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.