Proof text is overrated.

Sample Scriptural Manipulation by the Western Religious Right (I): Jeremiah 5.23-25 and Talking about the Weather

In the last blog, I talked about how the Western Religious Right’s claim to orthodoxy is dubious.  This blog starts on this series of sample misquotations of Scriptures in one particular evangelical theologian’s work that has plagued the wider Western church world (and even in Asia). The reason I use his work is because his works are widely used by evangelicals.   This blog is about understanding of the environmental issue. We shall see in this blog that the Bible does not answer some of the hard questions we face. We may choose to use common sense or our limited knowledge from other disciplines, but not so much the Bible. Especially important is the way I have seen this author uses one text below. In this blog, we will learn that the spiritual lesson for the church is not found in each word of the text, but the intended force of those words. The rhetoric assigns meaning to the message.

Here’s a great sample. Discussing the anxiety over environmental concerns and weather pattern, one author puts in bold letters, “People displease God when they fail to acknowledge his control of the weather.” Really? Displease? His citation is Jeremiah 5.23-25 as follows:

 

“But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart; they have turned aside and gone away. They do not say in their hearts, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest.’ Your iniquities have turned these away [that is, the rains and the harvest seasons], and your sins have kept god from you.”

 

I’m not an expert in weather or environment. This blog will not address this problem, but will address the way the problem is being addressed. The writer interprets the sin to be worries about the weather. The fact is, the weather is not the focus at all. Jeremiah wrote this book progressively all the way to the Babylonian exile. Judah was exiled because, according to Jeremiah, of idolatry. The entire context has nothing to do with environmental concerns.

 

The Meaning

The poetic section starts with Jer. 5.20 and runs all the way to 6.30. It is a series of parallelisms that have nothing to do with weather but almost everything to do with idolatry. Even the language God used to describe the blindness and deafness resemble the idols in Jer. 5.20. The people had essentially become like those idols they worshipped. It is part of God’s law suit (note the lawsuit language of 6.18) against Judah based on the covenant God had made with Israel long ago. The fact God used “Israel” instead of the expected “Judah” in some places (e.g. Jer. 5.9) points to the covenant nation of Israel before the kingdom had split into two. My point is, a careful reader will not find that passage to be mainly about weather. Why talk about weather then?

Weather is symbolic of the religions of the Near East. The worldview of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE henceforth) is that people worshipped the gods so that the gods would provide good weather for one thing and one thing only, good harvest. In other words, the patter situation there had to do with how people worshipped, and not environmental concern. The Lord is reminding Judah that the false worship had caused in this case weather problems. The very fact the Judeans worshipped the Canaanite gods is because, according to many ANE experts, the Canaanite gods promised good harvest. God was basically saying, “Look at how messed up your weather is. How is that working out for you wishful thinking idolaters?”

 

Consequences of Misreading

We no longer have that worldview today. I’m pretty sure God might speak to use in variety of ways in regard to why we sometimes suffer environmental damage. The ANE religious paradigm is not the ONLY way. It WAS for the Israelites because that’s their world. We’re now in our world. I don’t doubt that some of these disasters are man-made. I don’t doubt that some man-made disasters were indirectly punishment from God (well, at least I leave that possibility on the table). Jeremiah 5 does not concretize the author’s conclusion. I’ll let his words speak for themselves.

 

“This passage sounds remarkably similar to the proponents of dangerous global warming today – they fear a fragile, out-of-control climate pattern that will destroy the earth, but ‘do not say in their hearts,’ ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season.’ This suggests that the underlying cause of fears of dangerous global warming might not be science but rejection of belief in God.

 

We learn from this rhetoric three fallacies: 1) Unbelief and not scientific ignorance is the root cause of all human problems. 2) Those who have environmental concern must not trust God. 3) Concern over environment shows a small belief in God. I certainly do not agree with any of these ideas. Besides their circular logic (i.e. if you think our environment has severe problem, you must not believe in God. Due to your unbelief, that’s why you have an environmental concern), the biggest problem is the lack of support from the main thrust of the biblical passage. One lesson we learn from the three fallacies is that we can’t MAKE the Bible say what it does not intend to say. If the interpretation does not deal with the main issue the author was trying to address, the interpretation is wrong. So is the application.

 

On one final word, if this author does not think we should worry about over the air and weather pattern, he may need to travel to China more and do some studies there. I’m sure in his revised version of this book, he’ll think differently.

Western Evangelical Blind Spot While Judging China’s Theology

Tags

I read with interest the various reactions to China’s possible attempt to have its own theology. Of course, from the Western side of the faith, people are alarmed. I mean, how in the world can a Christian faith/theology be formed to support an oppressive government? Really, even words like “Constatinianism” comes up. Scot McKnight’s label in his blog surely brands the Chinese the apostates. Of course, it’s so easy to demonize “red” China. After all, aren’t they the bad guys who put Christians in jail and demolish churches, but is persecution the issue or is Constatinianism the issue?

This is where the West once again runs into its own blind spot, especially for evangelicals. The doctrines formulated and hardened by Western evangelicalism have long been just its own version of “Western” theology, from the rise of the Moral Majority to the Gospel Coalition. Furthermore, as I pointed out to my friend, the Religious Right (and sometimes the Left) has already repeated its attempt to occupy and influence the US government. Of course, no one from the Western side is willing to admit that their version of orthodox faith, especially the “biblical version”, is really the Western indigenized faith, but as Suey Park, Emily Rice, and Mihee Kim-Kort points out, the Western version is quite dominated by white supremacy. The only reason why they can consider it orthodox and feel outraged at OTHER kinds of theology being heterodox is because they have long occupied a powerful position in the faith, so powerful that one prominent Western church leader has pronounced recently that he has found the solution to the Middle East problem via Rwanda!  Before you laugh, my readers, I’m not joking.  The Western evangelical church seems to have ALL the solutions in God’s multicultural, multiracial and multinational kingdom for all the world’s problems.  Is Chinese theology any guiltier of Constantinianism than that of the Religious Right? Let’s go further to ask the question that if no one got imprisoned and persecuted, is the version from Western conservatives still the norm and everything else the deviance? Is Constantinianism the sole privilege of the West that the Religious Right is exempt from its own analysis of other kinds of Christianity? Does the Western Religious Right also make the Bible serve their own political agenda?

I will do a series of blogs in the next few weeks to examine one particular influential Religious Right theologian (whose name will be withheld) in how he uses the Bible to support his political agenda. In so doing, I hope to expose the political raping of the biblical text for political agenda that is already rampant and influential in the evangelical church.

In conclusion, I say this to evangelical critics. Physicians, heal thyself.

 

Evangelical Idolatry: the Offense of the Gospel to the Faith Commuity

Tags

“But Gideon told them, ‘I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you … I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.’ …  Gideon made the gold into an ephod which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshipping it there …”  (Judges 8.23-24, 27 NIV)

 

I’ve spoken in many settings all over the world and I’m beginning to notice that certain issues being used as illustrations tend to bring inevitable offense. These are also sacrosanct topics for blogging.  Here’re some of the issues I’ve encountered.

  • Infallibility of one’s holy calling into full-time church service
  • Infallibility of John Calvin/John Wesley/Westminster Confession/John Piper (fill in your favorite theologian) and their followers etc.
  • Infallibility of one’s original faith when one’s converted
  • Infallibility of mega church pastors
  • Infallibility of popular evangelistic methods: mass evangelism, celebrity evangelism, personal evangelism through formulae
  • Infallibility of local church growth by statistics

If I were to question any of the above, the reaction of people towards these issues often borders on fanaticism. It is as if I’m attacking the Trinity or the attributes of Jesus. Why are people so angry? Notice I just observe that people possess the same passion towards these issues as they would if someone attacks their God. The problem is simple. People worship these concepts as much as they worship the Bible or even God. It is hard for us to imagine that the gospel is offensive not only to those who do not believe, but also to those who believe for a good long while.  This failure to see our problem IS our problem.

While idolatry happens literally in many parts of the world still, in the developed world, the kind of idolatry is subtler. It is easy to point fingers at unbelievers and condemn them for idolatry. It is exceptionally difficult to see that we worship idols right within the faith community. All these idols have one thing in common: they put humans and tools at the center of worship. What do we feel passionate about? Whatever we feel passionate about may just be our idol, even if that idol has religious clothing.

How May I Help?

A while back in church on one Sunday morning, I walked in and saw one of our members in a wheelchair.  As I went around talking to a few people, I noticed everyone affectionately greeted this injured member.  People were giving hugs, saying cheerful hellos and expressing many other very warm gestures.

Then, something different happened.

Someone came up to her and said, “How may I help you?”  The injured person replied, “I’m actually trying to figure out how to go to the bathroom with this wheelchair.”  Now,  something quite profound just happened at that moment.

Quite often, we are so used to each that we greet each other with superficial affection without asking the important question, “HOW may I help?”  Taking the time to care is an art, but it is also common sense awareness of real needs around us.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 140 other followers