The Lord’s Prayer 

Shared Economy Sign

by Herb Montgomery

“When you pray, say‚ Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:9-12: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Luke 11:2-4: “He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation. ’ ”

This week, we’re looking at a saying in Q that many now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Last week, we looked at the problematic nature of gendering God and Jesus’ naming God as our Father. This week, we’ll consider the tangible, concrete, economic nature of the rest of this prayer.

Jesus’ “reign of God,” as we have learned this year, can be defined simply as people helping people, taking responsibility for one another, living in centered relationships and community with a focus on quality of life for those whose lives and value as human beings has been denied, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Daily Bread

This prayer purposefully focuses on today: not tomorrow, but today. Gandhi is believed to have said that every day the earth produces enough for every person’s need, but not for every person’s greed. Greed can be defined as the exploitation of others and the hoarding of more than one needs for today (from fear of what may come tomorrow) while ignoring the basic daily needs of those being exploited.

In this prayer, Jesus doesn’t ask for tomorrow’s needs to be assured. He asks for our needs be met today. As we let go of our fear of the future, relinquish the exploitation of others, and choose instead a community of mutual aid, resource sharing, and mutual responsibility and care, we enter a path of trust. We trust that someone will take care of us if something should befall us tomorrow; we trust enough to be the ones who take care of those trouble has befallen today.

This is a path of abandonment and embrace. We’re abandoning values such as individualism and independence, and embracing our reality as humans who are interdependent. So we choose to balance each individual’s needs and the community where all of those needs can be met.

We take care of each other today, and leave tomorrow to worry about itself. As long as we have each other, we can together face what may come tomorrow. We don’t put our trust or hope in accumulated wealth but rather in each other as we live out the faith that Jesus modeled and the love that God shows us (see Psalms 62:10 cf. 1 Timothy 6:17).

Cancel All Debts

Next, this saying refers to debt cancellation. Some Q scholars believe that the phrase “cancel all debts” was part of the earliest form of this prayer. It’s interesting how the versions of this saying progressed from Jesus’ and the Torah’s concerns about economic liberation to a more “spiritual” language for debt that left the economic plight of the poor unaddressed. That’s convenient!

Let me explain.

It’s believed that the earliest form of the Q source text said “cancel our debts for us as we have cancelled those in debt to us.” In the spirit of the Torah’s sabbatical year (jubilee), this represented a community that had literally cancelled the debts of those who owed them, and now prayed that, like dominoes, their creditors would cancel their debts as well. They were setting something in motion and praying for its end: all debts forgiven!

When Matthew’s gospel adds this saying to Mark’s narrative, it becomes “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This still means essentially the same thing, but notice the word “forgive.” This change sets up the phrasing in Luke.

Luke’s gospel phrases this saying, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” This final step enlarges the prayer and makes it relational rather than economic. Any sin is now included and the Torah/sabbatical year connection is lost. Now the prayer becomes a matter of forgiving wrongs other have committed in hopes that one’s own wrongs will also be forgiven.

All three versions of the prayer are valid. It’s also important to know their origins as well. We often focus on Jesus’s relational teachings today, and with good reason. Jesus’s economic teachings are challenging, and it can seem preferable to avert one’s gaze. Yet they are there in his teachings nonetheless, along with the teachings of the Torah:

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” (Deuteronomy 15:1)

Luke’s gospel also affirms the centrality of “all debts cancelled” in a unique way. Luke begins Jesus’ ministry with Jesus taking the scroll of Isaiah in a Sabbath synagogue service and reading:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1; cf. Luke 4:18)

This “year of the Lord’s favor” is the sabbatical year Deuteronomy 15:1 refers to, a year when the people were to cancel all debts.

That commandment brought hope to indentured farmers, who used to own the farms they now worked on, and the day laborers who worked with them earning day wages. And what fear, objection, and threat it must have brought to Herod’s economy in Galilee and the wealthy aristocracy centered in Jerusalem. The economic elite in Galilee and Jerusalem would no doubt have been anxious to rid their societies of this itinerant teacher stirring up the hopes of the poor. (See The Jesus Story.)

There is a contrast, too, between the way Herod and Jesus approached politics. Politics is the subject of power and resources (wealth). Herod sought to hoard and then wield power and resources as the means whereby his Jewish people would be liberated, with him at the helm as hero, and liberation flowing unilaterally from him to the people.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught that both power and resources should be shared. Rather than the unilateral hero deliverance that we have transformed Jesus’ salvation into, Jesus taught the shared power of community where debts are cancelled, resources are shared, wealth is redistributed, and mutual aid becomes the order of the day. Jesus wanted his followers to be the source of a liberation that not only benefitted the Jewish people but would spread to and change the Roman world as well.

It is a misunderstanding to say that a community informed by Jesus’ teachings today should be relegated to spiritual matters and matters of politics should be left to the state. Jesus had much to say that was political—about power and resources. The community of Jesus followers is just as political as the state; we simply choose to go about politics differently.

Not Being Put To the Test 

Lastly this week I want to discuss the difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross as pushback from the death dealers, and thinking that a cross or suffering is in itself the goal. Choosing a cross doesn’t bring life. Choosing life brings life. And sometimes we have to choose life even when a cross is being threatened against us, but choose life and thus a cross we must.

There is a subtle difference between choosing life with the risk of a cross and choosing a cross for the cross’s sake. If we can avoid suffering without sacrificing justice or our hold on life, then that is the better choice. In Jesus’ time, the cross was state execution. When you’re dead, whatever your reasons, you’re dead. In following Jesus, we should choose life even if threatened with death from the death dealers, and we should also not go around looking to get killed. This is why, I believe, we are taught to pray:

“Do not put us to the test!”

Because Jesus followers seek to emulate Jesus, how we define “being like Jesus” is vital. Jesus chose the way of life even when being threatened with a cross; he did not choose a cross. In cases of domestic violence, many women are counseled to “be like Jesus,” though they have sacrificed their selves by remaining in environments that are destructive to their entire being. We must be careful not to glorify suffering in contexts like these, and careful as we reject redemptive violence not to teach redemptive suffering.

To be like Jesus means to choose life, even with all the risks, threats, and dangers that taking hold of life and not being willing to let go of it entails, all the while praying that we will not be brought to what the gospel writers call the time of testing.

We choose life regardless of risk, knowing there may be a cross as a result, and keeping our focus on the life found in Jesus, not the death found in Jesus. When Jesus calls a person to follow him, he does not call that person to die, he calls that person to live! It is the threats of the powers that be that overshadow our choice of life with the cross. It’s not an intrinsic connection, but an imposed one. We’ll cover this again and in much more detail when we get to Jesus’ sayings about taking up the cross.

Today, my intuition tells me we must allow ourselves to face the economic elements of the Lord’s prayer in its original form. In a dog-eat-dog world, what could be changed if we chose to strike a more radical balance between individualism and what is best for our community?

Debt cancellation is a large task. Some are doing this task well, but not all of us are creditors. I would assume that many more of us are on the “debtor” side of the coin, and so an easier entry point may be a simple choice to follow Jesus’ teachings on mutual aid and sharing.

Regardless of where we pick up Jesus’ economic teachings, we can make a choice to subvert our culture’s tendency to value property over people or even treat people as property, and instead place people before both profit and property. The power of this choice should not be underestimated. It is the very stuff that has the potential to change our world.

And so we too pray,

“Father — may your name be kept holy! — let your reign come: Our day’s bread give us today; and cancel our debts for us, as we too have cancelled for those in debt to us; and do not put us to the test!” (Q 11:2-4)

HeartGroup Application 

Too often, the church has only embraced social change once outside forces have given it no other option. We have taught that the gospel story teaches values that can create change more intrinsically. But this has never been how it has taken place, not yet. Whether we are talking about slavery, equality for the sexes, economic change, or, today, justice for our LGBT siblings, the church has seemed to lag.

For discussion this week:

  1. Discuss examples of where, historically, change did not come for the church from internal causes, but from outside pressures.
  2. Discuss why you feel this is typical, and what your group may be able to do to change that order for you.
  3. Pick one of those things and implement it this coming week.

The Lord’s Prayer could produce radical socioeconomic change for those who have the courage not just to pray it, but also to step out and implement it in the world. Let’s not just pray it. Let’s put it into action.

Thanks again for checking in this week.

Wherever you are and whatever you may find yourself in the midst of, our hope is that your heart has been renewed and inspired to continue following the salvific teachings of Jesus in your life and community.

Keep living in love, daily choosing love above all else, 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.

The Beatitude for the Eyes that See (God in the Othered)

Picture of an eye

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you: Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but never saw it, and to hear what you hear, but never heard it.” (Q 10:23-24)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 13:10-17: “The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

Luke 10:21-22: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.’”

This week’s saying is given two different contexts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. For Luke, this is the third portion of the much larger saying that we have been considering over the last two weeks: the community that Jesus sent out returns and share their testimonies of success. But in Matthew, the context is different, part of Jesus’ response to why he taught using parables. Let’s take a look at both.

Matthew’s Setting

Matthew, which many scholars today believe was written to a predominantly Jewish Jesus-following audience, seems to be trying to do two things:

  1. Affirm (and possibly explain) Jesus’ teachings to that audience in the face of their larger community’s rejection; and
  2. Affirm that Jesus, his teachings, and the path his followers walked because of those teachings were all rooted in the long-held hope that injustice, oppression, and violence against Israel would be put right. Jesus fulfilled that hope.

In the early 2nd Century, Irenaeus tells us that those in the Jesus community who were Jewish Jesus followers, the Ebionites, exclusively used Matthew’s gospel (Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 11, paragraph 7).

These Jewish-Jesus followers, holding on to the great Hebrew hope of survival, liberation, and restoration, would have been deeply encouraged to hear that Jesus and his teachings were what their ancestors had been looking forward to.

Luke’s Setting

Luke, on the other hand, is believed to have been written with a predominantly Gentile Jesus-following audience. Luke preserves the Q context of:

  1. God’s wisdom given to the most vulnerable, as opposed to those in control of the status quo.
  2. Jesus’ testimony that he received this wisdom by direct revelation and was choosing to share it.
  3. Our saying this week for Jesus’ disciples who were encountering a “God-given” wisdom from the excluded and marginalized that not many kings and prophets were privileged to know. Through following Jesus, they entered into deeper compassion and a posture of humble listening.

This setting from Luke is very important. The “kings” would have been in positions of power within exploitative systems. And the “prophets,” those of the school of the prophets, would have spoken on behalf of the exploited but not necessarily as part of the exploited community. (Exceptions to this include prophets like Amos, who was a sheep herder and farmer.)

What we are encountering this week is a wisdom seen by children, the most vulnerable among us; a wisdom directly related to their experiences from living and being marginalized in our world. This is the wisdom and perspective that the disciples were encountering. It’s as if Luke’s Jesus leans over to his followers and whispers, “You are blessed! The wisdom you are seeing, this wisdom gained through listening to the experiences and voices of those at the lowest sectors of our society is wisdom that those in other sectors of society are not able to see (see Matthew 18:2).

Today

I run into this dynamic more often than I’d like to. Recently, after I gave a presentation on Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence, I was struck once again by the resistant response of some in my audience.

I’d been careful to explain that Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence were specifically targeted at the lowest classes of his society, the poor and disinherited, as wisdom about survival and nonviolent resistance. I pointed out that it was through this nonviolent resistance that Jesus taught them they would be liberated and their enemies would be transformed.

Afterward, a couple of audience members came up to me and asked, “But what do you do if someone is breaking into your home?”

What I want you to notice is what this question reveals. My audience members were encountering Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence not from the position of the lowest class, but from the middle classes, and maybe even the upper class. Jesus’ message of nonviolence would have instead addressed those who would be breaking into homes as a method of survival, not the ones whose homes were being broken into. To the poor, Jesus taught nonviolent forms of resistance, ways for them to reclaim their humanity. To those whose homes were being broken into, Jesus would have shared a very different message: he would have told this demographic to take our extra, the stuff of which luxury is made, put the needs of our fellow human siblings above our own comfort, and share. He would have told us to take our superfluous or hoarded wealth and share it with the poor.

Just as nonviolence might not have been received well by those who felt violent means were their only means of survival, I’m sure Jesus’ teachings about mutual aid, resource sharing, and voluntary wealth redistribution was also met with resistance from the middle and upper classes.

Middle to upper class church members I recently spoke to spent the first half of our week together struggling to get their heads around the Jesus they were encountering in Matthew and Luke. This Jesus really didn’t sound like the way they were used to thinking about him.

The Jesus story’s themes of survival and liberation from the human suffering caused by systems of injustice simply don’t mean as much to those whose position in society protects them from that suffering. Those in a different societal position prefer themes that focus on their personal forgiveness, God’s love for them, and promised post mortem bliss.

I’ve been preparing a talk for this weekend on nonviolence and what Christian theologians call the atonement. One of the points I’ll be making is the importance of listening to those who have been victimized by various atonement theories. To illustrate what I’m saying, let me share the experience of Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. I mentioned him last week:

“Whenever I preached this passage [God is love] as a pastor, I could always expect to gain at least one new convert! There is something inviting about such love, a love which has been poured out toward us human beings first, by GOD. For no earthly rhyme or reason the GOD of the universe has ‘loved us first,’ sending an ‘only Son’ to die for us and become ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10b), that through the death and resurrection of GOD’s Son, we might die to our sins and live in the reassurance of God’s mighty love. Such is the standard ‘atonement-love doctrine’ preached weekly in Christian churches throughout the world. Abiding in this sacrificial love of GOD as expressed through the death and resurrection of ‘His’ Son Jesus is posited as the consummate experience and expression a GODly life.

“The strengths of this position are time-honored. When one conforms one’s life to a model of love-as-atoning sacrifice, then the complication of prioritizing are greatly simplified. Life becomes one’s individual sense of a calling by GOD. Life unfolds as a conflictual, strenuous, and yet not unmanageable series of testings, temptations, victories, and occasional failures to do GOD’s ‘will.’ The important norm for such a life is obedience to the will of GOD, and the GOD adored and followed is regularly consulted for guidance. GOD’s love, in such a view of love-as-atoning sacrifice, enables one to become ‘Christ-like’ because of one’s willingness to die to self and rise in Christ. There is a galvanizing power in believing that even if one dies for a particular ‘cause,’ all things will be all right because it is a redeeming and atoning sacrifice, a sacrifice of love, freely given. Such a view of love conflates sacrificial acts, all such acts, with GOD’s Christ-like love. The conflationary energy of such enables one to be Christ in situations of conflict, trial, oppression, and even abuse. It is precisely in the confectionary energies of love-as-atoning sacrifice that its greatest danger and weakness resides.” (My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God Talk, by Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher.)

Kasimu goes on to demonstrate the detriment this gospel has brought to women in domestically violent situations who are desiring to be simply “Christ-like.” He then states, “Being ‘like Christ’ or imitating Christ by sacrificing one’s self for another is dangerous.”

He contrasts the above private, individual, and personal way of seeing Jesus with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “reformulation” of GOD’s love. King saw God’s love in the Jesus narrative as including not simply his death but also the elements of “justice, social power, hope, sacrifice, and a vision of the telos of community that has great potential for a healthier view of GOD’s love.” But all of this drives home the point.

This reformulation is the result of what the vulnerable see! Those in positions of privilege and power in our society are so indoctrinated and socialized that they don’t even see what is so wrong and dangerous about the traditional description of love-as-atoning sacrifice. Not being able to see it yet is a strong indication of one’s need to begin looking at the Jesus story from the perspective of those to whom our society’s present structure is doing the greatest harm. As we stated last week, this means looking for God in those that we and our society today have “othered.” When you do finally see it, it will be as if Jesus himself is leaning over to you, saying to you as he did his disciples long ago:

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you: Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but never saw it, and to hear what you hear, but never heard it.” (Q 10:23-24)

HeartGroup Applications

Matthew seems to describe what the disciples see as from Jesus himself. Luke seems to define it as the wisdom we gain from the most vulnerable. Both Matthew and Luke can be right. Let’s make some time this week to put what Jesus taught into practice by listening to those who are not like ourselves. Let’s look for God in the Othered.

July’s book for RHM’s annual reading course was J. Denny Weaver’s Nonviolent Atonement. Beginning on page 129 and then on through page 217, Weaver dialogues with the various theologies that arise out of the experiences of black liberation, feminism, and womanism.

1. I’d like you to pick one of those chapters and either through Weaver’s book or in the books that Weaver refers to (many are available from Amazon in a digital format), begin listening to various perspectives of Jesus from experiences that are unlike your own.

2.  Over the next few weeks, discuss with your HeartGroup what you are discovering and how your own beliefs are being challenged and affirmed. Share how you have been encouraged, and also discuss how some of your own cherished beliefs have not borne positive fruit for people with experiences unlike yours.

3. Discuss with your HeartGroup how each of you can move toward healthier ways of interpreting and understanding the Jesus story, ways that do not produce victims, but that bring healing for the entire human family. Lean into those changes. Choose to see the Jesus story through these new lenses and allow those changes to impact the decisions you make in your daily lives.

Learning how to listen for God in the Othered is a life changing experience for so many who have the courage and openness to engage in the process. It can be deeply challenging, deeply confronting, and deeply affirming all at once. I’m wishing you all the best.

Thank you for joining us this week.

And thank you for your decision to live 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.

Knowing the Father through the Son 

by Herb Montgomerypicture of a father and son
“Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:22)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Luke 10:22: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Gospel of Thomas 61:3: “Jesus said to her: ‘I am he who comes from the one who is always the same. I was given some of that which is my Father’s.’”

Jesus’ Substantiation of the God of the Vulnerable

Last week we discussed how the God Jesus called his followers to envision was committed to the most vulnerable ones in society. The very next saying shows Jesus appealing to direct revelation to substantiate his claim that God was a God for the vulnerable and not just the strong and well-placed. Consider the possible responses to Jesus’ saying from last week—that God had actually revealed truth to those on the margins of their society rather than to their religious sages and learned leaders. Pairing that saying with this week’s implies that the Jesus community attributed this truth to direct revealation.

How did Jesus know that God was the revealer of truth for the vulnerable? That this God belonged to the marginalized and excluded in his own society? This knowledge had been given to him directly from God and he was choosing to reveal it to his followers.

And while this defense of direct and unique revelation may have established the credibility of the Jesus community in their society in the first century, it leaves some big questions untouched in our context today.  In this saying, Jesus says that what he knows was “entrusted to him by his father” and that he also chooses to “reveal” things to the folks he chooses to.

That opens up questions like:

  •                 How do we know we’re getting insights from God or Jesus?
  •                 Are there any other possible sources?
  •                 Does direct revelation have to be validated by the authorities (in Jesus’ case, it wasn’t even though he appealed to and reinterpreted the prophets)?
  •                 How can we distinguish healthy insight/revelation from destructive insight/revelation?

Some modern people worry about whether their interpretations are valid or they are self-deceiving, especially if they’ve been taught that nothing the Holy Spirit reveals will contradict scripture. Could it be that the best way to know whether or not you’re on the right track is to actually follow what Jesus is teaching in this section of the sayings and listen to the voices of the most vulnerable and how they are affected by your “revelation?” This method, which my friend Keisha McKenzie calls Listening for God in the Othered, is a way to test “revelation” by its fruit.

Jesus’ direct revelation was not attested to by the status quo authorities, but he spoke of his father entrusting insight to him as he taught that we need to listen the revelation God has given to the lowest sector of our society: we need to listen to “the children.”

There is a danger in claiming direct revelation and ending the discussion there. Direct revelation is not a method that is reproducible and that we can use ourselves at will.  But we can lean into the truth that Jesus is attesting to in this saying. We can listen to the most vulnerable. We can hear from their experiences whether or not our “revelations” or interpretations of sacred texts produce good fruit.

It’s a hermeneutical method of testing by considering results. (See Matthew 7.16-20.)

My Father

I want to discuss for a moment Jesus’ referring to God as his “Father” because of the problematic nature of gendering Divinity. There are a number of things we must take into consideration.

First, Jesus lived and taught within two deeply patriarchal cultures: Roman and Jewish. We cannot escape the reality that Jesus and those he ministered to moved about within a patriarchal world.

Second, Jesus naming God as Father was less parental and more political. This way of naming God had a historical context in Judaism.

Referring to God as “Father” and having God referring to someone as “son” was a special relationship attributed to Judah’s king and YHWH. In the Psalms, this title was applied to David and it was also extended to Solomon.

Psalms 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’S decree: He said to me [David], ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’”

Psalms 89:26: “He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’”

2 Samuel 7:12-14: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He [Solomon] is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.

Matthew’s gospel, a very Jewish version of the Jesus story, identifies Jesus with this language. It makes perfect sense. Matthew’s gospel continually employs imagery of Jesus and God as Father and son, and it is impossible to determine whether this unique rhetoric was original to Jesus or was created by the Jewish community who loved and followed him. What is clear is that this rhetoric was part of the hope for the liberation and restoration of Israel in the first century. At minimum, the followers of Jesus claimed that Jesus’ coming marked the start of this restoration.

Luke’s Gentile community would have used this rhetoric as well, not to associate Jesus with a past Jewish leader but for the purposes of contrast with a present Roman one.

As we covered last December in Two Visions [or Versions] of Peace (Part 3 of 3), this language was also used in the Roman empire to refer to Caesar’s supposed divine ancestry:

“It was Augustus Caesar who, during the time of Luke’s birth-narrative, was entitled Divine, Son of God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, and Savior of the World. Here is why.

Rome experienced several civil wars as a democratic republic and had regressed to the point of disintegration when Octavian, later called Augustus, became Rome’s savior. Through Augustus, Rome transitioned from an imperial republic to an imperial monarchy. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius, was like his father deified, or regarded as a god. He was given the title Augustus in Latin (One who is divine) and Sebastos in Greek (One who is to be worshipped). Temples were inscribed to him with the dedication, ‘The Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God to be worshipped.’

And as with all domination systems, the four imperial aspects produced a society where an elite at the top benefited from the subjugation of the many beneath them. Luke addresses all four of these aspects in his gospel. In response to Rome’s military power, Luke presents the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence. In response to Rome’s economic power, Luke presents Jesus’ teachings on wealth redistribution. In response to Rome’s political power, Luke presents Jesus, not Caesar, as Liberator, Redeemer, the bringer of Peace, Lord, and Savior of the world. And in response to Rome’s theology of a ruler who was supposedly born to divine-human parents and so was named the Son of God, God from God to be worshiped, Luke presents Jesus and his subversive ‘kingdom.’ Rome’s theology was larger than Caesar and included the worship of deities such as Mars the god of war, but it included the worship of Caesar as the incarnate representation of the Divine.

As theologian Adolf Gustav Deissmann wrote, it’s important for us to recognize the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, “lord”’ (p. 349).

Knowing Augustus’ birth-narratives is also beneficial to us. The story was that on the night of Augustus’ conception, Augustus’ father had a dream in which he saw the sun rising from Atias, his wife’s womb: Caesar Augustus was the coming of light to the world. Augustus was believed to be the ‘Son of God’ fathered by Apollo, and Apollo in turn was the ‘Son of God’ fathered by Zeus, the supreme god of the Roman and Greek pantheon.

Here’s a description from the 2nd Century CE of the divine conception of Augustus Caesar; it cites an Egyptian story about Augustus that dates to 31-29 BCE:

‘When Atia [Augustus’ mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.’ (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, p. 94.4, emphasis added)”

Our Father

Gendering God as Father creates negative problems in human society but we must also consider the positive shift in Jesus’ teachings. God as Father was no longer an isolated privilege of one king at the top of a hierarchical societal structure. Jesus stands in his own prophetic tradition in affirming the communal nature of this title. The prophets had also shifted away from calling only the king the “son” of YHWH, and spoke of the entire nation as equal claimants to the parentage of YHWH.

Isaiah 63:16: “But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

Isaiah 64:8: “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Jeremiah 31:9: “They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.”

Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Malachi 2:10: “Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?”

And Jesus, when asked in Matthew to give instruction about prayer, like the prophets before him, taught his followers to address God as “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9, emphasis added)

Jesus’s teaching affirmed within a deeply patriarchal society that being able to refer to God as a parent was not the privilege of an isolated hero or king, but an egalitarian privilege that the entire community could enjoy. We are all children of Jesus’ God. We are all siblings (cf. Luke 19:9). We are all bearers of the image of God.

Luke also includes some evidence that Jesus used some feminine images for the Sacred Divine. For our time, some think it problematic that these images are domestic, but for Jesus to associate this imagery with God in his society would have been very provocative.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, emphasis added)

Jesus is accessing portions of his own Jewish tradition in using these feminine images for God. As Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher so aptly points out in the book My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, within the Torah, God is likened to a Mother Eagle:

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. (Deuteronomy 32:11)

This imagery is both earthy and transcendent, nurturing and independent; it is strong, powerful, and compassionate. The motherly love of the eagle as an image of the Divine holds much promise, specifically for women. (For further discussion, please see My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God-talk, pp. 49-51, 64-65.)

Jesus also used the Mother Hen image as well. Yet, as Karen Baker-Fletcher points out in the same volume, this image reemphasizes in patriarchal cultures negative stereotypes of women as “old hens,” “hen pecking,” and overprotectiveness.

I would strongly argue, though, that in the Jesus stories, we do not see Jesus applying the mother hen imagery to God, but to himself. He states “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37, emphasis added.) For a man in Jesus’ context to have embraced using the mother hen language for himself could deeply affirm men as they strive to abandon harmful stereotypes of masculinity and strive toward becoming more nurturing and tender, as men, just as Jesus was.

We don’t always remember that Jesus grew up with a mother who was likely a widow for most of his adulthood. Jesus would have witnessed firsthand the struggles that women in his society faced. I think it is also telling that Luke includes a statement that women were supporting Jesus’ ministry from their own means (Luke 8:3). As the director of a nonprofit, I can attest that folks don’t financially support you unless they resonate with something you are saying or doing. In Jesus’ teachings, these women must have seen something that liberated them, too.

So what we see this week is Jesus gendering God. We must pair with his references to God as Father examples of him using female imagery for God as well. Jesus used imagery that affirmed patriarchal structure and stereotypes as well as imagery that challenged patriarchal structures and stereotypes. He did both. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus enlarged the image of the divine as parent and saw the whole community having the same equal relationship. And lastly, his reference to his Father in this week’s saying substantiates a relationship where, through direct revelation, YHWH had revealed that to him that YHWH is a God who possesses a preferential option for the most vulnerable, not the “sages” and “leaders” of their society. This could have been deeply subversive in his time.

We’re considering all of these things as we contemplate this week’s saying and its possible application to our work of survival, resistance, liberation, transformation and restoration. Jesus claimed that God, in the patriarchal terms of his own place and time, is a “Father to the fatherless,” and we could add a “Mother to the motherless.” God parents the most vulnerable among us. Jesus calls us to imagine this “God” ourselves, and begin centering the most vulnerable as we seek to understand societal truths from their experiences. I’ll place both last week’s and this week’s saying together for your meditation, as we close. The title that the Q scholars give this section is Knowing the Father through the Son. What does the son reveal to us about the Father? That God is the God of the most vulnerable among us.

“At that time he said: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Q 10:2122, emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, contemplate on your own and as a group the implications of affirming God as both Mother and Father. According to Genesis 1, God made us all in God’s image. How does this shift to a more inclusive image of God challenge the boundaries our culture has created? What does God as both Mother and Father say to you about the value of men and women?
  2. For the next seven days, try something new in your prayer time. If you address the Divine in your prayers, simply try using the phrase “Mother-Father God.” See what this does inside of you. What of your own prejudices and stereotypes does it push against? What might it begin to free you from?
  3. Lastly, journal your experiments with praying like this and share what positive and negative things you discover with your HeartGroup next week for discussion.

Thank you again for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Thanksgiving that God Reveals Only to Children

Picture of a child's Teddy Bearby Herb Montgomery

Learning to listen to the most vulnerable within our societies.

“At that time he said: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do.” (Q 10:21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:25-26: “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’”

Luke 10:21: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.’”

Children in 1st Century Palestine

The family structure in Palestine in the first century was a hierarchical pyramid with the male patriarch at the top. On the bottom rung of the social ladder, below slaves, were children (see Galatians 4:1).

Social status is typically evaluated by the degree to which one has both power and resources. Those with large measures of control over power and resources operate in higher social positions, while those with very little access to power and resources live at the bottom.

Children have access to neither power nor resources. The typical avenues to power and control of resources are education, income, or work. In our societies, children have none of these, and they are vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity are also compounded when they apply to children.

Those on the underside and fringes of our societies often see things that are hidden to the much more educated or those labeled as “sages.” It’s not the magic of being a child that’s being highlighted in our saying this week. It’s that children were at the bottom of the social pyramid and among the most vulnerable in Jesus’ society.

Children were included in the vulnerable group repeatedly referred to throughout the synoptic Jesus stories as “little ones”:

Mark 9:37: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:42: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”

Matthew 10:42: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Matthew 18:6: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Matthew 18:10: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Luke 9:48: “Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’”

Luke 17:2: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

The concern for children in Sayings Gospel Q is quite astounding for the 1st Century, and we should not just gloss over it. In any society where there is a top and a bottom, a subjugator and an oppressed, an insider and an outsider, the sayings of Jesus in Q are for the bottom, the oppressed, and the outsider. Reading the Jesus story from within or alongside the perspectives and experiences of those on the fringes and underside of our societies opens to us interpretations of the Jesus story that point toward survival, resistance, liberation, and restoration. We can encounter a radically different Jesus from the Jesus shared by those in positions of power, an idea Gustavo Gutierrez hints at in the following observation:

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation)

The societal position from which one reads the Jesus story makes all the difference in the world! And in our saying this week, Jesus is thanking God for things that have been revealed to even the “lowest” sectors of the society he lived in.

Today, it’s not much different. If a child belongs to an affluent home, they might be protected from what other children face. But an inner city child has a much different experience. If that child is a child of color, their experience deteriorates even more. If that inner city child is also female, it deteriorates even further. And if a child happens to identify as LGBTQ, the underage homeless statistics for LGBT youth are disproportionally higher than for any other demographic. For many, the cause is having parents who are Christian fundamentalists and rejecting. There is something wrong with any ethic or morality that causes one to reject one’s own children in the name of faithfulness to a god. Christians especially should note that Jesus said the “kingdom” belonged to children.

Consider this passage from Matthew:

“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowest position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’” (Matthew 18:2, emphasis added.)

Ultimate, it does not matter how people justify discrimination. My eldest daughter is left-handed, and left-handedness still carries moral stigma in some cultures. Imagine for a moment that it still did in the United States, and let’s say that Christians had a list of Bible verses to ground their prejudice in. To the degree that left-handed members of the human family were treated in any way as less than fully human, even with religious support, they would be included with those that Jesus said the kingdom belongs to.

Catch this: It doesn’t matter the reason for subjugation or marginalization in domination systems. It’s not the reason for the exclusion that Jesus rejects, but the exclusion itself! Treating someone as less than a child of God, as somehow not fully made in the image of God, as less than human compared to others, subjugates them, and  the Jesus of Q is opposed to that exclusion and marginalization. Jesus always states that the changes he was calling for were good news, or the “gospel,” for this group.  Whoever was othered, regardless of why, was the group Jesus said would now be called “blessed!”

Two years ago I attended a gathering of LGBTQ Christians, and then wrote the following words on my website:

“Blessed are those who are gay, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn as a result of how they are treated for identifying as lesbian, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the “erased” bisexuals, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who identify as transgender, who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who identify as intersex, yet show mercy to their oppressors, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, regardless of whether they are mostly straight or mostly queer, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, wherever they land on the spectrum, for they will be called children of God. And lastly, blessed are those, regardless of their sex/gender/orientation, who are persecuted because of their call for justice, equality and mercy, for theirs is the Kingdom.” (2014 Kinship Kampmeeting by Herb Montgomery)

The pushback was astounding. So many of those who were then following us, so many we lost count, questioned how we could possibly have the audacity to say such a thing. I hope that this week’s saying from Sayings Gospel Q offers some explanation.

Look at our society. Who does our society push to the edges or place on the underside? Whom does society try to pretend doesn’t exist. Who are the victims of the lies we tell ourselves to help us rest better at night? It doesn’t matter why we choose to place those people there. The fact that they are there qualifies them for Jesus’ specific blessing. They are the ones that Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Beatitudes or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain were for. They are the ones for whom Jesus’s teachings point to a path of survival, liberation, resistance, and hope for social transformation and restoration. Jesus did come announcing “salvation.” And it was a salvation that spoke of radical change for those placed in the position of being “last,” today, here, now.

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:28-30)

This week, let’s take a moment to listen to the voices and experiences of those least privileged by our socio-economic and political structures. Consider what it means that the Jesus whose feet we sit at and learn from looked at the lowest sector of his own society and said:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you hid these things from sages and the learned, and disclosed them to children. Yes, Father, for that is what it has pleased you to do.” (Q 10:21)

HeartGroup Application

In the book My Sister, My Brother, Karen Baker-Fletcher describes womanists’ understanding of God and what it means to know God. She acknowledges our interdependent, communal reality as humans:

“Knowing the Sprit is more than a passive, emotive experience. It involves head and heart, reason and feeling. Moreover, it involves struggle and living out the experiencing of being wrapped in God’s peace. This is not an individualistic activity but a communal one that requires sharing to be authentic.” (p. 35)

It’s not sustainable for anyone to struggle daily for “justice, love, peace, and respect for others” alone. We need each other. We can only experience these realities alongside each other.

  1. This week, discuss as a group how your understanding of the values of justice, love, peace and respect have grown from the experiences you’ve had in your HeartGroup. Take note if your consciousness has been enlarged by listening to those who are most vulnerable in your group.
  2. Discuss together some practical ways you can lean even further into the communal experience of “knowing” that Baker-Fletcher speaks of in the above statement. How does being “together” enable this knowing where doing life alone does not?
  3. Take one of the things you discussed in number 2 and put it into practice this week, together.

Learning from the most vulnerable among us and their experience of life, the “sages” and the “learned” among us can enter into the wisdom of what a safer, more compassionate, more just world can look like. This week, let’s choose to listen too.

Thank you again for joining us this week.

Whatever you may be experiencing this week, thank you for checking in with this community.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.