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: 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.

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)


(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?

Reading Romans in a globalised, urban world (David W. Smith)

My sense is that in the emerging globalised world we are seeing more and more urban poverty issues. For example, as I highlighted in the past, there are a lot of elderly people living in poverty in Hong Kong, despite the enormous amount of wealth among the rich in the city. (Click here to see the post.)

In his book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013), David W. Smith insightfully talks about how we may read Romans in our globalised urban world. Here are a few excerpts.

The collapse of Christendom, and the resulting crisis for the churches of the West, the massive growth of Christianity across the Global South, especially . . . in contexts of urban poverty and suffering, and the accelerating expansion of cities, driven by economic and ideological forces which pose similar questions to those we have seen Paul expressing with regard to the Roman imperium, all of these developments in our world presage a new epoch in Christian history. The Hispanic theologian Justo González comments that we are living ‘in time of vast changes in the church’s self-understanding’, and that the consequences of the shifts taking place today ‘will be more drastic than those which took place in the sixteenth century’. The loss of Christendom, González says, should not be lamented since it opens up the possibility that the meaning of Scripture may become clearer to us as truth is seen to consist not in abstract, intellectual concepts, but rather as ‘closely bound with bread and wine, with justice and peace, with a coming Reign of God . . .

González points out that one of the features of the transformation taking place around us is that whole swathes of the human population, taught of their superiors and betters, are today finding their voices. Ethnic minorities, women and children, people who ‘for reasons of class, nationality, sex, . . . , will no longer be silent’. What this suggests is that the most significant insights into Paul’s message are likely to come from below, from people whose socio-economic situations in a globalized world corresponds closely to that of the majority of the original recipients of this letter [that is, Paul’s letter to the Romans] in the slums of the megacity of Rome.

This fact is highlighted by Peter Oakes’ use of archaeological evidence in the ruins of Pompeii to construct an imagined ’house church’ in first-century Rome. Such a group certainly included slaves, including women who were almost routinely subjected to sexual exploitation. How would such followers of Jesus have heard Paul’s letter?

Indeed, in the twenty-first century we must do more than think about this, we must ask our brothers and sisters in the slums of Sao Paulo, Nairobi and Mumbai how they hear this ancient letter and what following Jesus means in practice in their daily lives.


Sources: The references to González above are from Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 48, 50. The excerpts from David Smith’s The Kindness of God are from location 1443–1478 in the Kindle version of the book.

The display of wealth of the city and the urban poor

I came across an article written by Dr Jayakumar Christian, someone I respect greatly. It is entitled The Rise of the Urban Poor. There is much to ponder, but I will only highlight a few things using the following quotes.

Jayakumar Christian talks about the “vulgar display of wealth” of the city, and observes that the rich-poor disparity is an increasing problem.

In a strange way, the city brings to the fore in a pronounced manner the gap [between the rich and the poor]—the worst of urban poverty. The rich display their wealth as if the poor do not exist in the cities. The malls and neon lights overshadow the dark corners where the poor eke out their living. Shining India happily coexists with abject poverty as though poverty was a mere landscape issue. One wonders if this is a consequence of our religious philosophies and worldview . . . There is a parasitical relationship––not manipulation but helplessness. In the process, the poor and vulnerable children get exploited and oppressed.

What is often touted as a ‘lack of political will’ in our governance and bureaucratic leadership is really an intentional (ideological) effort to crush (never allow) any uprising of the poor and to suppress any emergence of hope. This is about a powerful collective playing god in the lives of the poor and wounding the souls of the poor, reducing them to a state of hopelessness.

In terms of the church’s response, Jayakumar Christian has the following (and much more) to say.

Grassroots practitioners/agents of change must:

reflect their ‘inner being’ through their engagement. Poverty and powerlessness are human and relational; therefore responses to poverty must also be human and relational. This requires investment of life. It cannot be reduced to mere action plans; demonstrate covenant-quality inclusive relationships based on truth practitioners must allow truth to confront their public and private life;

be competent to exegete God’s work among the poor-trace the ‘patterns’ in God’s movement among the poor in the city; be competent to analyse the worldview of a people and the ideology that drives the economic, political and other systems that crush the poor; and be countercultural in a society that values entitlement over sacrifice.”

The church—the prophetic community—must rediscover herself in her own neighbourhood. The church must locate its mission in the space . . . between hope and hopelessness, life and joy, and pain and death. The church is the evidence that our God has not given up on the urban poor.

Source: as at 8/9/2014

Some thoughts on giving to the poor and Shepherd of Hermas

Some years ago a respected minister and scholar gave a talk on the church’s giving to the poor. He listed how the church was involved in some of the best charity work in history.

Most of the audience loved his message. But I was somewhat uncomfortable with the lack of discussion on what the church is doing now in Australia. I don’t mean that the church is doing little for the poor today (because it does do a lot for the poor). But the tone of the talk seemed to be more about how well the church did in the past, rather than a thoughtful evaluation of what the church in Australia is doing now.

More importantly, I am not sure whether the speaker successfully described the sacrifice of the early Christians when they gave to the poor. As a result, the message was more about how charitable Christians were, rather than challenging us to learn from the sacrificial giving of the early church.

Some months ago (April 2015), John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor Divinity at Durham University, UK, gave an excellent talk at Houston Baptist University, USA, on a similar topic. He surveyed how the early church gave to the poor sacrificially. (Click here to watch the lecture.) Prompted by some of the things he said, I looked up an early church writing, Shepherd of Hermas, and found the following.

This fasting,” he continued, “is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.” (Emphasis added)

Source: Shepherd of Hermas, Fifth Similitude, chapter 3 accessed on August, 17th, 2015.

I also found the following quote regarding Shepherd of Hermas.

These passages in the Shepherd of Hermas reflect the common attitude of Christians towards property in the early Church. It has its dangers: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Too much wealth makes a believer vulnerable in time of persecution. On the other hand, wealth can be used generously, for the good. No one need give up all their possessions, but they should not have too much and should use what they have for the benefit of others. So Hermas urged his readers to give indiscriminately to all in need: ‘give to everyone, for God wants his gifts to be given to everyone.’ Almsgiving was linked particularly to fasting; Hermas advised his readers to use the money they have saved on a fast day and give it to the widow, the orphan or the needy person. Hermas even goes so far as to depict the poor and the rich in a relationship of mutual dependence. The prayers of the rich are weak. They need the prayers of the poor, which are so much more powerful before God, and their almsgiving makes up for the inadequacy of their prayers. The poor, meanwhile, need the rich to support them in their need and they pray for the rich in thanksgiving. (Emphasis added)

Source: Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 116–7.

We do need to study the Bible itself on these issues. Also, we should not be legalistic about giving. Nor should we give to the poor because of guilt. But I think the Shepherd of Hermas does leave us with a challenge.

The widow’s offering: Scripture, justice, and honour and shame reversal

A fresh look at the widow’s offering

The widow’s offering in Luke 21:1–4 is well known for its example of sacrificial giving. The widow’s devotion to God is admirable, and her willingness to give out of her extreme poverty challenges all of us today.

But Luke 21:1–4 can hardly mean that every widow should give all she had to live on, given the fact that widows in the ancient world were among the poorest of the poor, and that the temple was an adorned and magnificent building (Mark 13:1; Luke 21:5). To ask a widow to give to the temple treasury is like asking a low-income person living with a disability to give away their disability payment to the church for a brand-new auditorium. It is also like requiring someone living below the poverty line to pay GST for basic food (e.g., bread, milk, rice, fruit, and vegetable).

It should be noted that Jesus did not ask other widows to “go and do likewise.” Instead, when Jesus said that the widow had put in more than all the others, he was probably saying that the gifts of the rich were in fact acts of religiosity that were incompatible with God’s requirement to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised. On the contrary, the widow was commendable because she did not allow her poverty to stop herself from loving God wholeheartedly. Let us look at the context of the passage.

The links to the previous three verses

The three verses before the widow’s offering, I think, are crucial.

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 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.” (Luke 20:45–47; NRSV)

Here Jesus asked his disciples (in the hearing of all the people) to beware of the scribes—the experts of the Law of Moses and religious leaders in Jesus’s day.

It is easy to miss the connections between the widow’s offering (Luke 21:1–4) and the previous passage (20:45-47). It is because most English translations insert a heading at 21:1. But in the original Greek text there were no chapters or verses, let alone paragraph headings. The break between the two passages is artificial.

There are in fact many points of contact between 20:45–47 and 21:1–4.

First, the word “widow” is used in both passages (20:47; 21:2, 3). Second, in both places there is a reference to the livelihood of the widow—“houses” (20:47) and “all she had to live on” (21:4). Third, in both 20:45–47 and 21:1–4 the powerless are contrasted with the powerful—that is, the widow versus the scribes/the wealthy.

With these in mind, it is likely that the widow’s offering is in fact an illustration of Jesus’ teaching concerning the wealthy religious leaders.

Wealthy scribes versus a powerless widow

Jesus said that the scribes loved being greeted in the marketplaces and having the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets (20:46). In antiquity these were the practices of the rich and powerful. In the words of New Testament scholar, Joel Green, the scribes “enjoyed being treated as persons of status, as though they were wealthy benefactors.”

Jesus rebuked these religious leaders and said that they devoured the widows’ houses. Indeed they would receive the harshest judgment (20:47). We don’t know how exactly they devoured widows’ houses. But the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 suggests that widows were subject to systemic injustice.

Without a husband representing them, widows—both in antiquity and in many parts of the world today—are among the most vulnerable in the society. They are defenceless and are often impoverished. But the Scripture says that the LORD loves them and he defends their cause (Deut 10:18). No wonder the Law demands Israel to look after and protect them (Exod 22:22; Deut 24:17–22). In fact, Moses says in Deuteronomy, “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” (Deut 27:19a; NIV). It is, therefore, astonishing that the Scribes—the experts of the Mosaic Law!—should devour the widows’ houses.

It is in this context that Luke mentions the widow’s offering. The rich gave out of their abundance, but the widow gave to the temple treasury everything she had. Here, Jesus turns the prevailing social convention of honour and shame upside-down. The widow is honoured, but the rich are dishonoured.

The widow’s sacrificial giving demonstrates her devotion to God—something to be praised, although probably unnecessary in practical terms given the enormous size, beauty, and magnificence of the temple. Her devotion is commendable because she did not stop loving God despite her socioeconomic condition.

In light of the wealthy scribes’ oppression of the poor, it is not surprising that immediately afterwards Jesus announced the upcoming destruction of the temple (21:5–6). But the destruction of this religious centre had deeper reasons. In earlier passages Luke has spoken of the failure of the leaders in Jerusalem to understand God’s purpose and recognise Jesus as the Messiah (Luke 20:1–44, especially verses 41–44). The chief priests and the scribes failed to understand the Scriptures and put them into practice, and the widow’s offering served as a penetrating illustration of that.

The question we should ask ourselves as Christians in Australia is: Do we really understand the Scripture and the heart of God towards the poor, the vulnerable, and those who cannot fend for themselves?

Scripture, justice, and mercy

I belong to a Christian tradition that upholds in the authority of Scripture and the moral ideals of God. I have come to love the Bible and sought to live a life that is pleasing to God. But I have to admit that at times—though not always—we fail to care for the poor and defend the cause of the powerless, even though the Scripture demands us to do so.

At times I feel uncomfortable with the fact that some Christians do not think that our governments’ treatment of asylum seekers lack compassion, despite the Human Rights Commission’s damning report into children in immigration detention early this year. I am ashamed of the repeated cut in foreign aid since the current government came into office last year, bringing the level to one of the lowest on record. I am, therefore, disappointed that a Christian leader told me a couple of years ago that the domestic economy was more important than overseas aid, despite the affluent lifestyle of his church members. I am also very much aware of the injustice our country has done to Indigenous Australians when their land was taken from them. It seems that it is often unrecognised by my Christian friends.

Sometimes I wonder whether we are like the scribes who failed to understand the Scripture and hence God’s demand for justice and his love for the poor and needy? I wonder whether our churches are like the temple system in Jesus’ day, that we forget about the plight of the poor and the marginalised while we enjoy wonderful worship services and church programs? These questions are particularly poignant in light of Jesus’ judgment against the temple.

About ten years ago God led me and my family to a church in an inner-city suburb. It has been a blessed adventure. In our midst there are many asylum seekers and low-income people, and some of our members live with a disability. Their tenacity in adversity is an inspiration to us. Up until recently we had a wonderful Indigenous family. (They have now moved interstate.) They taught us about love and forgiveness despite the injustice they and their kindred experienced.

I am thankful for these wonderful people. They do not have many material possessions. But in them I see God’s handiwork, for they bring glory to God in their perseverance and trust in him. Like the widow in Luke 21:1–4, they love God despite their socioeconomic situation.

Although Luke paints a gloomy picture of the religious leaders of his day, in the Book of Acts (his second volume) he vividly depicts the amazing community of the disciples, whose solidarity with the poor can be found at the very conception of the church (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–35). The challenge for us today, then, is to learn from this early Christian community and seek to be genuine disciples of Jesus. I think I have had a glimpse of that in my recent church experience, for which I am deeply thankful.

(I am indebted to Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1997], 72–78, for his insights on Luke 20:45—21:4.)

The Australian Federal Budget and Perspectives of Life

About 20 years ago I quit my career to study at a Bible college. Then I worked as a pastor in a local church and later in a Christian organisation to serve the poor. For most of these years we had a very tight budget, for my salary was very low. Just over two years ago I lost my job due to a restructure, and ever since then our family income has been effectively below the Henderson Poverty Line (published by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research).

But we are not poor by the world’s standard. In fact, with careful budgeting we are doing not too badly. We can still eat out at cheap places, and go to the movies (thanks to the low income concession card). Having said that, life is not easy. I teach at a number of theological colleges as an adjunct lecturer, and work as a cleaner once every fortnight. I have a full-time workload, but my income is not good. In the meantime, I am serving (as a volunteer) at my local church, a mission organisation and a social justice group. I am, therefore, not idle. Yet despite what I do to remain active and positive, there is a level of anxiety that I have to deal with because of our financial situation.

The impact of the Federal Budget (2014)

Given my situation, I have to admit that the Australian Federal Budget in May this year is distressing. It is true that the impact of the budget on my family is bearable, but it does mean that we have to tighten up our spending further. It will also affect the long-term wellbeing of everyone in the family, for the budget has adverse effects on the cost of healthcare, education and retirement. As a Christian, I am learning to turn to God for comfort and deliverance. I cannot control the circumstances, but I know the One who is sovereign over all areas of life.

Personal reflections

It’s now just over one month after the Federal Budget was announced. Here I want to share a few personal reflections.

First, I count myself fortunate that my situation is not desperate. My church is located in an inner-city area, and there are many low-income individuals and families. The proposed cuts in healthcare, education and family tax benefit will have considerable negative effects on them. They know firsthand the impact of the budget on their lives and future. They are already doing it tough. Some of them cannot work because of severe health issues, even though they want to. Some are children in dysfunctional or vulnerable families. We are concerned about their wellbeing, but wonder what we can do for them apart from walking with them at this tough time. Like the psalmists, we cry out to God and ask, “How long, Lord?” And we ask God to show us mercy, that justice will be done and that our low-income friends will somehow find a way to face the challenge.

Second, I am reminded of how our social location affects the way we see the world. I live in a middle-class suburb east of Melbourne. Many of my Christian friends will not be severely affected by the budget. The small levy that they have to pay will only be a small part of their income. Yes, some of my friends will find it hard because of the potential reduction of family tax benefit. Indeed, some have a big mortgage and life will be tougher than before. But the majority of my friends on this side of town will manage the tougher economic situation quite well. Don’t get me wrong, my friends are compassionate people and they love God. In fact, not a few of them are concerned about the effects of the budget on the poor. Yet, I think it is fair to say that the overall impact of the budget on them is relatively small.

The contrasting perspectives of life

The contrast between my two different circles of friends can best be illustrated by the content of our conversations regarding the Federal Budget. When I mention the budget among my friends from a low socioeconomic background, I hear anxiety, pain and even anger. I can identify with them to some degree because of my own circumstances. If I feel anxious when I think about the budget, they must have found it much harder. The budget measures, if they all pass through the Senate, will be a lived reality for them.

But when I talk about the budget with friends in better economic situations, I hear an intellectual interpretation of the pros and cons of the budget measures. Some are positive about the budget, while others are somewhat more critical. I don’t, however, hear any serious anxiety or anguish among these friends. The difficulty that the poor experience is little more a theoretical notion. Here I need to emphasise that no-one should feel guilty about being middle-class. What I am trying to demonstrate is that our social location has a significant influence on our perspective of life. Is it possible that our wealth can blind us from seeing the world as what it really is? Would it be helpful if we spend more time with those living on the margins and hear their stories? Would our perspective change if we are willing to enter into their stories and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us?

Opportunity to grow in Christ

Personally speaking, I think it is in times like this that I can grow in Christ. I realise that I am a man of little faith. Why should I fear the future when I know that God is there for me? I must learn to trust God. At the same time, I need to learn to thank God for the opportunity to identify with the poor, even though only in small measures. Jesus, the Son of the living God, became a human being to identify with humanity, including the plight of the poor and needy. My own economic situation has helped me to share, in some small ways, what Christ himself did. I am also more convinced of the benefit of spending time with the poor. It is in hearing their stories that we start to understand the reality of their lives. Our own faith can be greatly enriched if we allow their stories—especially their resilience and tenacity in hardship—to transform us.


Jayakumar Christian: The poor are made in God’s image

I met Jayakumar Christian, National Director of World Vision India, in person several years ago when he came to Australia. I loved his warm personality, which, to me, was an outworking of his love for God.

The following is an interview with Dr Jayakumar Christian (from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Canada). Here are a few key points from my notes (which include my interpretation of what he says in the video).

  • The church wants to find a solution for poverty, but that’s not the right place to start.
  • The most important thing to realise is that the poor are made in God’s image. This recognition is critical.
  • We need to have a relational—not an individualistic—understanding of poverty. This is the understanding of Indians (and Asians). If we understand poverty this way, then our starting point will not be activities and programs.
  • Poverty is the result of broken relationships. Injustice and oppression are manifestations of broken relationships. When the powerful exclude the marginalised, relationship is broken. When the poor have no choice but to submit to the powerful, they become non-persons.
  • The poor live as “whole persons.” They do not live life in “categories.” When we separate words and deeds into two categories, we fail to treat them as “whole persons.”
  • Living among the poor is important.
  • We need to study the Bible in context. There is no point to study the Scripture in isolation from the poor.

Stanley Hauerwas on “remembering the poor”

ABC online has published an article by Stanley Hauerwas (which can be found here). Hauerwas makes many good points, and one really has to read the entire article. For example, Hauerwas talks about the interconnection between worship and walking with the poor—which is something that Christians often do not see. He also discusses Bruce Longenecker’s book Remember the Poor, which is a great study on Paul’s letters.

At the risk of a long post that no-one will read, I will cite quite a few things from the article. I will begin with Hauerwas’ call for friendship with the poor, and then list some quotes on other topics (such as Adam Smith, capitalism, etc).

Here Hauerwas’s call for friendship with the poor.

I suspect most rich Christians, filled as we are with the anxiety about our wealth, try to do something for the poor before we have listened to their story. Of course, listening, being with and working with the poor are not mutually exclusive activities, but I fear we often want to help the poor without getting to know who the poor may be. I suspect we do so, not from some ideology against the poor, but rather I suspect we prefer to do for the poor rather than be with the poor because the poor scare the hell out of us.

As an alternative, I think as Christians we need to know how to be with the poor in a manner that the gifts that the poor receive do not make impossible friendship between the giver and the recipient. For friendship is the heart of the matter if we remember that charity first and foremost names God’s befriending of us. If the poor are not befriended, there is no way to avoid the problems I sketched at the beginning of this essay. I do not mean to suggest that friendship is some kind of magical relation that will make the dependencies associated with aid less likely. Friendships, at least superficial friendships, are just as likely to produce dependency as direct aid.

Hauerwas cites Pope Francis, who says,

A Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering of Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.


Hauerwas’s understanding of Adam Smith and capitalism is interesting.

Sympathy, for Smith, is the key to our moral lives. It is so because sympathy makes possible the imaginative possibility that I can imagine, even against my own will, other peoples situations and lives. We are people affected by other people, making possible our ability to understand lives quite different than our own. Smith saw no tension between sympathy and self-interest, given the fact I am only able to know myself by seeing myself reflected through the eyes of others.

Yet it was Smith’s hope that capitalism as a system for the production of wealth would provide an alternative that would eliminate poverty. Indeed, one way to think of Smith’s vision is to see capitalism itself as a system of charity. No longer will individual acts of charity be required because the system itself will raise all the boats as the water rises. Capitalism so understood is an extraordinary utopian project.

Of course, the difficulty with such projects is they invite the illusion that, though things may not be working out – namely, we still have the poor among us – all we need is more time and the system will take care of itself. The other alternative is to blame those who have not become self-sufficient by suggesting they lack some essential virtues to make the system work. As a result, the poor get blamed for being poor. I hardly need to mention that the poor are often subject to such judgments in advanced capitalist societies.

Hauerwas, however, has the following to say about Reinhold Niebuhr.

I think it fair to say that Niebuhr changed the world in terms of how Christians particularly in America understood how the poor were to be served. Rather than focusing of individual acts of charity, now Christians tried to imagine social policies that would make the poor no longer poor.

Hauerwas cites Peter Maurin, who says the following about how Christianity has changed in the past 2,000 years.

At the beginning of Christianity the hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, the homeless were sheltered, ignorant were instructed at a personal sacrifice. And the pagans used to say about the Christians, “See how they love one another.”

The pagans do no longer say About the Christians, “See how they love one another,” but say, “See how they pass the buck to social agencies.”

Here is one more quote from Hauwerwas’ article.

For, in truth, the deepest problem is most of us want to be agents of charity without having to receive charity.

Our willingness to keep the door closed

I just came across the following quote concerning how our hearts can be closed to the strangers. It is a great reminder for us all. Let us reflect on it.

Our willingness to keep the door closed and our growing capacity to look the other way when confronted by poverty in the public sphere lead us to accept not only the segregation of our neighborhoods and public places, but also the segregation of our consciousness and being. When we close the door or turn away from the stranger, a door closes within us, as well. Whether by crossing the street to avoid a bag lady or a homeless person, … we endow the fragmentation and corrosion of our own spirit and being. Ultimately, continuing to close the door to the stranger rends the fabric of our own soul, as well as the society in which we seek to live.

Source: Stanley P. Saunders and Charles L. Campbell, The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 160.

Craig Keener on the “the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3

I often hear people say that “the poor in spirit” in Matthew’s Beatitudes is about the spiritually poor. I am not sure that this is right. I wrote a blog post about this some time ago (which can be found by clicking here.) Today I came across Craig Keener’s commentary, which has some good stuff on this.

The expression “poor in spirit” (5:5) [sic] refers not to those with a deficit of moral righteousness (see 5:20), … Because the oppressed poor became wholly dependent on God (Jas 2:5), some Jewish people used the title as a positive religious as well as economic designation (1QM 11.9, 13; 13.14; 14.7; …). Thus it refers not merely to the materially poor and oppressed, but to those “who have taken that condition to their very heart, by not allowing themselves to be deceived by the attraction of wealth” (Freyne 1988: 72). Although Matthew does not stress renunciation of possessions to the same degree as Luke, for him as well the kingdom belongs to the powerless of the world, to the oppressed who embrace the poverty of their condition by trusting in God rather than favors from the powerful for their deliverance. (Emphasis added)

Source: Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 168–9.


The “symbols” of piano

playing piano_std

How come Asian kids always play the piano?

Some years ago a friend asked me, “How come Asian children always learn to play piano or violin, rather than other musical instruments?” She thought I knew the answer because I was Asian. But in fact, it never occurred to me that that Asian kids played piano more than others. Having said that, my friend’s observation was right. Today there are many Asian parents who want their kids to play piano or violin. I am different because I am not a typical middle-class Asian.

I grew up in a relatively low socioeconomic area in Asia. I never experienced extreme poverty, but my life was dramatically different from my Australian friends. Almost no-one in my former social circle played piano, let alone owning a piano at home. Few, if any, could afford piano lessons. Since most of us were not very educated, we generally did not appreciate any form of classical music. We spent most of our time working very hard trying to make ends meet. Learning piano was, to us, a luxury for the wealthy and those who were socially superior.

An unexpected privilege

But I was fortunate. I had the intellectual ability to do well academically. With a scholarship and a government grant, I was able to study in the UK and eventually migrated to Australia. Because of that, I was able to let my son take piano lessons some years ago. God provided us with a piano teacher at his school, who only charged us $10 a lesson. Soon, I found myself listening to my son playing a simple song. It was a beautiful melody, and he did such a good job! I remember that I had tears in my eyes, for I realised that I had never dreamed that my own son would be playing the piano—a luxury that I previously thought I might never had. God has given my son what I missed in my own childhood.

Asian parents make their children practise the piano late into the night

Another stereotype about Asian parents is that they make their children practise the piano for hours everyday. Well, we don’t do that to our son. We believe that music is to be enjoyed. We do ask him to practise, but there is no point making him do what he doesn’t like. As it turns out, our son loves the experience of learning music, but does not enjoy extensive practice. He is making progress, but only slowly.

This is good for us, because it means that his skill has not yet reached a level that requires an expensive piano. You see, we only have an old keyboard at home. Because of the type of Christian ministries that my wife and I are involved in, we have been living on a low income for a long time. Piano is a very costly item for us.

But I am thankful to God that our son enjoys music. Music is a gift of God for humankind, and what a privilege it is that our son can learn an instrument. Multitudes of people in the world do not have such an opportunity, and I should count myself fortunate. In fact, some of my close relatives in Asia are less fortunate than we are. Not only that they cannot afford piano lessons or to own a piano. Their apartment is so tiny that they would not have the physical space to put a piano, even if they are given one.

Symbols of privilege, social location and hope

To me, the piano is highly symbolic of one’s fortunes in life. It is a vivid illustration of the social injustice and poverty that the poor have to live with. On the one hand, it symbolises God’s gift of music to humanity. On the other hand, it represents the divide between the rich and the poor. So, next time when you listen to someone play the piano, say a prayer for the many in the world who don’t have such a privilege, and think about how God may want you to walk with the poor.

In fact, the Bible is full of symbols—objects or images that represent profound truths. Jesus was born in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. The manger represents Jesus’ identification with humanity, even as a vulnerable baby. When the infant Jesus was presented at the temple, his parents offered a pair of doves as a sacrifice, rather than a lamb, because they could not afford it (Luke 2:24; Leviticus 12:8). Here the doves (or pigeons) signify their relatively low socioeconomic situation. This means that, if Jesus were born today, it’s unlikely that his parents could afford piano lessons for him (at least not the average rate of $30–$40 per lesson in Melbourne).

When Jesus was heading to Jerusalem, a man asked him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:51, 57–58) Here “holes”, “nests” and “no place” serve as images for Jesus’ hearers to understand his social location and what it means to follow him. His journey to Jerusalem was to fulfil his mission of dying on the cross to bring salvation to the world. But life was rough and difficult for the Son of Man, not only at the cross, but also on the way there!

But at the other side of the cross we find an empty tomb. It symbolises Christ’s resurrection and the new life we have in him. It is a symbol of hope and incredible joy. I think the piano is, in some profound ways, such a symbol for me. Yes, it does represent something that I cannot have today. But it is also a symbol of hope. As I seek to follow Jesus faithfully, he will one day bring me to the place where there is incredible joy. On that day I will worship him with multitudes of people, probably accompanied by some amazing musical instruments of many cultures in the world.

The meaning of “blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3

The Beatitudes in Matthew is well known. It starts with the following,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3) 

This is a little different from what Luke says,

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b)

Is “the poor in spirit” in Matthew very different from “the poor” in Luke? One common interpretation of Matthew 5:3 is that it is those who are humble who will be blessed. That is, “the poor in spirit” do not particularly refer to those who are economically poor, but those who humble themselves before God. Some simply say that “the poor in spirit” are those who are poor spiritually. I often wonder whether this view is too simplistic.

As mentioned before, I am enjoying the articles in the second edition of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (edited by Joel Green, Jeannine Brown and Nicholas Perrin). It is an invaluable resource for all New Testament students. Last week I came across an article written by Seung Ai Yang in this Dictionary. Yang’s interpretation of Matthew 5:3 is similar to mine.

In the Bible “the poor” denotes a broader category than just the financially impoverished. It refers to those who are economically, socially or politically marginalized, for whom God is the only one who can help. What, then, does Matthew mean by adding “in spirit” to “the poor” (Mt 5:3)? The same expression, “the poor in spirit,” is found in a Qumran document, where it is contrasted with a “hardened heart” (1QM XIV, 7). Assuming that Matthew must use the phrase in exactly the same way as in 1QM XIV, 7, some scholars suggest that “the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3 refers not to “the economically marginalized” but rather to “the humble in heart” (Talbert, 51; Luz, 233–34; cf. Davies and Allison, 443–44). This interpretation, however, is unconvincing. Even if the phrase “the poor in spirit” has a connotation of humbleness, it does not necessarily exclude the fundamental semantic value about the oppressed and marginalized condition embedded in the term “the poor.” As Betz says, “The characterization of Matt 5:3a as ‘spiritualization’ and as a softening of Jesus’ original radicalism … is misleading” (Betz, 115). The poor in spirit are, then, the people whose spirits or hearts are crushed by their suffering from unjust marginalization. From the socio-historical and literary context of Matthew, it is not difficult to identify who are the poor in spirit. They are the women and men who come to Jesus from all over to be healed and to follow him (Mt 4:18–22). They suffer from all kinds of illnesses because “they bear in their very bodies the harmful effects of the imperial system,” especially the deprivation of human dignity and of material and spiritual resources under the weight of imperial rule, and because “there is no hope for change” (Carter 2000, 132). The poor in spirit, therefore, mourn the social system that runs against God’s will (Mt 5:4). They are meek because they have none in the world to rely on but God (Mt 5:3). They hunger and thirst for righteousness because their daily life is full of injustice (Mt 5:6) (see Betz, 129). It is to these marginalized people, Jesus proclaims, that God’s kingdom belongs (Mt 5:3), and in this kingdom their lowly status will be reversed. They no longer need to mourn, for God comforts them. They are no longer deprived of resources, for God provides them (cf. Ps 37:11) [in Heb. The “meek” … are the poor]. They no longer need to hunger and thirst for the system running in accordance with God’s righteous will, for the life in God’s kingdom is filled with righteousness. (Emphasis added)


Economics and the kingdom of God in the Gospels

My copy of the second edition of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (edited by Joel Green, Jeannine Brown and Nicholas Perrin) arrived yesterday. There is an article entitled “Economics” by D. Downs. Here is a great quote at the end of the article (page 225).

The issue of economics in the Gospels must also address the extent to which economic values and practices contributed to the social formation of the Jesus movement. If “economics” refers to a system for the production, distribution and consumption of scarce resources, then the Jesus of the canonical Gospels offers a countercultural perspective on the exchange of resources among his followers. Although followers of Jesus may participate in the economy of the Roman Empire (Mk 12:13–17), their ultimate allegiance is to God and not to the power of wealth (Mt 6:24//Lk 16:13). Wealth in the Gospels is often figured as a hindrance to following Jesus (Mt 19:16–22//Mk 10:17–31//Lk 18:18–23; Mk 4:18–19; cf. 1 Jn 2:15–17; Rev 3:14–22), while dispossession of goods sometimes signifies faithful discipleship (Mk 10:28–31; cf. Mt 9:9 …). Believers are called to give generously to those in need (Mt 5:42–48; 6:1–4; 10:8; 19:21; Mk 10:21; Lk 6:30; 11:41; 14:12–14) and not greedily to hoard possessions (Mt 6:19–20; Lk 12:13–21; cf. Mt 23:25//Lk 11:39). Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God “crosses boundaries and challenges paradigms, and in so doing opens a space and a time for new (and renewed) ways of being human-in-relations, that is, for a new ordering of things and persons, a new economy.” (Emphasis added)

Source of the quote at the end is from S Barton, “Money Matters,” in Engaging Economics, edited by B W Longenecker and K D Liebengood (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 57.

Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels

Urban poverty is hidden (Hong Kong’s elderly scavengers)

For many Australians, Hong Kong is a prosperous city. But often poverty is hidden.

One in five people in Hong Kong live in poverty. Indeed, one in three elderly people live in poverty. An article in SCMP entitled “Hong Kong’s handcarts keep the city on a roll” (accessed on 20th Nov 2013) says something about the daily struggles they have. Here is an excerpt.

In the shadow of skyscrapers, Hong Kong’s working class trolley pushers transport everything from crates of live seafood to appliances, financial  documents, furniture and mail.

But among the street cleaners, market traders and removal men, it is probably the city’s elderly scavengers who best highlight how vital handcarts are to the city.

Lee Cheung-Ho, 78, spends all day pushing her cart, and says she even goes out when there is a typhoon.

“I have to go out and make a living,” she said without stopping. “It helps even if I can only earn a few dollars.”

The Hong Kong government said last month said that 1.31 million of its citizens were living in poverty.

Almost one in five is classified as poor and for the elderly the proportion rises to one in three, according to government data.

The scavengers fell well within that bracket, earning as little as HK$20 (US$3) a day.

The entire article can be found at SCMP here.

Or else you can watch it on the clip here.

Paul wrote to the urban poor in Rome

In N T (Tom) Wright’s Paul for Everyone – Romans Part 1, he aptly describes the type of people his audience would consist of. I think this provides useful information for us to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans, and what the gospel (literally means “good news”) means for Paul’s audience.

In ancient Rome as today, of course, the rich people lived up in the hills, the famous seven hills on which the city stands. The original imperial palace, where the Emperor Augustus lived at the time when Jesus was born, occupies most of one of them. Nero was emperor when Paul was writing this letter; his spectacular palace is on another hill, the other side of the Forum. But then as now the poorer people lived in the areas around the river; not least, in the area just across the river from the main city centre. And that is where most of the first Roman Christians lived. The chances are that the first time this great letter was read aloud it was in a crowded room in someone’s house in the low-lying poorer district, just across the river from the seat of power. (page 6; emphasis added)

Reflections after the Australian federation election (2013)

It’s the first day after the election. I thought I might write down some thoughts. I am not a Labor or Coalition supporter. In fact, I am not a supporter of any party. I believe that our voting preference should depend on other factors rather than our party loyalty. I have to say that I am surprised by how some Christians vote for a particular party simply because it is thought that the party leader is a Christian or that some of the party’s policies seem to uphold a particular moral value. (Having said that, I have friends who have carefully considered a party’s policies and ethos carefully, and have subsequently become a supporter of the party. This sounds like an informed decision.)

So, what should we consider when we vote within a democratic system? I am no expert in this area. But here are few thoughts.

First, since the suffering, death and resurrection is the centre of our faith, the cross should shape our voting preferences. The work of Christ is not just for our benefit. Rather, it is God’s way to redeem, restore and transform humanity. Christ died for our sins, so that we may be part of a new Spirit-filled Jesus-community to live for him. Since we live in a democracy (voting is compulsory in Australia), we have the responsibility to prayerfully consider the parties’ policies and decide how to vote accordingly. We are to follow Jesus’ self-giving sacrificial way of life, and put other fellow human beings first. Our voting preferences should reflect this Christ-centred cruciform posture. The parties’ campaigns often focus on the question “what’s in it for me?” But for Christians, the right question is how we can model after Christ’s love in the world.

Second, I have been wondering how our social relationships affect our voting preferences. Over the years my wife and I have come to know a waitress in a restaurant that offers quality cheap lunch. Some years ago she shared with us that she had separated from her husband, and had to raised two young children. The day before this year’s election, she told us that she would have to buy two iPads for her children next year, because that was the requirement of the public school that they would attend. She told us that she was struggling to make ends meet, and the iPad would be another financial burden on her. I can imagine that the axing of Schoolkids Bonus would make life even harder for this family.

So, I wonder to what degree our social network affects our view of the different parties’ policies? What type of people do we hang out with? Single parents living in public housing? People living with mental illness with little income? Non-English-speaking asylum seekers and refugees? Middle-class educated people of our own culture? I have friends who often spend time with the poor and disadvantaged people. They tend to be very concerned with policies that will adversely affect the marginalised. On the other hand, I know committed Christians who love God but their social network consists almost entirely of middle class Australians. Even though they are generous people, their lack of firsthand experience with the poor means that they are generally less aware of how social policies can affect those living on the margins.

This is why Jesus’ incarnational life is a profound expression of God’s love. He was a refugee to Egypt when he was a child, and the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). Maybe we can find ways to follow his example? Not that we should all become poor like Mother Theresa. But it will help to spend more time with the poor and listen to their stories.

Third, three Scriptures came to mind in the recent federal elections. They are from the Law, the Prophets and the words of Jesus. Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, he mentioned seven woes against the religious leaders of his day. The middle of the seven woes says,

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23)

Justice, mercy and faithfulness are the more important matters of the law, according to Jesus. And it seems obvious that the teachers of the law did not understand it. I hope Christians today do understand it.

Not infrequently scholars recognise that Matthew 23:23 echoes a famous verse in Micah 6:8.

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.

So, what does the Lord require of us? It seems that Jesus’ teaching reflects the prophet’s words that we are to act justly, love mercy and walk in faithfulness with our God.

Micah 6:8, in turn, echoes an important passage in the law of Moses, which says,

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Deuteronomy 10:12–22)

So, let’s fear God, love him, walk with him, for he defends the cause of the fatherless and the widows, and loves the foreigners among us.

(All Bible citations above are from the NIV.)