Just reading Nick page’s fine book about Acts – Kingdom of Fools – and yet again discovered something new.
Stephen (in the book of Acts) is remembered as the first martyr, being stoned for his new-found faith in Jesus by fellow Greek-speaking Jews. Before he dies he gives a lengthy monologue drawing on his people’s history.
But what I never realised before was this. Stephen’s speech recounts numerous times when God spoke to people outside of Israel. It’s full of stories of the God who meets people all over the world. Abraham in Mesopotamia, Joseph in Egypt, Moses in the desert. And to cap it all – he quotes Isaiah 66 and states that God does not live in a house built by human beings. i.e. the temple. The heart of life and faith in Jerusalem. The place where they believed God lived… Oops. Not the sort of thing to say at a Jerusalem dinner party. Stephen might well have filled the deadly silence that followed with, ‘Er… I’ll get my coat…’
Stephen’s making no friends here. He’s ahead of his time. He lives amongst a people who believe they are chosen by God above everyone else. But Stephen sees something different, he sees what many of the prophets saw. He sees a bunch of people chosen for everybody else. God is all over the world, he says, and Israel has been invited to demonstrate that truth. They have been chosen as messengers and ambassadors. Whether or not he knew all that before he started speaking is an interesting question. Maybe that formed in his mind even as he spoke. ‘Isn’t it great!’ he says, ‘God’s everywhere, all over the place!’ And you can’t pin him down. Er…
I had an experience of a thought forming as I spoke it out at a writing workshop recently when I was describing Jesus’s parable about the widow and the unjust judge. This is a story which, like so many of Jesus’s stories, draws on an Old Testament image. Abraham haggles with God over the city where his nephew lives. In Jesus’s story a widow haggles with a judge. I love this parable because it taps into something deep within us. The role of God is played here by an unjust judge. What!? Oh yes… Jesus is tapping into thoughts we all have from time to time, fearing that God may be like that – being unjust and waiting to judge us. Jesus clearly doesn’t see God like that, but he knows that on some days we do. What hit me in that workshop was this. We might expect Abraham to be confident enough to haggle with God – he was rich and powerful. But Jesus subverts this – in his story it’s the lowest in his society – an abandoned widow, with no income, seen as a second-class citizen destined possibly to a life of begging or prostitution. This marginalised woman haggles with God. She has as much right as Abraham. She can wrestle and argue and be honest with the one who made her. Revolutionary stuff indeed.
The Bible is full of these shocking moments, whether it’s Stephen, Jesus or an anonymous widow. It’s a deeply subversive book. The snag is that we often know it too well. And only see what we expect to see. At the beginning of Ken Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes Kenneth points out that the Bible is like a precious ring, the more we use it the more we need to keep getting it polished and refreshed so we can see it clearly again.
I’m very grateful to writers like him and Nick Page, Tom Wright, Rob Bell and John Goldingay who help us to keep refreshing the picture.