Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why were the people so angry with Jesus in Luke 4:21-30?

Last time we imagined that we were in the synagogue where Jesus opened the Book of Isaiah and said that the Scripture was fulfilled in him (Luke 4:14-21). I suggested that the passage says that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed King. He has come to proclaim the kingdom of God to the poor (and everyone else). Here let us take a look at the next passage in Luke 4:21-30. (Yes, I know that verse 21 is included in both readings. It’s deliberate.) 

What is surprising in 4:21-30 is the contrast between these two verses:

       “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” (Verse 22) 

       “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.” (Verse 28)

We can see why people spoke well of Jesus in verse 22, for Jesus had just said that he had come to proclaim good news. But why did they change their attitude toward Jesus so quickly? All spoke well of him in verse 22, and five verses later, they were furious (verse 28)! Why were they so angry with him?

The answer, I think, can be found in the verses between verses 22 and 28 — that is, verses 23–27.

In these five verses Jesus used two stories in the Old Testament to illustrate how the good news to the poor would work in practice. The first is about God sending Elijah to a Sidonian widow during a severe famine (Luke 4:25–26; 1 Kings 17). The second is about Naaman the Syrian commander being healed by Elisha (Luke 4:27; 2 Kings 5).

This made Jesus’ audience very angry. Why?

In Jesus’ day the Romans ruled over the Jews. The Jews were eagerly waiting for God to send a deliverer to rescue them from the hands of the Romans. This deliverer, it was believed, would be a son of king David — the messianic king.

The Romans were oppressors. They had killed many Jews, carried many of them away from their homeland and enslaved them. Not surprisingly, the Jews were very unhappy with the Romans.

In fact, before the Romans came, the Jews were oppressed by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks (see, for example, the Book of Daniel). They were all “foreigners” and idol-worshippers. They were the enemies of the (ancient) Jews.

Amazingly, Jesus seems to be saying that he, like Elijah and Elisha, has come to bring healing and freedom to the “foreigners” — that is, a Sidonian widow and Naaman the Syrian. Some people in Jesus' audience might be asking:
How can God's blessing be given to the "foreigners" the "outsiders"? How can non-Israelites share the privileges of Israel, the descendents of Abraham? How can idol-worshippers be given the opportunity to participate in God's redemptive plan?
Widows and lepers (Naaman was a leper) both belonged to the lower end of the social hierarchy. It seems clear that Jesus has come to bring salvation and healing specifically to the marginalised and oppressed.

Of course, we know that Jesus has come to proclaim good news to all humankind. But here in Luke 4, the emphasis is on the foreigners and the socially inferior. That is, even the enemy of Israel can be recipients of the gracious gift of God.

Throughout Luke’s Gospel we find that Jesus is at loggerheads with the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law (ie. Scribes). Often we find that they are unhappy with Jesus because he spends time with tax collectors and sinners.

Here in Luke 4:21-30 we find one of the confrontations between Jesus and (some of) the people in the audience. They may not be Pharisees and Scribes. But they seem to be very unhappy with Jesus’ message. I think they are unhappy because Jesus speaks of a gracious act of God that is hard for them to accept.

The grace of God is all-encompassing and inclusive. The good news of Jesus envisions a society without social or racial exclusion. The Sidonian woman was a widow and Naaman was a leper. Yet God used his prophets to bring them healing. Likewise, the blind, the tax collectors and sinners, were not “outsiders” according to Jesus’ good news. They can be recipients of the good news of Jesus. 

Imagine that we were there 

Imagine that we were in the audience when Jesus told the stories of God’s gracious gift of healing for the Sidonian widow and Naaman the Syrian. Would we celebrate with Jesus the good news of God’s kingdom? Would we welcome this amazing good news? Or would we reject it because it envisions a community that knows no social and racial boundaries? 

Who are the people that we tend to "exclude" because we think that they don't deserve God's blessings? Do we realise that God's grace is available to them too?

Let us imagine a world where Jesus reigns as the true King of the cosmos. Let us proclaim that he is the Lord and rightful King. Let us embrace his good news.

Enter into the stories of Luke’s Gospel (4:14-21)

My son’s school has provided him with a weekly Bible reading on Luke’s Gospel. Since I really like this Gospel, I have decided to (try to!) write a reflection on each of the readings.

The first reading is Luke 4:21-30. But I think we should take one step back to look at 4:14-21 first. Here is the text.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (TNIV)

The passage before this one is Luke 4:1–13, and is about Jesus being tested by the devil. Jesus overcame the devil’s scheme. Then in 4:14–21 we find him reading Isaiah 61:1 (and 58:6) in a synagogue in his hometown Nazareth. It seems to me that most likely he is saying that he is the Anointed King anticipated by the prophets. That is, he is the anointed son of David, the messianic King.

I find this passage very encouraging. Jesus says that the promise in Isaiah 61:1 (and 58:6) is fulfilled in him. That means, Jesus himself is the one who proclaims good news to the poor. The blind will see and the oppressed will be set free.

We see throughout Luke’s Gospel that Jesus has indeed come to set the oppressed free. He heals the sick, and the poor hear the good news. Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel we find that Jesus has come to gather a community of disciples who will follow his way of life, and that this community includes all sorts of people, not least the poor, tax collectors and sinners.

Imagine we were there

Let us imagine that we were in the synagogue where Jesus spoke. Imagine that we were among those who were in need. Imagine that among our friends there were those who were economically poor, or oppressed because of their inferior social status. Wouldn’t it be good news that Jesus had come to bring us good news?

We live in a world out-of-joint. There is evil in this world. But Jesus has overcome the work of the devil (as demonstrated in Luke 4:1- 13). He is the Anointed King of God, and he has come to proclaim that the kingdom of God. This is good news indeed!

Next time we will take a look at Luke 4:21-30.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mission, Contextualization and Canon (Christopher Wright)

I am reading a great essay written by Rev Dr Christopher Wright. I really like Wright's missional reading of Scripture. The following two quotes about the canon, mission and contextualization are particularly insightful.

The task of recontextualizing the word of God is a missional project that has its basis in Scripture itself and has been part of the mission of God’s people all through the centuries of their existence. The finality of the canon refers to the completion of God’s work of revelation and redemption, not to a foreclosure on the necessary continuation of the inculturated witness to that completed work in every culture.

So, then, we should take into account not only the missional locatedness of today’s readers, but also the missional locatedness of the very first readers of the canonical texts. The Scriptures, after all, are not disembodied pronouncements dropped from heaven, but collections of texts that addressed living people in specific contexts, who were therefore called upon to respond to them, in faith and action. What can we know about those original contexts, and how can we discern the misisonal drive and energy that the texts injected into them?

Chris Wright then uses Jeremiah to illustrate how this works. I think he has given us much to ponder.

(The above two citations are from Christopher J H Wright, “Mission and Old Testament Interpretation,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, edited by Craig G Bartholomew and D J H Beldman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 188.)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Competing Lordships in Galatians (Tim Gombis)

Tim Gombis' comment on Galatians is perceptive.

"He wonderfully captures Paul’s apocalyptic vision, framing the issues in terms of competing realms and competing sovereignties.  The Galatians must decide which realm they will inhabit—the present evil age, dominated by the cosmic powers of Sin and Death, or the realm of God’s new creation in Christ, animated by God’s own Spirit.  Their community life of destruction and division or of unity and cruciform love says much about who has a rightful claim to cosmic lordship."

Click here for Gombis' blog post for more.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A biblical scholar participating in an urban neighbourhood (Tim Gombis)

Tim Gombis wrote a challenging blog post entitled "Evangelical Resistance to the Gospels: How & Why". (26th April 2012)

Here is one provocative thought from his post.

"We strip away the “husk” of Jesus’ clear words to find the spiritual “kernel” that we apply to our hearts and motives. 

This is a reading strategy whereby we keep Jesus safely tucked away in our hearts, self-satisfied with our piety.  But we intentionally avoid doing what he says with our bodies, social practices, and community dynamics.

It’s too threatening.  If we actually did the things Jesus says to do, we’d have to change, and we just don’t want to."

The post has attracted a robust discussion in the comments. I find the following story of Tim Gombis really helpful. I am always encouraged when a biblical scholar engages in the life of those living with poverty. This means that the scholar is not just teaching from some theories worked out in an comfortable library. Instead, she/he engages with both the Scripture and God's world at the same time, which enriches her/his own understanding of the Bible and the people whom God loves dearly.

Here is Tim's story.

"In the 90′s, my wife and I were in a doctrinally oriented church in which being Christian meant having the right mental furniture, having our doctrine sorted out right, and getting others to think the way we did.

During my doctoral studies in the early 00′s, we became convinced that being Christian was communally-oriented and needed to be lived out through service to one another and others. When we moved back to the States in ’04, we looked for a church that exalted Christ and reached out the poor and marginalized to absorb them into a thriving community life of flourishing. We found that church, an urban church plant that served a community hammered by poverty. We read the Gospels and sought to put many of these challenging texts into practice–learning to forgive one another, invite poor people to our homes, receive invitations to enter their homes (not easy for middle class people!), share the ministry load with “others” who didn’t do it like we did, etc. Those were wonderful years–hard, but so rich. Lots of other things to add here, but that’s just a sampling…

We recently moved to Grand Rapids and participate in a ministry that provides shelter for homeless people. We take up concrete service opportunities to participate in the ways our church proclaims the gospel and participates in it."

The following is an excerpt of a separate correspondence I had with Tim. I really like what he says here.

"What changed everything for me was the day-in, day-out exposure to what it meant to live in poverty.  We recognized the power-differentials in our relationships when we just handed out money.  We invited others to minister alongside us in relationships of reciprocity and mutuality rather than top-down relationships of power-inequality.  It was tough, but it completely transformed us.
So many other lessons, too, but our eyes need to be opened through the actual experience--incarnational experience." (Used with permission.)

(Click here for Tim Gombis' blog post. His story above is dated 30th April 2012.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reflections on theological training (Part 2): What do you learn?

In my last post on theological training (click here for the post), I talked about the importance of engaging in the real world. What we learn in seminary and theological college has to be meaningful in real life. In this second post I want to share what I believe as the most important thing to learn in theological studies.

I need to be honest that this is my own personal view. Different people have different opinions here. But this is my story.

In a good seminary or theological college, there will be knowledgeable professors who have in-depth knowledge of the Bible. There are those who have profound understanding of theology. There are experienced pastors and missionaries who can teach us the art of ministry. We learn analytical skills to critique theological thoughts, and we discover ministry insights. We learn how to deliver a good message, and skills in pastoral care. We gain insights into cross-cultural communication and missional endeavours.

All these are good and very important. But I want to suggest that the most important thing to learn is the skill to study the Scripture independently. (I will talk about other important – or equally important – things in subsequent posts.)

Pick up any course on Greek and/or Hebrew if you can, even though it is daunting. It’s okay not to be expert at the end, but the exposure to biblical languages is important. Study the historical and social backgrounds of the Old Testament and New Testament. Don’t be afraid to do exegetical subjects. Do courses that study entire books of the Bible. (Hopefully your professor/lecturer will make those subjects relevant to real life, which is very important, I believe.)

These will sharpen your skills to study the Scripture for yourselves in the future. From then on you can learn from the Bible with relative confidence.

(There is one thing I need to clarify at this point. I do not want any of the above to become an obstacle to know God. That is, your Greek and exegetical skills should be applied appropriately. Don’t be bogged down by over-sophisticated analytical processes. Learn to read the Bible as simple texts that contain God’s stories – stories that we can participate in. Read the Scripture with your “ears” listening to God’s voice at the same time. Your advanced training is a tool. Master it, rather than being mastered by it.)

Simply put, I tend to think that theological training is not primarily about learning some ministry skills, or some sophisticated theological arguments. It’s not mainly about being inspired by some great lecturers who are particularly good communicators. Again, all of these are good. But personally I think it is far more important to use the opportunity to learn how to study the Bible. Of course, reading the Bible has to be done within a reading community. We don’t have all the answers, and we need humility to allow others to teach us. But when we have the opportunity to study at a seminary or theological college, I think we should take full advantage of it and learn the skill of studying the Scripture.

What I find in my own experience is that the skill will be useful for life. I know how to use the Scripture to prepare for a message or a Bible study. When I encounter a new ministry or social trend, I know how to find resources in the Scripture to assist me to critique the trend. When I want to know what God has to say about a particular subject or issue (say, poverty, development, or human rights), I have the tools to help me use the Scripture to critique the matter.

After finishing my MPhil, I worked in a non-Christian profession for a few years. There I encountered situations that were not ministry related, but profoundly connected with real life events. Again, I had the resources and skill set to deal with them through a prayerful reading of Scripture.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Again, I am aware that the above is subjective. It’s my reflection after many conversations with theological students and graduates from a range of Christian traditions. I have taught quite a few of them, and have had the privilege of working with some of them. I think the skill to study the Scripture is still the most important thing for us all.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What's your response to poverty if.......?

In my last post I tried to describe what poverty looks like in practice. Here I want to rephrase the same statements and pose the following question in the beginning.

How would you respond to someone who describes his/her situation in a low-income country?

I look at my children and worry that they will have the same life I have – that is, they will have to struggle to make ends meet all the time.

Playing a musical instrument is a remote possibility for me and my children, because I can never afford the tuition fees or the instrument itself.

I can’t see any hope for the future for me and my family, even though I work long hours everyday of the week.

My children have to work everyday to earn money rather than playing with other children.

My daily desire is that some day my economic situation can improve to a place where I can feel safe for my family, rather than a lifestyle where we can flourish and enjoy life's pleasures (because the latter is so out of our reach that I don't think we will get there).

I feel that people look down on me and my children, because I am powerless socially and economically. I know that I am trapped in a cycle of poverty and I cannot see a way out.

A US$3 coffee seems to be far too expensive for me.

If my loved one goes to the hospital she/he will be sleeping in a small portable bed in a busy corridor because the hospital is too crowded.

I don't know what "taking a break to get away for a holiday" is, because I need to work very hard to make ends meet.

I worry that I will be begging on the street if anyone in the family gets chronically sick.

I can’t imagine that I will ever travel overseas because I can never afford it. In fact, the few people I know who have travelled overseas are considered to be really wealthy by people in my social circle.

I know what it means to be marginalised due to the fact that the rich and powerful in my city call the shots.

The stress of not having enough money causes ongoing tension and disharmony in the family, leading to domestic violence and constant distress among the children.

My whole family sleeps in one bed, not because I choose to but because there is no room.

The daily stress and/or the marginalisation I have experienced leaves me emotionally scarred, but I know that I need to be strong for the sake of my loved ones.

Sometimes I just want to cry because life is simply too hard.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What does poverty look like?

I have been thinking about what poverty looks like. Here are some thoughts. (See the comments at the end about what type of poverty I am referring to.)

You know what living in poverty is like if you have experienced the following.

If you look at your children and worry that they will have the same life you have – that they will have to struggle to make ends meet all the time.

If playing a musical instrument is a remote possibility for you and your children, because you can never afford the tuition fees or the instrument itself.

If you can’t see any hope or future for you and your family even though you work long hours everyday of the week for months and years.

If your children have to work everyday to earn money rather than play with other children.

If your daily desire is that some day your socioeconomic situation can improve to a place where you can feel safe for yourself and your family, rather than a lifestyle where you can flourish and enjoy life's pleasures (because the latter is so out of your reach that you don't think you will get there).

If you feel that you are looked down upon by others because you are powerless socially and economically. You know that you and your family are trapped in a cycle of poverty and you cannot see a way out.

If a US$3 coffee seems to be too expensive for you.

If your loved one goes to the hospital she/he has to sleep in a bed in a busy corridor because the hospital is too crowded.

If you don't know what "taking a break to get away to somewhere for a holiday" is, because you need to work very hard to make ends meet. 

If you worry that you will be begging on the street if anyone in the family gets chronically sick.

If you cannot imagine that you will ever travel overseas because you know that you can never afford it. In fact, the few people you know who have travelled overseas are considered to be really wealthy by people in your social circle.

If you know what it means to be marginalised due to the fact that the rich and powerful in your land call the shots.

If the stress of lack of money causes ongoing tension and disharmony in the family, leading to domestic violence and constant distress among the children.

If your whole family sleeps in one bed, not because you choose to but because there is no room.

If the daily stress and/or the marginalisation you experience leaves you emotionally scarred, but you know that you need to be strong for the sake of your loved ones.

If you just want to cry because life is simply too tough for you.

PS. The above is not about extreme poverty where people are starving or have no place to live at all, but a good measure of poverty where daily existence is a struggle. Primarily I am thinking of the experience in a low-income country, although some of the above would apply to a country like Australia as well. Also, people perceive their experience of poverty differently, and so the above list is by no means exhaustive.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

David Lamb on Jesus and the Old Testament

In his book God Behaving Badly Professor David T. Lamb says the following about Jesus and the Old Testament.

People who overdichotomize the two testaments seem to forget one important fact: the Bible of Jesus was the Old Testament. His value for the Old Testament can be seen in how frequently he referred to it. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus quoted Deuteronomy three times in the wilderness to Satan (Lk 4:4, 8, 12; Deut 6:13, 16; 8:3), and he quoted the Psalms as his final words on the cross (Mt 27:46; Ps 22:1). Throughout his entire ministry Jesus constantly mentioned the Old Testament law, the Prophets and the Psalms (for example, Lk 7:27; 10:26; 18:31; 19:46; 20:178; 22:37; 24:44). Jesus loved the Old Testament.

What is particularly relevant for this discussion, however, is that Jesus used the Old Testament to describe God. His description of God as a vineyard owner (Mt 21:33) came straight out of Isaiah 5:1-2. When Jesus told a scribe that the Lord our God is one (Mk 12:29), he quoted Deuteronomy 6:4. When the high priest asked him if he is the Christ, Jesus first stated, “I am,” an allusion to God’s Old Testament name, Yahweh (Ex 3:14), and then he combined two Old Testament texts into a prophecy that they will see him as the Son of Man seated at God’s right hand (Ps 110:1), coming in the clouds of heaven (Dan 7:13). Jesus frequently used Old Testament images to describe both himself and God as a bridegroom (Is 62:5; Mk 2:19), as a shepherd (Ezek 34; Jn 10:11) and as a king (Ps 47; Mt 18:23). Jesus not only knew the Old Testament, he also identified completely with its God. (Pages 20-21)
I think this is well written.

David Lamb on racism in the Old Testament

In his book God Behaving Badly Professor David T. Lamb has done a good job in explaining that the God of the Old Testament is not racist. Indeed, not only that God is not racist, he also loves people of all races. But what impresses me is David Lamb's honest sharing of his own experience. Here is an excerpt of what he says,

[W]e confront racism as Jesus did in the Old testament examples he mentioned in Luke 4 or in the parable he told in Luke 10. Two colleagues of mine recently confronted me about an insensitive racial remark I had made to them. They said that even though they knew I hadn’t meant to insult them, they were still deeply offended by my comment. I initially felt very defensive – they should have known that my comments were simply meant to tease them. But then I realized that they had a legitimate point, I didn’t understand their context, and my comment had been very hurtful. I asked them questions to understand their perspective and then asked their forgiveness. While their words were hard to hear, I appreciated not only their honesty but also that they valued our relationship enough to confront me. (page 91)
I have to say that I really appreciate David Lamb's humility and honesty.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Interview about Tim Gombis' The Drama of Ephesians

Matthew Montonini did an interview with Tim Gombis about his book The Drama of Ephesians. Read the interview and you will know why the book is such a treasure. Here is one of the questions in the interview.

"Matthew Montonini: Could you talk a bit about Paul’s cruciform role in Ephesians 3.1-14, and how as actors in the gospel drama what are some of the ways we are to model ‘power in weakness’?

Tim Gombis: This was the most powerfully transformative passage for me personally. It is so utterly counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. We imagine that we will succeed personally and professionally through self-assertion and will advance in our careers (or in ministry!) through power-accumulation and the exercise of power over others.

But throughout Ephesians (and everywhere in Paul), the manner in which God triumphs in Christ sets the normative pattern for Christian discipleship. God triumphs through the death of Christ, he wins by losing. The victory of the powers was their defeat and the defeat of Christ was his victory. Paul draws the clear implication that if God triumphs through the cross, then cruciformity thoroughly shapes Christian communities and Christian lives.

I believe this is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 3. His imprisonment is not a set-back, but the perfect place for God to magnify his triumph over the powers. God builds his church through the preaching of this shamed prisoner, this ‘least of all the saints’, rather than through someone with loads of social or political capital. For Paul, this makes perfect cruciform sense, and it is one of a number of passages that sets the normative ethical pattern for Christian existence.

How do we model that? By cultivating postures of servant-hood and humility in relationships, never exercising power over others nor relating manipulatively. For those who are well-practiced in (self-)destructive relational modes, our repentance is a bit more painful! But the way of life is the way of the cross."

Click here for the full interview.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Warning of "curse" and the good news of Jesus

 My 10-year-old said to me the other day that the last word in the Old Testament is "curse" (NRSV). He said, "Daddy, this is really bad, isn't it?" This got me thinking.

The last word in the Old Testament (Malachi 4:6; Hebrew: חרם ) refers to the things that are set apart to Yahweh for total destruction. It is used in Joshua 6:17, 18; 7:1, 11, 12,13, 15; 22:20 to refer to the total destruction of what has been set apart for God after victory in certain battles. I tend to think the word does not mean extermination, but that it is a fairly common ancient literary device to refer to the wiping out of enemy. (See here for further information.)

What is interesting to me is what Malachi is trying to say. Yahweh warns Israel to be faithful to him, so as to avoid their total destruction. And Malachi says that God will send the prophet Elijah to issue this warning. A similar warning is found earlier in Malachi 3:1, which says that Yahweh will send his messenger to prepare the way. Again, the message seems to be concerning the need for Israel to be faithful to the covenant (Mal 2:17-3:5).

This is where it gets really interesting. It is because Mark begins his Gospel by citing Malachi 3:1 in Mark 1:2-3 (which is in fact a composite citation of Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3). Mark uses the Scripture to say that John the Baptist is the one who prepares the way for Jesus the Messiah (the Anointed King), who is the Elijah-figure that Israel is waiting for (Mk 9:11-13).

What follows in Mark's Gospel is of course that Jesus will fulfil his role as the Anointed King in the most surprising way. That is, he will suffer, die and be raised from the dead. And he calls his followers to follow the same cruciform life.

If we read the gospel of Jesus in light of the message of Malachi, then it is "good news" indeed. The "curse" of utter destruction for covenantal unfaithfulness is totally turned around. Those who responds to Jesus' call are participants of this good news. Those who resolve to reorient their lives according to that call and embody the value system of God's kingdom will find that their God is faithful and will not abandon his people.

Yes, the Old Testament ends with a warning, but not without a promise of God's deliverance. This promise finds its fulfilment in Jesus. It came with great price though, for the Son of God suffered and died - and was raised. He showed us the way of God. We can indeed rejoice in the promise of the good news of Jesus, and we are called to follow his way of life.

An article by Professor Walter Brueggemann on Joshua in Interpretation

For those who enjoy the more technical and academic engagement with the Scripture, there is a new article in Interpretation written by Professor Walter Brueggemann on the Book of Joshua. Click here for the article.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A good description of a non-Christian religious tradition

Here is a link a good description of Chinese religious traditions.  Click here.

Teachings of Confucius
  • Concern for others (the fundamental moral virtue).
  • Honoring one’s parents.
  • Right behavior.
  • Treating others as you would wish to be treated.
  • Ruling with moral standing and benevolence.  
Heaven and the Divine
Early Chinese writings refer to a supreme or highest god, named Heaven or Heavenly Emperor. Confucius shared this belief, saying: “He who offends against Heaven has no one to whom he can pray.” Heaven presided with moral law. Later followers regarded heaven as the divine moral power of the cosmos, expressed perfectly in harmony with humanity.

Some Basic Daoist Ideas
  • Be amiable to everything in the universe, to help maintain universal harmony.
  • Live a simple life uncluttered by extravagant ambition or dreams.
  • Be modest rather than assertive and dominant. Such ideas have influenced the development of certain Chinese characteristics: “A person is afraid to be famous; a pig is afraid to be fat and strong.” (Chinese saying)
  • That is, a healthy pig will be killed and eaten; a successful person will be a target. Many Chinese people keep their work and thoughts to themselves. Parents sometimes tell their children that if they are good at something, they should be modest, even hiding it.
Daoism also rejects competition, rank, luxury, vulgarity and boasting. Laozi said that the highest level was the least secure. Everyone wants to be at the top of the tree, but were we to achieve that, the tree would break. Instead, we should be like water, always seeking the lowest level.

Ancestor Veneration
Ancient belief included the veneration of ancestors. Souls reached happiness according to the conduct of their living descendants. Therefore one’s duty was to live a good and virtuous life. Ancestor worship is still practised. For many people it is simply superstition; something that is done “just in case.” For others it is more important. In many houses a small shrine can be found, usually photos of grandparents to which food and cigarettes are offered. The yearly qing ming festival celebrates ancestors with grave cleaning and firecrackers. Christians are taught not to venerate ancestors but this can be a source of family tension, even a barrier to belief.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Three amazing little books on Resurrection, Genesis, Revelation, and Paul (Michael Gorman and Michael Pahl)

Recently I read three little books on Paul, the resurrection, Genesis and Revelation. They are really good. I recommend them to pastors, theological students, and any Christian who wants to think deeper about what they believe in.

Michael Gorman's Reading Paul. Here is the description of the book from the publisher.
In this new introduction to the Apostle Paul and his gospel, written especially for lay readers, for beginning students, and for those unsure about what to make of Paul, Michael J. Gorman takes the apostle seriously, as someone who speaks for God and to us. After an overview not only of Paul's radical transformation from persecutor to proclaimer but also of his letter-writing in the context of Paul's new mission, Reading Paul explores the central themes of the apostle's gospel: Gorman places special emphasis on the theopolitical character of Paul's gospel and on the themes of cross and resurrection, multiculturalism in the church, and peacemaking and nonviolence as the way of Christ according to Paul. Gorman also offers a distinctive interpretation of justification by faith as participation in Christ—an interpretation that challenges standard approaches to these Pauline themes. Reading Paul demonstrates that the apostle of faith, hope, and love speaks not only to our deepest spiritual needs but also to the challenging times in which we live.

Michael Pahl's From Resurrection to New Creation. Here is the description from the author's website.
What is Christianity really all about? Is it - in its essence - about proper religious rituals, or correct religious beliefs, or acceptable moral behavior? What is at the heart of an authentic Christian faith and life?

From Resurrection to New Creation provides an introduction to Christian theology which attempts to answer these questions, proposing that the heart of Christianity is not a set of rituals or beliefs or behaviors, but an event - the resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead - that prompts a story - the gospel or "good news" of salvation through Jesus. Jesus' resurrection, the book claims, is the starting place and the compass in the journey of Christian theology, our journey to understand God, God's work in the world, and how we should live out God's purposes for humanity. Thus, beginning with Jesus' resurrection and using this event as a guide, From Resurrection to New Creation surveys the terrain of classic Christian belief and practice. The Trinity, the identity of Jesus, the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of humanity, Christ's atonement for sin, salvation and the gospel, baptism and the Eucharist, the church and the future state - all these landscapes and more are explored in this concise introductory survey of essential Christian theology.

Michael Pahl's The Beginning and the End. Here is the description from the author's website.
Have you ever wondered if there might be more to Genesis than fodder for anti-evolutionism? Or have you ever thought, "Revelation has to be more than simply a roadmap for the future of the Middle East"? You're not alone.
In The Beginning and the End Michael Pahl surveys the opening chapters of Genesis and the concluding chapters of Revelation, taking seriously both their historical and literary features as ancient texts and their theological purposes as inspired Scripture. The result is a reading of the first and last books of the Bible that sketches out, from beginning to end, a story of God, humanity, and all creation—a grand narrative in which we are placed in the middle, and which calls us to live in a particular way as our identity and our values are shaped in light of our origins and our destiny.

Something from Michael Bird's book on Paul

I have read the Bible from cover to cover many times, and I have to admit that I cannot easy detect the notion of imputed righteousness in the texts.  I cannot, for example, recall the words "imputation" and "imputed" in the Scripture (or have I missed them?). I have therefore referred to Michael Bird's A Bird's-Eye View of Paul for help. Here is what he says on pages 96-98.

But what about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the basis of justification? That is the notion that God imputes the obedience and merits of Jesus to believers and in turn imputes their sins to Jesus on the cross. Well, the fact of the matter is that we cannot proof-text imputation. If we think we can cite 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 4:1-5, 1 Corinthians 1:30 or Philippians 3:6-9 and find the entire package of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and the imputation of our sin to Christ embedded in all these texts, we are sadly mistaken. These texts all come close to saying something like that, but fall short of doing so…

The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a necessary and logical inference to make, as it allows us coherently to hold together a number of ideas and concepts in Paul’s story of salvation. Although no text explicitly says that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, nonetheless, without some kind of theology of imputation a lot of what Paul says about justification does not make sense. Imputation is a synthetic way of holding together a number of themes that clearly point in the direction of imputation, or something very much akin to it…

Taken together, the language of ‘reckoning’, the emphasis on Christ’s obedience and faithfulness, the representative nature of Adam and Christ, the references to union with Christ, the fact that righteousness is explicitly called a ‘gift’ and the forensic nature of righteousness all make sense with some kind of theology of imputation. The mistake comes when scholars, even well-intentioned ones, try to read the entire package back into certain texts of Paul’s letters – it just does not come out that way. I concur with Leon Morris, who said that imputation is a corollary of the identification of the believer with Christ. (Here Bird refers to Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd edition [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2984], p. 282.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

An article on power and powerlessness - a partial response to Dr Andrew Sloane's lecture

ETHOS has just published my latest article, entitled "Reflections on Power and Powerlessness".

This is the description the editor inserted.
[The article] follows up on Andrew Sloane's lecture 'Justifying Advocacy' with reflections on the biblical notion of power, especially in relation to the paradox of power in weakness.
Click here for the article.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Reflection: Read the Bible, and don't leave it with others to do it for us

I have been thinking how important it is to read the Bible. Here is my reflection.

"If we don’t read the Bible ourselves (individually and as a faith community together), then our faith is in the hands of a few people who are engaging/charismatic speakers/writers/bloggers/intellectuals."

Prayer by Tim Gombis - Grant us the grace to take up the cross

Here is a beautiful prayer written by Tim Gombis on the weekend.

"Father, grant us grace to take up our crosses and follow Jesus in the way of suffering and death.  We know that the only way to resurrection and victory is through suffering and the cross, but it is difficult.  We love our pleasures.  We love the trivial pursuits that take up our time and fill up our days.  We also love our sinful practices, those secret sins to which we return again and again, even though we know that they are the way of death.  Give us wisdom and discernment to understand that we need to give ourselves over to death in order to experience life.  Help us to put to death our sin that we may share in the life of Christ by the power of the Spirit.  Amen."

(Click here for the original blog post by Tim Gombis.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Culture and rhetoric of ancient warfare (by Dr Christopher Wright)

The warfare in the Book of Joshua is thought of by some Christians as unacceptable because of its brutality.

In his book The God I Don't Understand Dr Christopher Wright says the following.

"The kind of warfare described in the conquest stories should, first of all, not be called 'holy war' (a term never used in the Bible). It is called 'a war of Yahweh'. That is, it was a war in which the God of the Israelites won the victory over their enemies." (page 87)

"Within that context, the concept of herem (or 'ban') was applied. This meant the total dedication of all that was being attacked - human, animal,  material - to God himself. In a battle or war in which herem was declared, there was to be no material profit for the Israelites, since no plunder was allowed. However, the rules of herem varied, as the Old Testament narratives show. Sometimes women and children were spared (Num. 31:7-12, 17-18; Deut. 20:13-14; 21:10-14); sometime cattle could be kept (Deut. 2:34-35). But in the cases of nations living within the land of Canaan itself, the general rule was total destruction." (pages 87-88)

"Now we need to know that Israel's practice of herem was not in itself unique. Texts from other nations at the time show that such total destruction in war was practised, or at any rate proudly claimed, elsewhere. But we must also recognize that the language of warfare had a conventional rhetoric that liked to make absolute and universal claims about total victory and completely wiping out the enemy. Such rhetoric often exceeded reality on the ground." (page 88)

"Admittedly this does not remove the problem since the reality was still horrible at any level. But it enables us to allow for the fact that descriptions of the destruction of 'everything that lives and breathes' were not necessarily intended literally. Even in the Old Testament itself this phenomenon is recognized and accepted. So, for example, we read in the book of Joshua that all the land was captured, all the kings ere defeated, all the people without survivors (such as Rahab) were destroyed (e.g. Josh. 10:40-42, 11:16-20). But this must have been intended as rhetorical exaggeration, for the book of Judges (whose final editor was undoubtedly aware of these accounts in Joshua) sees no contradiction in telling us that the process of subduing the inhabitants of the land was far from complete and went on for considerable time, and that many of the original nations continued to live alongside the Israelites. The key military centres - the small fortified cities of the petty Canaanite kingdoms - were wiped out. But clearly not all the people, or anything like all the people, had in actual fact been destroyed by Joshua." (page 88)

"Even in the Old Testament itself, then, rhetorical generalization is recognized for what it is. So when we are reading some of the more graphic descriptions, either of what was commanded to be done or of what was recorded as accomplished, we need to allow for this rhetorical element. This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare." (page 88)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A reintegrated view of sin (N T Wright)

Tom Wright has the following to say about "sin" (in Romans 5:12-2) in The New Interpreter's Bible Volume X.

"Part of the problem, of course, is that traditional Christianity has frequently operated with a truncated view of sin, limiting it to personal, and particularly sexual, immorality. These things matter enormously, of course, but there are other dimensions, of which the last century has seen so many examples, which are often untouched by traditional preaching. Equally, those preachers who have focused attention on structural evil within our world, on systematic and politically enshrined injustice, have often left the home base of Pauline theology in order to do so, not realising that there were resources there from which to launch not only critique but also promise and hope. This passage [Romans 5:12-21] invites us to explore a reintegrated view of sin and death, rebellion and consequent dehumanization, as the major problem of humankind, and thereby to offer diagnoses of our world's ills that go to the roots of the problem and prepare the way for the cure." (page 532)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Re-thinking generosity (Deborah Storie)

Deborah Storie wrote a thought-provoking article just before Christmas about "giving well". This article is relevant to giving in general, not just at Christmas time. Take a good look and be challenged. Here is an excerpt.

"The growing popularity of sending gift boxes overseas, orphanages in far-away places, and some short-term 'mission' trips, are all symptoms of a broader shift in Australian thought over the last few years. They reflect a hierarchical worldview in which some give generously and others gratefully receive. According to this worldview, rich Christians are responsible to give generously to the poor and not much more. This worldview is based on a narrow understanding of poverty which equates it with material deprivation and fails to acknowledge the complex networks of forces that give more to those who already have too much, and take from those who already have  too little . In this worldview, deeper structural causes of poverty and inequality don’t exist."

"I long for us to give respectfully and intelligently in ways which address underlying problems and empower the poor. Sadly, our love of mercy often blinds us to the need to do justice and walk humbly with our God."

Click here for the full article.