BIBLICAL REFLECTIONS

by
Raymond Fung , Takami Toshihiro and Ruawai Rakena

[These Bible Studies were presented at the 10th URM Committee Meeting which was held from 19-24 February 1979]

 

"GO AND TELL JOHN WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN"

--Raymond Fung

 

"John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"… And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me."
Luke 7: 20 - 23

 

I’d like to make two points on the passage Luke 7:17 - 23. The first is that in answering the disciples of John the Baptist as to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus repeated (ver. 22) part of the proclamation recorded in Luke 4, during his visit to the synagogue in Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…", which itself is a quotation from Isaiah 61. Jesus answered as to whether he was the Messiah by repeating what he had proclaimed earlier. But this is only a more or less repetition, not an exact quotation. In Luke 4 Jesus mentioned very clearly and emphatically the release of the prisoner and the liberation of the captive as being part of his mission. In Luke 7 this is clearly omitted. In chapter 7 we have instead the recovery of sight, the preaching of the good news to the poor, but no reference to freeing prisoners.

Why? Both Isaiah 61 and 42, from which Luke 4 could be traced, are emphatic on the prisoner angle. Why the omission in Luke 7? This becomes more puzzling in view of the fact that John the Baptist was at that time in prison. That’s why he wasn’t able to come to Jesus and sent his disciples instead. A message of liberation from captivity would have meant a great deal to John. It would have been very relevant and helpful. And after all, the promise of freeing the captive had all along been accepted as part of Jesus’ mission. Yet somehow Jesus omitted this reference.

I think Jesus made the omission deliberately. He didn’t want to tell John the Baptist, the prisoner, that he would free him for the simple reason that he was not going to free him. The job of the followers of Jesus is to proclaim the good news of liberation to the poor and imprisoned, but when they find themselves in prison they would not be set free. Release from suffering is the Christian’s message to the poor; it is not the Christian’s reward. Maybe that’s why towards the end of the section we read, Jesus added, "Blessed is he who takes no offence at me." I think this might refer to John the Baptist, and to the Christians who suffer for the cause of the good news.

The second point is that in this passage, John’s disciples asked if Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus in effect answered in the affirmative. How did he support that incredible claim? By what authority did he make such a claim? He did not make it by theological argument, nor by an appeal to his geneology, but by his involvement with those who suffer -- the blind, the lame, the leper, the poor. The biblical word is "compassion". In the same chapter, Luke reported that Jesus had compassion on the widow, that he had compassion on the people. People reported that God visited his people in the form of Jesus.

Jesus based his authority on his involvement with the poor. He who gave up equality with God and entered into human suffering has a special right to be heard. And Jesus was heard. He spoke like no scribe or pharisee spoke. He knew what he was talking about when he spoke words of comfort or words of judgment, because he had gone through it.

Whatever authority URM has, it comes as a result of our involvement with the poor, that we have compassion on the people, that we come close enough to the poor to feel their pulse, that we come close enough to hear their unspeakable sighs.

 

 

"RENOUNCE ALL THAT YOU HAVE"

--Takarni Toshihiro

 

"If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple... . . . For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see begin to mock him…. . . . So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple."
Luke 14:26, 28—29, 33.

 

These words (Luke 14:25 - 35) come to me very directly. They are very personal, very intimate words. When I read this passage, my first reaction is a feeling of irritation. I become angry, not against these words here, but against some of the interpretations I hear very often.

So many point out to us the importance of being able to plan things. But how can we plan things when we don’t have many things to plan with? Land, money, connections, education, seeds, know-how -- we’re always being laughed at. Those who are able to plan things ahead of time --a three-year plan, a five-year plan, sitting down and setting up a budget -- these people to me are not poor.

One man came to Asian Rural Institute last year, a field-worker of the NCC in his country. He came, was a hard worker, was excited about knowing more about working with the poor. He was excited about being able to read without disturbance with electric lights. He and I sat down and planned his activities without money, to make the best use of his available time in Japan. But he had to give up his plan and go home. His NCC did not pay his salary when he was away in Japan for study. So his wife and children were depending upon a small amount of savings they had. But last year in October the great floods came, the floods that came to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, all the way to Vietnam. The rice in the fields was wiped out. So his wife began selling things in order to eat. First to go was his harmonium. He was Bengali, and a harmonium is very precious property. For poor people, to sing in the evening is very precious, to gather up the strength to live on for another day. The radio was sold, then her wedding ring, then earrings, then a bracelet. Nothing more was left to sell. He made an appeal to his NCC, and I also appealed to them to advance some money. The answer was negative. He told me, if I go back without completing this program I’ll be laughed at. I won’t be able to do things which I had expected. Still, no choice. I have no money to send. So he went home.

Another simple worker I know depends upon his own people in the villages who save one handful of rice for each meal. When this accumulates, about four kilograms of rice per family per month, that is shared among several workers of the church. They have no base other than trust in other people -- poor people. Planning for them is very simple: from day to day, we plan to do something to help ourselves.

This is what we always say on this biblical passage: the importance of planning. But I don’t think this is the message. It says here to give up everything. There is a similar passage in Mark’s gospel. Give up everything you have. Renounce your relationship with your brother and sister and parents, even your life -- and, Mark repeats twice, even your land. What does this mean? Land is necessary for farmers to produce and live. At any rate, it seems to me that our plan has to be that we become even poorer, to continue to live and work with the poor people. It is a pitiful struggle. Some people say with a romantic tone that "small is beautiful". But I always feel, small is pitiful. Luke says in chapter 12, be ready for action, with belts fastened and lamps alight. That we must be ready to do.

 

 

TREATIES AND COVENANTS

--Ruawai Rakena

 

In the context of our New Zealand situation and our general theme for this meeting of "People, Land and Power", these elements have together featured prominently in the multiplicity of contracts, agreements, covenants, etc., drawn up and entered into down through the years. None, however, has had a more profound and decisive effect than the Treaty of Waitangi.

When the letter requesting me to make this presentation arrived it coincided with our New Zealand observance of the 139th anniversary of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Consequently my mind wandered about treaties and agreements as a focus for one of our reflections during this meeting, especially in relation to the covenant established between God and Israel, a brief summary of which is to be found in Deuteronomy 24: 5-9.

"A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey."

New Zealand can be counted among the numerous countries whose present position in respect to "People, Land and Power" has been moulded and shaped by a single event that occurred as a consequence of British colonial expansion in the 19th century. The importance of the event is reflected in the comment that as the Magna Carta is to the British and the Constitution to the Americans, so the Treaty of Waitangi is to New Zealanders.

Our particular Treaty, not unlike others one reads and hears about, has been and continues to be rather a mixed blessing. Although helping to establish much needed law and order as tensions and conflict grew with the increased numbers of Europeans arriving, the Treaty also helped facilitate the acquisition of large tracts of Maori land by the settlers and the Crown, and ensured ultimately that the greater power resided in the European courts and political institutions. It is noted that in respect to land, even before sales had been completed or, for that matter, negotiated, large slices were being sold and offered for sale in London.

Two versions of the Treaty are noted in today’s discussions. The first is the official version in English in terms of which much subsequent colonial policy and legislation resulted. The second is a translated interpretive version in Maori, which was largely to provide the tribal chiefs of the l840s with the gist of what the Treaty was all about, but was not as explicit as it might have been concerning the "fine points".

Consequently, it was only natural that as the full content of the Treaty was better comprehended, and as actions flowing from it were seen and felt, widespread Maori opposition and discontent set in. Land, in particular, became the focal point for Maori suspicion and distrust of the Europeans, and their failure to understand the different meaning Maoris gave to land and its utilization finally led to the 1860 wars between our two peoples.

Although the years since the turn of the century have been relatively free of conflict, nonetheless an uneasy, restless peace prevails. In more recent years, the observance of the anniversary of the Signing of the Treaty on February 6 has occasioned regular protest, especially on the part of younger Maori.

This, very briefly, is the context in which I began contemplating that Old Testament treaty, the Covenant, established between God and ancient Israel. The following occurred to me as possible areas for our reflection together:

1. Although in the Biblical story we are concerned with an agreement or contract of another order altogether, I note the importance to Israel of continuously "stirring the memory". The Exodus story was recalled and celebrated from generation to generation and remained for Israelites a constant stimulus and source of power.

When I draw attention to this fact for our own reflection, I think of a comment made, that the extent to which such decisive events remain in the memory of a people will be the extent to which that people continues to draw power, to form more enlightened views and appropriate action for change centuries later.

2. Although self-evident to such as ourselves, I note further the all-determining additional dimension to Israel’s "treaty", namely, the fact of God being the other partner. Consequently, an initial and fundamental contractual relationship is realized as a basis for subsequent relationship between Israel and other peoples.

From our Christian perspective, whatever the contract or agreement or treaty, unless this higher dimension forms a conscious and integral part of the human relationship, it is bound to come apart.

3. The deep sense of having been liberated was another element in the covenant between God and Israel, and from this stemmed Israel’s concept and belief in a God who cared for the oppressed, who was righteous and just, and who was one in whom they could have complete trust.

This element of trust in relation to the treaties we make is one we may further reflect upon. I think of our own New Zealand treaty and the betrayal of trust now surrounding it as a result of land lost and power that is unequally distributed.

4. As the record of the years following the establishing of the Covenant reveals, Israel was in no way consistent in keeping its part of the Covenant. The numerous incidents that have given rise to the "murmuring" tradition underline Israel’s frequent backslidings. It is significant, however, that Israel acknowledges its weaknesses and imperfections, receives the rebukes meted out by its leaders and prophets and is penitent. It is also salutary, I think, to reflect on the fact that contributing to Israel’s lapses was a desire to be permanently successful without having to experience any discomforts and pain.

"Murmurings" are part of our experience today. There is hardly a people or group leader who is not at some stage confronted with those among his or her own who strongly oppose a decision taken and/or who pose threats to his or her leadership. However, perhaps there is solace for some in Israel’s content to allow time and death to remove those who are reluctant to support radical change where it is called for.

5. Finally, the Covenant history and experience of Israel is shot through with a firm hope of fulfillment. In terms of the Old Testament, Israelites’ fulfillment was represented by their occupation of the land promised as part of the Covenant deal -- an occupation, incidentally, which required Israel to rout another people who had taken possession in the interim. However, as subsequent history and the New Testament disclose, this particular fulfillment was only another step along the way. God’s intention and purpose went beyond what was comprehended by Israel at the time.

Contracts, agreements, treaties or whatever, are beginnings, and fulfillment in God’s scheme of things is a constant hope.

However, by giving God his rightful and prior place in our dealings with each other, by remaining firm in our belief and conviction that he is the God and Father whom Christ revealed fully, and by our continuing struggle to right past and present injustices -- to help bring about the kind of changes that will liberate both oppressed and oppressors will remain tolerable, even in the face of what often seem such overwhelming odds.