How Being With The Underprivileged Changes the Way You Read the Bible

Bible StudyI read Brian Zahnd’s “My Problem with The Bible” in 2014, and found it an interesting take on how perspectives and filters can either distort or correct one’s reading of scripture. He pointed out that instead of reading from the perspective of the beneficiary of a powerful empire, we must learn to read the bible from the position of the powerless who are totally dependent on God (which is what Israel as a nation was in biblical times). I found his points interesting, but I never thought I’d be writing my own “version” of this article a year and a half down the line.

I co-lead a very small (less than 20 people) house church in one of the poorer surburbs of Accra, Ghana called The Jesus Community, Agbogba. My church is dominated by mainly semi-literate, unemployed/under-employed men and women who will be classified as poor by any economic standard, with only 3 of us properly employed. Of course you can imagine the multitudes of needs in this community, and the struggle to meet them on a regular basis with the virtually non-existent resources we raise. Those of us better employed are asked on a regular basis why we choose to be in this impoverished church community, when there are nice, shiny, glossy megachurches next door that we could attend and meet some of our “middle-class” (if that is the right term) friends who we meet in our professional lives. The answer? We didn’t choose this life, neither did we choose these friends. God sent them our way just as he sent us their way, and for us then, faithfulness and love is all that matters as he works to shape and mold us into something beyond our wildest dreams.

But living life with these brothers and sisters, engaging scripture and being free to ask the kind of daring questions for which we would most surely have been excommunicated or would have been told to “shut up and take it like that” in Ghanaian Christendom, has totally reworked our hermeneutics – our way of interpreting scripture. And so here I offer my thoughts on how this shared life with people less socioeconomically advantaged than I am has changed my reading of the bible. This is not to say that everyone who is in the same state as we are will experience the bible the same way. I’m just telling part of my story.

A New Appreciation for Jesus and the Gospels

The first thing one notices is that the Gospels does portray Jesus as spending a lot of his time with the disadvantaged. One may choose to ignore this, especially a more privileged reader of the scriptures. But being i) a prophet , ii) the Messiah and iii) the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh, it is not surprising that he manifests in his incarnation, the “ways” of Yahweh – of being with the poor, oppressed and outcast. This is not because Jesus hated the privileged, but simply that from the giving of the Torah to the critique of the prophets, the privileged were commanded to meet the needs of the underprivileged and stand by them. And what better way to show this than when Yahweh himself takes on bodily form in the person of Jesus and does exactly that, as we see in the Gospels.

A Greater Affinity With the Prophets of Israel

Having been hooked by the the Gospels has forced me to look again at the life and times of the prophets of the Old Testament (seeing as they are quoted all over the Gospels), and the result I find astonishing. It becomes obvious to me the similarities between the concerns and critique of Jesus Christ and these prophets – the two main concerns being idolatory and injustice. The link between these two is much more evident these days. Someone once said that “You become more like what you worship”, and when the people of Israel departed from their worship of Yahweh, both his character of mercy and his commands of same went flying out the door. And one easily sees the same going on in Christendom today, where many love the notion of “worshiping God” more than the action of “following God” in his ways – ways revealed to us by Yahweh made flesh, Jesus the Christ. For me the poverty and injustice is not far away – I see them many times every week, and I’m reminded of how Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea felt watching the people of Israel abandon the poor and the weak, and still claim “this is the house of the Lord” (Jer 7). I watch contemporary Christendom sing the emotional ooh-aahs of the “I wanna be more like you” and the “Jesus I love you” and “I want more of you” blah blah, and I can only shake my head in sadness. Yes, sadness does fill my heart a lot, re-reading scripture through the eyes of the prophets. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I love Handel’s Messiah and Bob Marley with almost equal ferocity – the vision of the Messiah captured by the prophets and put to music by Handel is very moving to me, and Marley’s critique of the “system” is so apt.

A Greater Interest in the Story and History of Israel

Being born Protestant, my default mode was to read Genesis 1-3, skip over the story of Israel and head straight for Jesus and his cross, and then the Pauline epistles to explore his “grace” teaching as opposed to the “law” requirements of Israel. But those days are gone. With my interest piqued by the prophets, I’ve been much more interested in the historical background of the story of Israel and of the times of Jesus. I’m reading more of Ancient Near Eastern culture and looking to see how Israel fit in or critiqued it. I look to 1st century Judaism to understand the struggles of Jesus himself and early Christianity after Jesus’ resurrection. Of course this is a work in progress, but the insights already gleaned have reshaped me drastically, and make me see much more the big picture of humanity’s struggle to either eclipse one another or feel safe/superior over against another, into which God placed Israel, and into which God entered himself in the person of Jesus.

A Valuing of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

One of the benefits of conversation and friendship with both people who are and people who aren’t like me, but who love Jesus with the same passion has been that I’m becoming more interested in ways in which we are both being faithful to Jesus, and less worried about battles over the bible or how exactly my theology lines up with a tradition or the other’s way of reading scripture. Jesus’s own way of interpreting AND living out scripture was not always palatable to the theological gatekeepers of his time, but in so far as it was leading him to display a love of God and a love of neighbour, he was game. And when you live the bible with people who aren’t so theologically (or even educationally) savvy but whom you desire to still be in community with, you learn to focus on what is really important, and be less of a watchman. This feeling of mine is best captured by Scott McKnight’s book “The Blue Parakeet”, which I quote below.

St Augustine once said in his “On Christian Tradition” that if the bible leads the reader to be more loving, then the Bible has accomplished its mission … he offered a graphic image [to explain his point]. Getting the right result of becoming more loving, even if we aren’t as accurate in our interpretation as he’d prefer, is like a person on a journey who gets lost but somehow finds the way to the right destination … its not as if Augustine thought every interpretation was as good as any other … but Augustine knew the Bible’s main mission: so that we become people who love God and love others” (Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, pp 104).

Many (including luminous Christian leaders of the past) have killed in the name of “orthodoxy” – a rightness of belief. I prefer to lose my life in defense of orthopraxy – a rightness of action. That’s not to say I don’t care about good theology (those who know me know that I do), but I’m more worried about what kind of Christianity is being produced by a theological position taken. Some people are miffed when I say I judge a theology by this standard, and I simply like to remind them of Jesus’ own ways of judging what was “standard teaching” around him.

Community Is the Life Blood of the Bible (and of it’s God)

As I read, think and try to practice the bible with other people like and not like me, I’m amazed at the insight that they are able to bring to scripture and life, and yet some of these people do not read the big fat theological books that I read often. It brings home the reality of the tradition upheld by early Christianity that scripture is best interpreted in community.

It becomes more obvious that the grand goal of Paul’s efforts and letters was to create a unique people who learnt to live together in unity and love despite all the sociocultural reasons why they shouldn’t be together. This community was meant to be a sign of the new age launched by Jesus which he called “the kingdom of God”. Thinking back further on the trinitarian nature of God, I’m not surprised that the ability to express the oneness of mind of 3 persons in the Godhead becomes the driving force for creating human communities that also are able to live in the same way. With this in mind then, one is saddened to watch the impact of individualistic readings of scripture that has ravaged the Christendom landscape for centuries.

The Bible is A Call To Action and Participation

Seeing Jesus’ vision of kingdom now, a kingdom filled with people of different social, economic and cultural backgrounds learning to live as one and supporting one another in this journey, we are galvanized into making choices to overcome the challenges of injustice, poverty, unemployment, deprivation and segregation that exists amongst us. As we read scripture, we see God on a mission to bring blessing to the world through the actions of the church, and are encouraged to seek out ways in which we can be a source of blessing to the underprivileged amongst and beyond us as well. As action reinforces knowledge, sitting and talking again about these same issues and steps we’ve already taken, alongside wrestling with scripture, we can truly see how the “the ways of Yahweh” are indeed ways of mercy, love and reconciliation. We are indeed reminded of Micah

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

A Greater Appreciation for the Plaintive Psalms in the Bible

Sometimes despite all our prayer and all our efforts, things still do go wrong, and we are forced to ask God why. Thankfully we have developed the habit of reading many Psalms everytime we meet, and we noticed the huge number of complaining Psalms that many in Christendom prefer to ignore in preference for only the upbeat ones (or as some Ghanaian churches do, read the Psalms about enemies and use them to heap curses on their personal enemies). Some of these psalms express a hope that God will in the end, come to their aid, but one particular Psalm (Ps 88) simply ends without hope, filled only with accusations against God. Given that God chose to preserve such Psalms in the bible for us, its taught me the foolishness of pretending that life will always be rosy for “those who have faith”, and also the foolishness of not sharing my disappointment with those in community with me when things don’t go well. After all, I live with others who are a lot worse than me, and I believe sharing my own struggles with others reminds us all that we are in this together, and that suffering is not the preserve of the underprivileged. It reminds us that we are not in control, the Spirit of God is, and ours is to take up our cross and follow, even if we seem lost and feel frustrated along the way.

Conclusion

A lot has changed about my reading of scripture, and it’s becoming more obvious how we all can be a people who love reading it, theologizing it, apologizing for it and yet be miles removed from the reality of what scripture is and is meant to be. And in this respect, I offer a reminder

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful … SO THAT the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17)

Scripture is for the purpose of making us fit for good works. When Peter spoke about what these “good works” were, he had no other place to point to but to Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good … “ (Ac 10:36-38)

My hope is that scripture leads us indeed to be a people who are schooled in Yahweh’s righteous ways – ways he embodied in Jesus of Nazareth who lived, loved and died to show us these ways – ways that indeed lead to good works.

 

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Oh, So You’re A Prophet?

Russian icon of the prophet Hosea
Hosea” by 18 century icon painter .

One of the sections of the bible that used to get me all confused and riled up in my reading of the bible, especially the Old Testament, was the prophets. From the books of Kings with Elijah and Elisha, to the Major and Minor prophets, it had been very difficult for me to understand what exactly qualified these enigmatic, weird people as prophets. But with a better understanding of the history of the people of ancient Israel, I think I get them now, though they still mess up my brain in more than a few places. And with that understanding comes a certain feeling of sadness at watching people getting confused by the recent wind of “prophets” and “the prophetic yyyy” (where yyyy is any fashionable term like “encounter”, “movement” etc) that is blowing across the Ghanaian and Nigerian Christian landscapes. But let’s plow on, and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I wrote a little bit about this here, but will add some additional points to that in this post.

The Three Themes

Many people are referred to as prophets in the bible. Some of these include Moses, Samuel, Eli, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth etc. I believe that there are certain key themes by which one may understand their activity and why they did what they did, before one can translate to what we should expect of prophets today. These themes are “creational monotheism, election and eschatology” of which I wrote a series based on NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” here.

You see, the people of Israel believed in Yahweh as the one and only real god and creator of the heavens and the earth (creational monotheism). They believed Yahweh had chosen the nation of ancient Israel as his “called out” people with a task to be a blessing to the rest of the world (election). As part of his covenant with them, he’d given them the Torah by which they must live so that they will sustain their status of being elect before God, and also fulfill his task of them being a blessing to the world. Also they believed that Yahweh had intentions of fixing the problems with this world, and he himself coming to dwell with amongst men in his own time (eschatology). These 3 themes can be shown to be the pillars that underlie much of the activity in the OT and NT as well.

Using these themes to evaluate the prophets of ancient Israel and those documented in the NT, we get 2 clear pictures of what prophets and prophecy was about.

  1. Ensuring that the people of ancient Israel remained faithful to Yahweh as their only god, and listening to him only.

  2. Keeping the terms of the covenant as given to them in the Torah, so that they will show their faithfulness to Yahweh and will keep Yahweh’s favor on ancient Israel.

Before the Exile

Because ancient Israel as a nation had a covenant relationship with Yahweh (a point which we’ll come to later), and the nation always had leaders amongst them (either as judges or later on as kings like David, Solomon etc), it was obviously expected that ensuring that the leaders of the nation did the right thing will lead to the nation as a whole doing the right thing. This is not rocket science, and a principle of human societies well proven over the course of history. One perceives therefore a close relationship between the earlier prophets like Eli, Samuel and Nathaniel and kings like David, Solomon etc. The point of the prophets relationship with these leaders was not as people that David could consult as to know how many slices of bread to eat in the morning, but as people who had insight from God as to the nation’s direction, as well as the leader’s choices which has an effect on the whole nation.

However, over time the relationship between these prophets and their leaders became fraught with tension, as evidenced by Ahab and Elijah/Elisha. Because as prophets they were supposed to be people who were zealously guarding the nation from going against Yahweh’s and his covenant relationship with the people, Ahab’s flirtations with Baal via his wife Jezebel would definitely not sit well with them. In addition, the more these leader’s desires departed away from faithfulness to Yahweh and the Torah, the more the nation drifted to idolatory, injustice and oppression, as worshipping these other gods always led to. Being men of insight and power from Yahweh, he did of course use them to perform some miracles to show that Yahweh was still Lord over the world, but as we will see, that is not what qualifies them as prophets.

Close To And After the Exiles

Prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah continue the tradition of speaking Yahweh’s mind to the people. By this time however it would seem that the leaders surrounded themselves with only those who would tell them what they wanted to hear, so these kinds of prophets became hated and hounded. This went on till Northern Israel (Ephraim) was captured by Assyria and southern Israel (Judah) was captured by Babylon (note that Torah had spoken specifically of exile as the punishment for departing from Yahweh). Even whiles in exile, some of these prophets continued to prophecy of how Yahweh will save them from this exile if they looked back to him in faithfulness. When one looks at the career of all these prophets you will realize that

  1. they spoke vehemently against idolatory, and the danger of relying on other nations for their security instead of on Yahweh (which was further evidence of lack of faith in Yahweh and rather reposing faith in the god of the other nations). Their warnings sounded a lot like “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind”, spoken by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. They spoke of injustice, of the treatment of the poor, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless. They sympathised with the downtrodden, and criticised those who had the power to change things but rather defended the wicked and horded to themselves. This was again a betrayal of their election and purpose as encapsulated in the Torah. Their warnings again sounded a lot like “love your neighbour as yourself” to this same Jesus of Nazareth.

One will note that few of all of these prophets were active in performing miraculous signs. The real basis of their qualification was whether they spoke the mind of God concerning his nation Israel, especially whether they called the nation to focus on Yahweh and repent of their idolatory and wickedness towards one another or not.

In the Gospels

In the Gospels, 2 people are named as prophets – John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. Both of these had 2 things in common – they criticized the people for their lack of faith in Yahweh, especially their constant appeal to violence to remove their “enemies”, the Romans; and secondly, they identified with the downtrodden, hopeless and desperate.

John the Baptist spoke of a coming wrath if they didn’t repent and “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Jn 3:7-8). And when asked specifically what to do, he advises them to pursue justice and compassion, saying “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same”(v11). He encourages the tax collectors not to be corrupt, and the soldiers as well(v 12-13). John shows the 2 classic concerns – faithfulness to Yahweh and observing the Torah, including its call for justice and compassion.

Jesus is also called a prophet by many in the gospels, and for good reason. He definitely was more than just a prophet, but for the people to have considered him to be one, he must have shown traits that the people of ancient Israel already knew was common place for true prophets. In this regard, Jesus didn’t disappoint, for he showed that faithfulness to him was now equal to faithfulness to Yahweh. Also not only did he lay an emphasis on justice and compassion, he acted it out fully, identifying with the poor and oppressed, the outcast and the downtrodden, and encouraging a redefinition of who was our neighbour and how his disciples should care for one another.

As can be seen from this whole survey so far then, prophets were people who were zealous for faithfulness to Yahweh and conformity to his law. They didn’t mind how people mistreated them or hated them for speaking the truth of Yahweh’s mind about the people’s non-conformity. They did this knowing that Yahweh indeed had a special relationship with them ancient Israel, and they needed to continue to be faithful to their side of the covenant for him to be faithful to his.

Bringing these lessons to our Christian world, the following observations can be drawn.

  1. Yahweh’s people are now defined as all who are faithful to Jesus the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile aka the church. Prophecy must therefore expend itself mostly about keeping the church in faithfulness to the Messiah, by doing the one thing he asks – taking up it’s cross and following him.

  2. The same concerns of justice, peace and compassion that characterized Yahweh’s Torah continue to persist with an even more hammered stress under Jesus the Messiah in the Gospels. Prophecy must remind the elect people of God (the church) about how faithfulness to the Messiah means being busy about his task for the church as expounded in the Gospels, same as true prophets did from Moses to John the Baptist.

That is why when Paul writes about prophecy in his epistle to the Corinthians, he encourages them to desire it more than tongues speaking (1 Cor 14:1), because it was a gift meant to direct and guide the whole church as God’s elect people. As with all other gifts, this was also a gift “given for the common good”(1 Cor 12:8). This gift then could serve to guide the church to navigate the difficulties that it will face in attempting to follow the Messiah, and to keep the focus on his tasks set out for the church. This gift was beneficial to Paul when Agabus told him of what suffering he was to face, but taking on the attitude of his master, he still went ahead to face that suffering anyways.

And So …

In the midst of all this then, I find it sad to watch the “prophetic” landscape and fever that has gripped sections of Ghanaian and Nigerian Christianity. Some prophets claim to be giving football predictions, predicting natural disasters, plane crashes, presidential illnesses and deaths, prosperity and success, marriage partners and the like. Not only have they missed the plot, they are not even acting in the play. Some are posing themselves as advisers to national presidents and governments (appealing in a flawed manner to OT prophets, not realizing that Yahweh has no covenant with the nation Ghana or Nigeria, but to his church). Others are busy gathering people to them so they can tell them what they want to hear, rubbing the bottle to reveal a genie god ready to fulfill all their desires. Our prophets are loved and celebrated as “men of God”, when they should be hated for speaking the truth and condemning the corruption, injustice and division that exists in our churches, before even talking about what exists in our societies.

With these kind of prophets, the only people who will find compassion are the rich, the only people who will have peace are those who are already soaked in violence, the only people who will receive justice are those who have the money and power to buy it. And that, my friends, is what false prophecy led to then, and will lead to now.

How Beautiful Are Your Feet?

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

There are days when you are staring a totally earth moving concept in the face, but don’t realize it. Sometimes its because this concept doesn’t come in one nicely labeled package, but as an assimilation of multiple thoughts and events put together over any length of time. Maybe it’s Scott McKnight’s commentary on the “Sermon on the Mount”. Maybe its listening to Handel’s Messiah and pondering the root of his compositions in the prophets and Psalms. Maybe its hearing from my brother Michael at our church meeting on how many Christians have a limited view of what repentance means. But all of these only added many more dimensions to something I was already convinced about.

“Christians truly get the picture wrong when we say that The Good News is that Jesus came to die for our sins so we can escape the judgment of hell and go to heaven when we die”.

Just listen to a lot of evangelistic sermons aimed at “winning souls” and you will realise that it’s LARGELY about telling people to believe in Jesus so their sins will be forgiven and they go to heaven instead of hell. But not only was this not what the gospel of Jesus was about, going to heaven was not primarily what Jews were hoping for. In fact there is very little mention of what happens after a righteous Jew dies in the Old Testament and the little that is mentioned is seriously unlike our modern day picture of heaven. So the question is what would have been good news to the Jew of Jesus’s day, and by extension for us today?

The Sermon On The Mount Angle

I’ve been reading New Testament scholar Scott McKnight’s (SMcK) commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and I’d finished digesting his thoughts on “blessed are the poor in spirit”(Mt 5:3). From his exposition of the Jewish background of people who were considered “poor in spirit” (anawim) in Jesus’ day, he gave 2 classical examples of such candidates right from the gospels – Simeon and Anna both in Lk 2. He cites the fact that there were certain characteristics of the anawim – mostly that they were indeed poor (as in real poverty), and were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah to right the injustices of their age. To this end they were very devout observers of the Torah (which is evident in constant attendance at the temple by the above 2 people).

The Handel Angle (Pun Intended)

So I’d grown tired of listening to music from Incognito, an acid-jazz band, and had switched to listening to George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. I’m always amazed at Mr Handel’s adeptness with the Psalms and the Prophets in this great baroque composition, and this time I found myself pondering a bit more over “How Beautiful Are the Feet”. But it didn’t quite hit me the linkage to what I was reading on the Sermon on the Mount yet until Sunday morning, whiles getting ready to go for our church meeting. I stopped and read Isaiah 52:7-10 again, and things began to fall into place better.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’. Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”(Is 52:7-8)

The Watchmen

So where’s the link, you ask? Well it seems to me that people like Simeon and Anna were a clear example of the watchmen spoken of in Isaiah 52 above. If you pay better attention not only to Simeon and Anna’s behaviour but what they said, you will get the joke.

Simeon, a classical anawim, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). What would a Jew like Simeon have considered the consolation of Israel? The good news for Israel? To see Yahweh’s return to his people, and the revelation and of his Messiah, as Isaiah above clearly points out. Thankfully, Simeon had been assured by the holy spirit that his life’s desire will indeed be granted i.e. “he will not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (v 26). Having seen the baby Jesus, his life’s goal is achieved. He prays to Yahweh thus:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation …” (v 29-30)

Observe the parallel with Isaiah

When the Lord returns to Zion, they [the watchmen] will see it with their own eyes” (Is 52:9)

Again, the other watchman Anna also having seen the child begins to do what is expected of a watchman – telling all the people who were looking forward to going to heaven when they die the redemption of Jerusalem that their hope had indeed arrived.

Good News Indeed

From Isaiah above, the good news itself is the fact that Yahweh has returned to his people. And as a result of that he is bringing peace, he is bringing salvation, he is bringing good tidings. Having been decimated by Assyrians and then Babylonians into exile, and after returning from exile still being under the thumb of first Syria (Greece) and then Rome, the people of Israel knew that Yahweh had abandoned them. After all if Yahweh was still with them, he would not allow his temple of all places where he dwelt, to be destroyed by these enemies of God. See why Ezekiel devotes 8 chapters to talking about Yahweh rebuilding and returning to the temple?

Yet the hope that the prophets had always held out to them was that Yahweh will return, and appoint a new, more faithful king – the Messiah, sometimes referred to as the Servant, the son of God in the prophets. And this time Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, that all nations (including Gentiles like you and I) will be blessed through the nation Israel and its faithful Messiah (Ps 72) will indeed come to pass.

The gospel or good news then (and now) is that Yahweh had returned, and he had declared Jesus to be his Messiah. The surprising twist was that this Messiah was indeed Yahweh himself. This is why Mark begins his record of Jesus’s life with the statement “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

I’ve read it, and have recommended it. But I now get why NT Wright chose the title “How God became King” for his book. The Gospel is the declaration that Jesus is God’s Messiah and King of the world, and that surprisingly that Messiah was God himself.

To the evangelist, how beautiful are your feet? Are are you still busy telling people to come to Jesus so they go to heaven? Are you frightening them with hell? Are you sure you are preaching The Gospel, or you are preaching an effect of The Gospel? Because frankly the two are not the same, and most definitely do not produce the same result.