No Such Thing As “Dogs and Pigs” . . . Only “Children.”

How “Listening” is the Cure for our Blindspots

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Happy kids embracing and smiling in the elementary schoolyard. Interracial  friendship.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

This week, I want to place some puzzle pieces on the table for you that may not seem to fit together at first. Once we get them all on the table, though, I hope that we’ll see something fresh and relevant in Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Let’s begin by defining three terms.

The first term is intersectionality. Intersectionality is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination. It describes oppression as an interlocking matrix. The model, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, helps us to examine how biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, species and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels and so contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality.

The second term is kyriarchy. Kyriarchy is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other dominating hierarchies that encourage people to internalize and institutionalize the subordination of one person or group to another.

The third term is colonialism, the establishment, exploitation, acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of colonies in one territory by a political power from another territory. Colonialism depends on a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and between colonists and the territory’s indigenous population.

Let’s use intersectionality, kyriarchy, and colonialism to look at the relationship between Rome and Jerusalem during the life of the itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth. Ponder the status of Jerusalem in the world during that time. Consider the Hebrew people and their own history. Jesus emerged from a people who had participated in forms of kyriarchy and colonialism but, under Rome, was now disinherited.

Jesus presents some images in his teachings that are directly related to this oppressive context.

Dogs and Pigs 

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6) 

Dogs and pigs are both scavengers, and the Hebrews considered them to be unclean. You may have heard that Jews called any non-Jew “dog.” But this is not correct. According to the IVP Background Commentary of the New Testament, Jewish people reserved the slurs of “dogs” and “pigs” only for those gentile foreigners who oppressed the Jewish people, such as the Romans. Today, some use the term “pig” to refer to police constables who have become oppressive.

Jesus’ teaching in this passage critiques how Rome was being permitted to co-opt the sacred and valuable Jewish Temple for Imperial purposes. That’s the most direct interpretation of the passage. Yet I also believe there is something deeper here as well.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been speaking of inward realities—objectifying women in one’s heart, hatred toward one’s enemies—and not merely outward ones. So I have a hunch that in this passage, Jesus is speaking about the ways that oppressed and disinherited people can allow the sacred and valuable space within them to be co-opted and used for hatred toward their oppressors. Howard Thurman writes about this in his book Jesus and the Disinherited.

Tyre and Sidon

As well as teaching about dogs and pigs, Jesus also taught about Tyre and Sidon. (See Luke 4:25-26; Luke 10.13-14; Matthew 11.21-22)  In our story this week, Jesus had retreated to the region of Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenician cities, for a respite.  Yet what many miss is that while Jesus is there, he is met by a woman described as Syro-phoenician.  “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.” (Mark 7.26)  It is the “Syro” part that the gospel authors desire to turn our attention. This woman, being from Syria, was of Seleucid decent. (Syria was the short-hand name used by Rome to refer to the Seleucid Empire.) Why does this matter? These were the ancient oppressors of the Jewish people before Rome! Under the influence of Antiochus Epiphanies, the Seleucids had sought to exterminate the Jewish people. And although the Seleucids and the Hebrews now shared the same fate under Rome, there was a time when the Seleucids conquered and occupied the Hebrew nation. Jesus’ exchange with this woman, a descendant of those how had sought to wipe out the Hebrew people under Antiochus, takes place in a time when this was not yet distant history for the Jewish people.

Syrophoenician Woman

Before I talk about the Syrophoenician woman, I want to turn to Howard Thurman’s insightful comments on Jesus’ exchange with her.

“Opposition to the interpretation which Jesus was giving to the gospel of God had increased, and Jesus and his disciples withdrew from active work into temporary semi-retirement around Tyre and Sidon. The woman broke into his retreat with an urgent request in behalf of her child . . . ‘What mockery is there here? Am I not humiliated enough in being misunderstood by my own kind? And here this woman dares to demand that which, in the very nature of the case, she cannot claim as her due.’” (Thurman, Howard; Jesus and the Disinherited [pp. 90-91] Kindle ed.)

The issue here is not that this woman was a Gentile. Though the most prominent Phoenician woman in the Old Testament was Jezebel, Elijah also helped a Phoenician woman (1 Kings 17:17) So her non-Jewishness is not the point. In addition to being Phoenician, the woman was also of Syrian descent: she was Syro-phoenician. As Mark writes, “The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:26). Syria was the term Rome used to refer to the historical Seleucid Empire.

The issue in this story is that Jesus understood that his announcement of “the favor of God” was to apply to Gentiles too (see Luke 4:25-29; Matthew 8:5-13). But this Gentile begging him for a blessing was of Seleucid descent. This would be the equivalent of descendants of a Holocaust survivor being asked to share survivor reparations with a descendent of the Nazis who had fallen on hard times. It would be comparable to a White American asking to receive reparations intended for the Native American community here in the United States. It would be as if, two hundred years from now, a same-sex married couple were asked to help the descendent of a fundamentalist-evangelical business-owner from Indiana.

The encounter between Jesus and this women is set up to prick our sense of justice. Jesus came to liberate the oppressed. But now one of the oppressors was asking him to liberate her daughter too! Jesus question is valid:

Is it right to give the childrens (the Hebrew people) bread to the dogs (the Seleucids)?

According to the Torah, there were foods that were not to be eaten by the Hebrews but that could be thrown out as dog food (see Exodus 22:31). Jesus is here asking: is it just to give that which was intended to liberate my people to a person belonging to those who violently oppressed us in the past?

There are two ways I have heard this explained. One explanation is that Jesus is merely play-acting to teach the on-looking disciples an important lesson in generosity. The other explanation, which I think is more plausible, is that Jesus is growing in his own understanding and experience of intersectionality.

Yes, this woman belonged to a people who had endeavored to wipe his people off the face of the earth. But she was also a woman. Where is her husband? Why is her husband or father not making this request as the father does in Mark 5.22? In a patriarchal world, what does it mean for this woman to be speaking for herself and her daughter as if she were a single mother?

Whatever her circumstances, Jesus asks, is it right to help her? Is this how the liberation and reparations for Israel are to be used: not only to benefit those who have been oppressed but also to benefit the suffering oppressors too?

This is where intersectionality comes in. A person can be both oppressor and oppressed simultaneously. After all, the Hebrews were not innocent. Just as the Seleucids had once sought to exterminate the Hebrews from existence, the Hebrews had once engaged in the genocide and colonization of the Canaanites. The Hebrews participated in the cultural patriarchy that those in Hellenistic Tyre and Sydon lived by as well. And although the Jews in Jesus’ time suffered economic poverty under Rome’s high taxes, the Hebrew had also oppressed the poor with their own kings (Amos 2:6; 5:7, 11, 24). Yes, this Seleucid woman belonged to a people who had historically oppressed the Hebrews, but that day, she, too, needed liberation. Was there enough mercy in Jesus’ merciful theism for her as well?

In this story, the compassion of Jesus wins out. It’s worth asking ourselves just how Jesus made even a small space in that room to listen.

Lord,she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the childrens crumbs.(Mark 7:28)

There is theoretical knowledge and then there is experiential knowledge. Jesus understood a love of enemies in theory and gained a deeper understanding of it that day through experience.

I’m thankful for a Jesus who took time to listen. I’m also thankful for a woman who didn’t give up, but persisted in helping Jesus and his disciples see her need and their blind spots. Had Jesus sent her away, a great injustice would have been committed. But he listened. And he entered into a fuller experience of his own ethic that day instead. Henry David Thoreau wrote, ”Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

I cannot fault Jesus for asking the question he asked. Jesus, after all, emerged from the community of the disinherited poor. Jesus faced the same dilemma we face:.how does one embrace enemy love without betraying one’s own people?. How does one stay faithful to both justice for the oppressed and the transformation of the oppressors?

Jesus and his disciples, I believe, left the region of Tyre and Sidon that day with a fuller experience of the truth that there is really no such thing as dogs or pigs.  There are only children. We are all siblings of the same Divine Parents. We all walk this earth side-by-side, and we all wear on our faces the very image of God.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Here are just a few of the categories of intersectional privilege and disadvantage in our society here in the West:

White            Wealthy        Certified Educated       Male        Straight            Cisgender

Non-White     Poor            Uncertified Education   Female     Non-straight     Transgender

 

These categories combine to create intersectional experiences of domination and oppression.

Consider how each of the following experiences simultaneously includes some level of privilege in our society and some level of disadvantage. Name where they are privileged first. Then look for where they are disadvantaged.

a. A White lower-class, cisgender, straight, blue-collar male

b. An African-American male president of the United States

c. A White cisgender gay female living in inner-city America

d. A bisexual cisgender woman of color living in rural poverty

e. A single White father of three living in suburban America

f. A middle-class White fundamentalist-evangelical, transgender female

d. Wealthy highly educated White, cisgender straight female

2.  We need each other. What does it mean for us to trade our dominations systems for Jesus’ heterogeneous shared table? How can we learn to listen to those who are not like us? How can we learn to incorporate each person’s varied life experience into a beautiful and coherent whole that leads to a safer and more compassionate world for all? How can we allow others to show us where our own blind spots are and also share our stories that can help others see their blind spots?

3. Discuss your thoughts with your upcoming HeartGroup this week.

I’ll close this week with Howard Thurman’s Three Hounds of Hell that dog the soul of the disinherited—fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. The ethical teachings found in the values of the Jesus story as it has come down to us today, I believe, offer the disinherited in any area of society a way to escape those three hounds nipping at our heels. This week, if nothing more, may we all learn to sit around Jesus shared table and simply listen.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, and listening with compassion, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each one of you,

I’ll see you next week.

 

Baltimore, Black Lives Matter, and Jesus

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

images-3Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.Matthew 10:34

Before you imagine that Jesus is endorsing taking up a sword here, understand that he’s describing a sword raised against himself and his followers for calling for a change in the status quo. Those benefitting from the current social order would raise their swords against the changes Jesus came to make. If we simply keep reading, Jesus implores his followers not to take up a sword in response to others, but to instead embrace the cross:

“For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:35-39, emphasis added.)

The nonviolence Jesus taught here would create disruption. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence not only included passive noncooperation; they also included nonviolent direct action. Nonviolent direct action disrupts the status quo, the domination system. It confronts oppression, yet at the same time seeks to win oppressors away from their systems of oppression.

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” —Nonviolent direct action, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

IMG_0339This past weekend I had the privilege of traveling to Baltimore with my daughter Emarya to participate with many others in a rally against Police Brutality. Some stand in solidarity with #blacklivesmatter and others stand in solidarity with #policeofficersmatter, yet most should be able to agree that police brutality is dehumanizing and damaging both to officers and to community members.

Emarya and I left home at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning to embark on a four-and-a-half hour journey to the lawn outside of Baltimore City Hall. We arrived just before lunch, and, after a quick bite to eat, we grabbed a parking place and Emarya’s poster, and began our four-block hike to the rally.

My experience at the #blacklivesmatter rally in Baltimore took me right back to the Jesus story. Allow me to recount that narrative for a few minutes.

Jesus shut it down.

The Temple stood as a domination system of oppression toward the poor. The system sacrificed those who were innocent for the benefit of those in power. The Presence had long departed this system that demanded the sacrifice of innocents. Yet the cursing of the fig tree in Matthew and Mark, which marks the end of the Temple, is more than the end of Jerusalem as the city of the “elect” and more than the end of animal sacrifice in religious worship.

Through this story, Matthew and Mark are whispering to us about the end of a way of life founded on sacrifice.  This end began with Jesus’ exposure of the sacrificial system in the Temple, and his uncovering of a larger reality where we see that it is the marginalized, disinherited and subjugated who are the actual innocent victims of the slaughter. The Temple in Jesus’ day not only promoted the way of sacrifice, but placed it at the very heart of Jerusalem’s religion and worship. (When we add Divine affirmation to any system of oppression, the abuse becomes decisively compounded.) Jesus had come to bring an end to domination systems’ way of life here on Earth, and he initiated the commencement of an entirely new, radically different way of life. Jesus announced a radically new social order that he referred to as “the kingdom.” Though it looked nothing like any kingdom that had ever existed throughout history, it was not imperial. Jesus’ new social order took the form and shape of a shared, heterogeneous table.

The rest of the Jesus story flows from cause to effect. Jesus’ nonviolent direct action in the Temple leads to his ultimate arrest by the Temple Police. Jesus is then subjected to multiple trials from the Powers that benefit from the way of life that his kingdom threatens to take away. These three sacrificial systems, which we will cover in a moment, unite to crucify Jesus in a supreme act of injustice. But then the injustice of the Domination Systems is overturned and conquered by the resurrection of Jesus, the glorifying of him as the founder of a new healed world.

The resurrection marks the end of all domination systems that demand the sacrifice of innocent victims for the benefit of the masses. It doesn’t matter whether the domination system is political, represented by Pilate. A political domination system depends on violence against political enemies and a “religion of war” in which the present generation is sacrificed, like lambs to the slaughter, to sustain the belief that citizens are worthy of the sacrifices of past wars. It doesn’t matter whether the domination system is religious, represented by Caiaphas. A religious domination system is rooted in fear of divine repercussions. Adherents are threatened if those deemed as “sinners” are not shunned, marginalized, scapegoated, and ultimately sacrificed to maintain the favor of God or the gods. And it doesn’t matter whether the domination system is economic, represented by Herod. An economic domination system, driven by greed, sacrifices the poor at the bottom of society’s pyramid structures to maintain the lifestyle of the few positioned at the top (see Luke 6:20, 24).

The story of the Resurrected One shows that the presence of God is not found in the most exclusive “holy places” belonging to those “dirty rotten systems” as Dorothy Day called them (see Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). The Jesus story teaches us that the Presence truly dwells in the ones shamefully lynched on the orders of the united, threatened Powers-that-be. And the story of the Resurrected One proclaims the beginning of a whole new world in which we need not fear the consequences of our nonviolent engagement against those political, religious, and economic systems and powers, engagement rooted in transformative love for both the oppressed and the oppressors. We stand in the victory of Christ over each of these domination systems, a victory that has already been won. We are people standing in the light streaming from the empty tomb, and we are following the Resurrected One.

Seen in their own context, the stories of Jesus’ nonviolent direct action, arrest, trial, execution by crucifixion, and victory through resurrection converge to produce a worldview paradigm-shift. This shift was too significant and too exposing for political, religious, and economic systems based on violence, fear, and greed to tolerate.

The story of the Resurrected One offers the same challenge for us today. The resurrection invites each of us to align our own stories with the story of Jesus, to cleanse Temples, and, if need be, to embrace our crosses to expose and disarm the dominations systems of our day.

Yes, Jerusalem was teetering on the precipice of destruction in her relations to Rome. But Jesus wasn’t arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. He was offering Jerusalem the chance to participate in a whole new way of life and a different future from the events of A.D. 70. When we follow Jesus in our world today, we’re not arranging deck chairs on the Titanic either. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be healed. And this is true of us as well.

If we would simply be open to learning how to recognize and then speak the truth about the systemic evils of oppression, violence, fear, and greed, a new awareness of, and an honesty about, could lead to a decided action toward change.

Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many more, far from seeing Jesus’ actions in the Temple as contradicting nonviolence, saw in his actions the first step of nonviolent direct action. Jesus shut it down. Nonviolent direct action is, at minimum, is a three-step process. First, the systemic oppression must be confronted. Second, wait for the violent response that the domination system metes out when it feels threatened. Third, bear that violent response with enemy-transforming love to awaken those who perpetuate the system and who, by perpetuating the injustice, tie their own victimhood to systemic evil.

Gandhi, King, and others saw in Jesus’ nonviolent direct Temple action hints for how we can and should engage the domination systems of our own day. Each follower of Jesus is called to engage as well. Whether we drive out livestock and overturn money-changers’ tables (Jesus), tear up a passport in South Africa or lead a salt march in India (Gandhi), or join sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches in the white, evangelical, “Christian” South (King), the Jesus story calls us to align our stories with the story of Jesus: to embrace and even to subvert our “temples,” to face, if need be, a cross, and if so, also a resurrection. The Jesus story calls us to act redemptively and transformatively toward those who benefit from the current structure and systems even when they mock, threaten, insult, accuse, and hate us for engaging them. We are to respond transformatively as we name or expose the injustice of the present systems and display the radical whole new world rooted in and centered around Jesus’ teachings. His story whispers to us that a new world is here, if only we have eyes to see it.

The Resurrection of Jesus is God’s endorsement of Jesus, his teachings, his critique, and his way. When we participate in nonviolent direct action as a method of transforming our world, again, we are simply aligning our stories with the Jesus in the Temple, putting on display, come what may, the truth that a new world has arrived. Again, we stand in the Victory of Christ over each of these domination systems—a Victory that has already been won. We are people standing in the light streaming from the empty tomb, following the Resurrected One.

Last weekend, we followed him to Baltimore City Hall

While at City Hall, I quickly saw there a broad spectrum of people who were also taking part in the events of the day. Folks came from the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam to those who self identified as disciples of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and everyone in between.

I want to say, upfront and unequivocally, that I was blessed by everyone I met at this rally. And it was a paradigm-shifting experience for me. What struck me most was not that I was a white life in the midst of many black lives, but that mine was a lower-middle-class life immersed in a world where so many precious lives were fettered to inner city poverty.

Racism and economics go hand in hand in America. We live in the shadow of a capitalist system that has been fueled by racism and enforced by militarism. Today, it is different, but not wholly corrected. Think of it in terms of Hasbro’s game Monopoly. 

During the Reconstruction era in America, Jim Crow laws significantly limited how much and how easily black people could compete in the game of capitalism. Not only has black life still not fully recovered from those limitations, but, from what I witnessed in Baltimore, the limitations themselves have also not been fully corrected. Today, for many black lives to escape inner city poverty, they have to possess a higher than average level of talent in areas such as sports, music, entertainment, general academics, or medicine. There are artificial limitations still placed on their ability to play the game, imitations that I simply never have to face. Those who live daily in the desperation of trying to survive while trapped in inner city poverty will live in ways that those in middle and upper classes simply cannot understand.

Before last weekend, I knew the intersection of race and economics in theory. And then Saturday submerged me in a community where I witnessed people still experiencing the reality of an economic system where race is a significant factor.

It was through watching these people that Jesus’ liberation work for the poor clicked for me.

Jesus’ work for the poor is the ideal point for us to start applying Jesus’ gospel to the lives of all those who are disinherited by our domination system today. Whether it be in matters of race, gender, or orientation, Jesus’ systemic change, his good news to the poor, is where we must begin.  As James Cone wrote, “Accordingly any understanding of the Kingdom in Jesus’ teachings that fails to make the poor and their liberation its point of departure is a contradiction of Jesus’ presence.” (God of the Oppressed.)

In other words, if our gospel is not first and foremost systemic good news for the poor—fatally undermining all other forms of discrimination—then we have to at least wonder whether our Jesus is the same Jesus in the story. It’s not enough to enable black lives, women’s lives, and LGBTQ lives to advance in a “dirty rotten system.” It is not enough to enable all with the same opportunity to thrive in the status quo of haves and have-nots. Jesus was not preaching equality in regards to equal “opportunity” for all. Jesus’ new social order is one where there are no more haves and have-nots, where the last are the same as the first, and where those who gather much share with those who gathered little. The system is not to be cleansed. It is to be dismantled. The status quo is not to be simply critiqued. It’s to be deconstructed. Jesus didn’t cleanse the temple and its way of sacrifice, he ended it. 

On my way home from the march, I picked up a copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. This was the book that MLK took with him when he travelled and read from before each march.

What I began to see as I stood in the midst of America’s disinherited last Saturday was that Jesus was not someone from the upper or middle class who chose to help the poor. There is a world of difference in picturing Jesus as the helper OF the poor and a Jesus who WAS poor. He WAS the disinherited. He emerged out of the very people I was standing in the midst of. These were his roots.

The significance of seeing Jesus as one of the disinherited can’t be overestimated. This shift breathes new life into his teachings and their practical implications for how we can follow Jesus nonviolently, confronting and transforming domination systems in our day. Jesus was not lecturing the upper and middle class on how they should help the people beneath them. Jesus spoke to his disinherited peers and equipped them with the means to subvert the entire system.

Yes, this was good news to those the present system left poor, hungry, and weeping. Jesus’ message was also deeply troubling to those benefiting from the present system, who didn’t want things to change.

Broderick Greer tweeted this statement this week: “If your ‘gospel’ isn’t good news to people mourning state-sanctioned police violence and the loss of black life, then it’s not the gospel.”

And I could not agree more.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberation for the slaves, and recovery of sight to the blind in order to set the oppressed free. — Jesus (Luke 4.18)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take time each day contemplate the following statement:

“Righteous wealth can only exist where no one is in need.”

2. Journal any thoughts, questions, agreements and disagreements, or insights you have as you reflect each day.

3. Share your notes with your HeartGroup and discuss them this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Love reins.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

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The Last Shall Be the Same as the First and the First the Same as the Last

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

But he answered one of them, I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didnt you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Dont I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  (Matthew 20:13-16)   

12345It’s good to be back!  At the end of last month, I found myself needing to take a break for a little self-care.  I had just completed giving 27 presentations to three separate audiences within nine days.  I appreciate the patience of each of you.  I’ve missed you!  Let’s dive in this week.

I want to begin by asking you to experiment with me.  Let’s, for the sake of experimentation, just for a bit, NOT spiritualize everything Jesus said about money and economics.  Not spiritualizing Jesus’ teachings on money enable us to gain deep insights into Jesus’ new alternate society that we are simply prevented from seeing when we spiritualize it all.

I also want to define the word denounce.  To denounce means to “publicly declare to be wrong or evil” (New Oxford American Dictionary); its synonyms include condemn, criticize, attack, censure, decry, revile, vilify, discredit, damn, reject, proscribe, malign, rail against, lay into, formally castigate, expose, betray, inform on, incriminate, implicate, cite, name, and accuse (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). A denouncement can also be a public accusation or reporting (Wikipedia).

In Matthew 11:20, this version of the Jesus story tells us that “Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed.”  What did this look like?  What form did Jesus’ denouncements take?  They come to us in the same form as the denouncements of the Old Testament prophets.  They come in the pronouncement of a “woe.” In the very next verse (Matthew 11:21) we find “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Eerdmans Dictionary states that “In the New Testament ‘Woe’ functions as prophetic denunciation.”  Jesus is standing in his prophetic lineage in his use of language here.

Yet what I want us to contemplate this week is another denouncement Jesus made.  This denouncement is made in Luke’s Jesus story, chapter 6:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now [as opposed to mourn over the present social order], for you will mourn and weep.  Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24–26)

Let’s back up and look at the big picture.  Jesus had just pronounced a blessing (the opposite of a denouncement) on the opposite group.  Remember, Jesus is not saying that there is something “righteous” about being poor.  He is saying that for those whom the present social order has left poor, hungry and morning, the changes Jesus had come to make were especially favorable.  The alternate human society Jesus was inviting all to join would be a blessing for those who were poor under the present system and, at a bare minimum, be problematic for those benefiting from the present system.  But we will talk about that in a moment. Let’s look at the two groups first.

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now [as a result of the present system], for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” (Luke 6:20–22)

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24–25)

Jesus is doing two things.  First, yes, he is proclaiming that the new social order he is teaching is good news for those who are presently in the position of being “last” and at least problematic for those who were presently “first,” benefitting from the present system.  Second, he is indicting the rich.  There is no way around it.  To understand the logic of this, this planet and its resources are not infinite.  It provides enough for every person’s needs, Gandhi once said, but not every person’s greed.  I understand the “opulence” for everyone argument, but the resources of this earth simply do not work that way.  If someone is hoarding more than he or she needs, someone else is going without what he or she needs. (Think of the truth of the Hebrew manna story; everyone had what he or she needed because those who “gathered much” shared with those who “gathered little.”)  To say that Jesus was putting forth an alternate society seeking the equal distribution of earth’s resources so that each person could have what he or she needed was good news to the poor.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18)

What does this mean? At minimum, it means that if our Jesus is not first and foremost systemic good news for the poor, we have to at least wonder if our Jesus is the same Jesus as the one in the story.

Jesus’ new economic teachings also have something to say about debts that had been incurred under the present system.  All debts are to be cancelled!  This, too, is good news to the debtors and problematic for creditors.  But remember, Jesus’ goal is equality, not just in opportunity, but in result.  What Jesus is announcing is the never-practiced Hebrew tradition of “Jubilee,” during which all debts were to be forgiven.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

This was hard news for those economically benefiting from the present system.

“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25)

The idea that there was a gate called a “needle” that camels had to get down on their knees to enter and was difficult to enter but not impossible has long been debunked by scholars.  That’s a made-up story.  What Jesus is saying is that it’s impossible for the rich to enter Jesus’ new alternative society here on earth because fundamental to this new society’s core is a sharing of one’s superfluous riches with those who have less.  At its core, Jesus’ new alternate society is a divestment of and a redistribution of the riches of the dominant class with the aim of equality.

Notice how this played out in the Corinthian church:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is EQUALITY.” (2 Corinthians 8:13–14)

The reason the rich cannot enter is not an imposed reason but an intrinsic one.  The first step for the rich in following Jesus is a divestment of their riches.  It’s making the rich un-rich.  It’s alleviating the poverty of the poor through sharing those riches, not, as some claim, making all people poor but equal.  Jesus taught the rich, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

This was not an isolated occurrence only privately applied to this specific person.  This was a staple of Jesus’ words to all who were rich:

“But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock (Jesus’ alternate society), for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor.  Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:31–34)

This is exactly why the very first expression of following Jesus in the book of Acts was manifested in Jesus-followers’ selling their properties and giving to anyone who was in need.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:41–45)

When the wealthy young man heard this, it was too much.  “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven [new alternative society, here, now].’” (Matthew 19:22–23)

I want to juxtapose this statement from Jesus, that it is “hard” for those with wealth to enter into Jesus’ beautiful alternative community, with the statement of Matthew’s Jesus just eight chapters earlier:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

What can’t be missed is that Jesus is saying if the present system has caused you to not be at ease and not be surrounded by riches but to be “weary,” “heavy laden,” and in need of “rest,” you will find entering Jesus’ alternate society “easy.” It is a blessing!  But if you are one presently benefiting from the current system, Jesus unmistakably states that you’re going to have a harder time embracing Jesus’ teaching on economics.  Entering into this alternate society centered in the teachings of Jesus is impossible on your own and only possible with God (see Matthew 19:26).

Again, why is it so “hard?” It is hard because Jesus is not selling the American definition of “equality.”  Jesus is not simply offering equality as a matter of “opportunity.”  Jesus is calling for a system which creates equality in results as well.

This is the point in the story at which Jesus tells of the workers who arrived at the end of the day but were paid the same as those who had been there all day:

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’” (Matthew 20:13–16)

This, again, was good news to the last.  It was at least problematic for those who were first.

Gandhi is one of the many in history who have experimented with Jesus’ teachings on equal pay.  There are two books that Gandhi states had a bigger effect on his life and thinking than any other books he read.  The first was Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You.  The second was John Ruskin’s Unto The Last.  Gandhi, in his autobiography, states that this second book crystalized for him three truths.  In the words of Gandhi himself:

1. The good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

2. A lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right to earn their livelihoods from their work.

3. The life of labor, e.g., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

Gandhi embarked, from Ruskin’s book (the title of which was taken from our featured text this week: “I desire to give unto the last the same as I give to the first”), on an experiment called the Phoenix Project, in which everyone was paid the same amount regardless of the job they did.  The sense of community and mission this produced is breathtaking if one takes the time to read about it.  Everyone worked for the mission; they looked at each other as equals.

We all know how Hasbro’s Monopoly game ends.  Gehenna, in the Old Testament prophet’s sense, may be unavoidable. Jesus is offering a way to life—an alternate, beautiful community.

There are two narratives we can live by:

Narrative 1: Scarcity – Anxiety – Competitive Accumulation – Stockpiling/Hoarding – Violence

Narrative 2: Abundance – Confidence – Cooperative Sharing – Generosity – Peace

Narrative 1 involves believing that there is not enough for everyone’s needs and allowing the anxiety that belief produces to drive you to a life of accumulating stockpiles that you must protect with violence.  The other narrative involves believing that there actually is enough for everyone’s needs to be met if we share and cooperate.  We can subscribe to a narrative of confidence rather than anxiety, of generosity rather than hoarding.  And rather than producing stockpiles one needs to protect with violence, a shared mutuality that produces peace arises.

The least we can do is begin to be honest about our narratives.

I’ll close this week with the words of Leo Tolstoy.

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination.

If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible.  But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so.  You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it.  You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or Tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society.  You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth.  And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.

There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.”

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

HeartGroup Application

This week for our HeartGroup Application, I want to recommend to you the book The Kingdom of God Is Within You by Leo Tolstoy.  You can download a copy free of charge at amazon.com.

1.  Dedicate some time each day to reading and contemplating what you are reading.

2.  Journal your thoughts, feelings, questions, and insights.

3.  Spend some time in your HeartGroup this upcoming week discussing what you are reading.  In other words, process some of what you’re reading out loud with others.  Jesus’ teachings were never meant to be understood or applied in isolation but with “one another.”

Together we can make a difference.  Together we can learn to recognize and participate in Jesus’ alternate society, the beloved and beautiful community, centered around a shared table.  It is a beautiful community.

Keep living in love until the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week

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