by Gene Flanery
I was excited that my Hindu friend, Madan, had been reading the Bible. He had accepted the New Testament in his native language a couple of weeks earlier. I encouraged him to start with the story of Jesus and I offered to answer any questions he might have. Now he was coming to me with questions from the Bible and I could scarcely contain my excitement.
"Gene, who is the man who appeared like a sadhu in the Bible?" he began.
"Do you mean Jesus?" I injected.
"No, I don't think it was him. The one I am talking about lived in the wilderness and dressed strangely," Madan calmly replied.
"Oh, you mean John the Baptist!" I immediately understood why a Hindu would think of this popular biblical character as a sadhu. A sahdu is a holy man in Hindu culture that abandons his family and his responsibilities in the world to do nothing but seek God. Avoiding the hectic life of the city, they will start ashrams in the wilderness to further enhance their spiritual quest. Disciples will gather around so that they too can be taught the way to God. Sadhus never point to themselves, but rather like a guide, they lead others in their attempt to discover Brahman, the mysterious god of Hinduism. Could the parallel between the sadhus of India and John the Baptist prove to be a perfect inroad to witnessing to the Indian community? I wondered if this could be the "eye opener" that missionaries are always looking for in their attempt to witness cross-culturally. Perhaps the idea that John was a sadhu who pointed to Jesus as the greater One and the Lamb of God could powerfully impact the Hindu world! But his next question let me down.
"What is a locust?" inquired Madan.
"Well, it's something like a giant grasshopper." I offered.
"Oh, then he was not a sadhu because a sadhu is a strict vegetarian and could never eat an insect," reasoned my Hindu friend. His disappointment could only be matched by my own. Madan would never ask me a question about the Bible again.
My disappointment quickly turned into anger. First of all I was angry with John the Baptist for eating grasshoppers. If he had not eaten those dumb things then my witness to the Indians would be a lot easier. Why couldn't he have shown more self-control?
Secondly I was angry with God for having the fact that John the Baptist ate locusts recorded in the Bible. I mean couldn't God, the all-knowing Sovereign of the universe, the Alpha and Omega, have had enough foresight to omit John the Baptist's diet from the Scripture for the sake of winning the Indians to His kingdom? This was a totally needless stumbling block, I thought.
Of course I needed to repent for my brash accusations. That I would have the audacity to believe that I could come up with some secret formula of witnessing to the Hindus that had never been discovered before was a sickening example of pride.
Is the God of the universe really dependent on me to say the right things in the right way at the right time to convert people? I don't think so. It is God and God alone who opens the hearts of men to accept the truth. I serve only as a dispenser of that truth.
That leads me to another important conclusion. I cannot separate grasshoppers from the gospel. If the Bible says John the Baptist ate grasshoppers then he ate grasshoppers, and those who will be offended by this fact must be offended. I will not manipulate Scripture to fit my witness or style of life. I have actually run across an article written by an Indian who attempted to prove that Jesus was a vegetarian. In today's world, when it is so popular to bend Scripture to fit a particular agenda, I do not want to make the same mistake in witnessing cross-culturally.
Further reflection on the issue has allowed me to see a more important parallel. Many Hindus are bound by dietary laws just like the Jews of the Bible. Jesus lived a life style that was repugnant to the religious community of His day. He was ridiculed for eating with sinners and was labeled a wine bibber. He did not fit the mold of a religious leader in ancient Palestine.
My witness to the Indian community is now taking shape as a counter-cultural message of liberation from the old ways. I believe that I must challenge the Hindu perception of a holy man as someone who never eats meat. The diets of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Apostles were proof that someone could be close to God and eat meat.
The concept of contextualization, as I previously understood it, had led me to present the Christian faith as a sub-culture of the people I was attempting to reach. But the gospel will never be at home in any culture, since it continually challenges the way we live. The message of Jesus is always counter-cultural, as the concept of conversion bears out. Biblical conversion connotes a turning from the old ways and embracing the new.
Contextualization protects me from converting people to my own cultural understanding of Christianity and therein is worthwhile. But there will always be obstacles. It is not only the message of the cross which is offensive to human pride; something as simple as grasshoppers can cause people to turn aside from following Jesus. The grace of God, however, overcomes all our human defenses, and therein lies the miracle of salvation.
Gene Flanery is the director of continuing education for World Indigenous Missions,
a mission he has served with since 1982. He currently lives in Kansas City
where he ministers to the eight thousand Hindus and Sikhs that reside there.