An Introduction to a Conversation with Short Stories by Jesus

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I like to start a series of blog posts to interact with Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus.[1] I do this as a part of the preparation to go to Hong Kong’s Faith in Practice Lectureship in HK Baptist University this year. I hope my readers can benefit from my own reflections. These reflections are contextualized to our time both in the US and in Asia, the two realms of my work. In addition, this reflection also allows me to unpack for my readers (both English and Chinese) of the book Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories what some of the presuppositions and limitations are in reading Jesus’ parables.[2] The Chinese version of Right Kingdom will debut in the Faith in Practice Lectureship as well. My blog posts will prepare my readers to see where I’m coming from. These blog posts will hopefully demonstrate the relevance of reading Jesus’ parables. Levines’s excellent book will become my conversation partner. I hope my readers will also enjoy reading her work to see a Jewish point of view in reading Jesus.   I feel that in doing this, we can have a much more meaningful conversation during the Q and A time of the lecture series in those few days. I’m very much looking forward to meeting all my listeners and readers when I finally arrive. I hope everyone is ready to edify each other in our conversation. Although I’m coming as an invited speaker, I also hope to learn from my readers and listeners when I arrive.

 

The introduction of Levine’s work points to the usual domestication of Jesus’ parable by churches. She points out that parable as a genre fits very well within Israel’s history. They’re part of Israel’s writings (2 Sam 12.1-7). Jesus’ choice of using parables wasn’t unusual. It would fit the norm of his time. Yet, she points out that Jesus’ parables have historical contexts. Today, the risk of the church is to interpret the parables without that context, thus domesticating the parables. Some of the fallouts include anti-Semitism. How often do we hear that Pharisees were bad guys? Levine’s concern is real and ethical.

 

When interpreting parables, I think Levine is right on the money as far as reading them in contextual perspectives. I think it’s also important to understand whom Jesus was speaking to and speaking against. Quite often, we only get information but what we do with the information determines the result we reap. For instance, a Sunday school teacher may say, “The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism that … , and they were always Jesus’ opponents. The Jews respected them. Yet, they’re the bad guys.” These statements above are as straightforward as they’re popular. History however was more complicated.

 

We normally read parables into our own context immediately when we do Bible study, but Levine suggests rightly that we need to view parables from cultural lens to understand what they meant.

 

My reflection besides agreeing with Levine’s concern is that methodologically we really need a polyphonic reading of parables. There’re many possible voices and narratives Jesus could use in telling the parables. To gain historical insight, we don’t only need to know the background of Pharisees, we also need to understand why Jesus talked to the Pharisees and why the Gospel writers used Pharisees to inform their readers about how they should live their faith. In other words, in order to see what Jesus was doing with the parables and what the Gospel authors were doing with the parables, we must understand both Jesus’ audience and original audience.

 

Another simpler issue we need to reflect on is the way we look at Scriptures. We normally think of Scriptures as “the word of God.” Based on just this model of parables, we must say that Scriptures shouldn’t only be considered “the word of God” but the channel of the biblical author through which “God” speaks. The simple and traditional model of the Scriptures in all their plain sense are the word of God is oversimplification that doesn’t reflect reality. In fact, even confession to and adherence to that doctrine of “the word of God” does nothing in the interpretive process. If we understand Scriptures as the “message of God”, then we’re getting somewhere. When a message is delivered, the messenger is “doing something” with the words. The messenger isn’t just saying that the message is the sum of the words. The message goes beyond the sum of the words. This has nothing to do with me not having faith in the Bible. This has everything to do with how the Bible functions and how WE use the Bible. This leads to my next point.

 

 

I’ve heard from more than one colleague that the only difference between ISIS and fundamentalist Christianity that professes its Scripture being the word of God is by degree and method but not in mentality. Whether we think such a saying is overstatement, I think it has huge merit. What I’m saying is, what we do with the Bible matters. Interpretation is ethical, evident in the way interpretation happened during the HK Umbrella Movement. The same thing happens in immigration reform debates or gun ownership in the US. All this has to do with our view of Scripture, whether this Scripture is the Quran or the Bible. We must think about this when reading Jesus’ parable or we’ll “domesticate” them. Levine’s concerns are real.

[1] Short Stories by Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 2014).

[2] Right Kingdom, Wrong Stories (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013)

“Relativism” as Resistance from the Margin?

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“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.” 1 Corinthians 2.3

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about liberation theology. Soon, I’m beginning to discover that what I’ve been told by many evangelicals about liberation theology (i.e. overly realized eschatology, liberal etc.) is simply wrong. I’ve read all the books and knew all the names, but it never hit me quite so hard until I place myself in the situation of Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. Being back in Hong Kong also helps.

 

Many who look at liberation theology or any other theology that is different from their own, the quick knee-jerk reaction is that relativism has finally conquered the Christian world. Alarm bells go off. Is this true though?

 

I suggest otherwise. I suggest that we take another look at the way we approach truth.  The insistence on a singular truth is a rhetorical move of the powerful. It hasn’t always been the case in the Bible, but in modern times, it’s quite the popular move.  The sooner we learn this, the better off we are. The sooner we get over ourselves, the better we can work together, both the powerful and the powerless. Yet, in the real world, power corrupts. It’s hard to give it up because we’ve worked so hard to earn it. We’ve worked so hard by speaking and writing about our point of view. It’s hard to be told that there’re other equally valid and valuable points of view.

 

As I read, I discover that the charge of “relativism” is a straw man and a scapegoat for those who are afraid of losing their version or narrative of “truth.” The louder the people from the margin cry out, the harder the resistance from the powerful to change. What many evangelicals perceive as relativism is nothing more than resistance from the margin. What average evangelicals do not realize is that most of the New Testament was written from the margin. When we neglect this marginality either deliberately or inadvertently, we completely skew our view of God and His work.

 

Relativism practiced by those in the margin merely challenges the status quo to open up the system just a bit to accommodate different points of view. The next generation, especially those in the trenches of oppression and liberation, is asking for an open system instead of a closed system, a healthy pluralism instead of blind singularity.  Avoidance of the real issue is not the answer. Denouncement and pontification are certainly not the answer. The real TRUTH is out there. Little “truth” may be discovered among us in community, from both ends of the power spectrum but especially from the margin. If that little “truth” is to be discovered, dialogue needs to open up, but it’s hard to give up power. Sometimes the blind spots are not killing us; sometimes our love for power murders our conscience.  We’ll be doing the very opposite as Paul’s mission.

 

When our conscience dies a painful death, so will our faith and mission.

The Cheap Mask of Good Works and Conversion: Mark Wahlberg and Other Badly Behaved Celebs

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Luke 19:1-10New International Version (NIV)

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Recently, Mark Wahlberg, the famous actor, has asked for a pardon for a hate crime he committed years ago as a kid. I enjoy a lot of Wahlberg’s movies, and unlike many who really dislike his action, I’m not about to boycott all his movies, but his case does bring up some interesting ethical problem.

 

Reaction comes from the extreme of either saying that Walberg doesn’t deserve any pardon or he deserves a second chance. Then, there’re the reactions in between. According to Wahlberg in this article, he said that he has paid back society by doing good deeds like charities. Mary Belmonte, the white teacher who brought the students to the neighborhood beach that day, sees things differently. “I believe in forgiveness,” she said. “He was just a young kid — a punk — in the mean streets of Boston. He didn’t do it specifically because he was a bad kid. He was just a follower doing what the other kids were doing.”  Yet, one of his victims called for no pardon. Walberg used to chase her and her friends, pelted them with rocks and called them racist names. Some might question her for drudging up the past. Why not let bygone be bygone?

 

The answer is very simple. Good works do not always bring reconciliation. With every sin or crime against real victims, unless the perpetrator reaches out and makes reparation to victims, good works can’t hide past sin and they certainly do not redeem the sinner. Wahlberg and his supporters do not understand this simple truth.

 

According to the Asian American man who lost his eye in the racist attack, he has pardoned Walberg and he is to be commended for his generosity, but he also states that Wahlberg has never reached out to him. People like Belmonte, a WHITE teacher, do not help by saying that Wahlberg deserves forgiveness.  Says who?  Belmonte is WHITE; she’s never experienced a racist crime from another white man like Wahlberg.  To be honest, with people like Belmonte who just don’t get it, they’re allowing Wahlberg to dance around the issue. They’ve never earned the right to forgive because they’ve  never been a victim of Wahlberg.  If Wahlberg wants good will, perhaps taking financial steps to make reparation to his victims is the best way to earn some good will. Start with, “I’m sorry for your eye. Here’s a few million dollars from my stash of several other millions.”

 

Christians who behaved badly in their formerly lives also often hide behind their conversion, as if God’s grace is somehow a justification for their past wrong. I’ve seen this with some HK officials whose questionable ethics only match their zeal for “evangelism”, supposed after being reformed and of course not making any reparation towards their own mess. Some 70% of present and past HK high officials claim to be Christians according to one article.  Some of them even organize prayer events on the Day of Global Prayer with a heavily pro-government coloring.  One particular gentleman has been known to use questionable tactics to carry out more questionable government policies while always kissing up to China’s oppressive government.  The same gentleman who has studied for his diploma at Oxford while “seeking God’s will”  and who was a huge advocate for the oppressive government is now an “evangelist” who will spend his time “praying” for the government.  I would laugh if I thought he was telling a joke, but he wasn’t.  Perhaps he needs to pray over his own sins first and then make reparation by advocating for greater justice and less oppression.  Some abstract pie-in-the-sky prayer is not what we need because we’re living in the real world with real victims. If a Christian is truly justified, s/he then ought to understand that justification is based on a sense of justice. The justified should value justice more, not less. Free grace is not cheap grace. A changed life doesn’t equal to reparation. Neither does it necessarily bring real reconciliation.

 

So, pardon (excuse the pun) my cynicism (aka realism) on cheap grace and dirty pardons. My haters will call me a Pelagian or a heretic who doesn’t believe in the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith.  Someone ought to take a page out of Zacchaeus’ playbook in trying to define salvation based on that the way Jesus did.  Reparation is necessary to demonstrate a changed life.  Talk is cheap.  Pretentious good works to ease the uneasy conscience is cheaper.

Praying from “Above”: Reflections on Luke 18.9-14

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The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18.9-14

 

 

I continue to share my reflection from writing the Luke commentary here in relation to the Occupy movement in HK. As I browse the web, I notice that prayers of the powerful are often published. We don’t however see many prayers of the disadvantaged published in fancy websites though.  Many prayers speak from the powerful and sometimes condescending position at the less powerful.

 

In Jesus’ parable comparing the Pharisees and the tax collector, Jesus put two prayers side by side and point for point for comparison. This prayer is fascinating in that the righteous is also powerful. His posture shows him puffing out his chest while standing in a place visible to all. He’s well accepted by everyone. He’s a highly moral person. He had never broken any law, at least not the laws the everyone’s familiar with from the Decalogue.

 

In contrast, there’s the poor tax collector. I say “poor” not because he lacks money but because his status is questionable. He stands off to the side not daring to puff out his chest or look up while he prays. He recognizes that he’s done many wrongs and asks for God’s mercy. Instead of telling God how much he didn’t trespass, he tells God simply that he’s a sinner. Jesus said in Luke 18.14, “This man rather than the other went home justified before God.” This simple contrast shows the nature of prayer not only in its content but in its eschatological orientation.

 

In Luke 18.1, Jesus talked about praying and not giving up, as the disciples waited for the day of the Son of Man. In Luke 18.9-14, Jesus talked about praying without arrogance. Why indeed is this necessary? Jesus said that God would be the one to judge. The arrogant, no matter how righteous or moral, would be humbled. What arrogance was Jesus speaking of? Jesus spoke of arrogance towards following the law and bragging about it. Obviously, the one truly followed the law wouldn’t appear arrogant before the God who created it in the first place. This Pharisee did follow the law, only to lose the entire meaning of why the law was established in the first place. The law was created so that God would be the ultimate authority to whom one’s to answer. Prayers for Christians have eschatological significance.

 

Back to the HK situation. So many prayers from “above” (i.e. the powerful position) sound like a list of moral accomplishments. We aren’t homosexuals. We aren’t deviants. We didn’t cause disruption to business. We aren’t prostitutes. We pray for the homosexuals, the deviants, the disruption of our prosperous city, and the prostitutes. The list goes on … The fact is, such bragging before God only earns condemnation. Quite often our prayer FOR our fellow humans is really a prayer AGAINST them. When we say “us”, we mean “them” because after all, we aren’t homosexuals, deviants, and disruptive prostitutes.

 

The scariest part about prayer taught by Jesus is this. Prayer comes alongside of the final judgment. Those who pray from “above” had better be careful or they may end up below. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Better believe it!

Book Review: Contemplations from the Heart

Contemplations from the Heart is written by Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a Korean-American academic in religion.[1] Dr. Kim has written Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit and many other books related to Asian Theology and feminism. I rarely review books that are related to such topics. Even less do I review books written from the perspective of spirituality, but this book deserves an exception. In recent times, soft-focused self-help books have filled shelves of Christian bookstore, in the thin disguise of pietistic devotional book. Kim’s is not such a book. Instead, Kim reviews topics that are globally relevant and socially impactful. She does not stop at the level of talking about the topic in high and mighty terms, but relates all such topics to our daily living. This devotional has a social conscience. As such, it is a necessary breath of fresh air among the many tiresome self-development books.

 

Kim’s book starts with personal issues, especially issues related to women. With a decidedly feminist bend, Kim started talking about seasons in a woman’s life where life could get in the way of a woman (e.g. seasons of childbirth; gender prejudice from people of your own race; racial prejudice from people of the other races etc.). At the same time, the informed woman would take charge for a second chance of change for the better. Kim continues to discuss personal life in the modern settings and its various challenges including balancing motherhood and work. One outstanding feature of this book is its economic awareness. Kim sees problems of economics in many social issues including abortion and equal pay. These are hard issues that Christians need to address, especially if we have to address them spiritually.

 

Besides personal issues, Kim moves on to an issue that is dear to her heart, the environmental issue. The environmental problem, as Kim puts it, is a temptation to exploit both people and nature. This brings a seemingly social issue home as a spiritual problem that impacts our daily lives. Here, she calls on the church, not just individuals, to model and advocate for better lifestyle that is faithful to God’s creation plan. In order for all this to happen, Kim suggests that people need to gain a better understanding between human and other parts of creation in relation to the creator’s law. Especially important is her claim that human law is not greater than God’s law. While this is self-evident for any believer, this is not always the case in practice. This is difficult because many are not even aware of such a pattern of thinking. Her call includes using less resources and thinking more in terms of sustainability.

 

The third section of the book talks about the church and society. It deals with life as a racial minority in the US where one is forever viewed as a foreigner due to skin color. This is an aspect that may or may not strike a cord for my Chinese readers, but it is an important issue. More important is the theme of justice which resonates throughout this third section of the book. This idea of justice has to be first reimaged. Reimagination requires risks before activism. In this book, Kim challenges us to live daily in that new and evolving image of what justice looks like. This includes developing awareness of leaders who use “God” in their campaign politically or otherwise to get what they want. Kim calls for changes in both the heart and the head of the believer. As we read through her narratives, we find more questions and solutions, but Kim has happily provided glimpses of solutions in her own life that can be uplifting to many who are discouraged with the many challenges modern life presents. Why in fact does Kim write such a book? Ultimately, it doesn’t only encourage us with the stories, but also encourages us to TELL our own stories. Storytelling is therapeutic.

 

Based on the above topics, Kim’s work has very important implications for believers. As a man, I find insights from her stories that other writings by men do not give. Yet, her reflections should not remain in each individual’s mind. Kim prepares group discussions for the community to study and converse about these topics because she realizes the importance of a deep conversation. This conversation is the starting point of activism. Collective and cooperative thinking can bring creative action.

 

I think her reflections have heavy theological implications. One example would be her environmental concern where she advocated God’s rules, but what God’s rules are we talking about? Clearly, we’re dealing with general revelation here. As such, Christians can’t stop at special revelation. I think it was John Stott who said that Christians have a robust doctrine of salvation but a puny doctrine of creation. When I read Kim’s work, I’m beginning to wonder if we can have one robust doctrine while neglecting the other. Both are related. Her chapter on race seems irrelevant until we begin to view the story from the perspective of foreigners whether those foreigners are Filipina, Indonesian or African. Part of the problem of racism is assumption of superior status from the person of power. This challenges us about whether we assume superiority over other races because of our race. The book also informs those who plan to immigrate to the West. Such people will need to know that they and their descendants will have to face the same issue after their move. Are people ready to move from being powerful to being relatively less powerful? Due to the fact of the reflection and conversation, Kim encourages the head, heart, mouth, hands and feet to work together for a better world. As a devotional study guide, the book also serves our church’s witness in the world. Kim also eliminates the dichotomy between personal piety and public responsibility. The two can be comfortable companions. I hope that it will become the blessing to others as it has me.

 

[1] Kim, Contemplations from the Heart (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2014). The Chinese version of this review appears in Hill Road 17/2 (2014): 190-192.

 

When we DENY the problem, we BECOME the problem

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There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3.28 NIV

 

“According to Galatians 3.28, race is not the problem because our identity is in Christ now,” proclaims a white pastor.

 

My friend visited this church. This is what he noticed. The church is packed full of white folks. Now, I’m not saying that isn’t a good thing, but with the change in our society, we ought to ask why our Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week. When we read and study Paul’s mission and Jesus’ Great Commission, we see the clear command to make all people disciples of Jesus. “All” means all, not white, not blacks, not brown, not yellow and not red.

 

 

When quoting Galatians 3.28 in this colorblind perspective, we must equally say that gender inequality is not the problem or that social status is no longer a problem. But gender inequality and social inequality ARE problems! In fact, slavery was alive and well when Paul wrote those words and had continued to be so for many centuries after, even in the US today (where human trafficking and sexual slavery still concerns us). The logic simply doesn’t hold water. Paul’s message doesn’t deny the problems of race, gender and social class. Rather, the church ought to consider such issues within its own mission in how to adapt and help these problems to go away (e.g. Paul did it with not forcing gentiles to circumcise or follow food laws). In fact, the church should be much more sensitive towards race, gender and social class than society so that there’s true equality within its community life. This requires a brand new way of doing ministry that considers all these factors. What would be the consequence of misreading Galatians 3.28?

 

 

The consequence of misreading results in the very opposite of Paul envisioned for the church. Ironically, the same pastor who proclaimed this misreading is in a predominately white church with very few Asians and two blacks. Of course, race is not a problem because there’s hardly any minority there to CREATE that problem. Yet, race IS a problem because the practically lily-white demographic of his church hardly reflects the changes in his neighborhood. I don’t want to blame the entire problem on the pastor, but surely, he has to shoulder part of the blame when he preaches this sort of misreading of Paul. So, let’s be careful when we say that our faith has negated real world problem because that negation is often a mere denial. The louder we deny, the greater is the problem. WE may be the problem.

Evangelism Integrity and the Good Lie

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Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices. Colossians 3.9 (NIV)

 

On the way back from Asia, I saw the touching movie starring Reese Witherspoon called The Good Lie. This movie retells the story about the Sudanese lost boys from the civil war who got their new start in the US. It’s a very touching movie. The name of the movie comes from the final scene where one of the characters uses a new identity to get someone who saved his life back at the refugee camp (don’t want to spoil the story too much) while going back and staying at the camp as a trained physician from the US. This is the good lie. I suppose it is for the greater good of the movie.

 

This week also rings in the news that the book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven turns out to be a lie all along. At the center of the controversy is Alex Malarkey who suffered a traumatic injury from an accident and had claimed that he visited heaven in the process. The book became a bestseller but the publisher Tyndale House has decided to pull the books. Yet, we find booksellers being quite slow to pull the books off the shelves. One such example is Lifeway who continues to ignore the plea of Alex and his family. In fact, with Alex’s mom pleading as far as 2012, it takes three years for the evangelical publishing conscience to set in (Mark Driscoll’s plagiarized books, anyone?) and pull the book.  After this publicity flop, I’m sure Lifeway will eventually pull the books off and claim ignorance. In fact, I bet Lifeway will drag its feet as far as it can in order to get more sales before finally pulling.  The bottom line is the Lord.  Why do I say this? It’s because evangelicals are so predictable. They would go all the way, even to the extent of telling lies and half-truths, for the gospel (and a few dollars more).

 

In this situation, we should learn something from Alex who bravely came forward to recant his testimony. I propose that the problem is not merely lying. A certain culture within evangelicalism produces lies like this. It’s the zealous lust for the sensational. We long for our next celebrity for the sake of evangelism rather than letting our integrity and healthy relationships be the unspoken testimony of our faith. As I have written previously, our lust (even worship) of celebrities and the sensational is killing us. If you don’t believe me, just read the comments on my blog on Jay Chou and all the people defending this culture. Once again, this culture fails us, the world, and people like Alex.

 

What I find most interesting is this. We have profited from lies for a long time. In Hong Kong, where I taught for close to three years, we had the fraudulent Noah’s Ark Ministry that is backed not only by local pastors but also by pastors in N America and Southeast Asia that built this money spinning machine on nothing but speculations over a few pieces of wood. When I spoke out against it, people were concerned that my outspokenness has indeed damaged the cause of the gospel. Those who enabled lies such as the Noah’s Ark Ministry supporters have still not come out to recant their misplaced support. Not even one!  Especially guilty are the church leaders who pretend nothing has happened at all.  Why? It is because business must go on! Religion is big business.

 

Therein lies our problem. Evangelical celebrity worship and sensationalism (i.e. the next big story) are big business. Lifeway can stand to lose a lot of money, but at least Alex recanted. His honesty shames many Christian leaders in fact. Alex’s spiritual growth serves to remind many Christian leaders that being in the business of evangelicalism can indeed stunt your spiritual maturity. When profit and reputations are involved, spiritual maturity goes into the rubbish bin.

 

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he called lying something that belongs to the old man, the older lifestyle and identity. We aren’t talking about the complicated ethical case of Rahab and the spies here. We’re talking about a simple bankruptcy of integrity. If the lies belong to the old identity (identity before knowing Christ), isn’t the business, this sham of religion, also something that belongs to the old identity. Essentially, the evangelical faith has, at times, become a Christ-less and godless religion because business must go on.

 

 

Is modern evangelism at all cost a culture of lies? Is it even something from the dark side? I think we are at a critical juncture of our Christian history to demand an answer to these questions from our Christian businesses and church leaders. If the question is “yes”, what should we do about it? I think the answer is clear. In such a case, this is not a good life.  It’s a bad lie in the clothing of the gospel which is no gospel at all.  The only question left would be this.  When will modern evangelicalism find its collectively lost conscience?

 

PS: I’ve been told that the Elim Bookstore in Asian among many other stores also carry this book. How they respond will demonstrate also the conscience of the Asian churches.

Victim Switching Prayers Must Stop!: Luke 18.1-8 and Call for Order

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The Parable of the Persistent Widow

18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18.1-8 NIV

 

 

I continue in my commentary on Luke, and Luke 18.1-8 addresses the frequent call for harmony among HK Christian leadership.   There have been numerous published prayers calling for God to help end the chaos that is Occupy HK. Luke 18.1-8 gives the perfect solution.

 

In the first parable, the parable of the unjust judge, Jesus talked about praying always and not giving up. The reason why the disciples shouldn’t give up is simple: God is infinitely better than the judge. The parable itself is telling in understanding the realistic view Jesus took of the lack of social justice in his day. Jesus first described the judge as someone who neither feared God nor cared about humans in Luke 18.2. Then, Jesus called him outright “unjust” in Luke 18.6, a word describing an evil person.

 

How did the judge express his own evil though? The judge himself showed his own evil by saying that the poor widow had worn him out in Luke 18.5. The word “wearing out” actually means something like “beating up”. As I wrote this, Manny Pacquiao had defended his boxing title WBO welterweight championship belt in Macau by knocking down his opponent 6 times. Shockingly, his opponent’s trainer had such a crazy imagination that he told his opponent that he was doing quite well and that he was on course to beating Manny. That’s taking reality and turning it into fantasy. It is nothing better than some unjust HK police shouting, “Do not charge” while taking batons to the heads of the retreating protesters. Such an upside down imagination does no one any good. In the same way, the poor widow was the one beaten up by life, but this judge who oppressed imagined himself to be beaten up. He imagined himself to be the victim rather than oppressor. Yet, Jesus didn’t condemn her for her not giving up. In fact, Jesus saw her action as exemplary.

 

There’re ethical implications to this parable in light of the HK situation. When Jesus came to preach the gospel to the poor, many HK churches and other church circles preach the very opposite as the message of the Advent.  Many churches and Christian leaders often denounced the protesters for beating up the HK system and making it worse. Many such protesters are the ones directly affected by the unjust system. Many young people will not get good employment or find affordable housing even after working hard in their university course work. They aren’t the ones doing the beating up. Their cries have reached the international community. There’s no guarantee of success, but they fight on. They would not give up. If Jesus were to give a commentary on society, he could well use the HK protest as an example. What the evil judge did above was switching himself from the oppressor to a victim. It is interesting when the accusatory prayer is directed at the protesters, the person doing the prayer is just like the evil judge. Victim switching before God is an extreme evil that needs to be eradicated from the church because it goes directly against the message of both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.  It turns the Word incarnate upside down and turns the cross into an amusement ride in the theme park.

 

We notice that Jesus not only talked about the unjust judge, but he also talked about God who loves His children. The way Jesus taught prayer is linked with the final hope of the day of the Son of Man in Luke 18.8. Prayer was the means by which Jesus’ followers expressed their faith of the hope. Yet, we can’t fail to see that Jesus didn’t fail to denounce injustice in his parable while encouraging his followers to pray. In other words, it is highly unbiblical to ignore injustice while relying on some irrelevant prayer that is only of rapturous heavenly good with no earthly relevance. A proclamation against injustice is equally important as a prayer for future hope. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Discussion about unity is a total waste of time when we don’t discuss the idea of justice.  Call for prayer is equally a waste of time when the discussion of justice does not take place.  It is high time that people who advocate prayer as the ONLY solution to stop making our faith such a mockery to both society and thoughtful Christians. It is also hight time that Christians stop switching victims in prayer. Those of us who bother to think about the real meaning of prayer are tired of such evil prayers.

 

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

Ministerial Priorities: Network or Lockdown?

I’ve been asked by many this question, “What makes a good pastor?”  This is a hard question to answer because it depends on your definition of “good” and “pastor.”  I can make some observations though.

I’ve seen two kinds of pastors lately.  I’ve seen those who network well and are making a name for themselves, and I’ve seen those who faithfully work within the church but do not network.  The dichotomy between two styles is just this obvious.  Which one is best?

The former has some advantages in that they can become quite famous very quickly.  This happens for many who have networked themselves into speaking in important conferences, writing in important magazines and hooking up with influential groups.  Their advantage, when examined, is inadvertent marketing success.  The disadvantage however can outweigh advantages because networking can be endless and can occupy hours upon hours of work time.  Since all of us only have 24/7 equally, something has got to give.  Often, family time, sermon preparation and even pastoral visits can take a backseat.  I’ve known of one case where the church administration has suffered tremendously because of the networking preoccupation of the senior pastor. One elder remarked in frustration, “If he wants to go out and speak so much, he should just freelance like you.”  My reply of course is, “You guys tolerate him.  Freelancing does not make good money and he knows it.  You guys have provided the perfect setting for him to freelancing while taking up a stable salary.” I’ve heard the preaching of one particular networking pastor. He clearly does not do enough sermon preparation.

Let me address the second group, the pastors who focus solely on their own flock and their own churches.  These pastors have great advantages as well.  Their work schedule is very regimented.  They tend to be loved by the flock. Their preaching often are very solid.   They are often not the most famous speakers, but they sure do a great job when they have to preach.  They also suffer from the lack of support from the outside though.  Many such pastors are in charge of smaller or medium size churches.  They haven’t exchanged enough ideas to grow their churches creatively because they lack outside connection.  Often, if their churches are not denominational, their preaching also suffers because they use limited resources without finding out what else is out there.  The same pastors are often hesitant or even suspicious of outside speakers simply because they hardly know the good ones from the bad.  They’re often overworked.

Is there a balance between a network approach and the lockdown approach to ministry? I think there is.  When I look at one model minister, the apostle Paul, he was a man with many networks.  He was also a solid biblical teacher.  Rarely has the history of the church been blessed with someone as gifted as he.  What is the key to striking the balance?

For the network pastor, someone needs to help him to do an honest evaluation in terms of how many hours he needs to do an adequate job in sermon preparation and pastoral care along with church administration to make sure the flock is taken care of and then do the networking as the lowest priority.  I’ve seen a few who have networked so much that their preaching has drastically gotten worse than even when they first graduated from seminary, if such a scenario is even possible (they weren’t great preachers to begin with when they graduated).  Networking should be the byproduct not the main stable of their ministry.

For the lockdown pastor, they also need people around them to keep them accountable in terms of what is reasonable time spent on sermon preparation, pastoral visits and church administration.  He too needs to find the leftover time to network.  In order to determine what leftover time he has, we need to ask hard questions such as these. Does the minister really need to visit every healthy member at least once every two years? Is the minister getting adequate resources to better himself in his preaching?  Is he spending enough time building up his own family?  Is the church motivating enough volunteers to help him accomplish his tasks?  Someone in leadership needs to ask these questions because all these questions affect the long-term health of the church.

In other words, when we are faced with such a question about what makes a good pastor, we need a whole other set of questions before we can come to an adequate conclusion.  The pastor can’t function by himself.  He needs people around him to help him to become better. In a sense, the church leadership often determines whether the pastor ultimately would grow into a good or bad pastor.  The focal questions I ask above points to one key question: does the pastor really care about the overall health of his flock?

Luke’s Story against the Civic Moralist: Reflection on Luke 13.1-9

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Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilatehad mixed with their sacrifices. 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. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Luke 13.1-9 (NIV)

 

I’ve blogged about Luke 13.1-9 before. I think this passage can use a few more comments, now that the Umbrella Movement in HK and Ferguson protest in Missouri are largely over.

 

There’s an assumption by many who sound much like those talking to Jesus in Luke 13.1. Jesus’ answer “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” Jesus’ question probed into their thinking that indeed, those who suffered for their disobedience to the Roman government were indeed morally worse off than all the others. Many would congratulate themselves saying, “We don’t disobey our government.” Some would even feel gleeful in protesters being beaten both here in the US or overseas in HK.

 

To give a short background to Galilee, it was not primarily a place where peace reigned.  Galilee had its own revolutionaries and militia groups of varying political agenda.  Jesus taught there in Galilee, but the place was not an ancient classroom.   It was a place of radical ideas at time.  In fact, the 70 CE revolt in Jerusalem had influence from Galilee militants.  The Gospels never talked much about it because this background was very familiar to the audience.  Those who are interested can go read Josephus’ account on how Galilee was, given the fact that he was from Galilee himself.

 

Like many modern civic moralists everywhere, the interlocutors of Jesus here held a very high view of those who lived comfortably simply because they’re more obedient to the Roman government. In fact, obedience to civic authorities seems to be the measurement of one’s moral ethics within the story. When looking at both protests here in the US (mostly race-based) and in HK (mostly based on the search for democracy), Jesus’ interlocutors have parallel to today’s world. Many also assume that being a good citizen of this world is the mark of high morals and good Christian conduct. Jesus spoke against such a moralistic attitude. This was not kingdom ethics, no more than being a good citizen being equated to being a good Christian.

 

Instead of letting these interlocutors focus on the problems of others, Jesus told them to focus on their own problem by a parable. It’s basically a parable about bearing fruit in Luke 13.6-9. The Greek sentence in Luke 13.9 is enlightening in that the two conditions of bearing fruit and not bearing fruit were expressed differently. Jesus only expressed hypothetically about bearing fruit (in an expression Greek scholars called the third-class condition) but expressed the fruitlessness realistically (in an expression Greek scholars called the first-class condition). Why did Luke record Jesus in this way?

 

The answer is simple. Jesus didn’t expect most of these civic moralists to bear fruit or do good works such as feeding the poor (a point I already made in my previous blog), but that they would carry on being very happy about their own fruitless self-righteousness.   The lesson here by Luke is that once we get into a self-righteous mood about our civic moralism, it’s nearly impossible to bear real fruit. That’s the harsh reality of Jesus’ day, and that may be the harsh reality of our modern faith community. Self satisfaction is almost an incurable disease of the faith community and its manifestation would cause the faith community to be utterly useless like a tree that’s chopped down.

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