A real revolution!

By СССР – http://pravo.levonevsky.org/

This week marks the centenary of the communist revolution in Russia, a process that was supposed to bring liberation to millions of oppressed workers but also brought terror and oppression to millions of innocent bystanders, not only in Russia but across the globe as the Soviets exported their revolution to eastern Europe, southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  While intelligentsia, bourgeoisie, merchants and managers all suffered purges, Christians have often been specifically targeted by communist regimes.  Possibly up to 20 million Christians died at the hands of the Soviet Union, and many millions more under other communist regimes.  Communist governments to this day continue to oppress Christians, particularly in North Korea.

Ever since Karl Marx commented in 1843 that “Religion… is the opium of the people”, communism has singled out Christianity for being an oppressor itself and keeping the working classes firmly entrenched at the bottom of the social ladder, and there may well be some truth in this.  For example, the whimsical hymn “All things bright and beautiful”, published in the revolutionary year of 1848 by Mrs C F Alexander, contains the lines:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Hardly encouraging the proletariat to become upwardly mobile!  Founder of the Chinese Republic Sun Yat-Sen, himself a Christian, allegedly observed that the gospel contains enough dynamite to blow up all the existing social structures in Europe.  Yet somehow the Establishment of the church allied the gospel to the elites in society, when the initial first century believers were mainly slaves or the urban poor.  So over the centuries, Christianity switched sides, although there were many notable exceptions, particularly amongst the monastics (think St Francis of Assisi) and the non-conformists (Elizabeth Fry, Dr Barnardo, George Müller).

Yet until very recently, when elements in the church have attempted to embrace the restructuring of society so that the poor and marginalised begin to become empowered, they are usually lambasted as communists, like the liberation theologians of Latin America.  Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Brazil during the military governments of the 1960s-80s pointed out:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

It seems that for centuries, Christians have valued order, stability and power, and assuaged their consciences by donating to the poor.  A truly radical church would possibly make communism redundant: abolishing slavery, establishing economic equality and becoming a protector and advocate for the vulnerable and marginalised.

Today many thousands of mission workers throughout the world are trying to do just that – working as agricultural advisers, advocates for social justice, campaigning against homelessness, modern slavery and people trafficking, working in prisons and refugee camps.  They need more people to join them, to fund them and pray for them.  There is a huge need across the world which the church should be meeting.  Can you put your career on hold for a few years to go and help?  Or cancel your next holiday so you can donate some real money?  Give up an hour of television a week to pray for world mission?

In a sobering passage in Matthew 25, Jesus said to his followers:  “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”  Today, where do we have the opportunity to serve Jesus in one of his most ‘distressing disguises’?[1]

[1] Mother Theresa of Calcutta in Where There is Love, There is God

The Parable of the Oppressors?

1354359_fifty_pounds_2The western church has traditionally interpreted the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) as an encouragement to use wisely the gifts that God has given us, though we usually play down the bit about the wrath of God poured out on the servant who doesn’t.  As we observed two weeks ago, this fits in neatly with our protestant work ethic – our performance demonstrates our salvation, and God is looking for a return on his investment in us.  But are there other ways of interpreting this parable when seen through the eyes of other cultures?

When workers’ groups in Latin America looked at this parable they came up with a very different interpretation, because their perspective is different.  In Europe, theology has traditionally been done by wealthy, white, educated men.  But the worker’s groups were the opposite: poor, uneducated, marginalised people who recognised in this story a situation only too relevant to their own situation.  They pointed out that in an agrarian economy anybody who was returning 1000% profit (Luke 19:16) was clearly exploiting someone, and was therefore a bad guy.  Only an evil and corrupt king would commend him.  By their reckoning, the only person who comes out of this story with any credit is the one who buried his talents – because he didn’t oppress anybody.

No pressure then...

No pressure then…

Most Europeans find this interpretation hard to accept, but possibly this is only because we are so accustomed to our traditional interpretation – that God has given us certain talents and expects us to make the most of them… or else.  Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really square with our idea of the totally unmerited grace of God.

The marginalised South Americans who developed their own understanding of this parable would be far closer to the culture of Jesus’ audience than we are.  And while there may be flaws in their interpretation (is Jesus really telling us it’s good just to bury our treasure and do nothing with it?) there are also flaws in ours – is God really an exacting man, reaping where he did not sow, and punishing those who don’t perform well enough?

We also face the challenge that the word ‘talent’ has a double meaning in English.  We understand it to mean a gift or ability, which is stretching the original text too far, as a talent was in Bible times an enormous sum of money.  Luke uses the equivalent word ‘mina’ (an ancient middle-eastern currency unit), which emphasises that there is a financial context to this parable.  A mina was worth about 9 months wages for an agricultural worker – a phenomenal amount of spending money for the sort of people Jesus was talking to.  A talent was the Greco-Roman equivalent.

Jesus is in fact basing this parable on a real life incident involving the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas.  When his father Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, his will had to be confirmed by the Emperor, so all his sons scurried off to Rome to persuade Augustus to grant their claims.  The Jewish people also sent a delegation asking the Emperor to get rid of Herod’s dynasty altogether!

Which raises a relevant question:

Would Jesus really use Herod as a metaphor for God?

We naturally assume that the authority figure in any given parable – a king, a judge, a landowner – stands for God.  But that’s not necessarily so.  There can be the very odd occasion when the authority figure is an anti-type of God – see for example Luke 18:2-8 where the judge is clearly contrasted with God.  This parable is designed to contrast the oppressive behaviour of the king with that of God.  The king commends his stewards who exploited the poor by saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

SheepIt is interesting to note that immediately after this parable Matthew places the judgement of the sheep and the goats, which also features a reward for performance.  But in that story, the slaves are not expected to make a huge profit out of the people, but to be generous to them.  They were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Is it possible that Matthew has set up a deliberate contrast between two ways of behaving – a worldly way embodied by an evil human king, and the heavenly way following the righteous God-King?

This understanding frees us from the pernicious pressure to perform in order to earn our salvation (or at least our reward) and allows us to love generously and freely, in a way that brings hope to the marginalised.  Over history, faced with the choice of being the oppressor or siding with the oppressed, the church has at different times done both.  Institutional church has often been the oppressor, while many courageous, counter-cultural individuals like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa have met Christ in the poor and downtrodden as they served them.

Which course will you take?

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”.  So lamented Juliet, reflecting on the fact that Romeo’s surname was a barrier to their relationship.  She felt his name should not be a significant issue.  True, the fragrance of the rose would remain unchanged if we had named it stinking bogweed, but we might not be so fond of it.

Jesus says something very interesting in his prayer recorded in John 17 – “I have shown them Your Name” (John 17:6).  We often overlook it, but which name does he mean?  They already knew the sacred name YHWH even though they might not know how to say it, because it was considered too holy for a human to pronounce.  They used the words ‘King’ and ‘Lord’, which rightly expressed that God was their ruler.  But these are not names, they’re titles, and there were many other titles which they used as well, but not names.  So what does Jesus mean?

There is one word which he used more than any other to talk about God – Father.  Not just our Father, as the Hebrews frequently prayed, sometimes the Father, but usually my Father.  This was utterly unheard of.  There is no record of anyone in the Old Testament being so presumptuous.  Indeed, the phrase only appears once on the lips of a person in reference to God, and that’s in Psalm 89 where it talks of the Messiah using it.  John records that the religious types understood exactly the implications of Jesus using it.  They accused him of blasphemy, for making himself equal with God.  And this would indeed be blasphemy, if it weren’t true.

So how does ‘my Father’ come to be considered a name?  Many of us call one of our parents ‘father’ but we recognise that it is a title and that he has a personal name as well.  But in Hebrew, ‘name’ doesn’t merely mean a label we randomly place on something.  Names are significant.  They are often prophetic, as Jesus made clear when he gave Simon the new name of Peter (Matthew 16:18).  Sometimes they reflect people’s hopes and dreams – just look at the names Leah gave her sons (Genesis 29), showing that she hoped her husband would love and value her because of her fertility.  Names encapsulate the essence of someone – Barnabas, son of encouragement (Acts 4:36), or James and John who were nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’ because of their fiery temperaments (Mark 3:17).  So Juliet was wrong – a name is highly significant, whether prophetic or causative in shaping the destiny of an individual.

So when Jesus chooses to say ‘My Father’, he is not merely making a statement about his own divinity – which was not lost on his contemporaries.  He is primarily making a statement about the essential character of God.  He used imagery showing how God is a good father (Matthew 7:11).  His most famous parable is about a father who loves his lost son so much that he breaks all the rules to have him back again (Luke 15).  He asserts the compassionate nature of a God who cares for his children (Mark 10:14).  By applying this name, he emphasises that God wants to be our Dad.

How does he show them God’s name?  This doesn’t really make sense in English until you’ve realised that ‘name’ is more than a label.  He could as easily have said “I’ve shown them your nature”.  And he makes the point that he hasn’t simply told people; he’s demonstrated it.  He has lived out the message, as St Francis encouraged his followers to:

“Preach the Gospel at every opportunity.  If all else fails, use words.”

Jesus encapsulated the message.  He demonstrated in his lifestyle who God is.  John gives evidence of this when he records Jesus saying “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  His incarnation, life and death showed the love and holiness of God, and the extent to which God is prepared to go to rescue his lost sheep (Luke 15:7).  What should be our response to this revelation of God’s nature in Jesus?  Go and do the same (Luke 10:37).