Lectionary Commentaries for October 6, 2019
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 17:5-10

Ira Brent Driggers

This week’s reading contains a couple of potentially difficult metaphors.

First, consider verse 6: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (verse 6; see also Matthew 17:20; 21:21-22; Mark 11:22-24).

To be frank, I sometimes wish that Jesus had not said this! The maxim is so easily co-opted in support of crude theologies of faith. Especially when read literally, it can distort faith into a kind of magic. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the example Jesus provides (“this mulberry tree”) seems random within the context of the Lukan narrative. Jesus apparently points to the nearest object and dreams up the most fantastic of scenarios. He could just as easily have said “turn this tree into a rabbit.”

Of course, Luke does not mean to conflate faith with magic. He is speaking in metaphor. But what the scholar and preacher find self-evident may not be so self-evident to people listening in the pews. This is a good opportunity to ask, What is faith, anyway? Or, less ambitiously for my purposes, What is the Lukan Jesus trying to say about faith in these verses?

At the very least, Jesus is saying that faith is not, fundamentally, something we quantify. Keep in mind that verse 6 is prompted by the apostles’ petition, “Increase our faith!” (verse 5). It is an understandable and well-intended request, especially when we consider what Jesus has just told them: “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive” (Luke 17:4). In other words, you do not stop offering forgiveness to the repentant sinner (the caveat of repentant sinner is noteworthy). Faced with such a teaching, who wouldn’t ask for “more” faith?

Jesus’ response suggests that the apostles’ request is misguided. He pivots from the question of quantity to the question of sufficiency. Faith “the size of a mustard seed” is sufficient for even the most demanding tasks of discipleship. The mustard seed was known both for its miniscule size (1-2 millimeters in diameter) and for the contrastingly large, unruly bush that it produced. It was therefore the perfect metaphor for small beginnings leading to big results. But again, the point of Jesus’ metaphor (now quite mixed) is not to quantify faith as much as to affirm its power. God works through a modicum of faith to empower us to forgive even the most annoyingly repetitive sinners.

In elaborating on this thought, Jesus introduces a second potentially problematic metaphor: the slave who works without expectation of special treatment (verses 7-10). The pitfall here is the implied association between discipleship and thankless drudgery: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” (verse 9, in which the Greek syntax anticipates a negative answer). It is one thing to liken the disciple to the servant/slave who serves obeys his or her master (a common New Testament metaphor). But do we have to paint such a dismal picture? Are obedient disciples really just “worthless slaves” (verse 10a)?

Three observations help to alleviate the gloomy tenor of this metaphor. First, it makes more sense to translate the aforementioned phrase as “unworthy slaves” (an equally valid rendering of the Greek adjective achreios). This shifts the point of verse 10 from the seeming denigration of the disciple to the nature of discipleship itself. Obedience to Jesus is not, in and of itself, something to be rewarded (“we have only done what we ought to have done,” verse 10b). While the verses in question don’t put it this way, we could take them as an opportunity to explain how discipleship has its own rewards (fellowship with God and neighbor).

Second, we should keep in mind that scripture frequently connects obedience with joy (see Psalm 1:1-3; Psalm 119:111; 2 Corinthians 1:24; Hebrews 13:17). Especially when we conceive of obedience as an entering more deeply into fellowship with God, it is not hard to see how obedience even fosters joy. In fact, Luke is the preeminent spokesperson for joy in the New Testament. Numerous Lukan characters rejoice over God’s saving actions in and through the ministry of Jesus (Luke 1:14; 2:10; 10:17; 13:17; 15:5, 7, 10, 32; 19:6, 37; 24:52; Acts 5:41; 8:39; 11:23; 13:48, 52; 15:3, 31). Luke would be the last person to equate discipleship with drudgery.

Finally, we must bear in mind the previous verses: the apostles have asked Jesus to “increase our faith” (verse 5) in response to Jesus’ extraordinary directive about forgiveness (verses 3-4). Jesus, however, assures them that even a mustard-seed faith will prove sufficient (verse 6). Jesus then offers the slave metaphor as a way of situating his forgiveness directive among the everyday tasks of discipleship. What the apostles hear as an extraordinary case of discipleship is, in fact, quite ordinary. Forgiving the most repetitive (but repentant) sinner is more extraordinary than the slave tending the sheep or preparing dinner.

When it’s all said and done, then, this passage presents “faith” less in terms of our assent to Christological propositions (doctrine) and more in terms of our steadfast devotion to Christ—that is, as the Christian life itself. Numerous passages in Luke present faith (Greek pistis and cognates) in a similar way, often in the context of trials and temptations (Luke 8:12, 25; 12:42, 46; 16:10; 18:8; 19:17; 22:32) but only here with an emphasis on forgiveness (except perhaps Luke 16:10). Our ongoing commitment to the practice of forgiveness is, in other words, a reflection of our own faithfulness to Christ.

In a culture enamored by sensationalist news and highlight reels, it is easy to question our faith when it does not feel extraordinary. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with a mountaintop experience. But the most mundane act of faith carries extraordinary potential for transforming the world into the image of its Creator. I am reminded of the great Catholic saints of the mundane, André of Montreal (who worked as a monastery porter, sacristan, and launderer) and John the Gardener (who assisted his local monastery in gardening duties, including the altar flowers). By approaching each ordinary task as an opportunity to live their faith, they discovered the extraordinary depth of God’s love for them and for the seemingly ordinary (but quite extraordinary!) people around them.

First Reading

Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Jin H. Han

Habakkuk protests to God unlike protagonists of Greek classical literature who accept the deity’s design without questioning (for example, Oedipus Rex).

The prophet cannot and will not seek to comprehend the world apart from God. The prophet’s expostulation and demand may remind us of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who famously said, “The Jew may love God, or he [or she] may fight with God, but [she or] he may not ignore God.”1 Habakkuk too is going to argue with God, for the resolution of his question must come from God.

In Habakkuk 1:1-2, the irritated prophet poses a series of questions marked with interrogative particles like “how long” or “why.” He is not seeking information. A lament is under construction that contains a petition for God’s intervention. The cry of “how long” implies that it has been awhile since he started his complaint in vain, and the lack of response from God gives birth to the specter of divine apathy. The latter half of verse 1 inserts a graphic scene in which the prophet cries out, “Violence,” an expression that would ordinarily compel a prompt action (like “Fire!” in the English language), but God does not come to the rescue. On the contrary, God forces the prophet to witness conflict and contention. The prophet finds the destructive devastation an immediate menace (located “before him” verse 3), but God does not seem to take a note of it.

In the prophet’s estimation, divine inaction has serious consequences (Habakkuk 1:4). The Torah (commonly translated as “the law”; properly the entire design of divine governance of the world) has become so dissipated (“slack”) that God’s justice does not even manage to go forth to be and do where it is supposed to be and do (verse 4a). The situation permits the evil (“the wicked”) to immobilize the righteous (verse 4b). The Hebrew of the two halves of verse 4 features a pun, creating a cynical scene in which “justice” (mishpat) that cannot get out is juxtaposed with a crooked “judgment” (mishpat) that is let out. The disregard for God’s Torah engenders a corrupt society.

After a round of conversation with God in Habakkuk 1:5-17 (left out in the lection), the prophet intensifies the level of his expostulation (2:1-4). In the verses that are omitted, God offers a provisional answer and promises to deal with the trouble by dispatching an agent of punishment (1:5-11). However, the prophet finds God’s reply less than satisfactory, for the presumed instrument of punishment is no better than the problematic elements it is summoned to punish (verses 12-17).

The prophet declares that he will be on watch at a look-out station, communicating that he is determined to persist until God gives him an audience (Habakkuk 2:1). His vow to wait underscores that the answer he seeks cannot be produced through human acts of deliberation or meditation. It has to come from the Lord. Whenever God may speak, the prophet will be there to receive the word. The prophet’s positioning also signals his confidence. He is sure that God’s rejoinder will come definitely in due course (see “the appointed time” verse 3a).

Yahweh’s answer did come (verse 2a). God instructs the prophet to record the vision in a plain manner. The purpose clause for intelligibility (“so that a runner may read it” verse 2b) anticipates the Talmudic teaching of “Torah speaks in the language of the ordinary men [and women]” (b. Berakhot 31b), while the motif of running signifies urgency. In addition, the instrument of tablets ensures durability of the writing for future reference.

The content of the vision has to do with the end (verse 3a). The envisioned eschatology is not going to put off the end into a far distant figure, although it may not be in the immediate future (verse 3b). It will require a waiting period, but the oracle also points out that the delay will be palpable more in the perception than in reality. The uncertainty of “when” will soon be eclipsed by the certainty “that” the vision (or what it reveals) will come.

The precarious situation will trigger two kinds of responses (verse 4). The proud, depicted literally as being “puffed up” in Hebrew, display lack of an upright (literally “straight”) spirit that God desires (verse 4a). By contrast, the righteous will respond to the crisis by living by faith (verse 4b). According to the Talmud, Habakkuk 2:4b captures a one-verse summary of the entire Torah (b. Makkot 23b-24a).

The notion of faith-living in verse 4b has been variously construed through the centuries. In the New Testament, Paul appropriated it as a depiction of the saving power of gospel (Romans 1:16-17; see also Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews  10:38). During the 20th century Holocaust, many Jewish people confronted the brutal situation with faith by singing Ani ma’amin (“I believe”) based on Habakkuk 2:4b and inspired by the teaching of Moses Maimonides. The song avows faith even if the coming of the Messiah is delayed. The song, often performed in the commemoration of the Holocaust, resonates with the dictum by Reinhold Niebuhr, who states, “Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”2

In this lectionary selection, Habakkuk would counsel that troubles do not constitute a ground of despair, for in the end God’s design will be made manifest. The first part of the lection (Habakkuk 1:1-4) advises the people of God to be faithfully bold in wrestling with God in the face of historical situations that do not jibe with the Torah. That passionate prophetic protest finds its companion in the second portion (2:1-4) that keep alive and burning the faith in God’s ultimate triumph no matter what odds may be stacked against the pursuit of God’s justice.


  1. Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (New York: W. Morrow, 1991), 35.

  2. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 63.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6

Anathea Portier-Young

Theologically speaking, the book of Lamentations covers a lot of ground.

And for communities that have suffered debasement, displacement, and destruction, it can teach us to give voice to the soul-wrenching questions and cries of our shared grief. But the book’s first six verses have a simpler end in view, one first step. They bring us to the scene of devastation. They draw us across the distance we have constructed to hide from view the enormity of situations we do not know how to set right. Groaning and weeping burst through the hermetic seal of a silence that shields us from uncomfortable complaints. Before we are called to make theological judgments, and even before we give voice to our own laments, the poet demands that we see and hear.

The book’s opening adverb, ‘eka, “How,” often introduces a question (Deuteronomy 1:12; 7:17; 12:30; 18:21; 32:20; Judges 20:3; 2 Kings 6:15; Ps 73:11; Song of Songs 1:7; Jeremiah 8:8). In Lamentations, however, it introduces an exclamation (Lamentations 1:1; 2:1; 4:1, 2; see Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 48:17). It does not ask for an explanation or an answer. It asks the audience to register the shocking degree and manner of Judah’s devastation. This “how” asks us to take the measure, appreciate, and reckon with the length, breadth, and depth of all that has changed.

Our attention is first brought to the city: “How she sits.” Personifying the city foregrounds the relation between people and place. It humanizes history and makes a moral claim upon the audience. The manner of her sitting is portrayed with a single, adverbial noun: “isolation.” The city is a woman who sits alone, shunned and abased.

The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah used similar personification and language to portray a city’s devastation:

“Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter Babylon! Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate” (Isaiah 47:1 NRSV);

“Come down from glory and sit on the parched ground, enthroned daughter Dibon! For the destroyer of Moab has come up against you; he has destroyed your strongholds” (Jeremiah 48:18 NRSV).

For Babylon and Dibon, sitting on the ground contrasted with sitting on a throne (see Jonah 3:6), and thus symbolized the end of their sovereignty. The end of Judah’s monarchy is similarly in view for the poet of Lamentations (2:2, 6), yet the posture of sitting here has a further affective dimension.

In a later verse, the poet describes the embodied practices of lament undertaken by the people of Jerusalem: “The elders of daughter Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lamentations 2:10; see also Job 2:8, 13; Psalm 137:1; Isaiah 3:26). This shared work of mourning is portrayed as an occasion for the community to come together across divisions of age, class, and gender. Words take a backseat to presence on the ground, humility at the site of devastation, and solidarity that renounces the privileges of status and comfort. But Lamentations’ opening verse insists that the city yet sits alone, implicitly inviting the audience to sit on the ground beside her.

The city’s isolation comes into fuller view in the contrast between her former and present state. Her greatness was manifest in the multitude of people that thronged the city. Now she is like a widow (1:1). Widows, like orphans, were socially and economically vulnerable (see Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; 2 Samuel 14:5; 1 Kings 17:12; Job 22:9; 24:3; Psalm 94:6; Isaiah 10:12), in part because they lost access to social networks of support and protection. The Hebrew scriptures emphasize the importance of defending the legal rights of widows (see Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; Isaiah 1:23). Comparing Jerusalem to a widow highlights the dissolution of social structures that had previously helped to ensure equitable distribution of needed resources and protections throughout the community.

The loss of family, networks, and infrastructure is paired with loss of status, freedom, and economic self-determination. The city had once been of royal status, internationally recognized and honored. Now she has been reduced to “forced labor” (mas Lamentations 1:1). The Hebrew term mas emphasizes compulsion: it refers to compulsory labor (e.g., 1 Kings 9:21), including enslavement (Exodus 1:11). It was also understood by a Greek translator as referring to imposed tribute more broadly (phoron LXX), which might also include levies of food, raw materials, and crafted goods. The term highlights not only the status of servitude and the immediate conditions of harsh labor, but also a broader, imperial system of despoliation that robbed native peoples of resources and autonomy while imposing ongoing financial and social burdens that were knit into the new fabric of a subjugated society.

Those burdens have emptied Jerusalem of its people and brought its daily life to a halt. And so, the city who sobs through the night (1:2) is joined by roads that weep, because pilgrims no longer travel on them to worship, commemorate, and celebrate (1:4). The streets are a site of communal memory. They linked Jerusalem to a network of peoples and places that has now been cut off. The lifeblood of the city no longer pulses through its arteries.

If you preach on this passage, summon your community to the site of its devastation, to combat isolation and witness together the breadth and depth of collective trauma. This witnessing is not about voyeurism or missionary tourism. It is about drawing on the shared strength of community to face reality together. Pay attention to the place itself, sit on its ground, mark and mourn its transformations and listen to the story of its streets. Preach also the history revealed in the present. Show the systemic causes of degradation. Preach the way of a people who are grieving (1:4), captive (1:5), hungry, hunted, and exhausted (1:6). Help your people to see and hear.


Commentary on Psalm 37:1-9

Kelly J. Murphy

From its opening lines, Psalm 37 closely resembles the didactic tone of the book of Proverbs.

For example, Proverbs 23:17 counsels, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always continue in the fear of the LORD.” Similarly, Psalm 37 begins by declaring, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,” continuing “for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb” (verses 1-2).

The psalmist then encourages that listeners “Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (verse 3) and to “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (verse 4). Verse 4, perhaps unsurprisingly, is sometimes invoked by proponents of the prosperity gospel. As Costi Hinn, a nephew of the famous prosperity teacher Benny Hinn, writes:

By an early age, as part of the Hinn family, I viewed Jesus Christ as our magic jenie—rub him right, and he’ll give you whatever your heart desires. I quoted verses from the Bible like Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart,” and John 14:14,  where Jesus says, “If you ask Me anything in My Name, I will do it.” The meaning of these Scriptures was so obvious to me; believe in Jesus Christ, ask for things by saying, “In Jesus’ name” and you’ll have whatever you want. Seriously—that simple. Not difficult to understand.1

But, as Hinn outlines in his story of how he abandoned the prosperity gospel, life is rarely as simple as saying certain words in order to receive material gain. Read alone, Psalm 37:4 might suggest as much, but a careful reading of the entire psalm illustrates that it addresses an age-old question: Why do good things happen to people who act badly—and what should we do when we witness this play out?

Though not part of the lectionary reading, Psalm 37:25-26 suggests that its author’s answer to this question is that God will ensure that nothing good shall come to the wicked and to wrongdoers, but that those who trust in God will find that good things do come to them eventually: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” If the God’s people hold on, the psalmist insists again and again, good things will happen to them. Here we might be tempted to see how the psalm could be used by proponents of the prosperity gospel; after all, as Ellen F. Davis writes, this psalm can be “taken to be the worst kind of ‘wisdom literature’: a somewhat random collection of truisms that may not be so true after all.”2 Just wait, be good, and good things will happen. For this reason, Walter Brueggemann argues that Psalm 37 “reflects a community for whom most things work out.”3 Of course, life is rarely so simple.

Yet as Davis notes, there is another way to understand Psalm 37. A theme of inheriting the land in the future runs throughout the psalm: “you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (verse 3); “those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land” (verse 9); “the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity” (verse 11); “for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off” (verse 22); “the righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever” (verse 29); “wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked” (verse 34).

When Davis reads Psalm 37, she understands it as a poem that “speaks to and for the ‘vulnerable,’ who, it seems, are currently landless,” and as a text that “looks toward changes in matters of land tenure.” While the wicked might “prosper in their way” and “carry out evil devices” (verse 7) or “draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy” (verse 14), readers of the psalm do not need to understand this as “contentment with the status quo.” Instead, “far from being sanguine, the poem acknowledges that there is reason for apprehension and even mourning.”4 Though the audience of this psalm might have lived in an “extractive” economy—which Davis sees in verse 21, where “the wicked borrow, and do not pay back”— the psalm also records how “the righteous are generous and keep giving” (verse 21). Communities that are generous and keep giving, Davis writes, are “communities that endure … they cultivate modest habits of use and accumulation.”5

If read piecemeal, as Hinn notes above—“Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (verse 4)—Psalm 37 provides aphorisms that most of us know are not always true. But if we read the psalm in its entirety, we might find it more satisfying.

This is especially the case as we read Psalm 37 in the weeks following increased recognition of our contemporary land crisis, in the days after climate activist Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations, in the wake of recent reports that climate change is happening faster and with more ferocity than we thought it was even a year ago, and with scientific evidence suggesting that much of the damage done is irreversible. Reading this way, might we turn to Psalm 37 and find in it what Davis sees—a “tone of … encouragement for the dispirited”?6

After all, this psalm encourages patience and trust in God, but also reminds readers that God “will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday” (verse 6), that “the righteous are generous and keep giving” (verse 21), and “are ever giving liberally and lending” (verse 26). All of this requires action on the part of the psalm’s audience: to have a cause, to give, to lend to others. Rather than simply shrugging our shoulders or giving up in the face of what seems like a battle we have already lost, we can—with the psalmist—focus on “do[ing] good” (verse 3) with an eye toward the future. With Davis, we might use Psalm 37 as a text that encourages us to become a community that “cultivate[s] modest habits of use and accumulation.”7 And in this way, we can endeavor to create a world where future generations might “live in the land, and enjoy security.”


  1. Costin W. Hinn, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 38.

  2. Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009): 115.

  3. Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Edited by Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), 239. Cited in Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, 115.

  4. Davis, 114.

  5. Davis, 116.

  6. Davis, 114.

  7. Davis, 116.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Karl Jacobson

Second Timothy begins—as New Testament letters often do—with a greeting, an expression of gratitude, and a prayer.

What follows in the case of 2 Timothy is an exhortation not to be ashamed of the testimony about Jesus, which Paul (I realize that the author of 2 Timothy seems pretty clearly to be someone other than Paul, but for simplicity’s sake I will refer to the author as “Paul”), in a sense, embodies.

There is a clear progression in how Paul frames up that testimony:

  1. God saved us.
  2. God calls us to a holy calling.
  3. God has a grace-purpose: to abolish death, and to bring life and immortality to light.

This testimony is given (verse 9) to us by Christ Jesus from before time—hearkening to the beginning of the Gospel of John—revealed (verse 10) by Jesus’ incarnation, and then entrusted (see also verses 6, 13-14) to us as the “good treasure” which we are, in turn, to embody and testify to.

Paul then exhorts Timothy to face, as Paul has, the “cost of discipleship.” Paul says, “for this reason—his testimony about Jesus—“I suffer as I do.” Paul exhorts Timothy to join him in this suffering, or at least the possibility of suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

Which, at least for me as I reflect on the Gospel in present era, begs two basic questions, which are related:

Is there a social cost to preaching the Gospel, or to living it out, or to sharing it?

And, is there a danger of conforming our testimony about Jesus to the expectations or desires of this present age?

Second question first. I think the answer is clearly “Yes!” There is such a danger, and probably always has been, ever since Christ first walked the earth. In my current setting—in affluent, well-educated middle-America—there are those who are tempted to think of Jesus not as Suffering Servant, but as CEO. Less as God-incarnate, more as a wise teacher; more as a social engineer or community organizer, than a Savior. Each of these temptations to our testimony about Jesus arises from a particular cultural milieu, and has less to do with Jesus himself and more to do with we who would testify to him. I wonder if we aren’t, sometimes, just a little embarrassed by Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, diagnosed this kind of preaching rather sharply:

“A [person] who first tried to guess ‘what the public wants,’ and then preached that as Christianity because the public wants it, would be a pretty mixture of fool and knave.”

The Christian message, or better, the message about the Christ cannot, in its essence, be conformed to the shape(s) that our cultures might more tolerably digest. To change the message to make it more palatable is to distort and destroy it.

Paul puts it a bit more gently saying, not just to Timothy but to us, “Hold fast to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

First question second, then. Is there a social cost to embodying the Gospel? There probably ought to be.

Such suffering is, for most of us, of little account; our lives are not required of us. And yet, it can be a barrier.

Two of my own stories might illustrate the point.

When I was a senior in college, after I had been accepted into seminary, I saw one of my professors (and letter of recommendation writers) in the campus coffee shop. I dropped by his table to tell him, with no small excitement, that I was going to be a pastor. A young woman at the end of the table looked up from her studying, frowned at me, and shook her head. (For the record, she didn’t know me, and so her head-shaking was not thereby justified.)

A frown and a headshake at my happiness over going to seminary. Hardly dangerous. Hardly a source of “suffering.” Hardly offensive, even. And yet, that puckered brow and shuddering countenance have stuck with me.

Another from when I was in college. When I was a junior I studied in Shanghai as an exchange student. I lived in the foreign students’ dormitory with my Canadian roommate, two other Americans, a couple of Australians, one Italian, ten or twelve Japanese, and over fifty students from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. We western types, as well as the Japanese, were there to study Chinese language, literature, and history, which was facilitated at the university or college level. The African and Arab students were in China because of arrangements made at the government level, to study math and science in English; to my knowledge none of them studied Chinese formally. Which left many of them very isolated.

This was in the days running up to the first Gulf War, Desert Storm. I remember watching on Chinese television coverage of the first use of the so-called “smart bombs.” It was a tense time to be an American studying abroad. In the foreign students’ dormitory, just inside the entrance, there was a chalk board for student announcements. As my days in Shanghai wore down and we drew closer to war, more and more frequently we would walk into the dorm and find that chalkboard filled with Arabic script. And as often as not, there would be one English word somewhere in the midst of it: Bush. It was tense.

My Zambian pal Enock went so far as to tell the Arab students, many of whom were Muslim, that I was not only a student, but in the U.S. Marines as well. Enock’s thinking, if you can call it that, was to protect me. As he told me, “Karl, if they think you are an American soldier, they will not dare to touch you, for fear.” Helpful.

Shortly after New Year’s my Canadian roommate was on a trip to Beijing, and I was up late, studying for an exam. There was a knock on my door, and when I opened it, was met by one of the Muslim students from Yemen. He stood in the door in formal attire, with his jambiya at his hip. The jambiya is a ceremonial (but very functional) dagger, with a broad, curved blade of about six inches, and is worn by all Yemenis men of age. So, there he stood, knife and all.

Well, I did exactly what you would have done in that situation, at that tense time … I invited him in.

He entered, and promptly did two things—he shut the door behind him, and then reached up and pulled the wire from the two-way speaker above the door. That two-way speaker was a way for the front desk—usually manned by two old Chinese communist party members—both to contact us for any reason, and to listen in on us; which they did. Every now and then we would hear it pop on as they eavesdropped. With the wire pulled, there was no communication, one way or the other.

I didn’t know what to expect in that moment. And I didn’t really know what to do. So, I asked him how I could help him.

  • He began by telling me about his family, his wife and four sons who were back in Yemen.
  • He told me that he had been separated from them for more than three years as he pursued his degree in mathematics, and that he missed them.
  • He had been trying, for the better part of two years, to get the university to allow them to come and live with him, with no success.
  • He had come to me, hoping that I would write a letter to the president of Huadong Shifan Daxui, East China Normal University, in Chinese—because a letter in Chinese would be, he said, more respectful, and more likely to succeed.

So, I did. We spent the next couple of hours working over a letter in Chinese, asking that his family be allowed to come and join him. He gave me his words, and I did my best to put them into Chinese.

When we had finished, I gave him the letter and asked him another question, “Why did you come to me? There are others here whose Chinese is much better, who have been here longer and who would do a better job. Why me?”

And he said, “I come to you because I know that you are a Christian. And I knew a Christian would help me.”

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be that kind of Christian, the kind that creates expectations.

Now, to be clear, I share this not because I’m the hero of the story. I’m not. The point is that the testimony of Jesus, embodied (however feebly) in us, is filled with potential; the potential, to be sure of un-safety and suffering, but also the potential for faith and love to break forth from us.

This text from 2 Timothy exhorts all who read and preach from it to “Guard the good treasure” entrusted to us. The best way, the only way, is to at once “hold to” this standard, and to unleash it.