More Cheap Unity? Truth that Divides!: 2 Corinthians 11.24, Paul, and the Subversive Gospel

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Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 

2 Corinthians 11.24 (NIV)

 

It is a well-known fact that I love reading the writings of Jesus scholar Larry Hurtado. His latest blog interaction with the work of Paula Fredriksen intrigues me, not only because her work was widely cited in my book on Paul in Chinese, but because of its implications for many HK churches, especially in light of the further call for harmony and tolerance for another fake election by the Anglican provincial secretary on HK TVB. I will cite below what Fredriksen claims from Hurtado’s blog. At some near future point, I will read her work in its entirety at which point I can give it a fair reading.

 

“In a recent publication, she probes the matter by first addressing Paul’s references to being on the receiving end of floggings by fellow Jews (five times) in the course of his Gentile mission (2 Corinthians 11:24).[2] Her cogent hypothesis is essentially this: Paul required his pagan converts to withdraw from worshipping the gods of the Roman world. Given the place and significance of the gods in Roman-era life, this would have generated serious tensions with the larger pagan community. As he identified himself as a Jew and linked up with Jewish communities in the various diaspora cities where he established early assemblies of Jesus-followers (ekklesias), these Jewish communities could have feared that they would bear the brunt of these tensions. So, Paul was meted out synagogue discipline in the form of the 39 lashes as punishment on several occasions (he mentions five).”

 

If what Fredriksen says is true, then Paul was not punished because he preached the gospel as people traditionally believe, but because the gospel Paul preached caused disharmony both with society and within the synagogue system. Let’s think about the current culture of the HK mega-churches that tend to speak for oppressive government policies. The best example is from one church where members who opposed oppressive governmental policies would be punished by having their memberships revoked from the church. Other less severe but equally misleading responses would be to call for harmony at all costs without adequate discussion on the issues that divide.

 

In essence, if Fredriksen’s claim is true, then some churches behave more like Paul’s Jewish oppositions than Paul. Paul has already shown that the gospel is not mainly meant to cause harmony. Truth doesn’t necessarily harmonize. Quite often in Paul’s ministry, it confronted and divided. When people point out falsehood, the church’s job is not to call for harmony but to call for discussion, circumspection and introspection or even repentance. False harmony punishes the wrong people and in the long run ruins lives. Getting truth right is tough.  Living truth out is even tougher.  It takes prioritizing ideas and conflict, just like Paul did in his life.  It takes tough struggles over issue rather than a simplistic call for cheap unity while covering over the holes in our imperfect ideals.  The only question to ask of such churches is this, “What kind of faith do we hold when we behave more like Paul’s opposition than Paul?”

Cheap Unity Again?: 2 Corinthians 6.14 and Occupy HK

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14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
    and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.”

17 Therefore,

“Come out from them
    and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”

18 And,

“I will be a Father to you,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6.14-18 (NIV)

I’m going to blog about chapter 18 of my book. I’ve already blogged about it before as a negative example for how to use scripture. In my book, I’ve already established that the passage was not about marriage between believers and unbelievers. Rather, it is about unity between radically different value systems within the church possibly propagated by different parties. I believe this passage has huge implications for HK in the present climate among SOME pastors to call for unity. The Chinese Christian blog sphere also lit up with discontent and outrage.  I believe Paul’s teaching prohibits the church from a compromised unity.  In a situation where black and white are not neutralized by heavy shades of grey, perhaps, unity is not the answer, as we shall see below.

 

The passage talks about being yoked together possibly borrowing from farming practice of putting two different animals together to plow. In this metaphor, Paul was talking about working together with unbelievers, but was Paul’s writing a total prohibition on working with unbelievers? I don’t believe so. The subsequent verses show that certain anti-Christian results that came from working with unbelievers such as idolatry. In other words, you can’t work with unbelievers if the results go against the fundamentals of Christian value. For believers who may be tempted to link themselves to such anti-Christian values, they ought to separate themselves. This is the essence of Paul’s message. Let’s look at the HK situation.

 

The fault line between the two parties in the church is political where one party sides with the government and the other does not. Before we call for reconciliation and unity, let’s see what reconciliation consists of. The most successful example of recent history is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South African abolition of Apartheid. In fact, this bloodless revolution has caused other countries to form TRC’s, countries as varied as Colombia, Nigeria, Canada and so on. In reconciliation, those who are wrong do not get an easy escape. They confess that they’re wrong not because they hold a different opinion and reject others’ opinions, but because they actually hold the WRONG opinion about race and politics and must confess their falsehood. Bring that to HK. Can anyone honestly say that siding with the government that lies repeatedly to its own people is RIGHT? Is oppression and dishonesty part of our Christian value system?  We don’t need to sweep rubbish under the table right now. We need separation from lies. We need truth, even if that truth tears our church asunder.  This recent protest movement has become the mirror in the church to show where everyone stands in relation of oppression and dishonesty. We need those who have supported lies in the faith community to 1) confess their sins 2) to separate from such anti-Christian values. The preachers from those rich and large churches who have sided with governmental oppression should be the first to come out and confess their sins! I dare them to be an example to the flock by following Paul’s advice.

 

IF our church leaders are willing to take such harsh and courageous steps the way Desmond Tutu did, I’m all in favor of reconciliation and unity. Otherwise, count me out! So, if you want a Christian way to do unity and reconciliation, read, meditate and apply 2 Corinthians 6.14 for its real meaning instead of going for cheap unity because cheap unity will create more injury in the long run. So, for now, give me a break from this cheap unity talk because such unity is not just untenable; it’s immoral.

 

As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!

A Teacher’s Memory: The Power of Care and a Thank-You Note to My Teacher

“Love must be sincere.” Romans 12.9 (NIV)

 

The word “sincere” means something like “not-pretencious”.  This is not an exegetical blog. Instead, I want to share something personal and important from a recent experience.

 

An elegant elderly lady approached me after my sermon the last night in Toronto. She asked me a most unexpected question, “Did you go to Kowloon Tong Primary School?” I said, “Yes.”  She then said, “I remember you. I was your teacher.  You were the VP of the class.  The president of the class was more heavyset.  I always knew you were a bit special.”  It’s one of those awkward moments in my life that I was totally left speechless.  From a very vast immigrant audience that packed the sanctuary, I get this strange out-of-the-blue comment.  Finally, after I came to my senses, I said, “You must be mistaken. I was no VP material at that age.” She said, “No, I’m quite sure you were because your mother used to put her hair up in a bun and wore a bit more traditional Chinese clothing when she walked you to school.”  Then, she smiled.  I’m sure my teacher was right.  Never argue with your teacher!  The awkwardness of this moment was heightened by the long line of people waiting to talk to me or to have me sign books they purchased at the conference.  I eventually thanked her and she said a blessing to me.  Everyone moved along as usual. Whew, that was awkward.

 

You know what I hate?  I hate it when people say to me, “Oh, I remember you when you were a tiny tot. Wow, look at you now.”  Most of the time, people just wanted to show me that I’m still a little kid and to show me how successful they’re now in whatever profession they pursue after losing contact with me.  Having met people all over the world, I can smell condescension when I encounter it.  Luckily, this doesn’t happen often, but since Chinese people move all over the places to places where I speak, this happens more than I care to admit. However, this conversation is different.  I have to admit that I choked up slightlyand anyone who knows me knows that I don’t do choking up.  She really seemed very sincere and looked genuinely proud of me.

 

I think we all wanted to please our teacher deep down inside, especially the good ones, ever since we’re little. And to hear that from a former teacher is quite something because I’ve always remember myself as a fun-loving ADHD knucklehead who was often sent home a teacher’s note about how I didn’t pay attention in class. My favorite time was recess when I could play soccer on the school’s sandy pitch or play pranks on my classmates. Those are my childhood memories. She remembered something quite different.  What touched me was the way she remembers the things I didn’t, things that really don’t matter now, but still, things that are small details.  This teacher cares.

 

My point is not so much to brag about how special I was  because to me, I’m just an ordinary bloke doing a job.  The most special part of this experience is see that after all these years, I see a teacher who really cares about her student.  She didn’t care by making me get better grades, though my grades weren’t the worst.  She cared because she noticed the little things like the way my mother wore her hair or how the president of the class was a more heavyset kid.  This is something we can all learn from. Taking the time to care is an important trait for a person of great influence and character.  Perhaps, my teacher isn’t as famous as I am in the faith community, but I’m sure, she inadvertently influenced me to be who I am today, and for that, I thank her.  Whatever your name is, I thank you for stopping by and sharing your life with me now.  You’re a person of great influence and character, perhaps more than you ever know.

 

Take the time to show some love to someone today.  You never know how that will affect the person in the here and now or in the long run.

American Missionary Kenneth Bae Languishes in a Pyongyang Prison

samtsang98:

Please continue to join me and Grace as well as thousands of others to pray for the release of Kenneth Bae.

Originally posted on Grace Ji-Sun Kim:

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Occupy Hong Kong, Love, and Unity: a Reflection on Ezekiel 11 and Bad Old Testament Proof Texts

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I read and listened to a sermon this week that involved the usage of Ezekiel 11. To put matter into a broad context, the sermon contains a call to unity in light of the Occupy HK protest. The call is for people of various opinions to be united under the banner of Christ. Already, I’ve discussed conditions of unity in my other blogs.  Besides, one of my preaching students has also blogged on this particular sermon in Chinese.  Under certain premise unity is preferred. Under other premises unity is not preferred. Unity and love do not trump truth. Unity is empty without proper content. At least that’s the way I’ve been reading Paul in my academic teaching the last decade and a half on Paul. This blog will devote to one thing only while putting aside the unity question: the usage of Ezekiel 11 in the sermon. The reason why I pick on Ezekiel 11 usage is simple. The entire sermon only contains one scriptural reference AND the preacher got it completely backward.

 

The sermon uses Ezekiel 11.19 to proof text that unity was always the heart of God above influence by the (unbelieving) media. It is the proof text to call all people, especially professors of biblical studies and theology (a guild to which I belong), to become more biblical and less driven by media sensationalism. Let’s examine what biblically sound hermeneutics actually look like in answer to this preacher’s admonition.

 

Some of this blog will be based on my previous lectures, my two books (one commentary and one monograph) and a journal article written on Ezekiel. Since these are all done in Chinese, not everyone is aware of them. For those who interested, they can look at the link I shared above. I’ll be in the process of revising and rewriting the Ezekiel commentary in a few years, but I simply can’t wait that long to refute such blatant homiletical and hermeneutical error that has such widespread effect.

 

Ezekiel 11.19 says, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” (NIV) This is the context.

 

The first thing any reasonable interpreter does is to consider the overall structure of a section of a book. The section looks something like this.

 

Chapter 8 – ceremonial sins

Chapter 9 – punishment for ceremonial sins

Chapter 10 – departing glory

Chapter 11 – social sins, punishment for social sins, departing glory

 

Based on the structure, we can see that Ezk. 11 is mainly about the departing glory of God as a result of sin. We will elaborate on what that sin was.

 

The passage is part of a greater vision starting at Ezk. 11.1 where the Spirit lifts Ezekiel to the gate of the temple facing East. The problem with Judah at the time was injustice. The Spirit of the Lord God told Ezekiel that the leaders of Judah, especially two religious leaders (cf. Ezk. 8.11), plotted evil and committed murder against the people in Ezk. 11.6. Since it is a vision, it is hard to figure out whether such murders had actually taken place or that the murder was the result of Babylonian slaughter due to the fact of these religious leaders worshipping the false gods. The Hebrew word for the title of these leaders actually means “prince.” Perhaps the closest equivalence would be the word “governor.” They were probably left there to govern after Jahoiakim’s exile in 597 BC when Ezekiel was also exiled (cf. 2 Kings 24.10-17). Perhaps the one prince who would eventually come into sharp focus is Zedekiah, the puppet of Babylon. Instead of being worshippers of YHWH, they had now filled the power vacuum to do what they please. They had taken advantage of the pro-Babylonian politics and religion to gain power. They were the traitors to God, His covenant and His people. Either way, injustice was a theme and God condemned injustice. Anyone in the religious community giving advice in favor of oppression would be like these two religious leaders. GOD HATES INJUSTICE!

 

The prophecies against the leaders come in two statements of retributive justice where God would punish them with punishment that fits the crime. Ezk. 11.8, 10 tell us that the butchers will be butchered. Ezk. 11.8 says that the sword would be brought against them who use the sword. Ezk. 11.8-9 tell us that the leaders would experience a role reversal. Even though they thought of themselves as crème de la crème, they were in fact rubbish. Like cooking meat in a pot, these leaders would experience the burning of Jerusalem They would receive the reward of the burning coals.

 

The next section in Ezk. 11.16-25 shows Judah as a metaphorical body. Especially telling is the discussion of Ezk. 11.19 where God would give “them” (in plural) a singular heart. In other words, similar to the way Paul described the church, Judah was like a body. This body was meant to worship the right God instead of the false gods in Ezk. 11.18. The right worship would result in a just society as the body of believers would follow God’s law in Ezk. 11.20. God would then redeem them and their land much like a close and affectionate kinsman redeemer (cf. Lev. 25; Ruth 4.1-9). The process would not bypass the eradication of idolatry and injustice. There’s no easy gift of hear of flesh and unity without justice.

 

IF we read the passage carefully, we can see that the passage was precisely saying the very opposite of what the preacher said. The passage is saying that God hated injustice. A society like HK is doubtlessly unjust.  Church leaders who side with the unjust government also bring injustice into the faith community.   The society is not even “relatively just” when so many of its senior citizens had to collect cardboard boxes to pay rent and make ends meet. God hated injustice. The very fact these villains were condemned by God was due to their united effort to persecute those who were oppressed. Unity to side with injustice was one of the reasons why the Lord God condemned Judah. Unity under oppression was the true indicator of a heart of stone. Anyone who sides with injustice is indeed part of the oppressive unity that contains the heart of stone. Sinful unity leads to destruction. THAT is the message of Ezekiel 11.

 

Rich Churches and the Poor: A Reflection on the Poor in Luke 14.15-24

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15 When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” 16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ 19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ 20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ 21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ 22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ 23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” Luke 14.15-24 (NIV)

A heart-breaking story in “prosperous” HK surfaced this week.  It details the routine of an old lady who is nearly 80. She lives in low income housing and her only means of paying her rent was to pick up cardboard boxes dawn to dusk.  In this “prosperous” and “relatively just” city, 70% of the elderly do what this lady does to make ends meet.  This is the city where the chief executive freely admits that democracy would allow the poor to dominate, indicating that the poor occupies a substantial part of the population. I use words of prosperity and justice to describe HK because those have been the words used by many of the upper middle class church leaders there.  In contrast, Jesus told a parable in Luke 14.15-24.

Since I’m writing the Luke commentary in Chinese, I’m going to share my reflection in this blog.  Let’s see what Jesus had to say about prosperity and the kingdom. Someone told Jesus in a banquet that those who would eat at the messianic banquet were the blessed/happy ones.  Jesus told a parable in reply.  He talked about a rich host opening a banquet and the host invited all the usual rich people.  However, everyone unexpectedly made excuse not to go in Luke 14.18-20. The excuses ranged from having bought a field to having bought some animals to having gotten married. The order of field, oxen and marriage is interesting in that the excuses moved from financial to marital. The buying of field came from the upper class of Jesus’ day. The buying of oxen was due to the need to plow a large plot of land. While the ones about purchase indicate wealth, marriage seems more basic. The excuses then would seem more and more reasonable, but yet, it seems like none of excuses made here were reasonable. Why in fact would a new marriage prevented one from attending the banquet? This parable then is the mockery against those who made excuses. It is important to note that the two analogies about the field and oxen put the emphasis on wealth because of the setting of the real banquet Jesus was eating. Such banquets were the occasion one shows off his wealth and high society connections. All the excuses were of the same kind: they had other more important priorities.

Wealth played a prominent role because Jesus was sitting among the rich. The host then sent his slave to invite more to come in the parable. The places where the slave went in Luke 14.21 were probably where the outsiders hung out because what the slaves found were the down and out people. These underprivileged people would be a stark contrast with the first two excuse makers. The ability to buy a field and five oxen shows that they were men of some wealth but they didn’t go to the banquet. The Pharisee who hosted could certainly relate to this degree of wealth. The poor would be the last invited and they became more like those who were first invited, much like what Luke 13.29 says. This strange guest list is the same list Jesus used in Luke 14.13. Still there was room. So, the master told his slave to get people from all over to come in Luke 14.23. When Jesus taught this story, he taught it to the wealthy.  This story seems like a story about the future when the kingdom would be released or is it?

I propose that the Jesus’ banquet setting in which he told the story suggests otherwise. It is about the present! It is a story to the faith community and its leader, the host of Jesus’ banquet, the Pharisee, that true faith community would have unexpectedly blessed people like those who were invited last in the messianic banquet.  It is not just or even morally sound to not notice the social ills and the poor in any faith community.  The story was also written to Theophilus who was a Roman official.  He would be a patron to Luke and the church.  He too would hold banquets.  Would his banquet include those outside of his privileged circle?

When reading this story, if HK upper class church leaders and rich Christian politicians who pronounce “peace, peace” when the chief executive clearly stated this week that those who made low income had less rights, then pages of Luke 14 need to be torn out of their lectionaries and their Bibles because that would be the only way we can say that the HK society is “prosperous” and “just”.  Jesus wouldn’t have said the same thing. True prosperity is to allow the earthly faith community to reflect the value system of the messianic banquet. Anyone denouncing the effort to fight for the (democratic) rights of the poor is immoral and anti-Christian.  Instead of all the popular cheap unity many Christian leaders are calling for right now in HK, I propose that we don’t unite with such false gospel preachers.  Instead, we need to call leaders into account for supporting the system and the (Christian) politicians.  This is no time for cheap unity.  This is the time for a clear division for the blatantly right and wrong value systems.  Think about that!

We’re All Complicit, Evangelicals!: Extending grace to Pastor Mark while not learning from the past

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Brothers [and sisters], if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.  Galatians 6.1 (NIV)

I’ve been preoccupied by Hong Kong, and finally get around to putting fingers to keyboard about matters closer to home.  These last weeks mark a new life for Pastor Mark Driscoll who made a surprising appearance at a Christian conference as a listener and not as a speaker.  Nevertheless, the conference put Pastor Mark on the spot and asked him to come up to say a few words.  Pastor Mark had endured a fiery trial by the press and by many who felt that he had wronged him.  Some had even gone to the extreme of stalking him or threatening his life.  What struck me was not Pastor Mark’s story. What struck me about the video of his introduction is the way the presenter introduced Pastor Mark.  When the presenter described Pastor Mark’s request to attend the conference, he said at 54 seconds into the video, “I thought that was very big of him to just come and be ministered to.”

 

This verse in Galatians 6.1 is part of the passage on life in the Spirit in Galatians 5-6.  Usually, we think in terms of its legalistic application in the church. However, I say that this passage is not merely some kind of formulaic steps 1, 2 and 3 to restore someone.  Its concern is much broader.  The subsequent verses talk about arrogance and how that was detrimental to both the church and her individual members.  The previous passage talks about the importance of the Spirit in maintaining in a healthy Body of Christ.  The passage is really not about restoration only. It is about the Body of Christ and how it handles such cases of bitter bickering and moral issues.

 

How does Paul’s writing apply to what the presenter just said?  Before I answer that, let me be clear to say that I feel bad that Pastor Mark has to face extreme measures against him.  I disagree with a lot of his teachings and a lot of what he did.  People using extreme measures to punish him are also very unchristian.  I would however want to say that we must also be mindful of those victims whom he had hurt in the past and lend them a listening ear instead of brushing them off as liars as the presenter who also said after 54 seconds into the video, “Everything you read on the internet is not true”.  That’s just using a straw man cliche to brush off the voice of the victims.  I can’t even believe he got loads of applause for that remark. Let me answer my own question now. How does Galatians 5-6 apply to the present situation?
If Paul was not talking about individuals doing this or that only but had a ecclesiastical framework, the passage points out a clear flaw in what the presenter said.  In saying that Pastor Mark is so generous to be ministered to, he’s making him a rank above the Body of Christ.  He’s saying that some people are above being ministered to.  They’re too good and too famous to be ministered to.  This is precisely the problem that caused Pastor Mark to fall to begin with.  In fact, Pastor Mark pointed out this problem in his humble little speech in the video.  Evangelical celebrity culture created Pastor Mark.  The evangelical culture is complicit.  By further pointing out that everything on the internet being untrue (a true statement in and of itself), this presenter effectively brushed aside criticisms simply because they’re on internet.  Evangelicalism enables Pastor Mark by making him above criticism. That’s why we’re in this place right now.

In this blog, I’m more critical of the presenter than Pastor Mark because his kind of horrible rhetoric and mentality precisely enable Pastor Mark to reach the depth to which he fell.  Evangelicalism is full of such mentality of cheap grace and celebrity worship.  Even after the celebrity has stepped down, the worship continues. Why does Pastor Mark all of a sudden become mighty big to be ministered to? Try telling your congregation member who quietly serves every week, who sits through good and bad sermons in the pew, and who tithes regularly without asking for recognition the same thing, “It’s mighty big that you come to church to be ministered to.”  NO ONE is mighty big in God’s eyes.  NO ONE is above the Body of Christ!  Somehow our spiritual age and celebrity status allows us to remove ourselves from God’s grace and rise above the Body of Christ. We need grace from the first day until the day we die.  There’re no exceptions.  Not even Pastor Mark is exempt from grace.  Not even Pastor Mark is above accountability to the Body.

 

When Paul said, “Watch yourself, or you also may be tempted,” he meant for the congregation to learn from the historical lessons from the fall. I hope we all learn something because the problem is much bigger than Mark Driscoll.

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

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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

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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?

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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.

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