Living in another culture can bring new perspective to one’s reading of the Bible—especially when living in a culture that is much closer to the Biblical culture than our own. In the short time we’ve been in Africa, we’ve been in a number of situations that brought to mind a passage in one of the four gospels. Here are a few examples…
He came to Jesus at night… (John 3:2)
Have you ever thought about why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night? Some commentators suggest he was scared of the reactions of the other Jewish leaders—and this may well be the case. However, there are other reasons that nighttime is a good time to have a spiritual conversation. For one thing, since everyone goes home to eat, it is the best chance to get time with someone one-on-one. After the daily work responsibilities have ended, people also tend to be more relaxed and talkative. I thought about this story the first time someone approached me here at night. We had just moved in temporarily to the house of a furloughing missionary in town. The first night we were there, the night guard at the house approached me in the dark, sat me down next to him in his little hut outside and asked me about my business in Balama. “Rumor’s going around that you’re a missionary of the X church,” he said. “Is this true?” I didn’t realize right away that he was part of a split-off church from the X church, but I did know that denominationalism was strong here and so this was likely a loaded question. “No,” I replied. “I came to help with the Bible translation project here. We want to work with all the churches.” And a lively conversation ensued, which was no doubt more informative for me than it was for him.
The one who has two coats should give to the one who has none… (Luke 3:11)
Shortly after we arrived at our temporary house, we had an interesting situation arise with one of the night guards. It was a chilly night (believe it or not we do have them here!), and after going outside to greet this skinny man in his tattered short-sleeve shirt, I started to feel a bit sorry for him. “Maybe I should offer him my fleece jacket for the night,” I thought. After all, Elizabeth had already been teasing me for bringing two of them along with us from the States. After consulting with her, she reminded me of an important cultural consideration that I had not thought of. “If you do, you may not get it back.” (Local views on personal property are much less rigid than we are used to in the West.) Thus ensued a brief battle within my own soul; I’m ashamed to say how hard it was for me to release control of my own property. However, this verse kept coming to mind. Finally, I surrendered, went outside, and offered him the jacket. I didn’t tell him he could keep it, but I wasn’t altogether surprised when the jacket didn’t show up the next night. Or the next. Until the next really cold evening, when he showed up wearing my jacket. He’s been wearing it ever since.
Do not take the seat of honor… (Luke 14:8)
The principle of this story makes sense to us in the West, but the figure Jesus used doesn’t exactly strike a chord. However, here in a culture where honor is an important “commodity,” it makes all the sense in the world. Seeking honor through a position of spiritual authority—the specific thing Jesus was counseling against—is a very real danger here. Not that it doesn’t exist in the U.S.—mass media and megachurches can easily breed this kind of hubris at the national scale. However, more than in most places in the West, being a pastor in Africa is a pretty good way to have a position of status in the community. People are also treated differently based on their status. For example, missionaries like us are always ushered to the front row at church services. We may not be entirely comfortable with this, but we have learned to go along with it. When visiting a church, we have to expect to be offered a front row seat and probably asked to preach. It is so much an expectation that we are sometimes surprised when we visit a church and are not offered a seat in the front. At those times, I have remembered this verse—and gladly taken a seat at the back until ushered to the place of honor.
He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet… (John 13:5)
Do you realize how dusty, gross, and smelly your feet can get when you wear sandals in a dry climate? I hadn’t either, until we moved to Balama. After a few hours of walking in the sandy, dusty roads, I feel like I need a bath. Like most Mozambicans, we shower at night, in large part because I can feel the layer of dirt at the bottom of the sheets when I don’t wash my feet before bed. Frankly, washing even a good friend’s feet isn’t a job I would sign up for. Add to that the honor dynamics mentioned in the above paragraph. There is a sharp division between employers and employees here. Once we gave a cup of tea to the domestic worker at the house where we’re living and offered him a seat with us, but he insisted on going outside and drinking it on his own. Had we pushed too hard for him to conform to our values, I suspect he may have felt as awkward as we did. All of this makes me appreciate the shock of what Jesus did when he washed His disciple feet. For the disciples, it must have just felt so wrong. And for most people doing what Jesus did, it would have felt repugnant.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother… (Luke 14:26)
This is a hard saying of Jesus—one that I’ve wrestled with quite a bit through the years. I’m finding out that here, where family is one of the strongest forces of opposition to Christian converts, less mental gymnastics is required to make sense of it. A local pastor and leader of the translation project told of how he converted to Christianity after seeing the JESUS Film shown by some traveling missionaries. His life changed drastically, and the whole family began to take notice. However, his maternal uncle (the figurehead of the family in Makua culture) was fiercely opposed and threatened to kick him out of the family. However, this pastor persisted in his faith, and within a few years this uncle died (something which he considers an answer to prayer), opening the door for many more in the family to put their faith in Jesus.
No one can serve two masters… (Matt 6:24)
One of the translators in our town is a pastor who previously was among the leadership of one of the major political parties in this country. This position brought with it plenty of recognition, status, power, and money. However, when he converted to Christianity, he realized that his allegiance needed to change. It was already difficult to maintain a holy lifestyle under the pressures of the political environment; but beyond this, God was calling this man to become pastor of a local church. Deep down, he knew that he couldn’t faithfully do both. The leading pastor of his church denomination in the province laid down the gauntlet: “Either follow politics or follow Christ. You cannot do both.” Stepping down wasn’t easy: it required making a public statement over the radio and fleeing the region to avoid threats on his life. Back in the area five years later, he is content leading a small church in our neighborhood and helping to bring the Scriptures to the Makua-Meetto people.