by James W. Hanes
Insights on the prejudices of biblical characters enable the author to see his own prejudices, and to understand how God still works his purposes through us despite them.
Nine Years in the Local Culture
During the spring of 2007, a Wolof man named Modou came to my home for several weeks. I lived in Senegal at the time and personal visits were common. Modou was in his mid-30s, was raised a Muslim, and lived with his family. He had believed in Jesus for just five short months.
Many Wolof people who visit the homes of missionaries do so in order to ask for something. This was not the purpose of Modou’s visits. He came to my home, greeted me, sat on our veranda, and after ten minutes or so asked if he could pray for me. I readily agreed—a believer from a Muslim background offering to pray for me in Jesus’ name was indeed a great accomplishment. His prayers were always short, stressed God’s goodness, and included asking God to help me. Each time, I thanked him and went on about my business. He left seeming satisfied and at peace.
A few months later I was leading a Bible study at a team retreat. I stopped the meeting and told the team that I could not continue to live and work in the city where we were ministering. Many of my expectations were not being realized according to my timetable and I was experiencing frustration and depression.
The team graciously prayed for me and I was later relieved of mission work responsibilities so that I could attend counseling. My team pastor, the Africa director, and family members assisted me throughout this time. God graciously cared for me by his Spirit and through his people and I was truly thankful. I returned to the States that fall to attend graduate school.
Over a year later I remembered Modou’s visits. Was Modou just being a good, social, Wolof friend? Why the frequency of visits without asking for anything? Was God saying something to me that until now I had not realized? To what extent did my theology inform how I interacted with new Wolof Christians? I now had focused time in school to explore answers, and by God’s grace, I did so with humility and diligence.
Theological Prejudices of Characters in the Bible1
In addition to required texts for school, I began reading the Bible again. The Holy Spirit gave me many insights. First, Arthur Glasser’s Announcing the Kingdom clarified that God’s mission is announcing the Kingdom of God among the nations (cf. Glasser 2003). Second, there are themes that run throughout the Bible. Third, a specific recurring theme is how our understanding of the Bible affects how we do mission (mission praxis). And fourth, God’s sovereignty is displayed alongside and in spite of our mission praxis.
It was this convergence of Bible, Holy Spirit, and fellow Christian mentors that led me to form the following thesis: although our theological prejudices inform our mission praxis, in the end these do not hinder God’s missional plan of drawing all nations to himself. Four instances of this theme sprang up from scripture: (1) Abraham and Abimelech, (2) Jonah and the Ninevites, (3) Simon the Pharisee and the immoral woman, and (4) Peter and Cornelius. (Jonah, Simon, and Peter were all “sons of Abraham” and therefore carried the mission of God as Abraham did.) After careful reflection, I saw how these stories applied to me and how they could inform my mission praxis once I returned to Senegal.
Abraham and Abimelech
Abram was chosen by God to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household to go to a land that God would later show him. God said to Abram, “I will make you into a great nation…. All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen.12:2-3). God’s design for Abram was that through him all nations would be blessed. This also accomplished God’s mission stated above. God kept his covenant with Abram and Abram believed God.
As the father of many nations, Abram was given the name Abraham. Abraham traveled with his wife, Sarah, to the region of the Negev and stayed in Gerar. He told Sarah to say that she was his sister. When the King of Gerar, Abimelech, saw Sarah, he took her to be his wife. One night, God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him that he would die because he had taken the married woman Sarah.
Abimelech pleaded with God not to destroy his nation. God reassured Abimelech that he knew his conscience was clear and that is why he kept Abimelech from touching Sarah. Furthermore, God promised Abimelech that he would destroy all that was Abimelech’s if he did not return Sarah. The next morning, Abimelech summoned his officials, explained what had happened, and called for Abraham. Abraham was asked to explain his offense.
What does this mean? Abraham was not shy in stating his reason for the ruse: “I thought, this is a godless place. They will want my wife and will kill me to get her” (Gen. 20:11). Abraham wrongly prejudged Abimelech’s people as being godless. He also assumed that they would kill him and take his wife.
Abraham’s unjust theological prejudice almost cost Abimelech and his whole nation their lives. His theological prejudice informed the way he related to other nations. If this ruse had not been stopped, other nations could have suffered the same fate as was intended for Abimelech. However, God was involved in Abimelech’s life through dreams, Abimelech was aware of God, and he intimately spoke with God concerning his entire nation. God did not allow Abraham’s deception to hinder his mission.
Jonah and the Ninevites
Jonah was a prophet of God called to give a message to the great city of Ninevah: “Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are” (Jonah 1:2). In response, Jonah went in the opposite direction to get away from the Lord. He took passage on a boat bound for Tarshish and while en route encountered a great storm.
The polytheistic sailors shouted to their gods and pleaded with Jonah to pray to his God for deliverance. Jonah knew God had caused the storm, so he told the sailors to throw him overboard to save the entire crew. A fish swallowed Jonah; in its belly, Jonah prayed to the Lord. The fish spat Jonah on the beach and God again gave Jonah the message for Ninevah. Jonah obeyed and announced God’s judgment to the Ninevites, who later fasted, repented, and pleaded with God not to bring about the destruction he had intended. God had compassion on the Ninevites and did not carry out the destruction.
What does this mean? Jonah believed that when people cry out to God in great trouble, God answers (Jonah 2:2). He believed that God saves from the jaws of death (2:6) and that those who worship false gods turn their backs on God’s mercy (2:8). He believed salvation comes from God alone (2:9).
He also prejudged the Ninevites as unworthy of participating in God’s salvation and mission. They were not God-fearers, they worshipped false gods, they were not Jews, and they were not circumcised. By fleeing, he tried to prevent them from hearing God’s message of judgment so they would not be able to receive God’s mercy.
Jonah’s theological prejudice informed his mission praxis. However, God did not allow Jonah’s theological prejudice to condemn a people he intended to save. Moreover, in the midst of Jonah’s flight, the sailors were saved from the storm’s destruction. God used Jonah twice to save two groups of people so they also might participate in God’s mission.
Simon the Pharisee and the Immoral Woman
Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him and his guests. While dining, Jesus was approached by a certain immoral woman (thought to be a prostitute), who brought a jar filled with expensive perfume. She knelt by Jesus’ feet and wept. Her tears landed on his feet and she proceeded to wipe them off with her hair. Then, she kissed his feet and anointed them with the perfume.
When Simon saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word perushim, which in English means “set apart.” Pharisees believed that all Jews had to observe the purity laws (which applied to the temple service) outside the temple. Therefore, Simon believed that he, his Pharisee guests, and the respected Jew (Jesus) would have to obey the purity laws which would also govern Jesus’ interaction with this certain immoral woman. He could not touch her without becoming unclean. Yet in the midst of this scandalous scene, Jesus told a story.
Attentive Simon listened to the story of two people who were loaned money; one little, the other much. Jesus asked Simon which of the two would be the most thankful (and show the most love) if the money lender forgave both debts. Simon answered correctly—the one who was loaned much. Jesus them compared Simon’s behavior with that of the woman.
Simon did not offer water to wash Jesus’ feet; the woman did so with her tears. Simon did not greet Jesus with a kiss; the woman had not stopped kissing Jesus since she arrived. Simon did not anoint Jesus as a cultural courtesy; the woman sacrificed great wealth to anoint Jesus’ feet. Jesus concluded that Simon showed little love, while the woman showed much. Jesus went on to forgive the woman her many sins saying, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).
What does this mean? Simon was reluctant to bless or even accept this woman because he prejudged her as being a sinner, an impure woman. She was neither to be touched physically nor by God’s grace in Jesus. Simon’s theological prejudice informed his mission praxis: he condemned the woman, misjudged Jesus as prophet, and withheld a blessing God intended him to bestow upon the woman and Jesus.
But God did not allow Simon’s prejudice to thwart his mission. Jesus used this opportunity to demonstrate God’s mission of accepting and saving the woman. Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s mission included marginalized individuals and extended to the entire Gentile population. Many Jews believed that Jewish laws declared the Gentiles impure and unclean. Their theological prejudice affected how they viewed and related to Gentiles, but in the end these biases did not hinder God’s missional plan to draw all nations to himself.
Peter and Cornelius
Peter had recently traveled from Lydda to Joppa, where he was summoned to attend to a deceased woman named Tabitha. After she was raised to life, Peter stayed in Joppa and lived with Simon, a tanner of hides. In Caesarea, there lived an army captain named Cornelius, a deeply devout and religious man.
One day, he had a vision where he saw an angel of God. The angel told him that his prayers and gifts to the poor had been received by God. Cornelius was to send messengers to Joppa for Peter, and he immediately obeyed. Before Cornelius’ messengers arrived in Joppa, Peter had gone up to the tanner’s roof to pray. While there, he fell into a trance. He saw the sky opened and a sheet containing animals, reptiles, and birds lowered in front of him.
A voice told him to kill and eat them. Peter declared, “No Lord, I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean” (Acts 10:14). The voice told him never to call something unclean when God has made it clean. Just then, Cornelius’ men found the tanner’s home and called for Peter.
They related why Peter had been summoned and Peter went with the men to Caesarea. Cornelius greeted Peter while all the members of his house were being assembled. Peter then told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
Cornelius explained the vision he had received. It was then that Peter realized God shows no favoritism. As Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit fell on all who were listening. The Jewish believers who accompanied Peter were amazed that the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles. Peter baptized them and stayed with them many days, and would later recall and defend his actions in Jerusalem before a critical group of Jewish believers.Peter’s testimony would convince them, as well, to accept what God had called clean.
What does this mean? Prior to meeting Cornelius, Peter had believed that he fully understood God’s mission was to circumcised Jews. This also affected his mission praxis. Paul had even rebuked Peter’s actions as recorded in Galatians:
[Peter] ate with the Gentile Christians, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came…[Peter] wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore….afraid of criticism from…people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision…. As a result, other Jewish Christians followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Gal. 2:12-13)
However, God’s mission was larger than Peter’s understanding. Peter had believed that God’s gift of salvation was confined to the circumcised Jews. This affected how he viewed and treated Gentiles, those he considered impure and unclean. God did not allow Peter’s (or any Jewish believer’s) theological prejudice to hinder God’s mission.
Application to Mission Context
It was easy to recognize the prejudices of Abraham, Jonah, Simon, and Peter. It was more sobering to realize that I shared this same prejudice.
I am again reminded of Modou. He came by my home weekly to pray for me, to minister to me. I had not been aware that God was using Modou to bless me. I, like the four biblical characters, had already prejudged Modou and his motives.
Like Abraham, I had prejudged Modou as not fearing God. After all, he was a believer from a Muslim background who had only believed in Jesus for a few months, had not been baptized, and had a second wife who had just been introduced into his home. I was the one chosen by God to bring salvation to people like Modou. What could he possibly do for me? I asked myself.
Like Jonah, I knew salvation comes from God alone. I had prejudged Modou as unworthy of sharing in God’s mission by ministering to me. Modou was an animist, but he also worshipped his ancestors. In addition, he was a member of the Mouride sect of Islam (a large, Islamic Sufi order founded by Amadou Bamba, who taught that salvation comes through submission to the marabout and hard work) in Senegal. How could he minister to me until he met my criteria (Western orthodox theology and longevity in the faith) of a true follower of Jesus? I asked myself.
Like Simon the Pharisee, I loved little. This was evidenced by my lack of value for Modou as a fellow believer in Jesus, my lack of thankfulness to Modou, my lack of attention to his motive for visiting me, and my lack of appreciation for his mission praxis that was a direct result of his understanding of God.
Like Peter, I insisted that Modou follow a prescribed set of rules (or perhaps be of a specific ethnic group) before he could begin demonstrating God’s mission. What I now realize is that Modou was able to combine his understanding of God with his mission praxis in a way that (instead of hindering God’s mission) actually demonstrated and proclaimed it.
I was able to return to Senegal this past summer and met with the church. I also saw Modou. Avoiding eye contact, I sat before them and shared the story of how God revealed to me my prejudice. I asked Modou’s forgiveness and received it.
God clearly called the above four biblical characters to participate in God’s mission. Abraham, Jonah, Simon the Pharisee, and Peter had theological prejudices that affected their mission praxis as they related to other people and nations. I also carried (and still may carry) theological prejudices that threaten to hinder God’s mission. Yet, God does not allow his mission to be frustrated.
1. Thank you to Robert Gallagher, associate professor at Wheaton College Graduate School, who introduced me to the themes that run throughout the Bible.
Glasser, Arthur. 2003. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
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James W. Hanes has been a member of a church-planting team in Senegal, West Africa, among the Wolof people since 1998. He, his wife, and their two children are members of Mennonite Mission Network.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 142-147. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.