On Thursday, at the request of the guards at the office, we had the first of hopefully many Swahili Bible studies. I had no idea how the session would go but thought we would start to read through the gospel of Matthew.
The first week we read Matthew 1, and mainly discussed the genealogies, which led to some fascinating questions and discussions. Was David the same guy who killed Goliath? Was he the same one who was king? Where did Solomon’s name come from, and is he the same Solomon that Muslims talk about? Where did Abraham come from? Did he originate from the land of the Arabs? Why were Abraham and his descendents chosen, and not other people? Was the exile the Matthew talks about when the people left Egypt? Why does Matthew keep talking about 14 generations?
I thought these were great questions, which really helped me to read the first few verses of Matthew again through fresh eyes.
As western Christians we often find genealogies to be tedious, and tend to skip over them quickly. But on Thursday I realised how crucial the historical context is to everything else that Matthew presents. Can we really understand Jesus if we don’t know who Abraham was, why the people of Israel were called by God, how they were led out of Egypt, why they were exiled from the promised land, or the subsequent Old Testament prophecies of hope for the future?
In my experience evangelism in my home culture can sometimes seek to reduce the gospel to a list of things to know and believe, or bullet points to be understood and followed, in order to be saved. In many ways that is a reflection of western culture as a whole, and the desire to present information in efficient, bite-sized chunks, communicating only what the person needs to know in order to accept what is on offer in the quickest and easiest way. We could even say that this type of gospel presentation is an appropriately contextualised approach for in individualised consumer culture, although it certainly has its limitations too.
But Tanzanian culture is very different to that of “the west” in general. Important discussions and decisions take time, and always happen in the context of relationships. Without knowing someone’s background and history it is impossible to trust them or to invest in them or in what they may be offering. The important thing is not what you know, or what advantageous deal you are offered in the short-term, but who you know and how much you can trust them to treat you well in the long-term.
In this culture, simply encouraging people to profess belief in “Jesus” to save them, without understanding his context and who he is, can lead to difficulties. For sure, people may take up the offer (particularly if there is nothing to lose in doing so), the same as they might take up a similar offer from a witch doctor or any other religious system that promises to make things turn out ok. But this presentation of the gospel as a simplified objective contract with an abstract “Jesus”, divorced from any knowledge or experience of who Jesus really was and is, is likely to be received as something that (like the witch doctor) may offer benefits in the short-term but is ultimately not to be fully trusted and is best kept at arms length. Without being drawn into the whole narrative of the Bible, and of Jesus in his full context, a person is unlikely to feel able to trust and follow the Jesus of the gospels or to become part of the rich and glorious kingdom of God which is inaugurated in those gospels.
As we continue through the book of Matthew in the coming weeks I am praying that I will be able to read the gospel through fresh eyes with our Tanzanian colleagues, seeing and learning things that I may never have noticed before and ultimately being able to put my trust more fully in this Jesus of Nazareth.