Archive for July, 2015

A Culture of Equality and Generosity

July 23, 2015

Paul, in the narratives of “collection” to the “saints” in Jerusalem, promotes a culture of equality and generosity as a counter to the greed culture in the society. He considers “remembering the poor” as an integral part of his apostolic mission. This can be seen in his repetition of the “collection” to the believers in need in Jerusalem in Galatians 2.10, I Corinthians 16.1-4, II Corinthians 1.15-16, II Corinthians chapters 8-9, and Romans 15.25-32. In Romans 15.25, Paul says that he is going to Jerusalem on a “ministry” (diakonia) to the “saints” in Jerusalem. The Greek word diakonia is also used for the ministry of the gospel in Rom. 11.13 and II Cor. 4.1, 5.18. That means, for him, “helping the poor” is not separate from the “ministry of the gospel”. Therefore, Paul is encouraging the Gentile churches to participate in the ministry to the “saints” in the Jerusalem church. Interestingly, he uses the Greek verb leitourgein in II Cor. 9.12 and Rom. 15.27. This verb has a secular sense (“to serve the need”) and a cultic sense (“to serve as a priest”). In Philippians 2.30 he employs leitourgein in the secular sense of “serving one’s need”. It is used to Epaphroditus (leitourgos) as he brought the “gift” sent by the Philippian church to serve Paul’s need (Phil. 2.25). In this service Epaphroditus even risked his own life. In II Cor. 9.12 leitourgia refers to the “collection” itself. Leitourgein in Rom. 15.27 may be understood in secular sense when seen in the light of Phil. 2.25, 30 and II Cor. 9.12.

On the other hand, Paul in Phil. 2.17 uses leitourgein in the cultic sense. Also in Rom. 15.27 it may be understood in cultic sense if seen in the light of leitourgos of Rom. 15.16. Paul employs the cultic language in connection with his taking the collection raised among the Gentile churches to the “saints” in Jerusalem (Rom.15.15-33): “priest of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles”, “perform a priestly function with regard to the Gospel of God”, “the offering of the Gentiles, sanctified by the Holy Spirit might be acceptable” (Rom. 15.15-16). The “offering” mentioned in Rom. 15.16 can be taken as the object of Gentiles (i.e. offering given by the Gentiles). This is supported by Phil. 4.18, where Paul describes the Philippians’ “gift” to him as “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.” Thus, Paul is depicting the economic relationship with a cultic metaphor of “offering”. “Offering” in the cultic context points to an exchange between God and the offerer(s), where the latter offers “an innocent and defenseless sacrificial victim” as a sacrifice to God. Rene Girard calls this “scapegoat mechanism”. The power of this mechanism lies in its deception and concealment. On the one hand, it deceives by depicting God as the one who is demanding “sacrificial victims”, and thus, portraying violence against the “victims” as a sacred act. On the other hand, it conceals the plight of the innocent and voiceless “sacrificial victims” and transforms the “violence against the victims” as a “good violence”. Thus, the cycle of scapegoating the “weak and vulnerable” continues. Raymund Schwager says that “according to its basic structure, the sacrificial cult is a ritual repetition of the scapegoat mechanism.” The OT prophets were opposed to all of the sacrificial rites in Israel. Amos denounced the cultic practices of the people: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon” (Amos 5:21-22). The prophets demanded, rather to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Aligning himself with this prophetic tradition and depicting the sharing of resources with the needy as an “offering to God”, Paul is providing a counter culture where “offering” required by God’s justice is not “sacrificial violence” against an innocent and voiceless victim, but serving the need of the victim or sharing God’s resources with the victim of the structural violence. Dominic Crossan calls this “God’s distributive justice”. Far from demanding victims, God not only identifies with the victims, but also addresses the situation of their victimization.

1. Equality

Paul presents the Macedonian believers as an example of those who were pleased to participate in “God’s distributive justice”. In Romans he repeats twice that they were pleased to share their resources with the needy in Jerusalem (Rom. 15.26,27). The Macedonian Christians even “begged” Paul and his colleagues to allow them to be partners in this ministry of sharing their resources with the “saints” in Jerusalem. Testifying about them, Paul says: “(D)uring a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (II Cor. 8.2). Notice the contrast between the external situation and the character of the Macedonian believers: “a severe ordeal of affliction” and “abundant joy”, and “extreme poverty” and “a wealth of generosity”. The sharing is clearly not from “plenty” to “want” but from “want” to “want”. Their sharing is not a “charity” or a “free giving” of what is “extra” or “useless” or even “free giving” of tax money. It clearly challenges the existing stereotypes of “giver” and “receiver” in exchange relationship that assumes and assigns superior and inferior status to all participants.

Paul also informs the pure intent of the Macedonian believers in their sharing of God’s resources. He employs the Greek word haplotēs for the “generosity” of the Macedonian (and Corinthian) believers (II Cor. 8.2, cf. 9.11). Haplotēs does not mean merely “generosity”, but “generosity arising out of purity of mind”. In other words, this “giving” to those in need arose from pure intentions without any ulterior or malicious motives. It is sharing with pure intent of what God has given them with their fellow brothers and sisters who are in need.

Being conscious of the “obligatory” relationship between the “giver” and the “receiver” present in the existing society, Paul is cautious not to give it a foothold in the counter community of Jesus Christ. One thing that is not emphasized in I Cor. 16.1-4 and II Cor. 8-9 is the economic hardship of the “saints of Jerusalem church”. Even though one could speculate that the Gentile churches already knew about the situation of these believers in the Jerusalem church (cf. II Cor. 9.12), one wonders why Paul did not repeat this important information to gather sympathy from the Gentile churches, since the issue was a matter of urgency for him. In II Cor. 9.11-12, just as in II Cor. 8.13-14, by avoiding the mentioning of the economic hardship of the needy in the Jerusalem church in the context of “collection”, he is careful to see that the Jerusalem church, as a result of receiving the economic contribution, would not be placed in a direct obligatory relationship to the Gentile churches.

Rather, Paul is emphasizing two things: the principle of equality and the source of wealth. Paul speaks of “their need” in connection to equality or “fair balance” (II Cor. 8.13-14): “I do not mean that there is relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.” The common interpretation of “their need” is “the material need of the Jerusalem believers”. If that is the meaning, what about the phrases “your need” and “their abundance”? The reference to Corinthians’ “need” is ambiguous here. It can not be understood as referring to material need because Corinthian believers are considered to be relatively rich and that is why Paul is writing this letter to share from their material riches, nor can it be taken as referring to “spiritual poverty” because in II Cor. 8.9 it is already said that Christ has made them rich. Also Paul in II Cor. 8.15 cites Exodus 16.18 which refers to the experience of the people of Israel in the wilderness when they gathered manna for themselves: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” The implication is that it was God who made “equality” to happen. In other words, God is a God of “fairness” or “equality”. Here it is appropriate to take it as a general illustration of the principle of equality. Thus, Paul directs the focus of the Corinthian believers to God’s principle of “fairness” or “equality”. This should become the motivation for them to share their resources with the needy in the Jerusalem church. For Paul, it is a concrete demonstration of the God’s new creation. Crossan wonders: “What better deserves the title of a new creation than the abnormalcy of a share-world replacing the normalcy of a greed-world?”

Paul also focuses their attention to the source of their wealth, God. In II Cor. 9.11-12, Paul says that the Corinthian church is in a position to give because God the supplier has provided them with wealth (both spiritual and material, II Cor. 8.9, 9.10). The ultimate purpose of their giving is to render thanksgiving to God (II Cor. 9.11,12). In other words, their generosity is out of their gratitude to the Source of their wealth. Thus, by linking the generosity of the Corinthian church to God and not to the economic poverty of the Jerusalem believers, Paul has consciously disconnected the Jerusalem church as the “receiver” from the patronal power of the “giver” and dissuaded the economically rich from using their economic contribution to advance their patronal power.

2. Generosity

Paul gives two examples of “generosity” to the Corinthian believers: Macedonian believers and Jesus Christ (II Cor. 8.1-6; 8.9). He praises the voluntary “generosity” of the Macedonian believers: “(B)egging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry” (II Cor. 8.4)). This is linked to the “generous act” of Jesus Christ: “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 8.9). In these two examples Paul is emphasizing their generous character and their focus on the welfare of the other. The generous character of the Macedonian believers is depicted by the paradox of “a wealth of their generosity” in “extreme poverty”. As explained above, the Greek word haplotēs denotes “generosity out of pure mind”, that is, without any malicious and hidden intent. That means, their “generosity” is purely for the welfare of the believers in the Jerusalem church. The generous character of Jesus Christ is expressed in his act: “though he was rich…he became poor” (II Cor.8.9), and the focus on the welfare of the needy: “for your sakes…so that…you might become rich.” Paul further says that the “generosity” of Jesus Christ exemplifies the “genuineness of love” (II Cor. 8.8-9). In other words, the “generous act” of Jesus Christ is the expression of the genuineness of love. Thus, the model for agape love is Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 2.20). Paul in Gal. 5.6 exhorts that faith in Christ manifests itself through loving service, or “it erupts into communal life as love” (Gal. 5.6 “faith working through love”). A believer in Christ imitates the agape love of Jesus Christ, and thus breaks free from the culture of greed and becomes a part of the community of the new creation, whose concrete pattern of life is based on agape love (Gal. 5.13-14). It is the love modeled on Christ that becomes the distinctive character of the community of the new creation. It becomes evident, then, that the culture of the new creation becomes a critique and subversive of the existing greed culture.


Development of the Concept of “Hell”

July 23, 2015

In the state of Andhra Pradesh summer is the season for the “hell bent” messages. After suffering in the day-long heat of more than 40°C, people throng to the Christian gospel meetings in the cool evening. The summer weather, probably, prepares them for the messages on “hell”. These messages are usually preached by the “experts” in “hell”. In a coastal town of Andhra Pradesh a man went and sat on the sand to listen to the message. He was enjoying the cool sea breeze, after being in the oven-like house throughout the day. The preacher started to give a bombastic message on “hell”. He was describing the “hell experience”—unquenchable fire and eternal suffering of sinners in that fire. Incidentally, Jesus hardly spoke on this subject. His focus was more on the establishment of the kingdom of God (i.e. the rule of God) of justice, peace, love, unity and service on this earth. The man, who came out of the hell-like house to enjoy the evening cool sea breeze and the message, turned to the person sitting next to him and said, “The way this preacher is describing the hell and its experience so vividly, it looks that he has just returned from there!”

The idea of perpetual torment in hell is so prevalent in world religions, though it takes on different forms. Christianity also taught on concepts of judgment and eternal punishment in hell for those who fail to meet the necessary criteria. Augustine, the influential fourth century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, played a key role in the development of the Christian doctrine of an ever burning hell. He wrote that “hell, which also is called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire and will torment the bodies of the damned.” He further wrote of “those everlasting pains which are to follow” the final judgment (City of God 21.10, 13).

But how did the concept of “hell” develop?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word often translated as “hell” is sheol, which actually means “the grave”. When we die, we simply go to the grave (Ps. 49.10-11; Eccl. 3.19-20). Sheol is portrayed as a place of “darkness” (Job 17.13). The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible comments, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal ‘hell’ developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period (beginning in the fourth century BCE).”

In the New Testament three Greek words are used for “hell”. In the Gospels the one most often used is geenna (English “gehenna”). The Greek word geenna is a transliteration of the Aramaic word gehinnam, which is derived from the Hebrew word ge hinnom (Josh. 15.8, 18.16). The Hebrew word refers to a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem (Josh. 15.8, 18.16). It literally means “Valley of Hinnom”. During the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh sacrifices were burnt here to the Canaanite god Molech, even to the point of sacrificing their own sons in the fire (II Kgs. 16.3, 21.6; II Chr. 28.3, 33.6). Because of this prophets condemned this valley, identifying it as the scene of future destruction of life and God’s judgment (Jer. 7.30-33, 19.1-13, 32.34-35, cf. Is. 31.9, 66.24; II Kgs 23.10; Lev 18.21).

In later Jewish literature the Valley of Hinnom came to represent the place of God’s end-time judgment of the wicked Jews by fire (I Enoch 26-27, 54.1-6, 56.1-4, 90.24-27). By the first century C.E. gehenna came to be understood metaphorically as the place of judgment by fire for all wicked everywhere (Sibylline Oracles 1.100-103, 2.283-312). It is located in the depths of the earth (Sibylline Oracles 4.184-186) and is described with “fire”, “darkness” and “gnashing of teeth” (Apocalypse of Abraham 15.6; Sibylline Oracles 1.100-103, 2.292-310). There is also the implication that punishment is an eternal one (Sibylline Oracles 2.292-310; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.14, Jewish War 2.163, 3.374-375).

In Jewish Rabbinic literature gehenna is described as a place created before the creation of the world (b. Pesah 54a). It is reserved for the wicked (b. Erub 19a, b. Yebam 63b), including those who indulged in a variety of sinful acts: idolatry, immorality, arrogance, flattery, foolish speech, lack of compassion and listening too much to women!!! Those who fear God that follow the Torah in obedience and good deeds, and unfortunate in this life are spared from it.

In the New Testament all the twelve references to gehenna are used metaphorically as the place of fiery judgment (Mt. 5.22, 29-30, 10.28, 18.9, 23.15,33; Mk. 9.43,45,47; Lk. 12.5; James 3.6). Gehenna is pre-existent (Mt. 25.41). The New Testament does not describe the torment of gehenna.

Another Greek word used for hell is hades, the place of the departed, the grave, like sheol in the Old Testament (Mt.11.23, 16.18). In the book of Revelation, the word translated as “hell” is always hades meaning “grave” (Rev 1.18, 20.13,14). Hades is the place of the dead, not necessarily a place of torment for the wicked dead.

One other Greek word used for hell is tartaroo. This is found only in II Peter 2.4, where it is described as the place where wicked spirits will eventually be restrained.

From the above it is evident that references to “hell” in the New Testament draw on a rich and varied background. Beginning with the Old Testament, the concept of “hell” progresses through stages of increasing detail and description.