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Weeping together when the going gets tough

Monday, 20 April 2020  | Siu Fung Wu




It looks like tough times are ahead of us because of the Coronavirus outbreak. A global recession seems inevitable. In Australia, it is expected that unemployment will rise sharply. Family violence will surge as people stay at home more and as economic stress increases. Those who are already living on the margins — e.g. asylum seekers and those living in poverty with mental or physical disabilities — will suffer more than others. Then there are frontline medical staff who have to risk contracting the virus.

Romans 12:9–21 comes to mind as I think about these things. And I think verse 15 is particularly relevant: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’.

Some background information about the city of Rome in Paul’s day is needed to fully grasp these profound words. We know that famines and droughts were common. Life expectancy was short and infant mortality high. About 25–40 percent of Rome’s population were slaves, and so were many Christ-followers.

There was enormous rich-poor disparity. The elite controlled the bulk of the wealth of the Roman Empire. They lived in mansions while the poorest lived in slums. Scholars like Steve Friesen and Bruce Longenecker have provided us with a vivid picture of economic life in those days. It is estimated that about 68 percent of the population lived at or below subsistence level. In the house churches, about 35 percent lived at subsistence level and 30 percent below it. Only about 25 percent had the basic resources to sustain life and merely 10 percent had moderate surplus. Hence, the majority of believers were poor, with many being destitute.

In light of this, Paul’s call to weep together was a lived reality for the Jesus-community. In addition to persecution, in all likelihood early Jesus-followers faced all kinds of sufferings common to humankind, such as hunger and poverty (cf. Rom 8:35). Note that the apostle doesn’t deny the existence of doubt and anxiety in times of suffering. Rather, the call is to endure in affliction and persist in prayer (12:12). Neither does Paul say anything about following certain insightful advice of leaders or theologians, or that the individuals’ piety and faith can solve every problem. Instead, there is a strong emphasis on sharing joy and pain as a community. They are exhorted to love and honour one another (12:9–10), and rejoice and mourn together (12:15).

It is important to realise that the society in Paul’s day did not have a middle-class majority like the West today (as the statistics above show). Hence, Paul’s call to share with the needs of the community in 12:13 most likely was not about the rich giving spare cash to charity, with no implications for their own wealth. Rather, it was about each household sharing their material resources with everyone, with those having moderate surplus giving a bit more than the others.

What does this look like in practice today? Let me share a story. I used to be a pastor in an inner-city suburb. Life was challenging for my wife and I because we lived on a low income. But it gave us an opportunity to identify with the poorer members of the church. One of them was Mary (not her real name), who assisted me in providing pastoral care for the church. Mary was a single parent of three teenage daughters. Like us, she drove a very old car, and we all knew the frustration when the car broke down (which happened frequently!). Our shared experience of financial hardship with Mary taught us a lot about communal living. For example, once she was in distress because she had to pay for a major car repair. It happened that we had some spare resources at the time, and so we gave her some money. And when she later received an unexpected lumpsum of money from a relative, she offered us a generous gift, just when we needed it. We didn’t help each other because we had much to spare. Rather, we gave because we were sisters and brothers in Christ.

Since then my wife and I have learned to live simply. We are deeply aware of the social and economic power distance between us and the poor, locally and globally. How can we live in luxury while the poor live in want? There is no need for us to have overseas holidays. We don’t need big cars or expensive meals in restaurants. We have no need to be upwardly mobile or climb the social ladder. Simple living helps to reduce power distance between us and the disadvantaged. It also lowers our carbon footprint.

As the economic impact of COVID-19 affects the lives of our church communities, there will be plenty of opportunities to practise ‘weeping with those who weep’. Let us allow the pain of others to pain us. Let their burdens and anxieties be ours. If we find ourselves in financial hardship, may our church community provide the space for us to share our struggles without shame. Let our love be genuine (Rom 12:9) — love without judgment and love like Jesus.

Of course, we need to put things into perspective. The government’s multi-billion-dollar economic response to the coronavirus will cushion the financial blow to many Australians. But low-income countries simply don’t have that luxury. Their death toll will be higher and they will suffer from much worse economic impact. The power distance between them and us often blinds us to the harsh realities they face. We need to hear their stories. My friends are telling me about the precarious situation of their loved ones in a poor part of East Asia. A lockdown, for example, will mean that they can’t feed their family because they can’t go to work.

Yet as often is the case, those who have suffered much have a lot to teach us. Last week I asked an asylum seeker in our community how she was coping with the COVID-19 outbreak. She encouraged me by saying that this crisis would bring us more blessings and wisdom. I assume she spoke from her own experience of God’s protection on her boat journey to Australia and during her time in detention on Christmas Island. In a real sense, she has taught me to rejoice with her when the going gets tough.

Coming back to Romans, what is the basis of Paul’s exhortation to weep with those who weep? My sense is that it is none other than the fact that Christ himself became human to be an atoning sacrifice for us (Rom 8:3–4), and that we are called to suffer with him just as he suffered for us (8:17). The paradox of the cross is that it is in our weakness that God’s power works in us (2 Cor 12:9–10). Likewise, as we faithfully share in Christ’s suffering we are assured that we will be glorified with him (Rom 8:17).

In practice, we are to model our lives after Christ’s self-giving death by sharing our sacrificial love with others in this world of chaos and pain. It is through our sincere love, audacious hope and faithful communal practice that the world can know Jesus. I am convinced that this is essential to our witness to Christ. Yes, some will not respond to this message of hope. But others will be convicted by the redemptive power of God because of Christ’s love at the cross.

Siu Fung Wu was a factory worker, IT professional, pastor and global education officer before he became a New Testament academic. He is the author of Suffering in Romans (2015) and editor of the multi-authored volume Suffering in Paul (2019).

Images
Richmond Road in Melbourne's inner city
A Roman slum


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