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From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

Biblical Healing as Empowering the Needy

    Healing in the Bible has a connection to social justice that gives a social dimension to the mission to which Jesus gave to the disciples, and to us. We are sent to "heal the sick and declare that the Reign of God has come near" (Luke 10:9).

    In 12:18, 20, Matthew interprets Jesus' healing (vv. 9-14) as fulfilling the prophecy that the Servant of the Lord would victoriously execute justice Healing is closely associated with acts of justice in the Bible. Giving sight to the blind appears beside setting free from oppression in Luke 4:18 (cf. Psalm 146:7-9 et al.).

    In Ezekiel 34 the political and religious leaders ("shepherds") are accused by the prophet. "You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick . . ., you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them" (v. 4 NRSV). The word sick here is the most basic Hebrew word for sickness. It means to be in a state of weakness, to suffer slackness and exhaustion. One's vital power somehow has been snipped. The sick experienced that physically, but also psychologically and socially in the aversion and social isolation they received and the subsequent exploitation.

    Sickness in this way is closely associated with poverty. The basic words for the poor in Hebrew express weakness and lowliness. Leviticus 25:35, the key passage on power in the Scriptures, describes a member of the community who becomes poor and, literally, his or her "hand trembles with you." Hand here and often is a metaphor for power. The poor are lacking in power to maintain themselves in community. The obligation placed on the community literally in the Hebrew is, "You shall make him strong." That is the task of justice. It is not to ameliorate or maintain a marginal existence, but to restore that person so that they can "live beside you in the land."

    In Ezekiel 34:4 this obligation is placed on the rulers. It is the responsibility of political institutions and other leading public institutions. The duty denied is that of Leviticus 25:35 with the same verb. "You have not strengthened the weak." The word for the weak, however, is the word for the sick, which appears again in the next clause, "You have not healed the sick." In Isaiah 3:7 (NRSV) a person who refuses to be a ruler states, "I will not be a healer." Healing is a metaphor for a broad range of activities of empowering people to overcome the affliction that they receive from their environment.

    The prophesy in Ezekiel 34 goes on to show that when institutions fail, God takes over the responsibility. It is restored in the new way of life breaking into history with God's Reign. ". . . I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak [the same phrase as in v. 4] . . . . I will feed them with justice." This restoration will be carried out by the promised son of David. (v. 23). This passage is at the root of Jesus' repeated teachings about recovering the lost (sheep).

    As Jesus' messianic agents, we are given the task of healing. Jesus' rule is not yet fully here. It is nevertheless the standard by which we challenge every institution to carry out its responsibilities of empowering the weak. The call for some may be simply to be instruments of physical healing. As in the Bible, it also may be much broader. Like William Booth, our healing may be with those whose "circumstances are sick, out of order, in danger of carrying [them] to utter destitution" (In Darkest England and the Way Out, 221).


From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

Avoiding the Capture of the Gospel


    The capture of the Gospel of Christ occurs when the Bible is interpreted and used according to only one perspective of application. Generally, such a perspective in itself has valid support within the Scriptures. The problem arises when it is imposed upon other dimensions present in the text. The Gospel may be captured by economic liberation when the dimension of personal reconciliation is lost. It may be captured by evangelism when the biblical demand of social justice is passed over.

    The false response to this problem is to avoid grounding mission closely in the Scriptures. One then assumes that the particular form of mission is the task of church and proceeds to carry it out. The Bible then is not misused, but it also is hardly used. Its authority and motivating power are not tapped. Often a passion for mission cannot be passed on, particularly to the next generation of Christians, unless it is adequately established. There are, however, effective ways to prevent the capture of the Gospel.

    Awareness is the first response to the problem. None of us reads the Scriptures in a vacuum. We bring to them preconceptions that influence what we receive from it. Such assumptions generally are reinforced by the particular band of Christians to whom we belong. We need to identify and control these penchants within us. We study the Bible prayerfully, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    We carry out this self-examination because of our commitment to the primacy of Scripture. We want to know what the Bible says and how our lives should be conformed to it because it is the word of God. We continually test our understandings and expectancies by the text itself. A continual dialogue takes place between critical examination of Scripture and understandings carried out in action. Because Scripture is primary, we seek to confirm our interpretations through the careful use of reason, by reference to how other Christians have interpreted the Bible, and by our own experience of God's spirit in our lives. We confirm the Bible with our minds and our actions. We do not use the Bible to confirm our prior understandings.

    Nurturing a spring of faith lying deeper in our lives than its emergence in mission also prevents the capture of the Bible by only one perspective. Our whole lives are presented to God so that they may flourish in devotion to God, as we find forgiveness of sin. We have a personal love of Jesus Christ so rich that we are anxious for those who do not have a saving relationship to Christ. We have a passion to see God's justice in every social institution so that we oppose everything that is contrary to God's will and that denies men and women God's intention for them. This mature breadth in our lives encourages us to respond to Scripture comprehensively.

    Leaders in the church will encourage this scope in those engaged in the various forms of mission. Meetings of a church and society work area and the various contacts which the leader has with its members will be some of the places where discipleship into the full range of Christian growth occurs. Biblical study and worship which are connected to social justice activities will not present only social readings of Scripture and social prayers but will bring whole persons into the manifold dimensions of Christian life and adoration. The Bible will then speak in freedom.


From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

From Fallen Angels to Social Structures?

    In the influential language of the King James Version, Colossians 2: 10, 15, like other Pauline passages, speaks of the "principalities and powers": Christ is "the head of all principality and power." In his cross he "spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it."  The concept of "principalities and powers," or in more current English, "rulers and authorities," is important for understanding the social challenge of the New Testament.

    As Professor Andrew Lincoln, a New Testament scholar, has noted recently, "there is no dispute that in the first century CE the cosmic powers were viewed as real angelic or spiritual intermediaries inhabiting the heavenly realm" (in The Bible in Human Society, ed. M. D. Carroll et al. [1995]). Professor Lincoln, however, raises a question also asked by others. How do we get from angelic beings to social structure?

    In his clearly thought-out essay, Professor Lincoln shows how we can forcefully show by analogy that in our contemporary understanding of the world cosmic powers include unjust social, political, and economic structures. "It will include ideologies that hold people in bondage, frequently without their being conscious of it, such as the ideology of redemptive violence that believes peace and security can only be obtained through the violent use of power, materialism, consumerism, sexism, patriarchalism, rationalism, nationalism, and the postmodernism that denies any reality to truth and justice and asserts that the only realities are preference and desire. It will include nuclear and chemical armament, rampant epidemic disease, ecological disaster and other consequences of human finitude and sin that have become destructive threatening forces" (pp. 351-52).

    Professor Lincoln questions, however, if it has been shown that the biblical angelic powers, which he agrees were fallen, were at that time understood as ideologies and social structures. Even though we should appropriate them that way now, we cannot claim direct biblical authority for that application

    Professor Lincoln, however, does not probe the question of why angels were called "rulers and authorities." We understand their ruling function from Jewish writings contemporary to the New Testament. God's care of everything in creation from the stars to the elements, from individuals to nations (cf. the "rulers" in Daniel 10:20-21) was directed through angelic agents. 2 Enoch 19:4-5 (first century A.D.) speaks of "angels who are appointed over seasons and years, the angels who are over rivers and seas, and who are over the fruits of the earth, and the angels who are over every grass, giving food to all, to every living thing, and the angels who write all the souls of men, and all their deeds and all their lives before the Lord's face." In the Book of Jubilees 4:15 (second century B.C.) the watchers, who are linked with angels, instruct humankind in justice and righteousness. Similarly, Hellenistic thought was influenced by Plato's discussion of "rulers" who are lesser gods that maintain the virtue of the universe through their justice and self-control (Laws X, 903b, 906). The angelic rulers admittedly are not identical with social structures, but they do influence structural conduct and within them oppose God's purposes for human well-being.

    The cultural and institutional aspects of the angelic rule are also seen in their control of the world (cosmos, Eph. 6:11-12; cf. 2:2). The cosmos is the ordering of life. In the New Testament this includes economic relationships, status distinctions, the system of learning, political rule, and a system of values.

    The social and institutional domain of the rulers and authorities is present in the New Testament and its environment, showing the biblical perception of evil that penetrates institutional and cultural life. Obedient opposition to such forces of evil must go beyond individual acts of sin.


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