Reflections on climate change and the urban poor

To me, suffering, climate change, and poverty are interconnected.

I grew up in a crowded city in East Asia in the 1970s. Most of us were poor, though not destitute. We were able to put food on the table, but had to work very long hours in unsafe conditions in factories in order to make ends meet. Common urban environmental issues—such as air pollution and dirty sewage—affected us all the time. But through hard work and perseverance, we made do.

Today, the area I lived in continues to be one of the poorest districts in the city. In fact, the city’s rich-poor disparity is the worst among developed countries. Although the city is undoubtedly one of the wealthiest in the world, the living condition of the poor is quite appalling.

Climate change will affect the urban poor severely. Rising global temperature is a health hazard for the poor, not least the elderly and young children, in this very hot urban concrete jungle. The increasingly frequent extreme weather endangers the life of the poor who live in makeshift accommodation, often in the form of substandard rooftop dwellings. The urban poor’s lack of economic resources and low social status means that it is hard for them to adapt to or take part in mitigating the effects of climate change. They cannot afford to have energy-efficient housing. Nor can they opt for renewable energy at its current price.

cardboard_lady_1But if we think that they are not active participants of creation care, we are wrong. Their poverty means that they do not worship the idols of materialism and consumerism. (But of course they are often victims of a highly market-driven economy). They contribute to negligible greenhouse gas emissions, for they don’t use much electricity anyway. In fact, they naturally minimise energy usage for that is their lifelong habit.

In my view, it is important not to think that the urban poor are simply victims of climate change, or passive participants of creation care. Yes, the poor do suffer more than others, but we should appreciate their resilience and tenacity. The Bible says,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1–5; NRSV)

Even though this passage is about the Christian life, it sheds light on the fact that suffering is not necessarily a negative experience, whether Christian or not. The urban poor have learned to live in hope. Their character has been shaped by years of patient endurance in suffering. I will finish with a symbolic picture of a phenomenon in an Asian city.

Everyday you can find a large number of elderly people collecting cardboard boxes, old newspapers, and aluminium cans on the streets. They sell these recyclable items for a small amount of money so as to make a living. So, ironically, these people in their 60s and 70s (or older) take part in recycling and waste management to protect the environment, while the wealthy continue to indulge in consumerism and materialism. Despite their old age and declining health, these urban giants persevere with dignity. They live in hope and self-respect even though the city has forgotten their lifelong contribution to its welfare. Paradoxically, the silent resilience of the vulnerable is a loud voice that speaks against Australia’s lack of serious action on climate change.

Source of picture: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1624253/cardboard-dreams-day-hong-kong-elderly-woman-who-must-scavenge?page=all Accessed on 20th June 2016.

Reflections on living on a low income in Australia (Part 2)

In my last post I talked about the challenges of living on a low income in Australia. In the following I want to affirm that living on a low income is by no means a sign of God’s abandonment. Nor is it necessarily a hindrance to participate in the purpose and mission of God. Here I will briefly mention a few things that I have learned in this journey.

First, focus on God and trust him for his provision. This is not as simple as it sounds. It is in fact a lifelong journey, with many failures along the way. There are many miracles of God’s blessings, even though sometimes they are very tiny miracles. Sometimes God blesses me with the company of friends who buy me coffees. At other times we receive substantial financial gifts from friends who do not expect anything in return. And there are times when we simply have to faithfully trust in God’s love.

Second, have a sense of God’s vocational calling. When I lost my job, I was anxious to find work. But after prayer it became clear that I should wait on God for work that fits into his purpose for me and for his world. Over the years God has given me opportunities to participate in his purpose through theological teaching and other voluntary services. Regardless of how much I earn, I know that I am walking with God, which is most important. The one who calls us is faithful (1 Thess 5:24).

Third, not having many material possessions is a good thing. God has supplied all our needs. We live a simple life, and it is good! Some months ago I asked our 14-year-old whether he wanted an iPhone or smart phone, knowing that almost all his friends had one of those gadgets. But he said that he didn’t need one. He is accustomed to not having extra material things. Living simply is great.

Fourth, low income draws the family closer. We don’t have much, but we have each other. We enjoy our yummy meals at home. Our son always praises Mum’s cooking. Isn’t that wonderful? We also enjoy cheap meals in the Asian restaurants in multicultural Melbourne. There are many precious moments that we cherish as a family.

Fifth, our experience helps us to identify with the pain of others, albeit only in very small measure. Our struggles remind us of the much greater suffering that the poor and marginalised experience on a daily basis. Trials help us to be better listeners to the stories of those who suffer, especially those living with poverty and social injustice. If anything, I hope our low income can reduce the power differentials between us and the poor, even though only by a little bit.

Sixth, our experience helps us to understand the mission of God. God sent his Son to become a human being, to identify with the suffering of humanity, and to die on the cross so as to set them free from the power of sin and death. God raised him from the dead so that all who are in him may flourish as people created in his image. Christ did not just say that he cared, he came to share—to share the joys and pains of humanity. Our very small struggles give us an opportunity to follow the footsteps of our Lord, saviour, and king. We pray that by God’s grace we may also share the reasons for our hope with the people around us.

Reflections on living on a low income in Australia (Part 1)

It has been tough since I lost my job a few years ago. But I have managed to find casual work all these years. My wife works part-time. I also do volunteering work. Unfortunately, even though we both work very hard, we live on a low-income.

We are not poor. We have a roof over our heads, and food on our table. We receive Family Tax Benefit payments from the government. As Australian citizens, we have access to Medicare benefits. We have some savings for a rainy day. Our family car is still in good condition, and so are our computers. These essential items keep us in touch with friends, so that we are not isolated. We are of course in a much better financial situation than many other Australians, such as the homeless and those living with a severe disability (and without sufficient family support). And of course our living standard is much higher than those living in low-income countries.

My education and work experience also put me in a much better position than many others. I know how to manage my finances. I can work my way through the Centrelink website to find out what benefits I am eligible for. I don’t have problems in filling out the very complicated application form for the low-income healthcare card. Even though I am a migrant, my English is good enough to talk with the Centrelink consultants on the phone.

But it doesn’t mean that living on a low income is easy. In the following I want to share my experience over the last few years, and highlight a few things that I have learned as a follower of Jesus.

The first challenge we face is how to handle stress. When will the next casual job come up? What should I do when there are two or more casual job offers? Declining offers may jeopardise future job opportunities. But at the same time it is very stressful to take on too much work, not to mention that the quality of my work will drop when doing multiple jobs. Not uncommonly, the pay is not good, and sometimes the employer does not pay on time. But I have no choice but to work for them. This can lead to disappointment and frustration. There are many other reasons for stress—such as, you never know when the next pay cheque will come, and how big (or small!) it is. But you get the picture.

The second challenge we face is downward social mobility. Our tight budget means that we have to reduce our social activities. We try not to go out for coffee, lunch, or dinner with friends, including friends at church, because even a coffee is quite expensive nowadays. We turn down invitations to go on holidays with friends. Sometimes conversations with friends can be difficult. When they talk about their new coffee machine, lounge suite, overseas holidays, going to the theatre, and their children’s special extra curricular activities, we feel left out because we cannot afford them.

None of our friends live a life of luxury. They are hardworking middle-income people who live according to what they can afford. Many of them are Christians and are generous people. But increasingly we find ourselves living in a different world. In fact, Christian conferences are beyond our budget, not to mention overseas mission trips or visiting those living with poverty outside Australia. Even though I have a PhD in Biblical Studies, and four other degrees, I need a small office-cleaning job to supplement my income. I don’t think anyone thinks that it is a shame to do such a menial task. But the fact is, we have moved down the social ladder. There is inevitably a sense of loss and isolation.

The third challenge has something to do with culture and family background. I have an East Asian background, and my father’s family is quite poor. My Aussie friends do not understand my obligation for my father’s wellbeing (including financial wellbeing), and the shame I feel for not being able to give him more money. Conversely, I don’t have middle-class Christian relatives to turn to as a last resort for help. In addition, I feel that I deprive my son of more opportunities—not just material things, but also opportunities to engage in extra curricular activities that other kids enjoy.

The fourth challenge is about religion. Increasingly I feel that individualism is a big issue in Christianity. The goals and desires of the individual are highly valued. Independence, self-reliance, and the rights of the individuals take centre stage. I do believe that personal relationship with God is absolutely important, and my own experience of faith affirms that. But personal relationship with God has little to do with individualism, where the “I” (instead of the self-giving Christ!) is the centre of everything. I find that I have to come to terms with the fact that Christianity in the West is quite individualistic, and often people don’t see that it is a problem. But the thing is, my situation has taught me that my goals and desires as an individual are no longer important (as I will explain later).

Another feature of contemporary Christianity is triumphalism—a belief that Christians always win, that they can always overcome adversity. In this belief system, there is little room for failure or defeat, let alone suffering. In fact, suffering, including financial hardship, is to be rejected as totally undesirable. I do not fit into this brand of Christianity.

So, living on a low income affects many areas of life. It has an impact on our mental and social wellbeing, as well as family life and religious orientation.

Having said all that, I have come to realise that living on a low income is by no means a sign of God’s abandonment. Nor is it necessarily a hindrance to participate in the purpose and mission of God. In the next blog post I will outline a few things I have learned in this journey.

What does the cross mean to you?

Someone posted in social media recently and asked the question, “What does the cross mean to you?”

ImageI find this intriguing because I am teaching a course on the cruciform church at the moment. I looked at the responses to the question, and here is my paraphrase of the answers.

  • Grace.
  • I come to the cross to tell Jesus how much I need him.
  • Unconditional love.
  • Everything.
  • It means that my life will never be the same again.
  • It tells me how much he has done for me.
  • It symbolises two thousand years of effective protection for Christians.
  • Forgiveness and hope.
  • When I look at the cross, I know that he answers the prayers of the individual.

The other responses are very similar.

I certainly think that the cross represents the unconditional love of God. And I share the experience of a totally changed life when I came to faith in Christ. At a personal level, the message of the cross—the cruciform death and resurrection of Christ—has the most profound impact on my life.

But I wonder whether the above answers highlight some issues we have to face as a church at large?

First, almost all the responses above are about what God has done for us, or will do for us. There is very little about what the cross demands.

For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about cross-bearing.

Then he [Jesus] said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (NIV; Luke 9:23; cf. Matt 10:38; Mark 8:34)

And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27; Matt 16:24)

The cross is certainly very important to the apostle Paul. In Galatians he talks about his co-crucifixion with Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal 2:20a)

Paul also speaks of a cruciform leadership pattern that is about identifying with Christ’s death so that the life of Christ may manifest through his weakness.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor 4:10–11)

Much more can be said. But it is clear that the New Testament does not only talk about what the cross does for the followers of Jesus. It also has much to say about what the cross means to the daily life of Christ-followers.

No wonder Isaac Watts says in his great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,

Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Second, almost no-one cites or alludes to the Scripture in their responses to the question “What does the cross mean to you?” in the above question raised in social media. This (at least partially) explains why the responses are all fairly similar, and that they ignore cross-bearing and the cross-shaped faith. I think many will agree that biblical literacy has been declining in recent years, and this is a very unhealthy trend.

Third, I wonder whether the responses also reflect a “what’s in it for me” church culture today? I am glad to see that people do love Jesus because of the cross. But one’s love for God needs to be expressed through cruciform commitment to Christ. I personally find this commitment very challenging. But nonetheless this is what we are called to do, and so let us do so by relying on God’s grace and the help of his Spirit.

Four, I wonder what teaching we receive in our churches and on the Internet today? Do we still focus on the Scripture? Do we challenge Christians to focus on the cross and be faithful to God? I hope we do.

Fifth, I really hope that Christians in the West do not export a truncated understanding of the cross to other parts of the world. I mean, we need to present and live out a gospel message that truly reflect the meaning of the cross. The cross is about the good news of the Jesus for humanity, and at the same time it demands Christ-followers to embody the self-giving love of Jesus in the world.

Let me close by citing the words of Miroslav Volf.

In a world of violence, the Cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lives at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal . . . there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge. (in Volfs book, Exclusion and Embrace, page 26)

I find this very challenging. May God give us the courage and grace to follow Jesus.

As Christians, where should our support go to when it comes to poverty alleviation?

I spent almost seven years in the aid and development sector. My role there demanded me to think biblically about good community development in poverty-stricken places around the world. I came to the conclusion that good community development work and poverty reduction projects must involve faithful embodiment of Christ’s life, suffering, death, and resurrection. This can take many forms. But invariably it cannot be measured in terms of short-term success stories. Importantly, it cannot be measures in terms of what we in the West call “success.”

Much can be said about this. But Matthew Maury’s comments below provide us with a timely reminder of what good community development looks like.

Over the past 25 years, I have regularly been reminded that community development is not a predictable and linear process. This is something I find to be particularly true in communities struggling to overcome the worst forms of poverty and oppression. Development is typically complicated and often messy work, with progress at times hidden from immediate sight. Our work often epitomises the saying “two steps forward and one (or two) steps back”. To achieve lasting positive change requires long-term commitment and can take many, many years.

The challenge . . . is to tell the true story of “messy development”. This is particularly true in context in which development agencies try to “sell” their successes in order to convince donors to fund their work. Australian donors — the church included — have become addicted to (and demanding of) a narrative of easy and quick success for the cost of just a few dollars per month . . . While I also want to see my donations used as effectively and successfully as possible, I fear that our sector has created an unhealthy (and unrealistic) expectation about the core work that we do — messy development.

As Christians, we know that God doesn’t call us to prioritise worldly success but rather to pursue lives of faithfulness. I believe this is equally true for . . . the essence of good development work. We are called to be faithful to the commands of Scripture. Commands which tell us to put all we have towards loving God and loving our neighbour. We are to pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our Lord (Micah 6:8). Commands which do not have easy-to-achieve three-year project proposals tied to them.

The title of this blog post is: As Christians, where should our support go to when it comes to poverty alleviation? I actually don’t have a simply answer to this question. (In fact, I don’t claim to be an expert in the field at all.) To do justice to the complexity of poverty and community development, we must not resort to simple answers. But what is clear, I think, is that we should not uncritically support organisations that major on selling simple success stories without explaining the complexity of poverty reduction. Instead, it is those people and agencies that honestly share their struggles in “messy development” that deserve our attention.

Source of citations above: Target Magazine, Issue 1, 2016 (TEAR Australia), page 2.

Reflections on the power dynamics in Mark’s Gospel (The Widow’s offering)

Introduction

(This is a slightly revised version of a reflection I shared at a seminar last year.)

I would like to share some thoughts on the widow’s offering at the temple in Mark 12:41–44. (I confess that I am no expert in Mark’s Gospel—in fact, far from it. So, Markan scholars, please forgive me for any embarrassing error of judgment.)

I used to be a pastor in a big inner-city church (with more than 1,000 members). One day, a widow—whose husband had died about a year before—told me that she had listened to a motivational preacher at another church. That speaker inspired her so much that she gave a large sum of money to the ministry.

I could guess what the message of the motivational sermon was, for it was very popular at the time. The message was probably something like this: you reap what you sow; and whether you are rich or poor, the best way to get God’s blessing is to sow your money into the church and then you will reap God’s blessing.

The widow at my church was not poor, but was certainly vulnerable given the limited resource she had. She was, one might argue, exploited because of her vulnerability. (That was unlikely to be the intention of the preacher though.) As you will see, her story has somewhat shaped my understanding of the widow’s offering in Mark.

The Jerusalem temple and Melbourne

The setting of the widow’s offering is the Jerusalem temple. Like other well-known temples in the ancient world, it was the religious, social, and economic centre in the region. And like other major cities, Jerusalem, as an urban centre, would have been a melting pot of people, with a minority wealthy ruling class and a majority poor population, as well as some foreigners of non-Jewish ethnic origins.

The CBD (Central Business District) of Melbourne and the inner-city suburbs bear similar features. We have the State Parliament House, small and large churches, including St Patrick’s, St Paul’s, and City On a Hill (which is a big church that meets at Hoytes Cinemas in the CBD). Then we have one Hindu temple, quite a few Buddhist temples, and several mosques. In addition, Melbourne is a very multicultural society.

Most major banks and businesses can be found in the city. It is not true that the majority of the population is poor. But we do see sharp contrasts between the rich and the poor. Low-wage cleaners, middle-class professionals, and super-high-income executives work in the same buildings. There are expensive apartments and houses, but there are also many homeless people. Among the poor are those living with mental illness, many of them have suffered from family violence. Then there are asylum seekers, who are often very poor. Some of them suffer from mental illness because of the trauma they have experienced.

Power dynamics in the systems

Some have suggested, rightly, that the temple system and its leaders in Jerusalem were the ones responsible for the poverty and marginalisation in the city. The duty-bearers—the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders (that is, those in positions of power)—failed to act justly and provide for the poor. The presence of a poor widow was a vivid picture of the failure of the temple system to care for the most vulnerable in the society.

Likewise, behind the wealth and poverty in Melbourne are social, economic, political, and religious systems that fail to care for the poor and the disadvantaged. And our duty-bearers—and we, who have the right to vote in our democratic system—need to be held accountable. Saying that the asylum seekers came to Australia illegally is a violation of their humanity as image-bearers of God. A culture of neglect of domestic violence—both inside and outside the church—is unacceptable.

And we should not forget our highly market-driven global economy. I know that some people are unhappy with the wealthy Asians who contribute to the high property prices in Melbourne. Some think that their urban lifestyle is a reason why we now have high-density apartment blocks. But we have forgotten that for decades the West benefited from the cheap imported goods from Asia, which was produced by millions of low-wage workers who worked very long hours in unsafe working conditions. So, as we shop at our big department stores and as our financial planners help us to earn money in shares, we also help to create a minority wealthy upper class in Asia, who has the resources to buy expensive properties in the West, including those in the Melbourne CBD and inner-city suburbs. I think gentrification is a big issue for the urban poor today. But there are deeper issues and economic dynamics that we need to be aware of.

The desire for honour (Mark 12:38–40)

I have highlighted some of the power dynamics at play in our world today. Now let us take a look at Mark 12:38–40, which says,

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ (NRSV; emphasis aded)

Anyone who has some understanding of the honour-and-shame social convention in the ancient world would know that this passage speaks of the scribes’ desire for honour and wealth within the social and religious culture at the time.

I wonder whether this passage has something to say about the celebrity culture today? Fuelled by consumerism and aided by the social media, our celebrity culture allows people to gain honour and social power by virtue of a niche market or message, rather than the quality of the whole of their lives.

And don’t think that this only applies to reality TV shows and popular churches. All of us are subject to the same temptation, including pastors, biblical scholars, theologians, and urban mission practitioners. Popularity is forever seductive, for it appeals to our never-ending desire for power.

Here I would like to highlight the devouring of the widows’ houses in Mark 12:38–40. Prior to this passage, Jesus had been debating with the scribes about the Scripture. Implicit here is the scribes’ failure to practise what the Scripture clearly says concerning solidarity with widows. Jesus responded with some very strong words, “they will receive the greater condemnation,” which (in context) paves the way for his prediction of the temple’s destruction in Mark 13.

An unnecessary offering (Mark 12:41–44)

After this, Jesus said,

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ (NRSV)

Mark’s account is different from Luke’s in that in verse 43 Jesus called his disciples to highlight the contrast between the giving of the widow and that of the rich. Three verses later, one of the disciples made a remark about the magnificence of the temple building, which is remarkable in that this means that the temple hardly needed the widow’s tiny offering.

This begs the question of whether the widow’s offering was misguided—perhaps by the scribes themselves (although we cannot be sure)? Maybe, like the widow I knew at my previous church, this widow was misled by the religious leaders of her day? At any rate, at a practical level the widow’s offering was so insignificant in economic terms that it was hardly necessary for the temple’s upkeep.

Economics and power

In a moment I will look at the devotion of the widow. But before that, two observations on the economic and social dynamics are in order.

First, the coins and the economy of the Roman Empire. Earlier in Chapter 12, the Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus by asking him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13, 14). Then Jesus asked them to bring him a denarius, which was a silver coin with a portrait of the emperor and an inscription saying “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” The two coins used by the widow were lepta (λεπτα; plural of λεπτόν), which were the least valuable coins used in circulation in Palestine.

What we see here are pictures of religious-political and economic power dynamics. Who was in power, the God of Israel, or Caesar—who was the “son of the divine” according to the inscription on the coin? Or was it the interconnected oppressive religious-political and economic systems in the Empire?

Second, the widow and the social system. In Mark’s Gospel, the Greek term for “widow” (χήρα) appears only in our passage (12:40, 42, 43). But let us not forget that 20 verses earlier Jesus debated with the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead. The illustration used was a woman whose seven partners died. This means that the woman effectively became a widow seven times! It also means that she became vulnerable seven times because of the prospect of socioeconomic marginalisation as a result of not having a husband in a male-dominant society.

The pro-Roman Sadducees did not like resurrection because they believed that prosperity and security came from Rome, who had the power to kill and conquer. But the belief in the resurrection would render that power meaningless.

The resurrection, of course, also meant that the widow could have the hope of ultimate liberation from socioeconomic oppression.

But in our passage we hear that the scribes devoured the widows’ houses, and a poor widow is giving all that she had to live on to the temple system that failed to protect her.

I think similar social, economic, and religious power dynamics are at play in Melbourne, and I have already mentioned examples of these above.

The devotion of the poor widow

I will now look at the devotion of the poor widow. And here I want to emphasise that I am referring to the devotion of the widow expressed in her giving, not the financial gift itself. I have mentioned that the beautiful and imposing architecture of the temple is set in sharp contrast to a vulnerable widow. But I think the contrast between the giving of the rich and that of the widow is just as—if not more—striking. Jesus said,

For all (πάντες) of them have put in out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in all (πάντα) she had, everything she had to live on. (12:44; my translation)

It is in this sense that the widow put in more than all of (πάντων) the others (12:43).

(For those who know Greek, see how the Greek highlights the contrasts between them, the dual use of πᾶς and ἐκ: πάντες γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ περισσεύοντος αὐτοῖς ἔβαλον, αὕτη δὲ ἐκ τῆς ὑστερήσεως αὐτῆς πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν ἔβαλεν ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.)

As mentioned above, my sense is that the widow’s offering was somewhat misguided, and her giving was definitely not a model for the poor. In fact, one can argue that her financial giving was an illustration of the exploitative social-religious system that the scribes represented.

Yet her devotion to God was to be commended, and it seems that Jesus did just that. The evidence for this, I think, is found in the theme of wholehearted devotion in the current passage and in the pericope a few verses before that.

The theme of devotion to God is present in Mark 12:38–44 itself, although in a very negative way. In verse 40 Jesus mentioned the scribes’ long prayers, which was the evidence for their false devotion to God. Of course, the theme of wholehearted devotion is found in Jesus’ conversation with a particular scribe in 12:28–34, which was about the greatest commandment.

Here we need to note that Mark 12:38–44 ends with a reference to the widow’s devotion to God.

She put in the whole of her life (or “livelihood”) (My translation of ἔβαλεν ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς.)

The word “whole” is highly significant. Mark just used the word “whole” (ὅλος) very recently—seven times in 12:28–34 (verses 30, 33). A scribe asked Jesus which commandment was the most important (12:28). Jesus referred to Deut 6:4–5 and said,

Love the LORD you God with your whole (ὅλης) heart, with your whole (ὅλης) soul, with your whole (ὅλης) mind, and with your whole (ὅλης) strength. (12:30; my translation)

The scribe agreed and added “to love one’s neighbour as oneself” as the other important commandment (12:33).

Ironically, only seven verses later Mark speaks of Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes. Instead of loving their “neighbours”—that is, the widows—they exploited them (12:40). But most significantly, it was the poor widow’s offering that Jesus described as a “whole of life” expression of devotion to God.

So, the rich and the scribes failed to keep the second greatest commandment, while the poor widow fulfilled the greatest commandment by loving God wholeheartedly. In fact, by failing to keep the second commandment, the rich failed to love God with their whole heart. But the poor widow demonstrated her genuine devotion to God despite her lack of resources to give to anyone.

Devotion to God and faithfulness in suffering

Three further observations before I wrap up with some final reflections.

First, as mentioned, the theme of devotion to God actually started in Jesus’ comment on the scribes, where he said that as a show they made long prayers (12:40). Their devotion was a false one. This is set in shark contrast to the devotion of the poor widow. Incidentally, even biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, and social justice activists face the temptation to put on a show in their work, especially when they have become famous. We need to be on our guard all the time.

Second, the widow’s offering is the last thing mentioned before Mark 13, which speaks of the destruction of the temple. If Jesus, the “faithful suffering servant” figure was the one who had the authority to prophetically announce judgement on the temple system, then the widow, given the location of the text in Mark’s Gospel, is the most prominent human figure who embodied the call to being faithful in suffering.

Third, the first story after Mark 13 is the anointing of Jesus by a woman. It seems that the theme of devotion bookends the judgment in Mark 13. (Incidentally, both the denarii and the poor are mentioned the Mark 14:5—economics again!)

Concluding stories

To conclude, let me suggest that those who suffer more are often those who love God more. I think the widow’s offering serves as a prophetic critique against the exploitative socioeconomic and religious systems. But it seems that it is simultaneously a demonstration of the power of the powerless. When you are poor, when you have nothing to live on, and when you are suffering, the best you can offer to God is your whole life.

Faithfulness in suffering is in fact the most powerful response to unjust system, and, indeed, cosmic evil powers. The Crucified Christ and Risen Lord is, of course, the one who showed us what this means.

Neil, a former member of my church who died from cancer some time ago, is a good example of faithfulness in suffering. Neil lived with mental illness for many years. But despite his many struggles he said to me one day, “I am not afraid to die, for I know where I am going.” His hope was, of course, ultimately on the resurrection, for just as God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he is also the God of Neil.

Mary (not her real name), a friend from Chin State, Burma, is another example. She came to Melbourne as a refugee, fleeing from severe persecution in Burma. And she has no relatives here. We can hardly imagine what it was like to be a refugee and how it feels to be a migrant like her. But one day she told me how often she prayed: whether at work or study, she always prayed. I wish I were as devoted to God as she is.

I can go on and on, but I hope you get the picture. I set out to look for hidden power dynamics in Mark’s Gospel. And I ended up finding the most powerful story in a widow—the most powerless person whose voice is arguably the loudest even though she didn’t say anything.

The question is: how often do we allow the noise in the city and the marketplaces to stop us from hearing her voice?

The Book of Revelation and the call of the church to mission (Dean Flemming)

Sometimes Christians find it hard to understanding the Book of Revelation in the Bible. At the same time, the followers of Jesus don’t always know how to embody the mission of God in their lives. But in his book, Recovering the Full Mission of God, Dean Flemming helps us to read Revelation (and other New Testament books) and understand God’s call for the church to participate in his mission, especially in the Western world.

Flemming-Recovering-Full-Mission-of-God

Here are a few excerpts from Flemming’s book.

[The] church is to come out of Babylon—“to be a godly community in the midst of the ungodly empire.” (Page 238; emphasis added; see Rev 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21.)

From Revelation’s perspective, the church lives out its missional calling in a world dominated by a Roman Empire that had declared its power to be absolute. Rome had hijacked the claim to sovereignty over the world from the one true God. This idolatrous order was demonstrated above all in the emperor cult, which thrived in the cities of Asia. (page 238)

It is a call for God’s people to abandon Babylon-like living. Practically, it means distancing themselves from such ordinary cultural practices as eating food sacrificed to idols (Rev 2:14–15, 20–21). Christians could encounter idol food in a whole variety of settings. These included public festivals, social dinners at the temple, and meetings of the trade guilds, all of which involved honouring the emperor and the traditional pagan gods. But although this might be a “normal” activity in the culture, in John’s prophetic eyes, it is a compromise with state-sponsored idolatry. Leaving Babylon would also involve forsaking unjust economic practices. And, as Christ’s message to the church in Laodicea reveals, it is a departure from self-indulgent consumption, along with the arrogance that fuels it. “I am rich,” boast the Laodiceans, “I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev 3:17). In short, exiting Babylon entails leaving behind whatever values and practices support the idolatry of the empire and oppose the claims of the true and living God. (page 239; emphasis added)

God’s people must live as a holy, distinctive community in the public square. Loyalty to the Lamb is no private affair. They have “his [the Lamb’s] name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1; cf. Rec 22:4), for all to see. In Revelation’s symbolism, they bear a divine “seal” (Rev 7:3–8; 9:5) as an outward, visible sign that they belong to God, not to the beast (cf. Rev 13:16–17). The church’s life is not hidden, but on parade before a watching world. As God’s people “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4), they become a public embodiment of the narrative of the crucified Lord. And this draws others to the Savior.[1] (page 241; emphasis added, except for “in the public square”)

What would it mean for Christian communities to “come out of Babylon” today? In the first place, we must seek to discern, by the Spirit’s guidance, where “Babylon” is to be found. It may be nearer than we think. Where in the world do governments or corporations increase their own wealth and security at the expense of powerless people? Where do nations use political, military or economic force to promote self-serving policies? Where do political or economic powers act in ways that demand idolatrous allegiance? Where do individuals and societies cuddle the culture-god of consumerism? And in what ways are Christians drawn into being an accomplice to Babylon, whether actively or passively? (page 241; emphasis added)

Source: Dean Flemming, Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).