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?