The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: 1 Corinthians 6.12-20 and the believer’s “body”

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I’m now blogging about chapter sixteen of my book.  This is an interesting portion of Paul’s fiery letter to the Corinthians.  The two most quoted verses are 1 Cor. 6.15 and 6.19.

When I was young, I frequently hear these verses being quoted to me by well-meaning preachers and counselors who were trying to keep kids off cigarettes, drinks and drugs, or worse yet, tattoos.  The logic usually goes something like this.  If you don’t respect your body by taking care of it, you’re really not honoring God.  After all, the Spirit lives in that body of yours.  It all sounds good until we examine the verses.  As I grow older, I hear such verses to be quoted as evidence for the “indwelling of the Spirit” in a believer’s life.  The way that doctrine is explained sounds superstitious and mythological.  By then, these explanations no longer even sound good.

It is important to look at a larger context of Paul’s argument first.  Paul was not talking about drinking and smoking.  He was talking about people in the church going to prostitutes (or a singular prostitute).  He was talking about a more serious moral issue than what we think.

The verses also have a translation problem we should pay attention to.  This is where the limitation of English translation shows.

Paul curiously mixed his plurals and singulars in the two verses to form some unique concepts.  Let me point your attention to Paul’s construct.

For 1 Cor. 6.15, the translation can look something like this.

“Do you know that your bodies (plural) IS members (plural) of Christ himself?”

For 1 Cor. 6.19, the translation looks something like this.

“Do you (plural) not know that your (plural) body (singular) is a temple (singular) of the Holy Spirit, who is in you (plural), whom you (plural) have received from God?”

What we can see is that the first instance is talking about the bodies of believers but in relation to the greater church itself.   The second instance shows the singular Body of Christ and how each believer is related to it.  The Spirit then dwells within the Body not bodies.  Obviously, there are many more important concepts, applications and implications in these verses but you’ll have to read my book.  The important thing to take away from this is not just the popular meaning is misleading but that the seminary Greek class your pastors (and if you’re a minister, you) have taken need to come into use when understanding the meaning of scriptural passages instead of settling for the popular meanings because the popular meanings are frequently wrong.

By applying these verses out of context and out of their construct, we actually trivialize the seriousness of Paul’s admonition.  While I do not advocate drinking or smoking necessary, we should talk about some real sin that the Bible talks about rather than some imaginary hang-ups of modern fundamentalist Christians.

As I always say, the texts are not at fault

Paul Walker, Nelson Mandela and Doing Some Good

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The end of November and the beginning of December fill our newsfeed with bad news.  Topping the list would be the deaths of Paul Walker, the forty-year-old movie star of Fast and Furious and South African activist leader Nelson Mandela.

Soon enough, all the typical Facebook memes come out (see above).  These tiresome memes repeat themselves whenever some famous person dies.  The memes typically have the following logic.

1) An actor dies and everyone mourns.  Lots of starving children die and no one cares.

2) An actor dies and everyone mourns, but no one cares about someone more important like Nelson Mandela.

3) An actor dies and everyone mourns. So what? We all die sometime.

On the surface, all these memes make sense and appeal to the sense of justice in all of us, but in reality, they actually appeal to our sense of self-righteousness.  Remember, self-righteousness is not limited to religious people only. I’ve seen plenty of such self-righteous atheists in the mix also.  First and foremost, I think it’s immoral to moralize over dead people even before their bodies cool.  I have already addressed this issue of moralizing over someone’s funeral in a different post.  Besides the timing, I think we would do well to honor the dead for what they’ve accomplished and how their good work continues to inspire further good work.  In this blog, I’m going to decry moralizing logic typically suggested by the above list.

For those who care more about the starving children in Africa, I wonder if they realize that Walker was trying to do some good when his friend crashed the car.  He was trying to raise money for typhoon relief in the Philippines.  People mourn about Walker because they know about him.  The dichotomy of the mourning ritual shows that somehow mourning over the starving children is more righteous than mourning a celebrity who tries to do some good.  I admit that I’ve (sadly) never been aware of Walker’s charity work until he died.  When I combed through his website, I can see that he’s involved in many charities from helping Chile to Haiti to many other worthy causes.  Our society has come to the place where it can freely point its finger at the rich and say, “I expect you to give.”  While we may expect the rich to be “better people”, I have news for you.  They don’t have to be better people. People are people, whether they are rich or poor.  People are imperfect, with some being more imperfect than others.  None of us is exempt from imperfection.  At the same time, as people on the same imperfect footing, rich or poor, every life is precious.  We should not put a false dichotomy between the death of Walker and the starving children.

One thing bothers me a bit more.  It’s the comparison between Walker and Mandela.  We like to either idealize our idols or disparage both.  I propose that most of us do not have first-hand contact with these two men.  Even if we did, we probably didn’t become close friends to them. The real Walker or Mandela is a lot more complex than these plastic placards we put up.  However, before we point finger, we ought to check their public record.  At least, their public record tells part of the story.  I propose that we reserve the judgmental attitude for another day, especially for ourselves and not for others.  We just don’t know the real historical Walker or Mandela.  As such, I think we should celebrate the bit of good they did. Comparison drawn between Walker and Mandela is a moot point.  Walker was not born in South Africa.  There’s no way he could have done what Mandela did.  Neither was Mandela born in the US.  The two men did their lot in life to make a difference in this world. I think that should be our focus.

The more important point though is whether publicity for doing good is as important as many of such memes seem to indicate.  Sure, there’re loads of people who are unknown but are doing a lot of good.  This should not prevent us from celebrating the good work both men did.  So what if those others who are doing good are not known.  It is not the fault of Walker.  Who says good works should always be “up-worthy”?  Who says fame is the ultimate reward or expression of good works?  I think our value has become more and more influenced  by the publicity machine in the media that somehow we think that we’re all competing for the spotlight while doing good.  In reality, doing some good is already enough.  Publicity is an afterthought and a possible byproduct but certainly not an expectation for doing good.

The bottom line is this.  Famous people are not better or worse. They’re just famous, but if they have done a lot of good like either Walker or Mandela, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating their lives.  Since life is precious, I don’t think it is a requirement for the deceased to do a huge amount of good in order for someone to care.  We certainly don’t yell, “So what? Everyone dies!” at funerals.  That goes for both Walker-Mandela or the starving children.  Death is not the place to make self-righteous judgment against others.  Th real question is whether each of us is doing our lot in making this world a better place.  Walker did his part.  So did Mandela.  What are we doing for the starving children? What are we doing for the injustices of this world?  Those are the questions we should be asking instead of making impossible comparisons.

St. Paul was right when he wrote, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  The best way to honor the good works of these two famous people is to follow St. Paul’s biblical advice.

Experiencing the Post-Apartheid South Africa

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December 5, 2013 is the fateful day the great man Nelson Mandela died at the ripe old age of 95.  He had been labeled a terrorist by politicians and a liberal by the Religious Right.  I’m sure the historical Mandela was much more complicated than a few simple labels.  Having never met him, I can only share what I’ve experienced in my short trip to the post-Apartheid South Africa.

It was March 12, 2006.  Sitting in my uncomfortable airplane seat with my business suit on, I was flying my 3rd and final leg of my trip to University of the Free State, Bloemfonteine, South Africa.  “Are you Dr. Sam Tsang?” a voice came with a tap on my shoulder.  Standing over me was a very tall European young man, dressed in business casual.  I wasn’t sure how he knew how I looked like.  His name is Mika Hietanen.  He said, “Professor Johan Vos from the University of Amsterdam is sitting with me in the back. Nice to meet you.”  After flying over two days, I felt strangely happy from this unlikely meeting with co-presenters from Europe whom I’ve never met.  The department head of the university religion department had invited us from all over the world to present our findings on Galatians.  I was the lone American.  For the next two days, we would go through every nook and cranny of Galatians from every conceivable angle.  This was the year I published my dissertation From Slaves to Sons.  I was going to enjoy this small gathering of colleagues whose obsession was singularly on Paul’s rhetoric to the Galatians.  What I did not expect was my experience with the real South Africa.

In our forum on Paul, we spoke before an audience of very few blacks.  None of the blacks I met were from South Africa.  I began to inquire why this was the case.  A few of the professors told me that not many South African blacks were educated enough to study for a graduate degree in divinity.  I’m unsure whether this is still the case, but during the time I was there, I met grad students from Korea and quite a number of white students but not many blacks.  During my short interaction with all the local professors, I did not sense any racism. In fact, many of them wanted to help the blacks get into their departments, but sadly there had to minimum requirement to get into a graduate religious program (or any program).

During our two days of discussions, the university facility impressed me.  The lecture hall had every modern equipment and the places where we had lunch were magnificent.    The entire university campus reminded me of some of the prettiest university grounds here in the US or in Europe.  The colonists (both British and Dutch) had created a little slice of Europe in the middle of South Africa.  Yet, when we ventured out in the township after the conference, things looked very different.  As we toured the city, a few of my European colleagues wanted to go “downtown” to get some coffee at the cafes. At least that was what they did in the Copenhagen or Oslo.  Our Afrikaner host suggested that getting off our van would be a very bad idea.  The Europeans could not believe it until we drove near that “downtown”.  When asked whether they wanted coffee, all of them shook their heads.  The poor blacks in that area stared at us as we passed, telling us with their eyes, “You aren’t welcome here”.

After safari sightseeing and tasting all the best of South African cuisine (all generously paid for by the university), my little academic holiday had to end.  This is where I really got the taste of post-Apartheid South Africa.  After I got off the taxi at the airport, I started searching for my passport.  It was nowhere to be found.  I could feel my heart racing and my face turning red as sweat started dripping down my face. In the midst of a mild panic, I tried to figure out what to do.  After all, I was in a foreign country with limited currency and no cell phone to any of the local numbers.  The most logical solution was to borrow the airline’s phone to call the hotel.  The airline was not helpful at all.  In fact, they took their time letting me use my phone, even after I explained my emergency with them.  Of course, all the people at the airline office were blacks.  Finally, I found my passport and it was not in the hotel.  I had it misplaced somewhere else.

At this point, I was already a little bit late.  When I checked my baggage in, the counter service person was extra slow with mine.  I was starting to lose my patience because I didn’t want to miss my flight.  After all, I still had two more legs in the flight to catch. If I were to miss this flight, my other connections would be lost as well.  As a bold American, I finally spoke up to the service person, “Can you please hurry up a bit because I’m running late.”  She politely replied, “Mr. Tsang,  you aren’t going to be late.  I’m moving as fast as I can.”  Well, she wasn’t and the seconds were ticking away into minutes.  To make a long story short, I did barely make it by the skin of my teeth.

This entire episode was puzzling because the service to the local blacks was very efficient and fast.  Only I was getting the “special treatment”.  Upon further inquiry, the local blacks would consider me a white man.  I’m quite used to being the “model minority” in the US but a minority nevertheless.  In apartheid South Africa, the situation was more peculiar.  There were basically three classes of people: the whites, the browns and the blacks.  Yellow-skinned Asians like Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Koreans belonged to the whites.  The brown skin would be the South Asians like Indians and Pakistanis.  The classes were not allowed to marry one another which explained partially why there were so many unmarried interracial couples living together.  Just because the place has abandoned apartheid, the shadow and damage of apartheid is not yet eradicated.  When I found out about the situation, I was much more sympathetic towards the flight of the blacks.  I didn’t realize that I was an unintentional participant in this racial drama.  I didn’t know that although I didn’t occupy a privileged position back in the US, I represented power and privilege to the local South African blacks.  My problem of catching a plane paled compared to what they had to go through in their township and relationships.  There is still work to be done.  Racial reconciliation takes time.

Many of us in the West are under the false impression that everything would be fine after the abandonment of apartheid.  This is far from the truth.  Wounds of colonialism and racist policies have consequences.  Things do not get better overnight, even evident in my own experience in South Africa.  The speech of the university chancellor, himself a South African black, still rings in my head.  He told us to share with our home country that South Africa still has many needs, ranging from AIDS, racial problems, and the lack of education among the poor.  I’m also reminded of the lesson Nelson Mandela taught, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love because love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  If I knew what I know today when I was in the South African airport, I think I would feel differently.  Lessons on race and love take time and an open mind, not only from the side of the underprivileged but also from the privileged.  May the spirit of Mandela live on.

My Thoughts to My Seminary Graduates: Fame, Fortune and Anti-Shepherding

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“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.”  1 Timothy 5.17

Yesterday was the graduation of the class of 2013 for Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary.  This is a special class because it’s the only class I’ve taught from the beginning of their seminary, from beginning biblical criticism to advanced preaching.  If I were to give a graduation speech to them, this is what I would’ve said.

I have noticed a phenomenon of our generation of pastors.  Ministry has become the platform for big business.  Of course, this does not apply everyone but some of the most influential and successful pastors are platform builders.  Imagine this conversation.

Elder of the church: So, the expense on this other trip that piggybacks off a church conference  should not be billed to the church.

Pastor: But I was promoting our church, and this is kingdom work.

Elder: But you were networking.  We’re going to deny your expense request.

Yes, this kind of conversation actually happens more often than you imagine.

Let me put the matter in less spiritual terms.  Fame and networking are two main causes of church growth for many churches. Once a church gets to a certain size, the pastor will gain some fame. In order to have a bigger church, he has to network with other “associations” not only for resources but also contacts in order to look good AND get bigger.  Soon enough, his new-found network of “friends” will begin inviting him to speak.  Very soon, his schedule will fill up with podcasts, interviews, Youtube informercials, and other promotions.  Finally, he’ll get to write his own book.  In order to promote that book, he’ll need to build bigger network, complete with publicists and agents.  Yes, that’s how the game is played.  Obviously, it is more fun and glamorous to stay in fancy hotels, sign books, talk to adoring fans, have audiences hang on to your every word whether the word is heretical or offensive and get paid for all that than to visit dying cancer patients or counseling couples whose marriages are on the rocks.  Many of my students see this.  Many secretly admire this.  Some of them even articulate openly that they WANT this.  A few shamelessly lust after this.  They will also play the game.

Now, all of us only have 7 days and 24 hours.  Most of us have families.  Adding church responsibilities, something has to give.  Many big church pastors no longer manage or pastor their own churches. Instead, they’re mostly on the road during the week to speak to all the people in their network.  The world becomes their parish. After all, if the associates can pastor the church, why does the lead pastor have to?  Well, the answer is simple.  It is because that’s what the pastor is hired to do, to pastor.

Imagine C. Ronaldo the soccer star giving clinics and shooting commercials.  Imagine if he gets paid so much that he just flies around all week without practicing with Real Madrid.  Since he’s so good, he can just play on Sunday with no practice or conditioning during the week. I don’t think his manager will approve.  See? This is the stranger thing about religion. Whatever that is not acceptable in the professional world can still find its place among the religion’s biggest stars because big business is good business.  I call this the anti-shepherding model.

If anyone wants to do the speaking circuit and networking platform thing, I would advice him or her to quit the pastoral work and go full-time speaking (like me) so that neither the family nor the church suffers from the absentee leader.  However, the risk is big because without the full-time salary of the church and the fancy title, the freelance person might be left naked with no cool business cards.  I would hope none of my students ever aspire to be that kind of minister because the author of 2 Timothy clearly advised, “No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2.4-5) The pleasure of the commanding officer and the rules involve caring for the flock and prioritizing the management of one’s family.  You can’t pastor the world and everyone else’s family.  You can however pastor your local church and manage your own family.

When the business side of ministry takes over, less and less real ministry will get done.  Soon enough, ministry will be ALL business.  Then, ministry is dead!

Lifeway’s Apology for Rickshaw Rally by CEO Thom Rainer.

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Thom Rainer, the CEO of Lifeway apologizes for the offensive Rickshaw Rally published some ten years ago.  None of the thoughtful Christian would think of Rainer as weak. In fact, it takes a lot of guts and maturity to do this.  We salute him and his organization for doing something towards racial reconciliation.  Good testimony does not come from denying one’s fault or qualified non-apologetic apologies or worse yet, coverup of one’s problem to save face.  Rainer demonstrates how the Body of Christ is supposed to function.  This is what good testimony looks like.

http://vimeo.com/78735039

Even back in March, Rainer was already thinking about apologies for Christians and how the ethics of apology can help bring harmony to the church.  See his earlier post here.  At the end of the day, you either believe or deny our oneness in the Body, not just by doctrine or exegesis but by praxis.

Book Announcement along with Free Online Lectures

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This book has come out in the summer, but I’ve waited to announce its publication because all the youtube clips done in Hong Kong All Saints Cathedral have not come out yet.  The free lecture below will help you extend your understanding of how this book address contemporary problems in Chinese churches, especially relating to their worship of numerical growth and secular success.  Of course, I’m not saying that numerical growth is bad. I’m just suggesting that there’s something in 1 Tim and Titus that rank above our pragmatic worldview.  In the lecture, I’ll talk about the subversiveness of 1 Tim and Titus in the imperial context and the difficulty Timothy had to face when he redressed sicknesses in the church.  For my English readers, I apologize that only Cantonese speakers can understand the lectures.  If you wish for me to address your church on this issue, feel free to contact me through my personal website or Facebook.  Enjoy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiV4h4ZT1WA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9sq-LOiR6Q

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCK-vIpVNt8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrQxbI1fReg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4_Qv8B9X5s

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjYAp6Lmsq4

One last thing … Here’s my friend’s blog if you read Chinese.  He’s the president of Singapore Baptist Theological Seminary.  He is already well-known in Hong Kong and many parts of Asia.

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Romans 8.28 and When Nothing Works Out

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I’m now blogging about chapter fourteen of my book.  We now enter into the second part of my book.  The first part was devoted to narratives, and the second part is devoted to letters.

Whenever something tragic happens, someone would inevitably quote Rom. 8.28 as part of life’s answers.  Whatever tragedy it is, somehow this is the magical verse that solves all problems.  The problem with such an approach is that our experiences tell us that not everything works out at all.  How do you say that verse to a mother who just lost a child in a tragic accident or someone who was just raped or someone whose child had committed suicide?  Such situations are no joking matter.  A loose quotation from Holy Scripture in such a time sounds more like a slap in the face than faithful assurance.

Our interpretive solution should follow these steps.  First, we have to look at the function of Rom. 8.28 within Rom. 8.  I guarantee you that it has nothing to do with life’s tragedies simply because none of such tragedies were the focal point of the passage.  Sure, Paul did talk about the possible difficulties Christian might experience that might be related to becoming Christians (e.g. Rom. 8.35).  He was not talking about general problems in all things.

Second, we have to look at Rom. 8 as part of the argument in Rom. 7 where Paul talked about the life under the law in contrast with Rom. 8 where Paul talked about the life in the Spirit.  How would Rom. 8.28 fit within that framework?

Third, we have to look at how Rom. 7-8 fits within the whole book of Romans.  If we were to nail down what Rom. 8.28 meant or did not mean, we have to understand the role of Rom. 7-8 not as one essay but as part of the essay that precedes Rom. 9-11 and as a follow-up to Rom. 1-6.

Fourth, clearly, when Paul first wrote Romans, he intended his letter to be read in light of his missionary situation. In his relational discussion with his readers, he made it clear that he wanted to see them (Rom. 1.11; 15.23-29).  How would the verse Rom. 8.28 fit into THAT?

In summary, in order for our meaning of Rom. 8.28 to be valid, it must answer the following questions.  First, how does it fit with Rom. 8?  Second, how does it fit within Rom. 7-8?  Third, how does it fit with Rom. 7-8 in light of Rom. 1-6 and 9-11? Fourth and finally, how would such a statement, after answering all the above questions fit Paul’s missionary purpose?  So, before you quote a verse to speak into someone’s life, please check on these questions.  Careless quotations can cause more harm than good. The problem then is not the lack of faith in God’s word (i.e. Rom. 8.28) but the abuse of it.

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

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: John 10.1-21 and the Good Shepherd

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I’m blogging about chapter 13 of my book.  The chapter talks about the good shepherd, but the puzzling part of the whole construct is that it does not start with the good shepherd.  In fact, John 10.1 starts off with the bad shepherd.  This is a strange way to start a discourse.  Many people would consider this discourse a parable, but the problem with such consideration is that there are a lot of allegorical elements in the discourse. Jesus clearly identifies himself as the gate and the shepherd.  The discourse has no story plot like a parable.  So, we have just identified one problem of this discourse.

Another problem this discourse has is the continuation of the same theme on a different occasion which John connected seamlessly to a different occasion, the Feast of Dedication in John 10.22.  Why is the Feast of Dedication, what we call Hanukkah, appear here other than giving us a timeframe for understanding when some of this was spoken.  John 10 is clearly on a different occasion than just the Feast of Dedication (cf. John 9.14).  The real problem is this.  When did the story begin? Did it begin at John 10.1 or before?  IF it begins before, what is the story addressing exactly?

One more problem challenges us in reading the Good Shepherd Discourse, in reading the Greek, we will find that wording of John 10.11, 15, 17, 18 parallel with 13.4, 12. This involves the wider scope of where this discourse fits with the entire Gospel.

How would we solve these issues?  First, we must look at what the immediate context addresses.  In fact, where the immediate context begins is important.  Second, we must look at the role of the discourse not only in the immediate context but also wider scope.  Then, we may consider what this discourse is really about.   We shall find out that it is much more than a model for the pastorate office.

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

The Making of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings: Luke 21.1-4 and the Widow’s Coin

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I’m blogging about chapter 12 of my book today.  This ranks among the commonest abused passage of ALL TIME.

This passage is the favorite passage when preachers want to preach about giving to the church or the poor being generous (thus guilt-tripping us all into giving since we’re soooooo rich).  The popular interpretation goes something like this.  Jesus compared the poor widow’s giving to that of the rich.  Jesus commended her (so it seems) for her generosity because giving, after all, is about percentage.  See?  Have you not heard this before?  If you’re looking for a good guilt trip for your stingy congregation, I’ve just constructed your Sunday sermon for you.  The problem is, this is the WRONG interpretation.  If you think this is the right interpretation, you  need to think a lot harder.  If you wish to use this as your giving sermon, don’t!  Jesus could be saying the very opposite.  I believe Jesus’ message is really this: don’t give to a temple that is about to fall.  The poor widow did so generously and wastefully.

There are some presuppositions that lead to the erroneous traditional interpretation.  First, some presuppose that Jesus’ comments were complimentary when, in fact, Jesus was merely making an observation about the percentage of her giving without saying, “Go and do likewise, my disciples.”  Second, and this is a more insidious presupposition, some insist that one can isolate Luke 21.1-4 apart from what precedes and what follows.  We must notice that the disciples didn’t respond by saying, “Lord, teach us to give more.” Instead, they pointed out the temple building to which Jesus also referred in the previous passages.  If the disciples got a different response than what WE expect in our modern day interpretation, we should be quite alert to why they’re talking about the temple still.

What is the key to finding the answer?  This is the lesson for my readers.  You need to look at the context before and after in Luke in order to determine whether this is about giving.  There is exactly NOTHING in the context before and after about giving. Everything surrounding the story, IN THE SAME OCCASION, talks about the temple!  Why would Jesus all of a sudden teach about giving?  Thereafter, the teaching continues about the temple destruction.  This is why I insist that I’m correct to read this “giving” story in the light of the temple.  We can’t isolate the story because Jesus had not finished teaching and the entire content of his teaching is about the temple.

If you insist on preaching about giving with this passage, knock yourself out.  Just don’t say that your preaching is biblical.

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

The Making of Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories: Reading Matthew 20.1-16 in Light of the Unemployed Alien and Occupy

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I’ve been preoccupied with the Asian American racial issues lately.  Soon enough, I’ll go back to blogging about chapters in my new book, Right Texts, Wrong Meanings.  Meanwhile, my newest book Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories actually has something to say about some of the social issues.  This brings us to the parable by Matthew in Matthew 20.1-16.

First of all, the parable does not directly relate to the issue of being the “other.”  However, the story has an emphasis that implicates how we look at all those who are migrant workers or any “other” in our society.  It can also speak to the current Occupy Central debate in Hong Kong.  Since my work straddles both Hong Kong and North America, this blog is a bicultural exegesis on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 20.1-16.

Let me go through the simple meaning of this story before I point out Jesus’ emphasis.  If you’re interested, go find the book and read it.  The details are important, but let me point out some impossible meanings.

First, it is impossible to infer that the parable is an allegory about God’s sovereignty, at least not directly.  We must note that Jesus said that the entire story is like the kingdom.  He didn’t just say, “The kingdom of heaven is like the landowner” in Matthew 20.1.

Second, it is not an ideal on how to employ someone, whether they have alien status or otherwise.

Now that we’ve gotten this out of the way, let’s see how this is related to migrant workers and the “other” in the society.

The entire story is puzzling unless we look at the first word in Matthew 20.1.  Jesus used “for” as part of the answer he had for Peter above in Matthew 19.27-30.  Unfortunately, we divided the passage in the wrong place.  Jesus wasn’t finished yet and we’ve already cut him off and changed his topic.

Clearly the story is related to Jesus’ answer to Peter.  If we look at Matthew 19.30 and 20.16, we will note their similarities.  The entire narrative in Matthew 20.1-17 is an illustrative conclusion as a moral lesson to Peter and Jesus’ disciples.

In Matthew 19.27, Peter proudly asserted, “Look what I’ve done for the kingdom. I left everything. What’s in it for me?”  Jesus first told Peter and the disciples that God would indeed recognize the sacrifice, but then Jesus turned to the parable.  The parable is about poverty and desperation.  One repeated theme in Matthew 20.3-6 is “standing”.  I believe Jesus wanted to emphasize “standing” by repeating that theme.  Like many migrant workers here in the US, these people were standing around looking for work! Their poverty was the reason why they would accept work for any wage. Only after people got paid, discontent arose.  The power was in the owner’s hand.  Jesus wanted Peter to identify himself with the powerless to see his own powerlessness in the story.

In the US society, immigration problem is nothing new.  Even many “white” groups (I prefer using nationality and not skin color as labels, but I’m just trying to make a point and raise awareness here) from different nations also experienced the problem of being illegal immigrants and being the “other” (e.g. Italians, Irish Germans, Russians).  Even people of my own race (though my parents didn’t come over then), the Chinese who helped build the railroads were originally illegal immigrants.  We may even venture to say that many of the building activities in the US were originally built on the muscles of illegal migrant workers.  However we deal with the political part of the immigration issue, Jesus’ parable points to the importance of identifying with such migrant workers and the poor because any Christian person has to first understand powerlessness before receiving grace.  Many Christians think that grace is something we receive when we “accepted Jesus in our hearts” but Peter was already a believer.  Grace ought to master every part of our lives, and one practical way to do so is to identify with others who are powerless.

The debate in Hong Kong is heating up on Occupy Central.  Many used Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as a model of civil disobedience.  This analogy is problematic because it smacks of the logic of “IF Jesus did this, I must do this.”  Be sure of one thing.  Jesus never said, “Do this cleansing also in remembrance of me.”  Neither did he say that the temple cleansing is a kind of model for civil disobedience.  In fact, the main thrust of the event has something to do with the temple being his “father’s house.” In other words, the Gospel writers made the temple-cleansing story into a statement of Christology.  I think we should not use this temple cleansing as primarily an ethical model.

My complaint about a lot of contemporary evangelical exegesis is always the same.  We tend to pick and choose what we want out of biblical narratives and make those OUR applications.  Our ethics are more by imitation rather than implication.  Yet, due to the big ugly ditch between the ancient and modern context, ALL of our ethics should be by implication.  I suggest that in a roundabout way, the ethical implication of this soteriological parable points the way for those who debate Occupy.  It is not merely about whether we can woodenly apply Romans 13. Rather, it is about kingdom value.  Do we identify with the powerless people or not?  That is really the main issue.

Whatever part of the spectrum you stand on, Jesus first advocate a lifestyle of grace and this demands that we do not take our blessing for granted.  Jesus also advocates that Peter and those like him identify with those who were merely standing around.  This means that the kingdom value identifies with those who are powerless.  It is in our powerlessness that God has offered the salvation. It is also our duty to identify the powerless and work for their welfare.  Quite often, that takes humility which Peter temporarily lacked.

The reading of Matthew 20 in light of the “other” is not really a new exegesis or suggestion, but I want to remind my readers that such an exegesis is actually possible just looking at the “plain meaning of the text.”

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