What Muslim Students Have Been Teaching Me About The Bible

Something’s happened this semester that I hadn’t anticipated: Muslim students have been consistently showing up to the Bible studies I help lead at HFCC. I’m not exactly sure why they’ve been coming (although, if I had a similar chance to get to know the Quran alongside an open Muslim community, I’d probably do the same thing), but I’ve loved having them in on our conversations.

When I’ve mentioned this surprising development to some of my Christian friends, I’ve been met mostly with encouragement. “What a great opportunity!” I’ve been told. “You must be so excited to teach them about the Bible!”

And of course, I’m always eager to introduce students to Jesus—I think he’s pretty great. But what’s excited me most isn’t the occasional moments when we’ve taught Muslims about the Bible; it’s been the consistent ways they’ve helped us Christians understand the gospel.

The world Jesus was born into overlaps so frequently with the cultural context of Muslim students; there are so many similarities between Islamic culture and first century Palestine. Despite not sharing our understanding of Jesus, Muslim students often get these stories better than I do.

Each time we get together, I’m surprised by the aspects of the story my Western eyes refused to see, cultural dynamics that are immediately apparent to an Iraqi immigrant. In ways that I never could, Muslim students get the scandal of the prodigal son longing for pig food, the local tensions between Jews and Samaritans, and (especially) the social and familial cost of leaving everything to follow Jesus.

Or, to use an example from yesterday morning, Muslim students really seem to grasp the depth of the controversy surrounding Jesus eating with tax-collectors. As one student explained as we read Luke 19, “It’d be shameful and sinful for me eat my lunch next to a bank manager, for instance. He makes his living by collecting interest from others and exploiting them. If I ate at the same table as him, my meal would become like dung.”

He continued, “So it makes sense that the whole town would have been shocked that Jesus was a guest at Zacchaeus’ house. No holy person would do that. He must have seen something in the tax collector that no one else saw.”

I can’t think of a better way to describe what is happening in this story. Jesus broke all social expectations because he saw something in Zacchaeus that no one else saw: the image of God, the potential for change, a future as a Son of Abraham. And it was through that scandalous act that Jesus brought salvation to Zacchaeus’ house.

And I can’t help thinking that it’s through the scandalous act of trying to welcome the perspectives of every student at our table—Christian or not—that Jesus is bringing salvation to every person in our small groups.

All of us.

Especially me. 

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The Typo that Changed the Way I’m Thinking About Lent

Every Sunday at church, we conclude our meeting with a different reading from the Bible, usually related to the morning’s sermon. This week, it was my turn to read this benediction.

The text that was assigned to me was Isaiah 58:1-2, 6

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them…
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”

I skimmed through the passage as we sang our final song–it seemed like an odd selection for a closing blessing, especially since the sermon didn’t have anything to do with fasting or justice. (As it turns out, I had the wrong verses. I found out later that there had been a typo; I was supposed to read Isaiah 55, not 58.)

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, and my moment had come to read the benediction. So, I walked to the front and mumbled some improvised introduction before reading the passage, “As we head into the season of Lent, let this be our mission and identity.” This comment was met with a number of politely bewildered smiles; we’re not the kind of church that formally observes Lent. I pushed through the awkwardness, read the passage, and we were done. Weird, but at least it was over.

Except, it’s not over. This passage has been haunting me all week.

Despite the throw-away nature of my comment about Lent, every time someone else has mentioned Lent this week, Isaiah 58 has reverberated in my mind.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice?”

Fasting requires justice. As unrelated as those two seem to me, they’re inextricably linked in this passage. And that has serious implications for Lent.

Lent, I’ve been told, is about identifying with the suffering of Christ, sacrificing comfort in order to be closer to God. But the suffering of Lent–at the least the way I’ve observed it in the past–has very little to do with the suffering of Christ. Jesus didn’t suffer for suffering’s sake, the way I do when I cut out my favorite hobbies or foods. Jesus suffered for the sake of others.

In particular, he suffered alongside and on behalf of the suffering. He poured himself out to bring freedom to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. He endured pain for the sake of both solidarity and salvation–that those who mourn will have someone to mourn with them, and that their mourning will be turned into dancing.

So, to share in the suffering of Christ, we must share in the suffering of others. If we want to get closer to God this Lenten season, we must get closer to the brokenhearted, because God is close to the brokenhearted.

Anything else is just self-serving, self-righteous self-flagellation.

That said, I’m not sure what this looks like in practice, which is why I’m writing this post. I need ideas! What would it look like for us to spend Lent sharing in the suffering of others? What have you done in the past? What have you heard of others doing? What have you always wanted to do, but never had the courage/community to try?

Post your thoughts below!

lent photo

(Photo credit: wikimedia.org)