John 4 & Ancestor Worship
This is an old post from a few years ago that I’m importing into this system.
Ancestor worship is a big deal among many traditional African peoples.
Ancestor worship is about veneration. It’s about thanking those that have gone before for what they’ve done for you in the present. The ancestors play a role as mediums between the family and any higher beings that a tribe might hold in high esteem. Ceremonies are held to worship in order to ask for ancestors intercession for good times, upon seasons of travels and in other circumstances, as they might arise. The family often comes together and brews a traditional beer and will ritually slaughter a goat, lamb or perhaps a chicken and offer it to the ancestors in exchange for their intercessory power.
Just as much as its about veneration, it is also about appeasement. Life isn’t always easy. Often times its quite difficult. In these times, the ancestors are often pinpointed as the reasons why things might not be going well for an individual or family. In those times, the sacrifices and ceremonies are held to appease the ancestors — to try and get them to stop the harassment that everyday life is bringing.
All too often, ancestor worship does more harm than good.
And perhaps it is a strong statement but something we’ve encountered time and again: ancestor worship perpetuates a poverty mindset in the midst of all of the other harm it does. I think this would be better explained by some real world examples of what I’m talking about.
I met one man in a community that I worked in that was struggling in life. He had nothing now and never had much of anything anytime before either. The stench of liquor was so very strong on his breath that this wasn’t really a surprise. When asked what his dream in life was, he simply said, “I don’t want to drink anymore but I have to. If I don’t, the ancestors will come to me in dreams and I just can’t handle it anymore. Drinking dulls the pain and keeps them away.”
I knew another lady who told us she slept around because that’s what the ancestors demanded of her. That was the only way they were going to help her get ahead in life. Her reality was much different though.
Still another individual described dark and evil presences that would come into her home at night in the guise of long dead loved ones demanding evil be done in their name. It’s hard to say to the walking dead.
If an individual isn’t giving all that they are for some nefarious deed, they often give all that they have to alcohol (or sometimes harder drugs) in order to escape the constant onslaught that ancestors sometimes bring.
Among the communities and cultures we’ve worked in, I’ve never seen the fruits of ancestor worship to be anything other than fear and destruction and poverty. It’s quite tragic really and is worth considering deeply. But it’s important to note:
It’s also not something we can readily address.
I mean we could try. I’ve tried, many times. Early on in my days in South Africa I remember saying, “The ancestors have no power!” but I just got blank stares and comments back like, “You don’t know. You aren’t one of us. Your ancestors don’t haunt you like they haunt us.”
They are right of course. I don’t know. My ancestors (thankfully) don’t haunt me. It’s not ever anything I’ve had to deal with. I can try as I might to imagine myself in their shoes; I can claim intellectually to understand but I never will, fully.
Ancestor worship does though create an awfully big chasm to cross as we try to empower transformation that affects all of life. It’s especially tricky when the root of the transformative power offered is spiritual. Many will grasp and begin walking in a more healthy direction but get sucked back into the muck of life due to the quite literal demons of their past. We’ve seen God come through in amazing ways and break the chains that ancestors shackle people with. And these people have powerful voices from which to speak directly in ways people won’t allow us to. We pray for more of them that can honestly address the damage done by this belief. But I’m also always on the lookout for scripture that addresses issues like ancestor worship that we can direct people to (and then let God through his Word speak for himself).
I was led to think on this again some time ago as I was doing a DBS with some friends.
For those that might be reading and aren’t familiar with the concept of DBS (Discovery Bible Study), its essentially an inductive study of the Bible that incorporates the key elements of church. It’s how we plant church where the church is not, and raise up leaders where there are none.
Anyways, I love DBS for many reasons. Here is a sampling:
- It gives voice to what God is teaching each person through His word, rather than just one individual on a rampage in front.
- Its commitment to the text prevents some of the crazy theologies that develop when people don’t hold one another accountable.
- And, no matter how many times you’ve read a particular passage, being inductive based, you pick up new (and often deep) insights each time you read it.
This third point led me to thinking on ancestor worship today as we are always looking for how the Bible might challenge that traditional way of thinking.
John 4 & the Samaritan Woman at the Well
Today we talked about John 4 and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. It’s a powerful story that you probably know if you’ve read this far: Jesus asks for a drink and she says, “how can I? You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan and we don’t mix.” Jesus responds that she doesn’t know to whom she speaks and that he has living water to offer that will never run dry. It’s in her response to Jesus, and then Jesus’ answer, that we see a clear challenge to ancestor worship.
11 “Sir,” the woman said to him, “you have no bucket and the well is deep; where then do you get this living water? 12 Surely you’re not greater than our ancestor Jacob, are you? For he gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock.”
13 Jesus replied, “Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. 14 But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life.”
I’d never noticed it before but the woman identifies the well, and it’s provision, as chief in the lives of the people of this place. She specifically speaks out the greatness of Jacob (the ancestor) and his central role in the well’s placement in their lives. She goes on to challenge the notion that Jesus could possibly consider himself greater than Jacob.
But Jesus responds simply with truth. The well as it stands may provide some limited amount of life but it doesn’t last; the villagers get thirsty day after day. What Jesus offers though has the potentially to quench thirst once and for all.
I was struck by this specific challenge to the power that ancestors might hold over a people. It’s not now, nor ever will be, greater than what Jesus offers. While the woman at the will might not have dealt with the darker weight that ancestor worship has brought to people I have met, she still looked to their legacy for her peoples ongoing blessing. But this changes after her encounter with Jesus.
She was never the same after finding living water, and the same is true for anyone held captive to the power of ancestors in their life.
So I’m curious about a couple of things. One - if you are in a position where you are dealing with a worldview steeped in ancestor worship, what are your thoughts about this generally? Two - do you have any other good passages besides this bit from John 4 to add to the mix? We’ve got several but are always on the look out for more good verses to speak to issues like this.