The pandemic has been with us for a year now, with many lows for many people. Yet there have been positives that have resulted from this difficult season. My personal highlight of the last year has been an ongoing time of learning from the Bible that I’ve shared with two dear Hindu friends of mine. We originally started out as a mostly-weekly video call between two continents. All three of us are deeply devoted to Jesus, and the pandemic provided the space and the kickstart to begin a thoughtful reading of the book of Acts. It has been a joy. We’ve been learning as we’ve read together, much like this article discusses.
Acts is full of exciting stories and attention-grabbing cliffhangers. We’ve felt that, laughing at surprising developments and marveling at God’s story throughout the chapters. As we crested into the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 and continued with Paul’s journey afterward, we arrived in Acts 19 and the troubles Paul faced in Ephesus. In Acts 19 the local Ephesian craftsmen are riled up, concerned that their business in idol production will falter and aggrieved for the prestige of their goddess Artemis, the main deity of the town. Their agitation was flamed into a riot that encompassed the whole town, so big in fact that, “most of the people didn’t even know what the meeting was about” (Acts. 19:32). All three of us were excited to see how this riot would play out and what might happen with Paul.
This Relates to Me!
In fact, this trouble in Ephesus dies down quite suddenly, thanks to the work of a local official. Yet this incident was very significant to my friends. “This relates to me!”, one of them exclaimed as we read the passage. Throughout the year, as we’ve read together, my friends have shared about the spiritual environment around them, with their different relatives and friends all having different spiritual beliefs and allegiances to different gods. Right here was an example of an inter-religious conflict! And my Hindu friends could very much relate to that. They’ve been living it out in their own lives.
The quick ending of the Ephesus trouble actually disappointed my friends. They were hoping to see Paul have a long and detailed interaction with these men and their opposing spiritual beliefs. Yet it also sparked a question. Did Jesus ever interact with other gods? What instructions does He leave His followers for how to relate with people who worship different deities? Trying to find an answer, we decided that our next discussion would focus on trying to find examples from Jesus’s life for this question.
An Example from Jesus’s Life
In our search for examples and instructions from Jesus’s life we read Mark 5, the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man. Jesus finds this man on the opposite side of the lake, in a territory full of people different from the Jewish community he grew up in. It’s a powerful story, and I recommend reading it. It’s a situation in which Jesus is truly cross-cultural. Though the man is healed, the experience ultimately causes his own community to become fearful of Jesus and they ask Jesus to leave. As Jesus and his disciples climb back into the boat to leave, the man begs Jesus to allow him to go with him. Yet Jesus refuses his request and instead instructs him, “Go home to your own people and tell them everything that the Lord has done for you – tell them how he showed his mercy to you!” (Mark 5:19). In fact, the man does just that. Incidentally, it seems likely he’s a main influence in 4,000 men from that area assembling to hear Jesus just a few chapters later (Mark 7:31-8:10).
Speak Positively about Jesus, Keep Silent about Others
Finishing our reading of Mark 5, we paused to discuss observations from the story. Honestly, I was a bit uncertain. This seems far from a clear-cut story of Jesus providing teaching or instruction on how to navigate situations involving other deities. Yet my friends saw it quite differently. “It seems incredibly obvious to me,” one friend said, “that Jesus is instructing his followers to speak positively of him, and to avoid condemning the other gods that people may worship.” I didn’t initially see that in my own reading of the text. Yet it is significant what is not said, even if I don’t usually consider that perspective. Jesus didn’t tell the man he healed to remind others of their gods’ weaknesses, or the lack of their gods’ help, or the limitations of their gods’ power. Instead, Jesus told the healed man to tell of what the Lord had done for him, how he received mercy. And that example spoke powerfully to my friends.
My friends have shared repeatedly about the uncertainty they have about how to relate with the deities and spiritual behaviors of their Hindu families and friends in light of their devotion to Jesus. They told me stories of sometimes quite forcefully denouncing the differing beliefs of relations, and of trying to articulate “problems” with other deities. Yet these actions offended many of their closest relationships, and seemingly accomplished little to bring honor to Jesus.
In the instructions Jesus gave the healed man from Mark 5, my friends found advice about how to relate with others who believe differently. Speak positively of Jesus, share about the good he has done for us, and an implicit instruction to generally avoid condemning or disparaging the other gods or deities that people worship. It seems like good advice to me.