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Bless Me and Enlarge My Border August 2008

Bless Me and Enlarge My Border

Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge
my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from
hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked. I Chronicles 4:10

INTRODUCTION

At the dawn of the 21st Century an American Evangelical, Bruce Wilkerson,


published a book on an obscure Bible character whose “two verses and three
sentences” story is found in the middle of a tribal name list in I Chronicles. Jabez,
described as the best loved of his siblings, uttered a prayer to which God responded in
the affirmative. Wilkerson’s book promised rewards from God to any of the millions
of saints and seekers who would memorize and repeat “The Prayer of Jabez”.
Wilkerson had to enrich the meaning of the scriptural prayer to make this claim. He
drew people to his manifestation of the “health and wealth gospel” with the following
invitation:

Dear Reader, I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God
always answers. It is brief--only one sentence with four parts--and
tucked away in the Bible, but I believe it contains the key to a life of
extraordinary favor with God.... Thousands of believers who are
applying its truths are seeing miracles happen on a regular basis. Will
you join me for a personal exploration of Jabez? I hope you will!1

Among those who responded to Wilkerson’s invitation, many testified to


miraculous answers demonstrating God's love, mercy and intervention on behalf of
those who seek Him. But anecdotal stories neither prove nor verify that the prayer
itself "contains the key" to extraordinary favor with God.

INTENTION

This paper does not seek to link C. S. Song’s Jesus the Crucified People in any
way to The Prayer of Jabez or Dr. Song to Mr. Wilkerson. But the phrase in the
prayer “enlarge my border” and Mr. Wilkerson’s “enriching” the meaning of the
prayer resonate with the methodology that Dr. Song uses when he approaches the
gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptations, the Lord’s Supper and various understandings
of Christ found in scripture and contemporary culture. Dr. Song expands the

1
Bruce Wilkerson, The Prayer of Jabez (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000) Preface Page
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understandings and enriches the meanings found in those accounts, then proceeds to
make theological claims based on those enlargements.

THE GREAT TEMPTATION (CHAPTER 8)

In this chapter, Song addresses the political theology and ethics of Jesus using
material found principally in the Matthean account of Jesus’ temptation in the
wilderness. He leaves no room for doubt of his intimate familiarity with Jesus whom
he meets across the entire breadth of the gospels nor of his close reading of Matthew
4 and the parallel text regarding the temptations found in Luke’s gospel. But the Jesus
we meet in the gospel texts is insufficient for the task that Dr. Song sets out.
Therefore, based on his familiarity with Jesus’ character and the times in which Jesus
lived, Dr. Song offers several opinions regarding Jesus’ context and internal struggles
which begin with or contain the words, “must have.”

Political messianism must have been the prevailing political


theology among Jews in Jesus’ day… Questions such as these
must have engaged Jesus’ mind from time to time. He must have
wrestled with them … He must have been very much
preoccupied with them … Jesus must have had to face such
questions during his ministry.2

… he must have fully shared the political aspirations of his


people. It is even possible that he was also involved in certain
political actions…. He must have agonized over the political
leadership role people expected him to play.3

After describing the first temptation, to turn stones to bread, Song “expands” on
Jesus’ internal struggle as he contemplated how best to respond.

Looming large in Jesus’ mind must be, for example, those


emaciated children… The image must have tormented him…
Jesus must have known from his own experience…4

And the response itself is milked for meaning based on a similar expansion of
the text.

2
C. S. Song, Jesus, The Crucified People (New York: Crossroad, 1990) p. 165
3
Ibid. p. 167.
4
Ibid. p. 168.
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…the word of God that is to be heard in the suffering of


people, the word of God that strives with hungry men, women
and children in search of daily rice and bread, the word of God
that is the flesh of human beings tortured and mutilated and
done to death. This must have been what Jesus meant when he
said: “Human beings cannot live by bread alone, they live on
every word that God utters.” Jesus must have said the work
“live” with force.5

Having thus dealt with the temptation to become a “magician-messiah”, Jesus


was compelled to deal with the temptation to become a “miracle-messiah” through an
act that would encompass the wonder of Jerusalem with the wonder of the scriptural
promises. Here Song not only engages in several “must have’s” but inserts
parenthetical materials on the wonder of Jerusalem even to non-believing Jews in the
form of stories from the 6-day war of 1967. Though he in no way infers that he
equates the modern state of Israel with the Biblical people of God, his “reading back”
the feelings of a 20th century secular Jew onto a 1st century religious Jew (Jesus) blurs
the line between the two.

In dealing with the third temptation, to have political power over all the
kingdoms of the world, Song’s use of parenthetical material encompasses Alexander
the Great and Mao Tse-tung, two men whose imperial control was, for a time,
supreme over large parts of Asia. Having introduced royal glory in the person of these
two men, Song goes on to insert “must have’s”,

“Jesus must have heard the offer of all the kingdoms of the
world in their glory to the end with patience. He must have
waited until the “if” part was finished. He must have then
realized that the if-clause was a powerful challenge to his
political ethics…6

In his denunciation of the mixing of state and church, or religion and politics,
Song engages in outright fantasy regarding both Jesus and Satan. In expanding Jesus’
response to the first temptation, he posited a greater vocal emphasis on the word
“live” in Jesus response. He expands Jesus’ dismissal of Satan in Matthew 4:10,
ascribing to the statement an audible volume that is not included in the text and
applying another pair of “must have’s”.

5
Ibid. p. 173.
6
Ibid. p. 182.
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“Begone, Satan! He shouted. The shout was so loud and


determined that Satan must have been shocked into
speechlessness. It must have such a powerful shout that
Satan must have trembled.”7

Though Song’s argument is well made, challenging us as it entertains us, one


wonders whether it might not stand up, built, as it is, on so much that “must be” or
“must have been”.

THE LAST SUPPER AT THE ROUND TABLE (CHAPTER 9)

One finds it hard to argue with the “must have” that stands at the beginning of
this chapter. “Jesus must have decided that he had to be with the people oppressed
politically and religiously to carry out his redemptive activities.”8 Having settled this,
Song transposes the lessons of Jesus-among-the-people in his own context onto
peoples of other spaces and times.

To do this, he “expands” Jerusalem, the Passover meal, and the social context in
which the Last Supper occurred.9 To present the supper, he departs from the gospel
text and reads DaVinci’s Last Supper mural. He gets a little sloppy here, mentioning
that the painting is famous or well known more than once, and twice granting
greatness to DaVinci (which is undeniable, but need not take up space in the book).10

Using arguments found in the work of feminist theologians, Song expands the
attendance at the supper to include many women11 and proceeds to expand the table
talk as well.12 All of this is in service of expanding our understanding of the church to
include all people of God.

Having done it once (the meal is with people) he does it again (the “people
supper”), but does this by way of conflating the upper room meal with an earlier one
at the home of a Pharisee, where Jesus instructed religious leaders to remember that
their ancestors had been starving slaves. All of this may be good theology, and it
certainly all is held together by the “table and meal” motifs, but one questions
whether or not all of these things belong together.

7
Ibid. p. 185.
8
Ibid. p. 188.
9
All three of these expansions are made in successive paragraphs found on page 190.
10
His editor must be blamed for leaving such blandness in the text.
11
Ibid. p. 192.
12
Ibid. p. 193.
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What is most effective in this chapter is the metaphor of the round table, which is
used to re-cast the meal for East Asia. The prescription that flows from the round
table metaphor is that Asian churches should re-think the manner in which the Lord’s
Supper is celebrated on this continent and its contiguous islands. The conclusion, that
the supper belongs to the Lord and to the people, is well made.13

JESUS, THE CRUCIFIED PEOPLE (CHAPTER 10)

Taking a chronological angle on the drama of salvation, Song places it originally


in the realm of the action of God, solo, then as a “God and Jesus” duet and finally as
an ensemble piece involving the people themselves who are involved in the drama as
objects and active participants.14 I find this to weaken Trinitarian theology, but maybe
that, itself, is not a bad thing. To accomplish his purpose, Song first identifies the
people. To do that he goes to the Passover meal (distinguished here from the Last
Supper) and its meaning for the people of Israel.

He refutes any idea that Jesus was claiming to be the Passover lamb (a symbol).
Here there are no “must have’s” because they would stand against what Song is
attempting to say. Although in so many places he has “expanded” on the story through
use of this rhetorical device, here we are kept to the text in order to set Jesus over
against the prophets. This is done not for the sake of expanding our understandings,
but in order that we might “transcend” the Passover meal and its historical roots and
put new meaning into it.15 We move from the Exodus to the cross, from the Passover
meal to the Eucharist. The Greek is consulted here, taking particular notice of the
meaning of the preposition huper and choosing one of its less common meanings in
order to get Jesus out of a superior position and into solidarity with the crowds.16

In order to articulate a Christology of one who is incarnate among people


everywhere ever since the time of the Passover meal that Jesus celebrated just prior to
his crucifixion, Song goes neither to the scriptures nor to the work of professional
theologians, but to artists. He finds Christ present in a novel by Shusaku Endo where
a Japanese convert to Christianity has abandoned his homeland and the faith taught to
him by Spanish missionaries, but has hung onto Jesus. He also finds the historical
Christ in the sculpture of Christa, a female version corpus on a crucifix that was
displayed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in the 1980’s.

13
Ibid. p. 207.
14
Ibid. p. 209.
15
Ibid. p. 213.
16
Ibid. p. 215. (see also the Concise Greek-English Dictionary appended to The Greek New Testament,
Fourth Revised Edition, 2nd print. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1994) p. 187
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Using these images, he suggests, we can find the One described in Isaiah’s hymn of
the suffering servant.17

ECUMENICAL WORK IN ASIA

Dr. Song challenges us to look carefully at both Jesus’ refusal to put himself
above the people and his militant work to be present among suffering people. The fact
that the book was written in the 1980’s (published in 1990) by one who, though he
often visited Asia, had been a resident of Europe and North America since the early
1970’s, may call for its revision. This is not because he got anything wrong, but
because the river into which Dr. Song stepped when he sought material for this book
had moved on by the time he got it written, and has moved on further since that time.
Much of the Asia that he identified in the 1980’s has changed under the forces of
globalization, economic development and political maturation. (While poverty still
binds much of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, rural China, Cambodia and
other places, prosperity is the overwhelming characteristic of many locales and
peoples.) Though there are many who lack bread, starvation is a problem “elsewhere”.
Miracle messiahs are now visible on satellite TV, and many of them “homemade” in
this region. Individual political leaders-for-life have been replaced by changing-faces
at-the-top even where single parties hold onto the reins of power.

Christ is to be seen in the Filipina caregiver struggling with a senile Taiwanese


and sending her salary home to pay off the labor brokerage and support her children.
Christ is seen in the aged farm workers, untrained to do anything else, who cannot
earn enough on the farm to live up to the “standards” seen on TV. Christ is found
among those who work on fishing vessels, hunting free creatures to feed the pets of
apartment dwellers on land. But these populations are outnumbered by those who
work in cities and offices, striving for the “gods” of consumerism and gloss. Its likely
that more people in Taiwan read The Apple News every day than the combined
number of all the people around world who have ever at any time opened Dr. Song’s
book. What is there to say to them? They are comfortable, well off by world
standards, desirous of power, money, consumer goods, and air-conditioned
workplaces.

We are crucified on a consumerist cross, whether we ourselves are the consumers


or the cogs in the machine that produces the goods for consumption. That is the
reality of life in Asia today. If the oikos is to be defined as all of God’s people, and if

17
Ibid. pp. 218-229.
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none whom God has created can be excluded from that definition, then the gospel
must speak to us with words of liberation.

CONCLUSION

Wilkerson’s The Prayer of Jabez promised rewards from God to people who
dared to take up a particular mantra. By expansion of the text and the prayer
Wilkerson led some to report miraculous answers to their prayers. But these anecdotal
stories did not prove anything.

Dr. Song’s expansions on the gospel texts are similarly promising. His bringing
extra-canonical material into the discussion, things like the “text” of DaVinci’s last
supper, Endo’s novel and the Crista sculpture enrich our understanding, but they
prove nothing. For ecumenical living in Asia we need more than pictures and stories,
we need life experiences. We need to be dragged out from our comfortable homes and
churches to the masses who cry for the Word of God (rather than holy entertainment)
and who seek the bread of life (rather than a McDonald’s sandwich). In his
recommendation of round tables for the Eucharist, Dr. Song approaches what is
needed. Now we need to take those tables outside, and empower each person who sits
at them to serve those on either side. “Priesthood of all believers” is about more than
the right to talk to God on behalf of another and to talk to another on behalf of God. It
extends to all who come to the table and feast on the bread and wine, the body and
blood. The people, the consumer-cross-crucified people, are themselves the priests.