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February 2020 Credo

The 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club follows the travails of four Chinese-American women as they grow up between East and West. One memorable clash of cultures occurs when Waverly, one of the four, brings home her eager-to-please fiancé Rich (who happens to be Caucasian-American). Waverly’s mother brings out her signature dish from the kitchen and laments, “Ai! This dish not salty enough, no flavor … It is too bad to eat!” Rich misses this cultural signal to praise her cooking and instead drenches the delicately steamed pork and vegetables with soy sauce!

This scene illustrates the important principle of modesty (Chinese kèqì) which distinguishes Eastern styles of communication from the directness of Western styles. Though modesty is rooted in commendable Confucian values, modern Asian culture has often seen it devolve into a form of reverse psychology, as when Waverly’s mother expects her dinner guests to reciprocate her self-deprecation with praise. Christians in Asia are hardly immune to conflating the cultural trait of modesty with the genuine virtue `of humility, of course.

Second Samuel 9 points out the differences between modesty that lowers oneself for self-interest, and humility that does so genuinely without expecting anything in return. In this narrative, King David desires to show kindness to the remnant of Saul’s family (2 Sam. 9:1). The now-deceased Saul had repeatedly tried to kill him (e.g., 1 Sam. 18:10–11), but David responded by making a covenant with Saul’s son Jonathan that they would always seek one another’s good (1 Sam. 20:5–17).

The story presents several possible candidates from Saul’s clan to receive kindness from David. The narrator introduces the first as “a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba,” but it is telling that Ziba presents himself to David as “your servant” (v. 2, NASB’s literal translation; cf. NIV’s “At your service!”). The words of Ziba are a transparent attempt to flatter King David and position himself as the most deserving heir among the Saulides.

David brushes off Ziba by asking again, “Is there not yet anyone of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” (v. 3b). Stung by David seeing through his pretence, Ziba answers, “There is still a son of Jonathan who is crippled in both feet” (v. 3d) It is true that Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan is handicapped, yet it is no accident that Ziba adds this irrelevant fact to direct David back toward himself.

Rather than taking the bait, David enlists Ziba’s help to locate Mephibosheth (v. 4). David already knew Ziba’s name before his arrival (cf. v. 2), so the savvy king is likely teaching Ziba the lesson that false modesty will not pay dividends. Unlike Ziba, Mephibosheth casts himself at David’s feet and says, “Here is your servant! … What is your servant, that you should regard a dead dog like me?” (vv. 6, 8).

For Mephibosheth to call himself David’s “servant” is no ploy for favour. Instead, he recognizes that he is “a dead dog” who would normally be killed as a member of the former dynasty. It is not only Mephibosheth who lowers himself, in fact, for David also does in elevating him to the royal table: “Do not fear, for I will surely show kindness to you for the sake of your father Jonathan, and will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul;  and you shall eat my table regularly” (v. 7).

The humility of Mephibosheth and the humility of David meet beautifully in table fellowship since both parties are fully sincere. Not so for Ziba, whose self-deprecation ironically becomes a reality when David places him and all that belonged to Saul under the care of Mephibosheth (vv. 9–10). Perhaps to pave the way for another betrayal of his newly restored master (cf. 16:1–4), Mephibosheth apparently has ulterior motives in promising, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant so your servant will do” (v. 11).

On a similar note, 2 Samuel 9 uses a masterful characterization device to reinforce the differing motives of Ziba and Mephibosheth. When Ziba is in view, it is consistently “the king” who speaks to him (vv. 3[2x], 4, 9, 11). But with Mephibosheth, it is “David” who addresses him (vv. 6[2x], 7). That is, the false modesty of Ziba is rejected using the impersonal hierarchy of “the king” who thwarts his ambitions, while the true humility of Mephibosheth is welcomed when “David” brings him to the same level.

Confucius in the ancient Far East would likely have felt conflicted about this narrative from the ancient Near East. On the one hand, Confucius esteems the virtue of self-effacement: “The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions” (Anal. 14:27). On the other, David’s act of lowering himself would be unthinkable because Mephibosheth has nothing to offer, which stands opposed to the Confucian virtue of reciprocity: “With what then will you recompense kindness? Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness” (Anal. 14:34).

Here lies the Bible’s distinct contribution to Asian Christian relationships—all true humility includes modesty, but not all modesty reflects true humility. The appearance of deference must not conceal an attitude that expects to receive greater recognition in return. For when this happens, the biblical language of servanthood has been co-opted in the service of reinforcing an Asian cultural hierarchy.

The love that God shows his children and which he directs them to show others is much less pragmatic for crossing a power differential without selfish agendas (Luke 6:29–35). Ultimately, the word of God is not the property of East or West. It must instead stand above both in illuminating the steps of his countercultural people in the world.

Rev Dr Jerry Hwang (PhD, Wheaton College) currently serves as Academic Dean of Singapore Bible College’s
School of Theology (English), where he has also taught Old Testament and Hebrew courses since 2010.
His research interests lie at the intersection of the Old Testament and mission studies.