Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Renewal of New Testament Theology

The Renewal of New Testament Theology (Cascade, 2015)


''Farewell to New Testament theology as usual. Kim has struck the heart of the matter. This is a bold and fresh reading that seeks to resurrect a Jesus who points his finger to God and squarely situate him in his first-century Palestinian context. Reading Jesus against the grain, Kim provides a provocative textbook that is sure to stimulate interest and discussion. For those who had abandoned, domesticated, or otherwise misappropriated Jesus, this is a must-read.''
--Robert Wafawanaka, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Virginia Union University, author of Am I Still My Brother's Keeper?

''This is a book that both theologians and biblical scholars--who have been concerned about an unnecessary dichotomy between the two disciplines--have long awaited. Readers will deeply appreciate Kim's clear and fresh approach to New Testament theology as a process of discerning and engaging historical Jesus and New Testament texts. I highly recommend this book not only for research but also as a textbook for various courses in theological education.''
--Seung Ai Yang, Associate Professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary

''Yung Suk Kim's Resurrecting Jesus is a rare synthesis of historical criticism and spiritual passion. Kim boldly challenges the conventional divide between theology and history. Making the words and deeds of the historical Jesus the foundation for theology, Kim redefines central concepts of the New Testament in ways that are relevant to seekers for ethical consistency in a harsh world.''
--L. L. Welborn, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Fordham University --Wipf and Stock Publishers
The Renewal of New Testament Theology (Cascade, 2015)

Friday, November 27, 2015

My Paul book was translated into Korean

I am so glad that one of my Paul books was translated into Korean and published by SamIn, in Seoul, Korea. The book is about Paul's threefold theology or gospel. The English title is A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Cascade Books, 2011). I hope this book will impact Korean scholars and Christianity in ways that they may relive the heart of Paul's gospel in today's world. I sincerely thank Rev. Dr. Jinseong Woo for his hard work of Korean translation.

바울의 삼중 신학
김영석 지음 | 우진성 옮김 | 삼인 | 2015년 12월 03일 출간


한국어판 서문



1장 바울은 어떻게 해석되어 왔는가?
ㆍ 법정적 구원의 관점
ㆍ 사회과학적 혹은 사회학적 접근
ㆍ 바울에 대한 ‘새 관점’
ㆍ 묵시 신학적 접근
ㆍ 정치적?이데올로기적 읽기
ㆍ 요약

2장 바울의 삼중 신학을 향하여
ㆍ 바울의 삶
ㆍ 바울 신학의 중심 이슈와 바울의 해결책: 율법, 죄, 생명에 대하여
ㆍ “그리스도의 몸으로 말미암아 율법에 대해서는 죽임을 당했습니다.”
ㆍ “그리스도는 율법의 끝마침이 되셔서”
ㆍ “율법의 행위”
ㆍ 요약

3장 바울의 삼중 신학
ㆍ 하나님의 의, 그리스도의 믿음, 믿는 자들이 이룬 “그리스도의 몸”
ㆍ 고린도전서에 나타난 삼중 신학 둘러보기
ㆍ 로마서에 나타난 삼중 신학 둘러보기
ㆍ 갈라디아서에 나타난 삼중 신학 둘러보기
ㆍ 요약

4장 “하나님의 의”
ㆍ 하나님의 의는 어떻게 이해되어 왔는가?
ㆍ 구약성서에 나타난 “하나님의 의”
ㆍ 제2성전 유대교와 디아스포라 경험 안의 “하나님의 의”
ㆍ 로마 제국의 의/정의
ㆍ 바울과 “하나님의 의”
ㆍ 바울서신에 나타난 “하나님의 의”
ㆍ 로마서 1장 16~17절과 3장 21~26절에 나타난 “하나님의 의”
ㆍ “하나님의 의”, 하나님의 복음
ㆍ “하나님의 의”, 하나님의 결정적인 역사 개입
ㆍ 요약

5장 “그리스도의 믿음”
ㆍ 바울서신에 나타난 “그리스도의 믿음”
ㆍ 구약성서에 나타난 메시아
ㆍ 제2성전 유대교와 디아스포라 경험 속에서의 메시아
ㆍ 그리스-로마 제국에서의 메시아
ㆍ 바울과 “그리스도의 믿음”
ㆍ 바울서신에 나타난 “그리스도의 믿음”
ㆍ Pistis Christou 요약
ㆍ 요약

6장 믿는 자들이 이룬 “그리스도의 몸”
ㆍ 바울서신에 나타난 “그리스도의 몸”
ㆍ 구약성서에 나타난 인간 문제
ㆍ 제2성전 유대주의와 디아스포라 경험 속에 나타난 인간 문제
ㆍ 그리스-로마 시대의 인간 문제
ㆍ 바울과 “그리스도의 몸”
ㆍ 바울서신에 나타난 “그리스도의 몸”
ㆍ 고린도전서 12장 12~27절에 나타난 “그리스도의 몸”
ㆍ 요약

7장 그리스도를 “본받음”
ㆍ 헬라 전통 안의 미메시스
ㆍ 미메시스와 바울
ㆍ 본받음의 해석 방식
ㆍ 고린도전서 4장 16절과 11장 1절에 나타난 “본받는 사람들”
ㆍ 요약

8장 오늘날 바울을 어떻게 읽을 것인가?
ㆍ 바울 신학 요약

신학과 윤리를 융합한 바울의 삼중 신학 
버지니아유니온 대학의 김영석 교수는 총 세 권의 바울 연구서를 펴냈는데, 이 책은 그 가운데 가장 총론적인 저서다. 그는 이제까지의 바울 연구 경향을 다섯 가지로 구분하면서, 그 연구들이 중요한 성과를 냈음에도 공통으로 갖는 한계를 지적한다. 바로 윤리가 신학과 분리되어 있다는 점이다. 즉 바울을 아는 것과 실천하는 것은 별개가 된다는 이야기다. 따라서 이 책은 ‘하느님의 의’, ‘그리스도의 신실함’, ‘그리스도의 몸(인 우리)’이라는 바울의 핵심적인 세 키워드가 하나로 맞물리고 있는 의미를 집요하게 파헤친다. 그리고 ‘삼중 복음’이 하나로 만나는 지점에서 신학과 윤리의 융합을 가능하게 하는 바울의 핵심 의미를 도출한다. 저자는 미국에서 가장 활동적인 한국계 신학자다. 안타깝게도 한국의 독자들은 그를 거의 알지 못하지만, 독창적 바울 해석을 시도하는 이 책이 한국 신학계에 김영석이라는 이름을 알리는 문지방이 되리라 믿는다. ― 김진호(제3시대그리스도교연구소 연구실장, 『리부팅 바울』 저자)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

About prolific writing

Yung Suk Kim

Thus far I have produced more than a dozen books. Some say that I am a writing machine. But let me be clear that I don't write things overnight and submit them for publication. Most of my writings are done over time and revised hundred times. Because people do not know the whole process or habit of my writing, they tend to think that I write fast and easy, as if I were a writing machine. That is a misunderstanding. Today when I was exercising at a gym as I used to, I thought about my prolific writing habit and know-how are three key elements for a possible prolific writing: 1) distinctive ideas; 2) investment of time and its wise management, and 3) the healthy body and spirit (physical and spiritual).

First, unique or distinctive ideas about the book are most important. There are already tons of books in the market. So I ask: Why do you waste your time if there are similar books already in the market that you are going to write. Check yourself and find where you are interested and how your idea makes a difference as compared with others. Of course, idea making does not happen in one day or overnight. Day and night, ask yourself about everything that you read and see. Also, ask why you want to write and whom you want to impact on. Often I resist familiar readings and struggle with new ways of reading. Maintain a habit of note-taking and visit your notes often and revise them. All this means you need to maintain a pool of ideas.

Second, even though you have good ideas about a new book, you cannot produce anything without setting aside time to study and reflect. I mean you have to give yourself to where your passion is. Day and night, in big or small time, you will need to have constant brainstorming for your topic. Time management is also important. For me study does not happen only in a study room or library; I often enjoy thinking and planning to write in a coffee shop or in a local park where I often walk and think. In a sense, nature is my library and classroom. Even in a sleeping bed, or in the middle of the night or early morning I wake up with new ideas or better plan for writing. I often write in my head when I go to bed. Sometimes I wake up by new ideas about the book or clear thoughts about something in a book and take notes on papers.

Third, even though you have unique ideas and the perfect time for writing, you cannot produce anything without your health. You need to maintain your body and spirit in perfect condition. Physical exercise is basic. Eat properly and exercise regularly. Meditate on your life and time. Simple lifestyle will help. Our body does not last forever.

As you see above, the above three elements are gifts of God. You cannot take boast about them. Ideas are given by God in some sense because you don't own anything in your life. You are not the owner of your life, and therefore everything good about yourself is not yours. We say that is the grace of God, which is everything in your life. Think about good ideas about the book, your time, and your body and spirit. All these are not yours. You cannot create time and body. You can use them judiciously. That is your responsibility. In the end, I want to say that writing is a vocation and mission for me. That is why I put all I have into my writing, thanking God for what I received from him. That is it.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Interview with Author Yung Suk Kim

Resurrecting JesusThe Renewal of New Testament Theology (Cascade, 2015)

1. Your book title “Resurrection Jesus” is very interesting. To be blunt, why did you write this book?

I wrote this book to tell the people that the historical Jesus must be brought back to our discussion of New Testament theology. The traditional New Testament theology has not seriously taken into account the work of the historical Jesus. For example, people have no interest in the question of what brought him to death. His crucifixion is the result of what he did. We have to know what he proclaimed and why he was willing to die. Otherwise, he was not born to die. Jesus is a historical figure who should not be domesticated by any one.

2. What do you think is the primary work of Jesus?

I believe that Jesus’ primary message or teaching is well summarized in Mark 1:14-15: “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and God’s rule has come near; change your heart and believe in the good news.” As we see here, Jesus proclaims the good news of God; it is God’s good news. Good news is about God: God’s time and God’s rule has come in the here and now (perfect tense). For this God’s radical time and rule to be effective, people have to accept it by changing their minds, which is what metanoia means. So it is impossible to talk about Jesus without God-talk in first-century Judaism. New Testament theology would be misleading if we do not look at God to whom Jesus points his finger. Jesus does the works of God, not his own.

3. As you know, there is a big divide between history and theology, or between the historical Jesus and New Testament theology. For example, some historians say that the New Testament is not based on the historical Jesus. How is it possible for you to do theology by drawing attention to both of these seemingly irreconcilable areas of study?

I believe that it is possible by redefining New Testament theology in which we can engage the historical Jesus. I broadly redefine New Testament theology as our explorations about God, the Messiah, and the world. New Testament theology is not constructed deductively (from heavenly revelation, for example), but can be constructed by readers who critically reevaluate not only the work of the historical Jesus but also various writings in the New Testament. So in my book I define New Testament theology as follows:

New Testament theology involves both what the New Testament says about God, the Messiah, and the world, and how the reader evaluates, engages, or interprets diverse yet divergent texts of the New Testament, including difficult, sexist, and oppressive texts. The reader’s task is not merely to discern what is good and acceptable in the New Testament, but also to surface its limitations by examining early Christians’ disparate positions about God, the Messiah, and the world. Consequently, New Testament theology is constructed by the reader who deals with both the divergent texts of the New Testament and the historical Jesus to whom they refer. By carefully sifting through the layers of New Testament witnesses while acknowledging unbridgeable gaps between them and the historical Jesus, the reader, in view of all aspects of life in the first century CE and today, has to explore relevant relationships among God, the Messiah, and the world.

4. Once again, why is the historical Jesus important to your New Testament theology?

Let me use a body analogy. Just as the body without the spirit is dead, New Testament theology without the historical Jesus is dead because the former is built on the work of the latter. No matter how many gaps exist between the historical Jesus and the New Testament, New Testament theology needs a solid understanding about the historical Jesus.

5. Can you give us a few examples of your critically reconstructed contents of New Testament theology?

Yes. For example, the “righteousness of God” will be redefined as God’s righteousness rather than as an individual justification. “Faith of Christ Jesus” will be also redefined as his faithfulness through which he proclaims and embodies God’s rule in the here and now. Accordingly, “the kingdom of God” will be redefined as God’s rule in the here and now that challenges Rome’s rule or any obstacles that occlude the flow of God’s justice. In the end, Christians will be redefined as Christ-followers who do the works of God.

6. What do you want to say to your readers if they ask why this book should be a must read?

I like to list three important benefits for readers:

1. Getting a better, clearer understanding about the historical Jesus and the New Testament writings that refer to him.

2. Exploring the significance of Jesus’ life, teaching, and death, based not on doctrine but on his work of God in first-century Judaism and Palestine.

3. Redefining New Testament theology as a process of discerning and engaging the historical Jesus and the New Testament writings.

7. Do you believe your newly defined New Testament theology can improve human conditions?

Yes, very much so. We can learn from Jesus and follow his footsteps that embody God’s presence in the here and now. Jesus’ death is the result of his costly proclamation of God’s rule in the here and now. It is not somewhere else than here. However, there are lots of people who see Jesus’ death merely as salvific, vicarious atonement that does not look into the evil hands responsible for his crucifixion. By the way, Jesus’ death is the form of crucifixion, capital punishment by Rome. So when we see Jesus’ crucifixion, we have to see both God’s love that he embodies at the risk of his life and both his love of God and God’s judgment that brings evil people and power to justice. Condoning evil is not the point of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Photo Essay: The Way It Is

Yung Suk Kim

Photo Essay
The Way It Is!

A good theologian must be a great poet who thinks deeply about the meaning of existence of world and people. This afternoon I took a trip to the nearby park, Deep Run, in Richmond, VA. I walked a lot and gave me lots of poetic thoughts about nature.

Key words of this photo essay: interpretation, diversity, solidarity, perspective, the way, weakness, nature, beauty, others, reality, participation, poet, theologian

I am blessed with an eternity out here: moments of breathing fresh air, standing alone for seconds with intention, focusing on what I like to do, asking for a help from somebody unknown, and above all, the sky, trees, lake, fountain, wooden deck, and the very time and earth.

  I walked trails.

I looked up and down and marveled at the complex yet understandable picture of this. I saw green leaves and trees; and yet right next to them lie dead trees and their branches. This is the way it is and we call it nature. Then, suddenly, my thinking mode switched to theological poetic sensitivity. I continued to walk along the trails, wondering about the reality of the downside or dark side of nature.

I cannot believe this dry trunk. Why did this happen? By nature or some other natural forces? Is this natural and okay in nature? Or is this something unnatural? Can it be there any remedy to this? From a holistic perspective, is this picture as a whole just beautiful?
Everywhere I went through the trails, I saw the fallen trees. What can we think of this dark part of nature? Of course, I don't mean the dark side is simply bad. But the question is, Is there good sacrifice that we have to accept? For whom and why?

Oops! This tree was broken and dried. What is wrong with this? Or, is it just natural? How is this seen by the background trees?

We tend to see the bright side of things without paying attention to their complex or dark side. But when we see things out there from a holistic perspective, we can appreciate the way and reality in which all things are intricately connected. This is a mystery of life in nature. No one, human or not, can live independently. Even weakness or vulnerability may have a role to play in our lives though not desired by us.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Teaching the Bible in a Different Culture

*Note: The following piece was also posted at Teaching Theology in a Global and Transnational World.

by Yung Suk Kim

Ellen Ott Marshall wrote in a blog: “Transnational pedagogy is learner-centered teaching. It takes into account the varied experiences of students in the classroom, recognizing and utilizing expertise and also accommodating different backgrounds.” Her words struck a chord in me.

I am teaching in the area of biblical studies, and New Testament in particular, at the school of theology where I am the only faculty member of Asian (Korean) heritage and my students are predominantly African-American. They are thirsty for the “living waters” so to speak.

Most of my students, full-time employees in the private or public sectors, come to study in the evenings during the weekdays or on weekends. In this unique environment, teaching the Bible or theology is a daunting task, partly because I am a cultural stranger to the students and partly because my students are divergent even within their African culture.

Some are more marginalized than others. There are also issues regarding gender and class. More importantly, their theological spectrum is broader than I had assumed, ranging from liberationist to fundamentalist positions. However, one thing I have discovered again and again is that I could share my own marginalized experience with them.

I also found that the students are very open to new learning and challenges in biblical studies. Over the years, as I wrote in my Web site, I have come up with the following teaching philosophy that tells who I am or what I am doing in this vocation of theological education:

I teach to engage in the knowledge of who we are in this world where we see one another as diverse. Diversity is not taken for granted but utilized as a source of critical engagement with others. I value both a critical and self-critical stance toward any claim of knowledge, truth, and reality and emphasize the following as pedagogical goals: learning from others, challenging one another, affirming who we are, and working for common humanity through differences. All in all, the goal of my teaching is to foster critical diversity and imagination in their learning process.

Most recently, I taught Introduction to Biblical Studies to first year students. The contents and design of the course focused on helping students to become critical contextual biblical theologians. I explained the processes and complexities of biblical interpretation in which the reader takes the center stage. I also emphasized three elements of critical contextual interpretation: how to read (the text), what to read (textual focus or theology), and why to read (contextuality of the reader), which will be the topics of my future book.

In my teaching, I reiterate the importance of the role of the reader, who has to engage not only the text but also his or her life in a particular life context. At the same time, I help students to be critical of all readings because not all are equally valid or helpful. The oft-cited verse in my classroom is: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

We not only unpack the texts from many perspectives, but also deconstruct our familiar readings and reconstruct them in new life contexts. Students are refreshed because of their new learning experience in biblical studies. They also find themselves loving the scripture not simply because of what has been written there but also because they can engage it critically and faithfully for their lives. Oppressive theologies are rejected and the students are reaffirmed as the people of God. In this way the Bible is deconstructed and reconstructed through their lives, because God is the God of all. God is not the God of the past alone, but of the present amidst their turmoil.

In one of my classes, I asked each group (made up of six or seven people) to discuss and answer this question: “Who is Jesus to you and your community? Portray him, using all kinds of methods or approaches that you have learned so far.”

Each group worked hard, and all were genuinely engaged. They used pencils, colored pens, and poster board. Afterward, members of each group stood alongside each other and presented their works creatively and faithfully. I was very impressed by their comprehensive understanding of Jesus in context and by their skills in portraying him from their particular life contexts.

One group said Jesus is water because he is the source of life for Africans and others. After the presentation, I added one thing: Water is a great metaphor since I could relate to my experience of water in my culture. I briefly talked about the image and metaphor of water in Daoism and my cultural experience. The experience here is cross-cultural, spiritual, and contextual.

The other group said Jesus is the sun, because he shines upon all people, showing God’s love to all in the world. The idea here is that Africans need the light and that they become a light for others. I added one more thing: Jesus as the sun is like the power plant, which runs with nuclear fusion, giving energy and light to others (centrifugal). In contrast, the Empires gather power for them at the expense of others (centripetal). There are three more groups that presented nicely. I could see all of my students were engaged in the exercise and they were excited by what they had done. Finally, all said amen. 
*Yung Suk Kim is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology in Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books, including A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Cascade, 2011) and Christ’s Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor (Fortress, 2008).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Miracles and Human Transformation

 Yung-Suk Kim

The Nature of Miracles
What do miracles in the Bible have to do with us? If we read them only as God’s power, we would miss the point of a transformation we need today.  As we hear of miracle stories in the Exodus event (such as parting of the water or striking the rock to get water), we are challenged to rethink about miracles because they call for certain action with faith. Similarly, if we read the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes in the wilderness, we are challenged to think and act differently than is normally thought of. Here the point is not simply that Jesus could do anything as the Son of God. In fact, miracle stories are placed in particular literary or historical context in which biblical audiences have to deal with their life circumstances. Otherwise, they are not told in a vacuum. In this sense, a miracle is not merely about God or Jesus but about people in the world who face various life struggles and difficulties. In the following we will briefly look into transformative lessons from the exodus miracle and Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes.

The Exodus Story (Exod 7-12)
Scholars believe that the early stage of the exodus story begins with a few hundred Hebrew slaves at the Nile delta area (Ramses) who flee Egypt for their liberation at all risks. These slaves believe Yahweh would help them. They were on foot and could cross the marsh reeds or shallow lakes (not the Red Sea; the Hebrew word yam suph means “sea of reeds”) without being struck down by the Egyptian chariots. The Egyptians gave up chasing them because they could not enter the lakes with chariots. Moreover, a few hundred slaves were inconsequential to the Egyptian economy. But to a group of these slaves their escape was nothing short of a miracle. Reflecting on and remembering what just happened to them, these slaves firmly believe that this event is none other than a miracle, possible only through God’s power and grace. The Lord (Yahweh) made it happen and their faith confirms it. This experience gives them words of confession and encouragement that God is the source of everything.
Actually, this miracle would not have been possible if they had not left a place of shackles in Egypt for a new home of freedom and justice. It was a miracle not because supernatural things happened but because what they thought was impossible came true in their eyes. They could have been captured and killed, but in fact they were saved.
The transformative lesion is clear: we can break shackles of oppression by trusting God. Hebrew slaves did not wait for angels to come to rescue them in prisons or their working places. If they had stayed in their place with fear and despair, they would not have enjoyed freedom. Scholars believe that as time goes by, this seemingly simple story of faith that calls for action for liberation has been embellished and expanded. But the whole point of the story is not about the graphic, majestic description of how fleeing Israelites crossed the sea by the miraculous act of God, but about people’s courage, faith, action, dream, and hope for a free home even with the cost of a death on their run.

Feeding the Multitudes
Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes appears in all four gospels (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15) and has similar transformative lessons for us. The power of this miracle story does not lie in the supernatural power of Jesus as if Jesus could provide anything for the needy, but lie in a little child's faith and action through which many people are supposedly motivated to give their own, too. Imagine people gathering in a dry, sunny wilderness. Even a little bread amounts to tons of bread for the hungry bodies and souls. A little thing of sharing could ignite others to do the same. Sharing is a miracle! This miracle story is a symbolic, moral story that challenges others to do the same like a little child and those who gathered who participated in the boy’s faith and action. Otherwise if we focus only on Jesus’ power that feeds the five thousand people, we would miss this important aspect of a sharing miracle sparked through a little child and completed through the participation of the crowd in the desert.

In this sense, a true miracle in this story has to do with a change of the heart – from self-feeding attitude to other-feeding attitude by sharing a little thing. This miracle is not merely about the power of God or Jesus who does supernatural things like changing the tree, the stone, or the wind. Many people are starving to death even today not because food is in short in the world but because people are as dull and hard as not to break their hearts for others. A miracle begins with one’s heart and with small things.

Jesus' Parables and Human Transformation

Yung Suk Kim
The Nature of Jesus’ Parables
A parable (parabole in Greek) is a fictional story about everyday life; para means alongside, and bole comes from ballo (to mean “to cast”). Literally, it means a story thrown alongside of life. About one third of Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic gospels is done through parables and his teaching focus is about “God’s rule” (basileia tou theou) in the world, the recurrent theme of the gospels. Jesus’ parables invite the audience to see something radically different from the status quo of society or community.
Because of the parable’s nature as such, it has double-entendre. On the one hand, a parable must be easy to understand because it is taken from everyday life (as shown in the parables of the sower and the mustard seed). On the other hand, however, it is very difficult to understand because the parable involves figurative language which needs careful attention and skill from the reader.

Meaning of a Parable as Engagement
Since meaning of a parable is not self-evident and the parable is open-ended, hearers always have to struggle and interpret it for themselves by drawing on metaphors or symbols in it. For example, in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20; Matt 13:3-23; Luke 8:5-15; Thom 9), there are at least four metaphors that we have to interpret: the sower, soil, the seed, and the harvest. The interpretive task and question is how can we relate God’s rule with each of these metaphors? That is, how can we understand a link between God’s rule and each metaphor? It is like swimming a deep sea where readers have to decide what to do and what to explore in such a place. What follows is an illustration of human transformation in the parable of “the seed growing secretly” found in Mark 4:26-29.

The Seed Growing Secretly (Mark 4:26-29)
Jesus’ parables are a perfect place for studying human transformation. At each step of metaphoric interpretation of a parable, our understanding and challenge about God’s rule is indescribably big. Mark 4:26-29 reads:

26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,
27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

In this parable we can identify several metaphors: the sower (someone scattering seed), the seed, the ground or the earth, and the harvest. One caveat is that this parable should not be read as allegory although such an interpretation has been popular and practiced for so long beginning with the early church. The reason is clear: allegorical interpretation of the parable deprives not only the diversity of meaning but very challenging metaphoric messages hidden in the story, which readers have to struggle to understand; that is possible only by readers’ engaging the parable.
First of all, we can think about God’s rule and its relationship with the sower, which, in theory, may be variously compared to God, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, or to any person. But God and Jesus may not be a good option because verse 27 says the sower does not know how the seed would sprout and grow. Readers assume that God and Jesus must know how the seed grows. Then another option may be that Jesus’ disciples take the role of the sower, who plants the seed and waits patiently for the harvest. The transformative lesson is that the disciples have to endure until harvest while doing good works of planting. In addition, we may think of the sower as any person like a farmer, who may realize that he or she cannot have harvest without good weather. Here the transformation is the recognition that we cannot live alone without God.
Second, we can relate God’s rule with the seed, which is sown on the ground and grows. At least, there are two metaphorical relationships between them. On one level, the seed’s mystery can be looked at and the seed grows because of it. The seed is certainly not human-origin and it can be understood variously as God’s power, grace, word, or teaching. So the lesson about human transformation is that we depend on the seed as a source of life: God’s healing presence (not human-made presence), God’s grace (not human efforts), God’s word and teaching (not human wisdom or philosophy). Caution is that this parable assumes that the seed itself is good. In a real world, there may be bad seeds which may bear bad fruits. But that issue is not dealt in this parable. This means a parable does not deal with all situations; therefore, it should be interpreted in context, however complex or diverse it may be.
On another level, we may think about the seed’s sacrifice. The seed must die and bear fruit. Jesus teaches the way of the cross in Mark 8:34-38, and his followers (his disciples and the crowd) must deny themselves to follow him, taking up their cross: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). So the transformative lesson is: “Die like the seed and bear fruit.”
Third, we can relate God’s rule with the ground or the earth. Once the seed is sown on the ground, it sprouts and grows. The seed alone cannot do anything unless sown on the ground. It is the ground that accepts the seed and supports it with calmness and sincerity. In this sense, the ground is God-given blessing. In theory, we can think of various conditions of soil as shown in Mark 4:10-20, which is an extended interpretation of the parable proper in 4:1-9. But the proper context of this parable limits us to focus on the theme of God’s grace, which is compared to the image or metaphor of “the seed growing secretly.” That is to say, the ground represents the gift of God along with the seed. Once sown on the ground, the seed will sprout and grow. What we can do is to scatter or plant the seed and wait until the harvest. There are things we can do and there are things we cannot do. What we cannot do is God’s part. So the transformative lesson is turn to God for life. Our job is not to create or manipulate God’s world but to care for it.

As we see above, the meaning of a parable is not fixed but very invitational and challenging precisely because God’s rule involves complex realities and diverse ongoing participation. The other important thing is the fact that parables are open-ended, and therefore hearers/readers have to come up with their own responses to the unfinished or unanswered questions with metaphoric links in the parable. Readers are often surprised, challenged, and awakened to a new awareness of God’s rule or presence in the world. In this regard, the parable does something to us to the extent that we are asked to re-create our own transformative stories in accordance with God’s rule in the here and now.

Bible and Human Transformation

The Bible and Human Transformation
Yung Suk Kim
The Nature of the Bible
The Bible is composed of many books of different genres, written and rewritten over more than a thousand years, “interpreted and reinterpreted, in different times and places, and thus contains many views or theologies,” as I wrote at the Journal of Bible and Human Transformation (JBHT), a new peer-reviewed online journal started a few years ago. Therefore it is very difficult to articulate what it is, let alone what it means. By and large, it can be read as history, theology, and myth. All biblical writings, albeit in a different way, have a mixture of history, theology and myth. 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Samuels can be read as history and inform us of ancient Israel’s political events. However, even these purported historical writings are written not to record what exactly happened as modern historians attempt to do, but to deal with particular life issues in the community.
Accordingly, the Bible includes divergent perspectives of theology or ideology; for example, there are four sources (J, E, D, and P) or traditions about God in the Torah, which reflect four different views of God and the world. In similar fashion, there are four gospels in the New Testament that interpret Jesus tradition differently in view of his significance in their lives. In addition, the Bible also contains myths of shared beliefs or traditions about the desired life in a community.

The Bible and Human Transformation
No matter how disparate biblical writings may be, the bottom line is that they are life stories involving some sort of change, whether it is personal or communal change: a change in terms of human behavior, a change in terms of human attitude or a change in terms of society. When there is a split in the community, it needs restoration for which new knowledge or exhortation for example is provided to members of the community. For example, the post-exilic Jewish community (as seen in Nehemiah and Ezra) is exhorted to return to God, purifying their lives and renewing the Mosaic covenant. When there is a personal tragedy, he or she needs comfort, strength, and encouragement for continuing life. Here the needed change is trust in God without falling prey to despair. Psalm 13, a shortest yet typical lament, deals with such a terrible life experience. The psalmist begins with the three times “how long” questions: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?  How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
In sum, biblical writings or stories, although to a different degree or in kind, can be read as stories of changes that biblical audiences were in need. Ancient Jewish prophets call for a change in terms of seeking God (shub in Hebrew as “turn to God”). Jesus asks for a change of the heart (metanoia in Greek, Mark 1:15), and Paul for renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2).

What Kind of Human Transformation Do We Expect?
     As we have seen, the Bible can be read with a focus on change or transformation. All change is transformation, but not all transformation is equally valid or helpful to readers. On the one hand, we need to explore the positive side of transformation in the Bible; for this purpose, we will look into Jesus’ parables (in Part 2 of the blog) and miracles (in Part 3 of the blog). On the other hand, we also should be aware of the negative aspects of transformation in the Bible. For example, conservative gender ideology reflected in 1 Tim 2:11-15 is resisted because it is the voice of patriarchal church leaders, and a more egalitarian voice in Gal 3:28 is reaffirmed to promote gender equality. So the critical issue is how to discern sound transformation.
   To help explain what I mean by sound transformation, my personal observation will suffice now. One day there was an opening worship service at a conference, and the preacher read the text from Acts 3 and preached about it. The text is about Peter and John who walk up to the Temple to pray and heal a lame beggar in the name of Jesus Christ. The speaker’s point was simple and clear: these disciples received transforming power from God and therefore they could do anything in Jesus’ name. The speaker asked the audience to receive the same power from God and asserted that they could live a powerful transformation life. But I felt uneasy and questioned to myself how God or Jesus could be different from shamans or other deities who proved to be powerful enough to give healing to the devotees. If what really matters is only power from God, and for that matter people are required to pray to receive such power, Christian good news would hardly be different from other religions or shamanistic rituals. In such good news, there is not much ethics or human transformation other than receiving power from God. Rather, I am more interested in what motivated these disciples to move toward the beggar or what may have happened to this beggar when he listened to them. Therefore, we have to ask many transformation questions, as I suggested in my book, A Transformative Reading of the Bible (2013); below are some questions we have to ask in the study of transformation in the Bible:

  • What kind of transformation occurs, from what to what?
  • How can we balance different, difficult life experiences?
  • Who or what is being changed or who or what are we changing?
  • What does transformation look like if it happens to self, neighbor and God?
  • What roles do these subjects (self, neighbor, God) play in transformation?
  • What degree of change might be considered “transformative”?
  • Are all transformative aspects equally valid in all situations?
  • What is the method to get there?