The One not with Me 

by Herb Montgomery
Fast moving train

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 12.30: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Luke 11.23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

To begin this week, I have three words for us to keep in mind as we consider this week’s saying:

Context.
Context.
Context.

Anyone taking this passage out of its context in Q, Matthew and Luke, and applying it to just any cause or work that they may be involved with is overreaching and assuming too much of themselves, their work, and the actions and attitudes of others. We must also add to our discussion this week what this saying might mean for a non-Christian humanist to hear Jesus (and the Christians who speak for him now) say “You’re either with me or against me.” I think it is a mistake for Christians today to characterize non-Christians as necessarily being “against Jesus” just because they may disagree on the subjects of cosmology, ontology, religion, and practice. This may sound out of step with what has been typical of Christians throughout history. But I don’t believe one has to embrace a 1st Century worldview, as Jesus had, to find much in Jesus’ teachings from his own time and place that can inform our work in our own contexts today. Christians and non-Christians alike are working toward humanity’s survival, holistic ways of resisting oppression, liberation of those who are being subjugated and marginalized, concrete, material restoration of and reparation toward peoples who have systemically had everything taken from them, and the transformation of our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate world for us. (For a history of how secularists and certain tolerant “believers” have worked together in pioneering societal reforms in America’s past see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.) A person may find their own goals and even their methods have much in common with the Jewish Jesus of long ago, and yet they may not answer the larger more philosophical and religious questions the way many Christians around them do today. I think it would be very sad for Christians and non-Christians both to hear this week’s saying in an excluding, religious context rather than a societally transformative, liberating one.

Is there a context in which the above statement could be a true statement?

I want to offer just such an example. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  This letter was written after King had been jailed in response to the Birmingham campaign which had begun on April 3, 1963.  The Birmingham campaign was a series of marches and sit-ins Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10 a Circuit Judge in Birmingham (Jenkins) ordered all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” to be illegal. In the spirit of nonviolent noncooperation and resistance King and the other leaders of the campaign refused to obey.  King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth on April 12.

In Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, in the chapter titled Meet Me in Galilee Rieder states, ”King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor’s aim, as some thought, to break him?” Also on April 12, “A Call for Unity” was published in a local newspaper by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.  The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response.

While the whole letter is very much worth your contemplation, there is a section that is applicable to this week’s saying:

“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In this context, it would be perfectly appropriate for King to say, “the one who is not with me is against me.”

Remember, in the context of our saying this week, Jesus is being accused of being evil while all along he is actually engaged in the work of liberation for the oppressed. (See Luke 4.18-19.)  He has just been accused of being a conduit of Beelzubul.  His work of ending the suffering for so many is being labelled as dangerous and of “the satan” in an effort to prevent their position of power and privilege within their society from being threatened.  This would have been a perfectly appropriate context for a first century Jewish liberation rabbi of the people to make the above statement.

Today, I hear comments such as, “I simply want to stay neutral.  I don’t want to take sides.”  And certainly there are cases where that would be acceptable.  But in the case of oppression, where the status quo empowers injustice, neutrality IS taking a side.  It’s taking the side of oppression.  Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News : Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying, “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.” (p.19)  Tutu’s statement reminds me of the title of Howard Zinn’s 2002 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. We fail to realize that neutrality is an illusion when one is already complicit and benefiting from systems of injustice.  Jesus, in this week’s saying, is forcing those in possessions of power and privilege to actively pick a side. The deception that one can just stay neutral in matters of injustice is a lie.

Matthew, Luke and Q

In all three texts (Matthew, Luke and the derived text of Q) this statement comes in the context Jesus efforts toward the liberation of the oppressed within his society and the religious leaders of his day claiming that he was actually an agency of evil.  As I wrote two weeks ago, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil to be something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. From a desire to preserve the status quo, this same dynamic has been repeated over and over again, especially within the history of very vocal sectors of Christianity here in America

I want to emphasize that this is only within sectors of Christianity.  Those Christians who are typically in position of societal power and privilege are the ones we see this dynamic repeated in.  An example is in the white Bible belt of the South.  White Christianity fought hard against the civil rights movement.  Christian schools begin, their history is rooted in, an attempt at beginning an alternative education choice to avoid having to embrace integration.  The history of Christian education in the south is deeply mired in attempts by White Christians to not have to have their white children going to school alongside of black children.  The Black Christian tradition on the other hand was on the receiving end of this bigotry.  So I want to be careful to state, typically in prominent sectors of Christianity specifically sectors where we find those who are in positions of power and benefit, it is these sectors that we have witnessed this dynamic most often.

Whether it be:

  • White Christians resisting social change for black lives,
  • Male Christians, both black and white, resisting social change for women,
  • White Female Christians resisting change for black men and women,
  • Upper class Christians resisting change of the lower economic classes,
  • Or Straight, Cisgender Christians resisting change for those whose sexuality is fluid and who identify as being gender nonconforming.

This history has been repeated over and over again.

Over the past few months, I again have been overwhelmed with White Christian critiques of Colin Kaepernick’s justified protest.  I was aghast at the white voices which have spoken out against him.  I have also been amazed by the white voices which may not have been speaking out against Kaepernick, but have remained silent nonetheless in the wake of police brutality, the two recent occurrences that are in my mind as I write this are the killings of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher.  This silence is compounded by that fact that these same white voices finally did speak out.  They finally chose to put their voices to something that did concern them deeply.  They chose to voice their disapproval of the property being damaged in protests such as in Charlotte, NC.  Where are the voices of white Christians to speak out against the futility many lives face as a result of the way we are presently structuring and policing our society? We desire to follow a Jesus who placed people above property, yet our silence regarding the destruction of black lives, broken only when property is destroyed betrays a priority of concern regarding property over a concern regarding people that would have been wholly unrecognizable by the Jesus we desire to follow.

Another example in the sectors of Christianity I typically find myself surrounded by (I’m a white, straight, cisgender male), I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve been told about the evils of the U.S. Supreme Court finally recognizing the validity of same sex marriages. I will admit that these statements are usually made to me by Christians who don’t know me or aren’t familiar with my journey over the past four years.  What is also standard is that these comments are typically made within the context of gross ignorance of the actual injustice and suffering this recognition seeks to bring to an end for so so many.  They come from a demographic, for me, from folks who don’t have a sweet clue what it’s like to live on this planet as anyone other than a person just like themselves.  They haven’t stopped to listen to what its like to experience life for those they have in their hearts, minds, speech and actions, othered.  This is why, typically, among Christians, the ones who have a change of perspective are the very ones who have a close friend or family member who musters up the courage within that environment to “come out.”

Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something that is actually evil to be something good. We’ve all made that mistake. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, and accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many.

It is in contexts such as these that even moderate neutrality is opposition.  It is in contexts such as these that one’s silence is complicity. It is in contexts such as these that calls for nonviolence are themselves violent. It is in contexts such as these that calls for unity are simply veiled attempts at maintaining a status quo.

It is in contexts like these that one could justly and rightly say:

The one not with me is against me, and the one not gathering with me scatters. (Q 11:23)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to:

1.  As a group, together sit down and read aloud both the public statement by eight Alabama clergymen entitled A Call for Unity side by side with King’s response Letter From Birmingham Jail

2.  What lessons can you learn from contrasting and comparing these two letters about how societal justice is accomplished in our communities and the characteristics as well as the rhetoric of the pushback these efforts are met with. List at least three.

3.  What are the parallels between A Call for Unity and much of the critiques and pushback we are witnessing in our time today in response to movements, of varied types and concerns, that are engaged in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation interdependently working toward a making our world a safer, just, compassionate home for us all.

I remember the first time I read “A Call for Unity.”  It taught me how to recognized when these tactics repeatedly show up again. For some of you, like me, this will be review.  But for others, you are about to experience a paradigm shift.  I’m so excited for you.

Thank you, again, for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you find yourself right now, choose a life of 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.

Looting a Strong Person 

Picture of picking a lockby Herb Montgomery

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:21-22)

Matthew 12:29: “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”

Luke 11:21-22: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.”

Gospel of Thomas 35:1-2: “Jesus says: It is not possible for someone to enter the house of a strong person, and take it by force unless he binds his hands. Then he will loot his house.”

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents himself as the one looting another’s house rather than as a well armed home owner protecting what is theirs. Adolf Deissmann wrote in his groundbreaking volume Light from the Ancient East:

“By its social structure Primitive Christianity points unequivocally to the lower and middle class. Its [connections] with the upper class are very scanty at the outset. Jesus of Nazareth was a carpenter, Paul of Tarsus a weaver of tent-cloth, and St. Paul’s words about the origin of his churches in the lower classes of the great towns form one of the most important testimonies, historically speaking, that Primitive Christianity gives of itself. Primitive Christianity is another instance of the truth taught us with each return of springtime, that the sap rises upward from below. Primitive Christianity stood to the upper class in natural opposition, not so much because it was Christianity, but because it was a movement of the lower classes.” (Kindle Locations 360-365).

 In Deissman’s volume New Light on the New Testament from the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, he states even more pointedly that Primitive Christianity was not “Christianity” as we know it today, but “a movement of the proletarian lower class.” (p. 7)

Jesus’ listeners would have been more inclined to identify with those scratching out a desperate existence in an exploitative economic system that produced haves and have nots. Few would have listened to him from the societal location of homeowners protecting their possessions from others. This saying uses imagery that the lower and possibly lowest social classes would have been familiar with because of their economic vulnerability.

This saying is also in the context of last week’s saying. The writers of Sayings Gospel Q claim that even though the people’s oppressors are strong, they can be overcome by “one stronger.” In the context of a Jewish apocalyptic worldview, this saying would have been heard as, “Yes, your earthly and cosmic oppressors are, indeed, strong. Yet the mission and activity of Jesus and our community informed is stronger. Our Messianic hope for liberation can overcome our oppressors.”

A Force More Powerful

The documentary A Force More Powerful explores popular 20th Century nonviolent movements. These movements stood up against entrenched regimes and military forces with unconventional weapons like boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and acts of civil resistance. They helped to subvert the operations of government through direct intervention in the form of sit-ins, nonviolent sabotage, and blockades, and they frustrated the efforts of those in power to suppress people.

Last February, in Renouncing One’s Rights, we saw how Jesus taught these very principles of non-violent resistance. We found in the gospels a Jesus who warned oppressed people not to retaliate with the same type of force used against them. Jesus’ first audience did not have access to militaristic power in any way comparable to Rome. To try to use violence against these oppressors would only invite the Roman annihilation, and the history of 66-70 C.E. bears out that it did.

Nevertheless, Jesus cast a vision for his oppressed listeners of a way in which the “strong man” in their lives, their oppressors, could be “over powered.” The people were actually stronger than those who dominated them, and Jesus offered three examples of how: a) nonviolent resistance, b) nonviolent direct action, and c) nonviolent noncooperation. (See Matthew 5:38-41 cf. with the above article.)

To be clear: dominated and subjected people typically do not have access to the material power of their subjugators. But, as history witnesses, those same people are very much more powerful than their oppressors in another way: when they choose to change the rules of the game. In the spirit of these imaginative means, Jesus sought to inspire nonviolent resistance, disruption, noncooperation, and action in his followers, those who despite appearances also had the power to promote societal change.

Just a Little Further South

In my region of the U.S. (Appalachia) and just a little south of me, white, male, heterosexual Jesus followers today find themselves in a very different social location than the people Jesus spoke to. Rather than being the ones within a society who would have been more prone to be breaking into homes, we, today, are the ones protecting our homes and possessions at any cost. This is the demographic that always, without fail, comes up to me at the end of a presentation on Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and says, “If someone’s breaking into my home, I’ll shoot ‘em.”

These conversations often remind me of the story of the pastor of a church I visited about five years ago in Rochester, Minnesota. The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist church is typically listed as a peace-church because of their traditional teachings on violence, combat, and force. But four years ago, the pastor of the local Seventh-day Adventist church in Rochester mistook his granddaughter for an intruder trying to break into his home and shot her. You can read the story in this article by Star Tribune where the pastor agreed to be interviewed, as he himself said, “as a caution to others who might find themselves in a similar situation.”

He told the paper, “”I had a plan but I didn’t follow the plan, I thought somebody was breaking into my house and it just scared us to death.” Fear took over him, and so instead of viewing the “intruder” as a child of God, he shot his own granddaughter. It’s a horrific story. The Tribune’s article closes with the pastor’s statement that he “would not want anybody to ever have this horrible, horrible experience.”

Remarkably, this happens more often than you’d imagine. Statistically, adding another lethal weapon to a violent situation doesn’t mean you become safer. Studies show that “the notion that a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun is a romanticized vision of the nature of violent crime.” Jesus’ words in Matthew that those who live by a sword will die by a sword don’t just apply to individuals. They also apply to societies as well.

In societies with an economic structure that produces “haves” and “have-nots,” Jesus calls those who have more then they need to a plan not of hoard and protect but of sharing and choosing to take care of those who aren’t having their needs being met and being faced with desperation due to their lack.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a “rich man” who, rather than share his surplus, chose to build a bigger, more efficient means of hoarding it. After teaching that this man was a “fool,” because his life ended that same night, Jesus goes on to define being “rich toward God” as selling one’s possessions and giving the surplus to those whose daily needs are not being met.

We who live in America today live in a society shaped by independence, individualism, and self-reliance. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels taught that the solution to the challenges of his own day were to be found in the opposite of these norms. In short, Jesus’ solution to these problems was community. Much of what he taught doesn’t even make sense outside of community!

Trying to follow Jesus’ teachings on one’s own, without a community in which to apply those teachings, is like trying to build a house without building materials or trying to follow a recipe in a cookbook without having the necessary ingredients to combine. In the story in Luke that I reference above, Jesus calls the wealthy who trust in their wealth to insulate them from what the future might bring to let go of their “worry” and instead use their resources to create strong community.

Jesus’ solution is not necessarily for us to have wealth but it’s definitely for us to have each other. And as long as we have each other, we can survive whatever the future may bring, because we are in this together. Jesus finishes up his story with the statement, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He isn’t contrasting heaven and earth here. Rather, Jesus is contrasting people investing in community with isolated people individualistically investing in themselves solving the problem of the future for themselves at the expense of others around them. Jesus seems to be clear: either we are all taken care of, or none of us will be. The man in the story who sought to take care of only himself still lost all he had because he couldn’t keep it when he died.

When we add the Luke 12 story to our saying this week, two things come to the surface despite our societal conditioning. First, those who seek to “protect” their own possessions with strength of arms can still be overpowered. From Jesus’ teachings elsewhere, we see that Jesus did not encourage meeting violence with violence or physical force with physical force. Jesus instead taught that the way to overpower one’s enemy was through another form of direct action: what Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others have referred to as “soul force.” It’s a force more powerful. Second, those who take the path of hoarding and protecting assume a future that looks very different from the reality of what will happen. They imagine themselves leaning back enjoying the benefits of what they have amassed and protected, but instead, they end up losing their lives.

So what is our take home this week?

Jesus challenges those on the underside of society to believe in the power of nonviolent resistance, disturbance, protest, direct-action, and non-cooperation. And he calls on people like those who come up to me defensively after my presentations on nonviolence to place people above property, possessions and profit.

Depending on your location in our current classist societal structure, this week’s saying might be a promise that offers hope, or a warning that your efforts to protect things are ultimately futile and possibly even lethal:

“A strong person’s house cannot be looted, but if someone still stronger overpowers him, he does get looted.” (Q 11:·21-22)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you as a group to sit down and watch Richard Wilkinson’s 2011 TED Talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies

Notice the relation of crime to wealth inequality. There is a connection between the two. The more wealth is shared (e.g. Jesus story above in Luke 12) the less crime (e.g. home invasions) occurs. Could it be that the solution to violent crime is not bigger guns, but the embrace of our natural communal interdependence? Jesus’ teachings do call us to stop individualistically resisting interdependence.

There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out that the fruit of inequality is not security for the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.

2. After watching the TED talk, discuss with your HeartGroup what implications you see for your group, and brainstorm ways to lean into Jesus teachings, even if your first steps are small.

3. Pick one of those ways you just discussed and begin putting it into practice.

In this week’s saying, Jesus comes offering a way that is more holistic, that has the potential to “overpower” how we in the West typically operate. Wherever this saying finds you this week, may it bring you hope or challenge, or both!

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.

Refuting the Beelzebul Accusation and the Finger of God

 

by Herb Montgomery

Woman standing above crowd waving red flag

“And he cast out a demon which made a person mute. And once the demon was cast out, the mute person spoke. And the crowds were amazed. But some said: By Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, he casts out demons! But, knowing their thoughts, he said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is left barren, and every household divided against itself will not stand. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebul cast out demons, your sons, by whom do they cast them out? This is why they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign.” (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

Matthew 9:32-34: “While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.’”

Matthew 12:25-38: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

Luke 11:14-15, 17-20: “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’”

If we are going to get our heads around this week’s saying, we first must to step back into the worldview of the writers. As we have covered before, a Jewish apocalyptic worldview holds a dualistic view of this world and the cosmos. There are earthy powers for good and evil and there are also parallel cosmic forces for good and evil that the earthly powers are simply a conduit for. First Century Jewish apocalypticism added to this a belief that they were the earthly expression of the cosmic good. They would have also viewed their foreign oppressors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome) as earthly expressions of evil. They and their oppressors would have been connected in some way to cosmic forces of good and evil: the Jewish people to YHWH and their oppressors to evil (the satan, Beelzebul, demons, etc.)

Ever since the days of Jeremiah, the Jews had interpreted their exile and foreign occupation as punishment from YHWH for Judah’s sins. They longed for liberation, which they referred to as YHWH’s forgiveness of those sins, and they viewed this liberation as YHWH taking on the cosmic powers of evil and evil’s earthly conduits and working out a victory that would be expressed or reflected in their political, social, and economic freedom.

In the minds of the early gospel writers, Jesus represents the earthly hope of YHWH’s cosmic deliverance. I want to be very careful here. Jesus did not fulfill all of the Jewish hopes for a coming Messiah. Rosemary Reuther rightly states, “he announced this Messianic hope, and . . . gave signs of its presence, but . . . also died in that hope, crucified on the cross of unredeemed human history” (To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, p. 42). In this light, the cross interrupts Jesus’ saving work and is overcome by the resurrection. The early Jewish community of Jesus followers continued to proclaim that hope, and also to begin to experience its presence. Yet they also, like Jesus, did so under “the cross of unresolved human contradictions.” (Ibid.)

In this week’s saying, Jesus represents liberation. Yet he is being accused, instead, of being an earthly conduit of cosmic forces of oppression, even while engaged in activity that his own community would have normally seen as liberating.

The Satan & Beelzubul

I want to say a few words this week about the satan and Beelzubul. “Satan” in Jewish apocalypticism is not a name but a title or a label. It’s more accurately “the satan,” the adversary. So Jesus’ question in this saying could be more appropriately understood as “If the adversary is divided against himself then how will his kingdom stand?”  Here, Jesus objects to the logic of claiming that he is an adversary of the people and yet against their adversary. A house divided against itself will fail.

Finger of God

Luke’s use of the “finger of God” in his version of the saying has an interesting history behind it. In Jewish history, this is the phrase used by Pharaoh’s magicians when they recognized the cosmic power of good behind the earthly conduit of the liberation of the oppressed in the figure of Moses:

“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)

The author of Luke would have wanted to connect Jesus in the minds and hearts of the readers not only with the liberation symbol of Moses, but also with a slur. The Egyptian magicians could recognize YHWH’s liberation work when they saw it, yet the people in Jesus’ society could not. Their understanding of earthly events and their ability to perceive the cosmic forces behind those events was lower than even their Egyptian oppressors. The Jewish portion of Luke’s audience would have been highly offended by this.

Today

In the HeartGroup Application two weeks ago, I asked you to discuss why positive social changes for the church such as the end of slavery, racial integration, the end of patriarchy and egalitarianism, and justice for the marginalized (including the LGBT community), historically have not come from within the church from our intrinsic process but rather have been imposed on the church from outside forces.

If the church is meant to be such a power of good in our society, why is it that, like Martin Luther King, Jr. used to ask, the church too often is not the headlights of our society but its taillights? Both the church and the world still haven’t rejected classism, but in the areas I have just mentioned, our secular society is far ahead of the church.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in the audience of a congregation thought to be special because it was the first in its own faith tradition to ordain women to ministry. Then they mentioned the date: 1995. Let that sink in for a minute. 1995. 1995! That’s 76 years after the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women a right to vote in American society. Seventy-six years!

For this congregation to be celebrating its work is two-edged. Yes, it’s good to finally celebrate that things have come around. (I should also mention that right now within that same tradition, administrators have agreed that churches that ordain women and their respective territories should be censured for a year and required to cease, desist, and reverse the ordinations of women that they’ve conducted since 1995. (See General Conference Proposes Year of Grace for Unions.)

The other side of this double edge is that 76 years is nothing to celebrate when many other denominations crossed this Rubicon over half a century ago.

So why do churches only embrace positive, liberative changes within our society when forced to? Many of these changes can be traced back to the very Jesus that many Christians would say is at the center of their tradition. I think it’s anachronistic to say Jesus was a feminist, but he did challenge some of the societal assumptions about women in his day. He did regard women as made in the image of God as equally as men. Yet churches that desire to follow Jesus are not pioneering on these issues. They aren’t even bringing up the rear: many are digging their heels and refusing to change.

If history teaches us anything about the struggle between sectors of our society who practice faith and the larger secular sectors of our society in matters of justice, violence and oppression (see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America), it’s that many faith groups are only going to shift the dynamics within their structures when forced to. I can’t help but think of the myriads of Christians in my own region who, as I write this, are making excuses for the extremely sexist, misogynistic, and violent language which recently surfaced in the U.S.’s presidential race, rather than pioneering the path to systemic sex, race and class justice. Which part of Jesus, I wonder, does any of this even look like?

Too often, we mean well, yet aren’t well informed by or even exposed to the experiences of those not like us. Instead of seeing the parallels between liberation movements in the time of Jesus and those in our world today, movements about survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation; and instead of seeing the parallels between these movements, these brave people, and their Jesus, some of us see these movements as somehow threatening, evil, and something to be minimized and even removed.

The saying this week is striking for me. Whether the “demons” we’re casting out from our societies are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or other kinds of evil, this week reminds us that those privileged in this society frequently view liberation movements as the work of “Beelzubul” rather than of “YHWH.” They fail to perceive the finger of God when it works for the liberation of those under our thumbs, liberation that would change the entire world for everyone. (Recently I sat in a lecture by a dear friend of mine who recounted the history of Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement and explained that at the core of the movement is the belief that when Black lives are free from oppression, everyone’s lives will be free as well.)

It is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil for something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. Too often, those who claim the name of Jesus have labeled Black liberation, women’s liberation, poor people’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation movements, and a myriad of other liberation movements as evil. It would be well to contemplate this week’s saying, lest we find ourselves repeating this same history from a desire to preserve the status quo today.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign. (Q 11:14-15, 17-20)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take these five elements:

a. Survival

b. Resistance

c. Liberation

d. Restoration

e. Transformation

and locate a saying that expresses each one in the Jesus sayings and stories of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

2. Then I want you to locate movements in our world today where these same five elements of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation are present. Look for where and from whom they get negative pushback in our society today.

3. Mark the parallels between what you found in step 1 and step 2, and then meet with your HeartGroup to discuss and share what the next step could be for you as a community.

Wherever this week’s saying finds you, follow the example of the Jesus in the stories. Keep at the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. You aren’t alone: many are standing with you, and I am too.

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.

The Certainty of the Answer to Prayer

(Universal or Particular?)

by Herb Montgomery

hands folded in prayer

“I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Q 11:9-13)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:7-11: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

Luke 11:9-13: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Gospel of Thomas 92: Jesus says, “Seek and you will find.”

Gospel of Thomas 94: Jesus says: “The one who seeks will find. The one who knocks, to that one will it be opened.”

There is so much to say in regards to this week’s saying. The passage has been touted by sincere Christians wanting to encourage others to have assurance in relation to their prayers. I believe that interpretation takes this week’s saying out of its context.

Most Q scholars believe that this saying originally appeared right after the section we call the Lord’s prayer. This means that Jesus isn’t trying to bolster up our confidence in prayer or setting us up for disappointment when things don’t work out the way we hoped.

In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus has just called us to pray for debt cancellation, today’s bread, and freedom from testing and trials. So with this week’s saying, Jesus is trying to inspire hope in that prayer. He is pleading with his audience to lean into the risk of being the first to set in motion economic revolution and then trust that it will come back around.

Remember, as we’ve said this year, God’s reign in Q is about trusting enough that God will send people to take care of you when you are in need tomorrow that you choose to be the person God sends to take of someone else today. Jesus’s saying is not on prayer in general. It’s specially in the context of trusting that Jesus’ economic plan will really work so we can let go and share.

If we do trust that if we seek this new world of people taking care of people, we will find it. If we knock on that door, it will open. Asking for today’s bread, we won’t get stones. Asking for fish, we won’t get snakes. And if we know how to take care of our kids, how much more will we, too, as we reach out to each other, also be taken care of.

Jesus shared this saying in the context of our fear or anxiety about following Jesus in mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, and praying for our and others’ debts to be cancelled.

Gospel of Thomas

That this saying ever made it out of its original Judean context to the more Platonic context in the region around Edesse, where modern scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas originated, suggests that this is a saying of the historical Jesus and not simply a saying attributed to him after his death. There are a few points of evidence for this.

Matthew’s versus Luke’s Version

Matthew, believed to have been written before Luke, preserves the concrete, economic language in this week’s saying, even though the author of Matthew separated it from the Lord’s prayer by a whole chapter’s* worth of instruction. Luke, on the other hand, keeps this saying in the context of the Lord’s prayer but changes the wording dramatically to petition not for bread, resources, or debt cancellation but for the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a unique element in the books attributed to Luke. In both Luke and Acts, the Holy Spirit plays a much more substantial role than in Mark’s, Matthew’s or John’s gospels. Luke uses this saying about prayer to prepare us for what will later happen in Acts when the Holy Spirit is “given.” We’ve witnessed this kind of change before. In last week’s saying, too, Luke changed the earliest emphasis on debts being cancelled into personal grievances being forgiven. (See The Lord’s Prayer.)

As we said last week, both versions can be true. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are different, however, and these differences should not be glossed over as we study the canonical gospels.

Why Context Matters

I feel very strongly when we remove this saying from its context and make it about generic prayer rather than prayer specifically for economic revolution, then our false expectations set us up for deep disappointments. We might pray for something important to us and place all our hopes in what seems to be a magical promise, only to watch what we pray for not materialize.

A friend of mine recently claimed this passage as he interviewed over for job after job. He “asked, sought, and knocked,” only to be told repeatedly he was not what each company was looking for. After this series of disappointments, he wrote:

“I don’t believe in prayer anymore. I’ve prayed for jobs, specific jobs, and most of the jobs I prayed for, I didn’t get; most of the jobs I ever got, came without praying. Is it easier to believe in a God that plays favoritism or that there’s no God at all? I think it’s much easier to be an atheist or an agnostic.”

His disappointment over his unanswered prayer was only worsened by the false expectations of prayer that he’d been taught. Understanding this saying as a proverb about all prayer was emotionally damaging in a disheartening situation.

So how should we understand this passage?

In light of Jesus’ “year of the Lord’ favor,” the year when all debts should be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1), imagine you are one in Jesus’ audience who both owes others money and is also owed money by others. You depend on being repaid to repay those you owe, and you have real anxiety about releasing those who owe you and the fear that those you owe will still hold you accountable is real. Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, and you won’t get snakes.”

Say you are one who barely has enough for yourself to survive from day to day. Jesus’ words on mutual aid and resource sharing activate your fear that you will go without if you share with others, and your self-preservation impulse is triggered. Jesus again encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock. You won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

Or imagine you are someone very wealthy in Jesus’ audience. You have taken savvy risks with your money. You have been careful and  overcome bad turns of events. Things may not have always gone your way, but somehow, today, you have come out on top. Jesus asks even you to voluntarily redistribute your wealth to those with great needs around you. Jesus is asking you to let go of your fear of what may happen to you in the future and to prioritize taking care of people today over profit so that you can survive what may come tomorrow. The fear is real, and yet Jesus encourages you, “Ask, seek, knock, you won’t get a stone, you won’t get snakes.”

It is easier to interpret this saying as about all prayer rather than specifically about the prayer Jesus taught. But we must allow the context of this saying to confront us, to inspire us to take specific economic action, and not to give us false hope. When we minimize the economic meaning of this saying, we only set ourselves up for grief when our expectations aren’t met.

Remember, the reign of God is not God simply raining down what we pray for from some place above. God’s reign, for Jesus, is people taking care of people. People who take responsibility for people, balancing the needs of each individual with the needs of the community, the human community, and the global community, and this would today include the care of the earth itself. Trusting in our choices today, specifically our choices to be the ones who take care of each other, we will be setting in motion an awakening where tomorrow there will be those who will also take care of us.

Recently, in an announcement that she would become a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminar in New York City, Michelle Alexander states, “Without a moral or spiritual awakening, we will remain forever trapped in political games fueled by fear, greed and the hunger for power.”

It is by understanding this week’s saying in its original context that we might be able to recapture a Jesus who called for an awakening in his own society. Two thousand years ago, he hoped for liberation that included being freed from “fear, greed, and the hunger for power.”

So, in this context, let’s consider the courage we’re called to take hold of in these words:

I tell you, ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks will it be opened. What person of you, whose son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or again when he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you, though evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, by how much more will the Father from heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Q 11:9-13)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, go back to the Lord’s prayer from last week and look at all three sections:

a. Enough Bread for Today (Resource Sharing)

b. Cancelling/Forgiving all Debts

c. Choosing Life rather than Death

  1. Discuss what each of these look like to you personally and as a group when you apply them to your lives today.
  2. How can you help each other practice these three?
  3. Pick one of the ways you come up with to help each other this week, and do it.

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

However you choose to apply the values we are considering this week, do so 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.


*Chapter and verse delineation did not exist in the original documents but were added between the 13th and 16th centuries.