Confronting Potential Followers 

by Herb Montgomery

Candle with rainbowBefore we begin this week, I want to take a moment to pause and remember the forty-nine victims of the Orlando Shooting. This tragic event took place at the gay nightclub Pulse, where our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning siblings within our human family were targeted.  Fifty-three others were injured.  That’s 102 beautiful lives either gone or at minimum will never be the same.

Within the Jewish wisdom tradition it is said, “Whosoever sheds human blood diminishes the divine image; destroying only one human life is equivalent to annihilating the entire world.”  In this instance it was a specific demographic within our world that was purposely, hatefully, and senselessly singled out.  This was the largest targeted mass killing of LGBT people in the Western world since the Holocaust.

Our hearts at Renewed Heart Ministries are with the families and loved ones of those who were both injured and lost.  Our hearts are with the LGBTQ community at large who daily live in fear, afraid to drop their guard, constantly aware they are at some level of risk; ever performing habitual safety-checks assessing their surroundings when in public.  You are not alone.  We grieve with you.  And we at RHM will continue to stand along side you in the work to end homophobia, heterosexism, and the violence through which they most often find their expression.  We acknowledge and affirm your presence within our human family.  You deserve dignity, respect and life. And to all the critics, our time among the LGBTQ community has taught us that there really is only one, as is so called, “gay agenda” and that too often, sadly, is simply to survive. If history has proven anything it is that those who are excluded today will be eliminated and exterminated tomorrow.  To the LGBTQ community, we love you. We are standing with you, and when needed, we pledge to stand between them and you.  The names of those lost will not be forgotten.  Varied is the image of God.  Our work will continue.

As the sun continues to rise, so will our efforts till the day comes when our world is a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all.

 


 

Jesus Facebook popularity graph

Image from my friend David Hayward at NakedPastor.com

“And someone said to him: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of humanity does not have anywhere he can lay his head.’ But another said to him: ‘Master, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But he said to him: ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’” (Q 9:57-60)

Companion Texts:

Luke 9:57-60: “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man  has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”

Matthew 8:19-22: “Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’”

Gospel of Thomas 86: “Jesus says: ‘Foxes have their holes and birds have their nest. But the son of man has no place to lay his head down and to rest.’”

Jesus wasn’t a politician, and Jesus wasn’t a pastor.

Too often diplomacy, peace-keeping (as opposed to peace-making), and efforts to appeal to the largest number of people are the modus operandi of those working for social change while also trying to obtain or maintain a position of privilege in the status quo. But this wasn’t Jesus’s method in Sayings Gospel Q. I’m reminded of the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song Like a Rolling Stone: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Jesus wasn’t trying to win at popularity. One of my favorite quotations from Peter Gomes’ book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus is this: 

“Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which “niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”(p. 31)

It seems that just about every time a crowd of followers begins to amass behind Jesus, he does something to ground them, making sure they understand exactly what they are signing up for. And what is their response? He loses that large numbers of followers every time.

Jesus wasn’t trying to get as many people to go to a post-mortem heaven as possible when they died. He was working to create change here, now, today, and he realized that lip-service wouldn’t change anything. I don’t think that Jesus would have been against large membership lists. I think he just understood that numbers are meaningless when the people that the numbers represent aren’t significantly challenging the injustice, violence and oppression of our world in their deeds.

Homelessness

This week’s statement is one of the most haunting statements that Jesus makes; at least it is for me personally. I am not homeless, and in my lifestyle here in America, I do not reflect Jesus much at all. I have a family. Crystal and I have children. We look more like foxes and birds than we do like Jesus. I do wrestle with this. I wonder: how much does my privilege, and my reluctance to jeopardize that privilege, hold me back from following Jesus’ teachings more deeply?

Also, I think of Christianity as a whole. Ever since the days of Constantine, the Church has become one of the greatest holders of land and property on Earth, all while claiming to be following the homeless Jesus. The Church’s land holdings have been at the root of poverty and complicit in economic structures that cause poverty.

Yet one of the elements of ancient Jewish hope was a vision of a day where “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (Micah 4.4, emphasis added.) The vision didn’t include large land holdings exclusively owned by a small oligarchy. This ancient hope saw everyone with a secure place to live and provide for themselves.

Yet it seems that Jesus abandoned the pursuit of “property” as long as that property meant joining a coalition with a domination system that exploited the poor, transformed small independent farmers into debt-ridden indentured slaves under the Roman system, and pressured the Temple leadership to religiously legitimize the system. As a means of working toward the Jewish hope of property to all as a human right, Jesus chose solidarity with the property-less, rather than pursuing a propertied institution to establish his movement’s permanence.

The Christian Church has not done what Jesus did. This gives me much cause to pause and contemplate.

Studies of U.S. capitalism, English enclosures, Soviet collectivization, and South American latifundia have shown that there is a deep connection between the creation of a dependent labor force for the Western industrial revolution and the majority of the population’s loss of land ownership. In the United States, land was concentrated into the hands of a few and the majority of the population became dependent on working for industrialists just to scratch out a living. The same happened in state-enforced capitalism, state Soviet socialism, and colonial capitalism. (Land ownership is different from property ownership, though owning even a small home can leave people dependent on working for industrialists to pay a mortgage.) Much has been written on this history, and I recommend Joseph R. Stromberg’s English Enclosures and Soviet Collectivization

I wrestle with how to work toward Micah’s vision of everyone having their own safe vineyard. But I take that wrestling as a call to lean more deeply into experimentation to find things that work, and not stop at futility or throwing up my hands. As Dorothy Day once wrote in her journal, “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

At bare minimum, we might begin, as Tolstoy stated in his book The Kingdom of God is Within You, with being honest about what is transpiring around us. We can begin to tell the truth.

“And therefore you cannot but reflect on your position as landowner, manufacturer, judge, emperor, president, minister, priest, and soldier, which is bound up with violence, deception, and murder, and recognize its unlawfulness. 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.” (pp. 263-264, emphasis added.)

I have found this to be true in my own life: Just keep “telling the truth”; “you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself.” Maybe this is why Jesus was unlike foxes and birds himself. He chose to speak the truth in a society that exploited the many for the elite and marginalized an other-ed few. Jesus chose not to be silent, even knowing it could cost him his life; he saw what Desmond Tutu and others said much later on about silence and neutrality: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” (in Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984) by Robert McAfee Brown, p. 19)

Jesus chose not to be silent, even if it would cost him his life, and it did.

The Dead

Last week’s eSight helped us to understand that Jesus would refer to the lethargic, passive, complicity larger society around him as “dead.” Some scholars believe that he made this statement about the dead burying their dead about a year after the would-be disciple’s father’s death.

In that era, the burial process sometimes had two parts. It involved an initial interment in caves, hewn tombs, sarcophagi, or catacombs. Then a secondary burial of the remains into ossuaries sometimes took place about one year after the original burial, after the body had decomposed and the only remains were the bones of the deceased loved one (see Death & Bereavement in Judaism: Ancient Burial Practices).

But it is difficult to tell for sure whether Jesus’s conversation with the follower was about their request to take part in a first interment or a second. It would be impossible for me to defend this saying if it was the first interment. Both within Jewish culture and according to Torah, denying someone burial was the most humiliating indignity that could be shown to the deceased (see Jewish Encyclopedia: Burial). Also, Jesus’s social vision was rooted in people taking care of people. I have a hard time believing Jesus would be so callous (as well as non-Jewish) as to not let grieving people bury and properly grieve the loss of their loved ones. (Especially in the wake of the events of this week.)  If the context of this saying was the second interment, however, this would have been a year later, a year removed from the grief, and although still difficult to accept, the saying does contrast a Hellenistic-Jewish ceremony related to what a loved one was experiencing in their “afterlife” (see Jewish Burials), and the priority of a movement focused on taking care of those still alive. Sectors of modern Christianity place a high priority on obtaining entrance to a post mortem heaven or avoiding a hell while grossly ignoring the hell that many are living in now. It could be that, to them, the Jesus of this saying replies, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

This saying challenges me. I don’t see taking care of the living and honoring the dead as mutually exclusive; I see them as connected. However one interprets this saying of Jesus, whether one justifies this statement or believes Jesus went too far in prioritizing his revolution above what is decent and compassionate, this saying must be held in tension with a Jesus who elsewhere defined his vision for human society as people taking care of one another rather than disregarding them.

Either way, the confrontation in this week’s sayings is hard. It’s a serious wake-up call to us to genuinely understand what we are signing up for when we choose to lean more deeply into and begin following the teachings of the historical Jesus. This journey is not for those who desire to remain comfortable. It’s not about a post-mortem destination that has little to do with this present life. This journey is about change. It’s about liberation. It’s a path, sometimes very difficult, of compassionate work toward systemically resolving those things that presently cause humans suffering. It means embracing the “way of the cross,” not as “sacrifice” but, as Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Baker-Fletcher in My Sister, My Brother say, “actively struggling for social justice” (pp. 79-80). Make no mistake: the conventional domesticated Jesus of the American Christian religion is not the Jesus we find in the Jewish Sayings Gospel Q. And this is a difference that is worth recognizing.

Take some time this week to meditate on what this saying may mean for you:

“And someone said to him: ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the sky have nests; but the son of humanity does not have anywhere he can lay his head.’ But another said to him: ‘Master, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But he said to him: ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’ (Q 9:57-60)

HeartGroup Application

It is much easier to face the challenges of societal change as a community. In fact, to follow Jesus’s teachings regarding social change, it’s impossible to do so outside of community. Jesus’s method of subverting domination systems was community.

  1. This week, to honor your community, sit down with your HeartGroup and share with each other ways you can support one another in your private and communal efforts to follow the teachings of Jesus.
  2. Actually write them out and discuss ways you can come underneath and support one another. Note what that looks like, what it doesn’t look like, and what supporting one another would cost the group, as well as what it would cost the individual.
  3. Choose at least one other person in the group to affirm and support in tangible ways this week. Begin taking responsibility for taking care of each other personally.

As we have said before, we don’t want to make following Jesus difficult. We want to be honest about where following Jesus is difficult. This is not an easy, feel-good way to arrive at a celestial shore. This is a honest and compassionate way of healing and transforming our world, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Again, our hearts are with all those grieving the tragedy in Orlando.

Keep living in love.

I love each of you.

And I’ll see you next week.

This Generation and the Children of  Wisdom

(Being awake to today’s socio-economic, Liberation movements.)

by Herb Montgomery

image of lots of people“To what am I to compare this generation and what is it like? It is like children seated in the‚ market-places who addressing the others say: ‘We fluted for you, but you would not dance; we wailed, but you would not cry.’ For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and you say: ‘He has a demon!’ The son of humanity came, eating and drinking, and you say: ‘Look! A person who is a glutton and drunkard, a chum of tax collectors and sinners! But Wisdom was vindicated by her children.’ (Q 7:31-35)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:16-19: To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Luke 7:31-35: “Jesus went on to say, ‘To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:

“We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.”

‘For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” But wisdom is proved right by all her children.’”

This week’s saying is one of my favorites. Let’s dive right in.

Market Places

One of the key images in this saying is “the market-place.” In Ancient Greece, the agora, a “gathering place” or assembly, ” was the center for city politics, sport, religion, and art.

Easton’s Dictionary tells us further that the agora was “any place of public resort, and hence a public place or broad street (Matt. 11:16; 20:3), as well as a forum or market-place proper, where goods were exposed for sale, and where public assemblies and trials were held (Acts 16:19; 17:17). This word occurs in the Old Testament only in Ezekiel 27:13. In early times markets were held at the gates of cities, where commodities were exposed for sale (2 Kings 7:18). In large towns the sale of particular articles seems to have been confined to certain streets, as we may infer from such expressions as ‘the bakers’ street’ (Jer. 37:21), and from the circumstance that in the time of Josephus the valley between Mounts Zion and Moriah was called the Tyropoeon or the ‘valley of the cheesemakers.’”

So in 1st Century Jewish culture, the agora or marketplace was where social and economic life happened. When Jesus refers to the marketplace, he is describing an economic or civic gathering.

This Generation

I hear some frustration in this week’s saying. Both John the Baptist and Jesus had cast before the imaginations of their generation a vision of a society that was very different than the society they lived in. They weren’t simply waiting for Rome to collapse before reorganizing; they were working toward a new social order, which Jesus referred to as the “Empire” of God.

In God’s order, people took responsibility for taking care of people. And God’s order was a new social structure subversively seated in the shell of the old Imperial order. God’s order primarily focused on the local scene rather than the entire Empire, and offered a new day for local laborers (see Mathew’s parable in Matthew 20.1-16).

Their vision involved resource sharing, food distribution, wealth redistribution, and care for the sick. It was a society centered in solidarity, interconnectedness, and interdependence. The point I want you to focus on most this week is that God’s “empire” was not a future state waiting for Rome to fall or Jerusalem to be liberated. It had begun already, while the current power structure existed, to help the very people being exploited. It presented people caring for people in place of hierarchical institutions. It showed people a means, a way, to take care of each other.

And yet, neither John, nor Jesus, nor their followers could awaken the larger portions of their  lethargic society who seemed to be waiting for something big. They were piping and singing and yet the largest sectors of their society would not dance, and they would not cry in response to the children’s wailing. They were asleep. Passive. Complicit. Remember, this was a time when Jesus’ followers and John’s followers were, although sizable, still a minority within their larger Jewish communities. We’ll explore further in next week’s saying why Jesus’ group of followers remained smaller.

The Asceticism of John

Asceticism is a lifestyle of abstinence, temperance, and withdrawal. An ascetic person doesn’t participate in luxury or simple pleasures. Luke seems to hint that John’s asceticism was rebellion against the Priestly aristocracy to which his father belonged.

John chose a version of Judaism that rejected economic exploitation of the poor in the name of YHWH. And yet he was accused by the religiously wealthy and elite of having “a demon.”

Jesus the Socialite

Jesus, on the other hand, did not choose the wilderness of the countryside. He chose the larger city metropolises of Galilee. He blessed the poor and pronounced judgment on the rich. (Luke 6:20, 24). Luke portrays Jesus proclaiming thirteen woes (or curses) on that group. Some scholars attribute the origin of the woe oracle to the cultic practices of curses (see Deuteronomy 27:15-26).  The book in the Hebrew scriptures that holds the record for “woes” is Ezekiel and it only includes six.

As we considered last week, the wealthy tax collectors responded to John and to Jesus and Jesus embraced and welcomed them. Jesus includes a tax collector among his disciples and after Zacchaeus repents of stealing and promises to redistribute his wealth, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Those like Zacchaeus, whom the religious wealthy labelled as “sinners,” shared the same economic class with them. The religiously wealthy and the tax collectors differences were in their feelings toward Hellenism and its influence in Judaism, but economically, they were very much the same. The well-to-do more fundamentalist rich regarded themselves as morally superior to those who were listening and responding to John and Jesus. They gathered around Jesus and he shared bread and wine with them. Yet his only reward was that those who saw themselves as superior to that crowd viewed him as a glutton, a drunk, and a chum of tax collectors and sinners. This couldn’t have been said about John. But it was said about Jesus.

Asleep

A meme came across one of my news feeds last week that I think summed up the scenario nicely. It stated, “1% control the world. 4% are sellout puppets. 90% are asleep. 5% know and are trying to wake up the 90%. The 1% doesn’t want the 5% waking up the 90%.” If we were to view 1st Century Galilee through the lens of those categories, Jesus would certainly have been a part of the 5% calling for nonviolent resistance to Roman and Jewish oppression of the poor, and for a just distribution of food and resources. Our sayings last week and this week teach us that the religious authorities refused to respond positively to John and Jesus, and instead undermined their influence in order to keep the “90%” asleep.

Sophia’s Children

Just as a tree is known by its fruit, “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.” I love the feminine imagery used for wisdom in this week’s saying.

In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures), the Greek word for wisdom in Proverbs 8 is “Sophia.” Feminine imagery for wisdom has an intriguing history in Hellenistic Judaism. Philo of Alexandria was a philosopher and a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth who lived from 25 BCE to 50 CE. As a Hellenistic Jew, Philo attempted to harmonize Platonic philosophy with Judaism. He used the Greek word logos to represent sophia (or wisdom), and in the gospel of John, this became the word used to describe Divine Wisdom and the mysterious form of a pre-existent Christ. Sophia has a long history with feminine imagery for the Divine, and affirms that women bear the image of God just as much as men.

I like the fact that the Q community preserved this scene with Jesus stating that his teachings were an expression of the way of Sophia. Within a 1st or 2nd Century context, this would have subtly subverted social patriarchy.

Today

Recently, I’ve been reading a book entitled Markets Not Capitalism by Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson. Gary Chartier is an associate dean of the School of Business and an associate professor of law and business ethics at La Sierra University. Charles Johnson is a research associate at the Molinari Institute and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and has published the Rad Geek People’s Daily weblog at radgeek.com since 2001.

What I appreciate most about this book are the articles by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker from the later 19th and early 20th Centuries. As I got to the end of the book, I was overwhelmed by two thoughts: First, how deeply asleep those who are comfortable in our society are today: people don’t seem to really desire freedom as much as they desire comfort, and as long as they are comfortable, they will trade almost anything. Second, how awake those are who are deeply discomforted by the present economic and political system are: these are the very ones Sayings Gospel Q would have referred to as the “poor,” the “hungry,” the “mourning.” Howard Thurman referred to them as the “disinherited.” They are the oppressed, marginalized, and subjugated. They live with an urgency about justice, out of necessity, that those who are comfortable in privileged positions fail to understand. And when any attempt at waking up society is made, a multitude of methods (shame, status quo explanation and apologetics, social exclusion, and coercion) tell people to simply roll over and go back to sleep. I encourage you to read the book for yourself (the link above is for a free copy), but most of all, I want us to see that in this week’s saying is Jesus’s call to WAKE UP!

Wake up to the call of living compassionate, involved lives with those presently suffering from injustice, violence and oppression. Wake up and “put your hand to the plow” alongside those who are working for their own liberation. Wake up to the reality that we are not free till everyone is free. Wake up, and, in the words of this week’s saying, “dance” with those rejoicing in hard-won victories, “mourn” with those whose victories are yet future, and work, work hard, toward that day imagined in Micah where “everyone” will one day “sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

Let others call you a “friend” of those labeled in our time as tax-collectors and sinners were in the time of Jesus. Let them accuse you as they did Jesus of having a “demon,” being a “glutton,” or being a “drunkard.” These accusations are the status quo’s efforts to keep you quiet, passive, and compliant. So keep speaking your truth into the darkness of injustice. And may it not be said of any of us:

“To what am I to compare this generation and what is it like? It is like children seated in the‚ market-places who addressing the others say: ‘We fluted for you, but you would not dance; we wailed, but you would not cry.’” Sayings Gospel Q 7:31

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, sit down with your HeartGroup and write out, together, what it looks like to be awake to injustice, oppression, and violence in our world today.
  2. Discuss three visible manifestations in this list that resonate most deeply with your group.
  3. Pick one of those three to lean into this week individually and as a group. Focus on practicing them in your day-to-day life.

We are in this together. You are not alone. Jesus’s “empire” of God is a world where people take responsibility to share with and take care of people. I’m so thankful that you are here. Together we can make a difference.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

For and Against John

Wall Street street sign“For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” (Q 7:29-30)

Companion Texts:

Luke 7:29-30: “(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)”

Matthew 21:32: “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

An Appeal to John’s Followers 

Let’s step back and look at what’s taken place in Sayings Gospel Q so far. We’ve ended the core of Q’s teaching section. Next was the story of the Centurion that set us up for Jesus’ interaction with John’s disciples. This focus on John’s followers can be further subdivided into four parts:

  1. John’s Inquiry  Q 7:18-23
  2. More than a Prophet (last week) Q 7:24-28
  3. For and Against John (this week) Q 7:·29-30
  4. This Generation and the Children of Wisdom (next week) Q 7:31-35

(see Sayings Gospel Q)

I believe the Q community used this section of the writings to reach out to John’s former followers and welcome them into the Jesus community. These two communities overlapped, and this part of the Sayings Gospel Q attempts to combine the communities into one. In both Judea and Galilee, these followers would have been minorities within the larger Jewish population. It’s not hard to imagine them pressing together to find community and support.

What can we learn today from this week’s saying?

Tax Collectors and Pharisees

Today, we often contrast tax collectors and Pharisees in terms of the Jewish Torah tradition. The Pharisees are presented as strict adherents of Jewish purity codes whereas tax collectors are assumed to have colluded with Rome and lived disregarding the Torah.

But this contrast is a great oversimplification, and fails to challenge the status quo in our own thinking.

There was a cultural contrast between the 1st Century tax collectors and Pharisees. To see it, let’s go to a story that only appears in Luke’s gospel. We’ll come right back to Q, but first consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus told in Luke 16:19-21.

The story begins this way: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

This introduction includes background references that the first audience would have recognized. J.Jeremias shares that background in his book Parables:

“In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk- material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (p.183)

This story was typical told as an afterlife reversal-of-fortunes tale involving a tax collector and a Torah scholar. The scholar character alluded to the Pharisees. The common way to tell the story contrasted the characters’ regard or disregard of the Torah’s purity codes. Yet Jesus does something more economically subversive than religiously subversive. His version changes the story in a way that the audience couldn’t miss.

Jesus’s version of the story did not emphasize the tax collectors’ disregard for the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah but instead contrasted those who were wealthy and those who were poor. An economic contrast made no distinction between wealthy Pharisees and wealthy tax collectors. The immediate context of the story in Luke is Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Remember that even the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, who practiced a much more progressive spirituality than the school of Shammai, nonetheless practiced and taught Hillel’s Prozbul in the area of economics. (We explored what the Prozbul meant in Renouncing One’s Rights.)

Jesus was a Jew, and not opposed to Judaism. When we understand how much the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Hillel’s Pharisaical school agreed, we begin to see that what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious elite of his day wasn’t so much his religious teachings as much as his economic teachings. The Luke story shows that Jesus faced rejection from the Jewish elite, not the Jewish people themselves, and not for religious reasons but for economic ones. This is a very human dynamic between calls for mutual aid and resource-sharing and our universal greed and selfishness.

So back to our saying this week.

I challenge you this week to look at our saying in economic terms. We usually see the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees as belonging to two separate camps, but that is not what the narrative describes. In this part of the text, the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees both belonged to the same economic class, and they both opposed the poor. They both belonged to the wealthy elite. But at this point in Sayings Gospel Q, the writer wants us to know that the tax collectors that religious leaders viewed as “sinners” embraced the teachings of John and Jesus whereas the religious, wealthy elite simply did not.

We see this dynamic today among the secular and religious populations in America. There are exceptions to what I am about to say. Yet I see large numbers of secular people who in social and economic matters embrace the teachings of Jesus while large swathes of religiously conservative people who show ignorance of or even disregard for Jesus’s social and economic teachings. Religiously they worship Jesus, and may have incredibly high notions of him. At the same time they are passive about following what Jesus taught about the social and economic matters that are still relevant today.

In the teachings of Jesus that we’re looking at this week, we learn that the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees were the same in economic terms, and so the tax collectors cease being just “sinners” who Jesus ate with. Though the religious elite called them sinners, Jesus described the tax collectors as the people who actually responded to him and followed his economic teachings.

What does this mean for us today? Responding to Jesus may not seem very religious, and it might not gain us the approval of the religious elite. The tax collectors in Jesus’s day didn’t respond to him by becoming more faithful to the purity codes. But their lives did radically change in economic terms as they joined the followers of Jesus in indiscriminate care for the poor.

This saying might also mean that we find some people outside of the Church universal living lives more in harmony with the teachings of the historical Jesus even as they are in deep disharmony with the religious culture of Christianity. And we might find large numbers of those who proudly carry the title of “Christian” who are further away from following the teachings of the historical Jesus than their more secular human siblings are.

The community of Sayings Gospel Q calls us to remember Q 6:46.

Sayings Gospel Q 6:46: “Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

Luke 6:46, 47: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.”

Matthew 7:21-24: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock . . . ”

(For more commentary on these passages please see Not Just Saying Master, Master and Houses Built on Rock or Sand)

Again, I want to emphasize that we’re not putting Jesus in competition with the Torah. Sayings Gospel Q isn’t about Torah observance. It is simply interesting that the people in Jesus’s culture who were labeled “sinners” (that is, not observing the Torah) were the ones who embraced John’s and Jesus’s economic teachings, while those who thought themselves to be very strict about the purity codes of the law did not embrace those teachings. Yet Jesus’s teaching was more in harmony with the Torah’s economic teachings than Hillel’s teachings were. Who really observed the Torah? The people who complied with the Schools of Hillel and the Prozbul? Or those who did what Jesus taught?

If this is true. Jesus didn’t threaten the religious leaders because he taught a radical new religion (Christianity). Jesus was crucified because his economic teaching was gaining momentum. The Temple Protest narrative in the synoptic gospels was less religious and more about a system of exploitation that the Temple aristocracy had become the center of. Hillel had taught that people could make atonement with deeds of lovingkindness rather than animal sacrifice—“I desire love not sacrifice”—and he wasn’t crucified for this religious teaching but was instead regarded as one of the most progressive and enlightened rabbis in all Jewish history. So it’s important to see that Jesus’s rejection was limited to the the privileged elite and was not primarily religious but economic.

If today you find yourself resonating with Jesus’s socio-political-economic teachings, but out of step with most things Christian or religious, you are not alone. You’re in the right story.

Remember what Sayings Gospel Q states:

For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him. (Q 7:·29-30)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go through the gospels and make a list of all the changes that you see Jesus teaching. Note the chapter and verse references where this teaching is taught.
  2. Next, make a separate list of the changes that you’ve noticed contemporary Christianity expecting people to make when they choose to become a Christian.
  3. Sit down with your HeartGroup and discuss what your two lists have in common and where they differ.

It’s healthy to recognize when the changes we expect a new Jesus follower to make have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught. Some big ticket items to Christians today were never mentioned by Jesus, not even once, and some large elements of Jesus’s teachings aren’t highly prioritized today.

Discuss with your group what you’re learning about how to follow the teachings of Jesus more deeply.

Thank you, again, for joining us this week and for journeying with us through this series. I’m so glad you are here.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.