Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Tipping, Fruit, and Jesus

An away team on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" beaming down. I'm thinking about that episode where Troi tells Riker to walk behind her because they're on a planet where women make the deals and so women walk in front of men. So they do that, as if that's all they need to do to fit in to a foreign culture and be unnoticed. LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL. Yeah for all the "seeking out new life and new civilizations" that happens in sci-fi, I don't think I've actually seen one that realistically portrays cultural differences and culture shock. Image source.
So I want to continue my blog series on the gospel of Matthew. The next section to read is Matthew 22:15-46. Go ahead and skim over it~

This passage is about Jesus answering tricky questions:
  1. v 15-22: The Pharisees and Herodians ask if they should pay tax to Caesar
  2. v 23-33: The Sadducees ask, in a thought experiment where a woman is married to a series of 7 different men who all die on her, whose wife she will be "at the resurrection"
  3. v 34-40: A Pharisee "expert in the law" ask Jesus what the greatest commandment is
  4. v 41-46: Jesus brings up the question "whose son is the Messiah"
So... I'm reading this, and having thoughts about it, but the problem is that I'm missing a lot of the cultural context here. What did it mean, back in the time of Jesus, in ancient Jewish culture, to ask tricky questions like this? Yes, I have reactions to these passages based on what it means in my own culture, but maybe none of that is valid. Maybe what I think isn't actually what is happening in this passage at all.

When I was growing up, I always heard people in church talk about how we need to be aware of the context and the culture the bible comes from. Sermons would include some facts about their culture, in order to help us understand the bible passages better. But now I realize that's not enough, wow that's nowhere near enough. There I was, in my comfortable church, surrounded by people who all had the same cultural background as me. My whole life was full of people from my own culture, who understood my culture, who treated this culture as so normal and obvious that it wasn't even worth mentioning. I read the bible from that context- of course I did, it was unavoidable.

You think 2 sentences of cultural background in each sermon is enough to change that? Ha. Basically I read the bible as if it was something familiar and easily-understandable to me as a modern American, unless the pastor mentioned that we needed some extra cultural background information to understand a specific passage. As if missing things because of cultural differences was the exception, rather than the rule.

The truth is, the bible is something completely foreign. And even though I know these little tidbits of information about their ancient culture, that's not enough for me to actually *get* it. I now see- because I've been living in China for 5 years- that you can't understand a foreign culture by hearing little soundbites about it from the comfort of your home. There are some things you can't *get* until you've actually lived them.

As an example, let's talk about tipping. In China there's no tipping. Furthermore, the sales tax is already part of the price on the menu/ price tag, so- get this- the amount of money it says on the price tag is literally the amount of money you pay. WOWWWWW. Like, totally blew my mind the first time I came to China. Like, I was used to going out to dinner with friends, and something on the menu is $10, and mentally calculating "okay add about $1 for tax, about $2 for tip"- in China it's not like that. The amount of money it says is actually the amount of money you pay. WILD.

Hendrix (my husband) is Chinese, and last time we were traveling in the US he was constantly confused about how to tip. He kept asking me for clarification on what he was supposed to do. Yes, he knew in the US we have to tip at restaurants, but wasn't confident he understood what that actually meant in a practical sense. It's one thing to know something because someone tells you information about it, it's a whole different thing to actually understand it.

I remember when I was an English teacher (in China), sometimes I would do classes about what restaurants are like in the US, and trying to explain to the students "you have to tip, well you don't 'have to', like nobody is going to chase you down and force you to, but if you don't tip then you are a bad person- so, you HAVE TO." The cultural nuances of this... you can't understand it from just sitting in a classroom and learning about it. Just like I now realize we can't understand what the biblical writers meant just by hearing a few facts about their culture.

Imagine a group of people completely unfamiliar with what tipping means in American culture were reading a story (set in the US) about somebody who didn't tip. An expert in their group explains to them that, in that culture, you need to tip or it's a pretty big slap in the face. The rest of the group members try to accept that fact and understand it and figure out its implications in the story, but they can't *really* understand it. They wonder why a tip would be such a big deal. How can it be expected if it's not part of the price written on the menu? If the issue is that the waiter's salary is too low, then isn't it the employer who's in the wrong? Why would anyone be mad at the customer- seems like it has nothing to do with them, right?

And even their resident American culture expert has never actually been to the US. They've never tipped. They've never had the experience of being handed a receipt and a pen at the end of a meal- they probably don't even know the "receipt and a pen" is the practical means by which the tipping actually happens.

And that's what it's like when we read the bible, and then a pastor comes and gives a little two-sentence explanation about some ancient middle-eastern cultural practice, to help us understand what we're reading. Yes, the information they give is true, but it's not enough for us to actually *get* it.

Here's another story, something that happened to me last week at work. One of my colleagues was like "we are ordering fruit, pick what kind of fruit you like" and handed me his phone, which had an app for a fruit delivery service. Apparently the company is buying us free fruit as a reward for some project? I don't know, it wasn't a project I was actually on, but I guess since my desk is right there in the same room, my colleagues decided to include me in the fruit-buying.

All right so I picked a little box with 6 kiwis in it. I was envisioning the situation as everybody picks one kind of fruit, and then we each take home whatever we ordered. I imagined that when the delivery came, somebody would look through it and sort out "okay this one is yours, this one is yours," and so on.

Ha. I was wrong.

So maybe a half hour later, our fruit delivery shows up. (Getting stuff delivered is MIND-BLOWINGLY CONVENIENT in China. Like, they have this DOWN.) And everyone is like, yayyy fruit, and people started gathering around. I kind of decided to wait a bit, not go over and claim my kiwis right away, wait and see what everyone else would do.

Because, oh. It turns out the intention was that we all share all the fruit.

There's a container with pineapple chunks already sliced up, and somebody picks up a chunk and starts eating it, and encourages me to take one too. There's a box with a LOT of oranges, and people are talking about "should we slice up all the oranges right now? maybe not all of them?" and somebody goes off and finds a knife and plate, and we end up with all these orange slices on a plate, and people start helping themselves and eating the orange slices. And other people are taking some of the fruit off somewhere to wash it and bring it back for us all to share.

Chinese people love fruit. As for me, well, uhh I feel like it's more trouble than it's worth, washing it, peeling it, spitting out the seeds, maybe it drips juice... I don't really want to get into all that at my desk at work. I'd rather do it at home where I have access to my own plates and knives and sink and dish soap.

For kiwis, I usually cut them in half, then use a spoon to scoop out the good part and eat it. There's a knife at the office but I don't think we have spoons? I don't know, when I picked kiwis I totally wasn't thinking in terms of "what fruit can we eat in the office?"

When people started cutting up the other fruit to eat it right there, I kind of figured that wasn't really going to work out for the kiwis and I would just end up taking them home. But I left the box of them next to the other fruit- if any of my colleagues devise a way to eat a kiwi at one's desk, they can have at it. I don't want to give the impression that I don't want to share and be part of the team. Nobody ended up eating a kiwi though, so I just took them home at the end of the day anyway.

Like, yeah I totally misunderstood the fruit. When he said "pick out what kind of fruit you want" I took it to mean "each person can order 1 box and take it home" but it really meant "we are ordering a bunch of fruit for us to share, what kind do you like?" It was very nice and friendly of them to include me in the fruit-ordering, and it would have been easy for me to accidentally come across as rude by treating the kiwis as "mine."

It's an example of how American culture is more individualistic and Chinese culture is more focused on the group. And also, Chinese people LOVE FRUIT. And I knew all that but I wasn't really thinking about it, which is why it took me by surprise when they started cutting up the fruit for all of us to share right then and there.

Which makes me wonder how many bible verses I'm also taking completely the wrong way.

Like, I read Matthew 22, about Jesus answering/avoiding tricky questions, and I think about politicians dodging questions from reporters. I think about a public figure issuing an "I'm sorry if you were offended" not-pology. I think about Christians pretending to be "welcoming" while hiding their anti-queer beliefs. Those are things I understand from my own culture- but who knows whether there are any similarities to what's actually going on here with Jesus?

What I'm trying to say is, I used to think I could basically understand the bible, and every now and then needed a bit of supplementary information, like "what is unleavened bread?" or "what is an Asherah pole?" But wow, I had it completely backwards. The bible was written thousands of years ago, in an ancient language- and there are even some words NOBODY understands now- in an ancient culture completely foreign to us modern readers. I believe we can understand the overarching themes, but for something with as many layers as "Jesus dodges the tricky questions the Pharisees are using to trap him"... I wouldn't even know where to start.

I don't want to say "well we have no hope of understanding the bible, let's just give up on it." I love the bible, but in a different way than I used to. I want to read and appreciate it and learn about it- and I now think the first step is to accept that it's something completely foreign and alien to us. Cultural differences are a BIG DEAL. They're not something you can really understand by reading a little bit about them while you're safely surrounded by your own culture.

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And one more thing: I want to give a shoutout to the Greatest Commandment, in verses 37-40, because I love this:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Yeah. That.

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Related:
"The Author of Leviticus Would Have Been Cool With It"
Why on Earth Did I Ever Expect the Bible to be Anything Other Than Incredibly Weird? 
I Didn't Know I Had a Culture Until I Lost It

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew. 

Previous post: The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is Extremely WTF (Matthew 21:28 - 22:14)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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