“Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
The passage from Luke’s gospel is the lectionary reading for today. In anticipation of this meditation I read it just before I visited South Korea last week, mindful of Trump’s threat to destroy North Korea, and the danger of an imminent nuclear holocaust. What does it mean to interpret the present time, I asked myself? And how are Christians in Korea understanding the times in which they are living? The passage from Luke is not only challenging, it is also disturbing, for Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but division. Because of him, he says, families will be divided against each other, and, not surprisingly, mothers-in-law against daughters-in-law! What did he mean? He surely did not mean only that people would understand the times in which they live differently, but that because of following him some would act in ways different to others. as was the case during the struggle against apartheid when families, friends and churches split not just over understanding what is going on, but how to respond?
The truth is, interpreting the present time is not an academic matter; it has to do not only with how we understand what is happening in the world, but how we act in response. And that can be very divisive. So Jesus berates the crowd listening to him for being unable to “interpret the present time,” not because they are incompetent political analysts, but because they were failing to respond to his proclamation of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. They failed to recognise that he presented them with a choice as to how they should live and act, a choice by which they would be judged, a choice that would determine both their own future and that of the coming generations. Is that not also true for us? Our response to the environmental, political, social and economic crises we face, cannot simply be a matter of understanding the situation, but of working for justice. And it is precisely for this reason that following Jesus sometimes becomes divisive even though our aim is the common good of all. So do we really trust the God revealed in Jesus as we seek to interpret these times and make decisions about how we should live and act? What did I learn about this from my new Christian friends in South Korea?
My first impressions, on arriving in Seoul, one of the largest and most high-tech cities in the world, was that I did no sense any fear or panic. There were no police or soldiers on the streets, only thousands of people going about their daily business. The same was true when I was taken south to speak at the Conference to which I had been invited. I was the only “outsider” among the 300 participants, most of them theological professors from the many theological seminaries and faculties in Korea where 25% of the population are Christian. But was anybody interpreting the present time as an hour of judgment, a time of crisis, I asked myself? And if so, how were they responding?
Gradually as friendships were made and conversations developed, people did speak to me about both their faith in God and their fears for the future. They were deeply worried about what was happening. They knew that the end could happen at any time. But as long as it was not yet the end, they believed they had to live their lives trusting that God not Trump or Kim Jong-un rules, and therefore they had to do what they could to face the future with confidence and hope.
There is a constant refrain in the teaching of Jesus summed up in his words “fear not!” These words would not be very comforting if we heard them from certain politicians and presidents who tell us that they have everything under control, and that they will soon sort out the problems of the world. When they talk like that we have every reason to “fear”! The problem is that fear undermines living and acting responsibly, and sometimes leads us to act in ways that are destructive. It is fear that drives nations to build nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and sometimes to use them, That is why Jesus says: “fear not!” For fear disempowers us, it undermines our ability to act faithfully and responsibly. it undermines justice and peace — the peace that Jesus did come to bring! The dividing line is between acting out of fear and acting out of faith — that is the division that Jesus creates.
Even though I was only very briefly in Korea I was deeply impressed by the quite Christian confidence of the people I met. They know the stakes are high, they know the dangers they face, and they are not without anxiety, but they have a remarkable trust in God. That, surely, is how we are called to respond to the present time when so much seems to be falling apart? We should neither live in fear nor resign ourselves tofate, but interpret this time of judgment as an opportunity to put our trust in God into effect by living and acting responsibly and hopefully. I sat next to the mayor of a major city during Sunday worship and at lunch afterwards. An impressive man full of hope whose vision is of a Korea reconciled and at peace, and someone who believes that the Church has a major role to play in the process. For him the end is not yet; there is much to do, and only in doing so can we overcome fear – the fear that feeds on rumour and hatemongering, the fear that feeds of a fatalism that sinks into impotent resignation, the fear that leads to war, the fear that prevents us from living and acting now in the knowledge that God’s kingdom of justice ad=nd peace has come to earth in Jesus.
We all know the end is coming, whether the end of our own lives, or of the world as we know it. Whether we are suddenly struck by lightning tomorrow, or fall terminally ill, is beyond our control. And as long as the end is not yet we have to seize this moment in time as a gift of grace, living and acting in ways that express our hope as followers of Jesus . That is what it means to believe in God. Not believing in a doctrine, but trusting that there is a meaning and purpose in life and history, that the present times are in God’s hands and acting in hope for a peaceable world, by working for justice and reconciliation.. That is how Jesus teaches us to interpret the present times. It may divide us from others who see things differently, but it is the only way to discover the peace which Jesus wants us and the world to have.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 26 October 2017