Proclaiming What Was Whispered

Women's March on Washington 2017

by Herb Montgomery

#SilenceIsViolence
Why We Cannot Be Silent

Featured Text:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed, and hidden that will not be known. What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops.” Q 12:2-3

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:26-27: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”

Luke 12:2-3: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

Gospel of Thomas 5:2; 6:4-6; 33:1: “Jesus says: For there is nothing hidden that will not become revealed for everything is disclosed in view of the truth . . . For there is nothing hidden that will not become revealed. And there is nothing covered that will remain undisclosed . . . Jesus says: What you will hear with your ear proclaim from your rooftops.”

Our saying for this week is one that I return to often. I find great encouragement in the words of Thomas Carlyle: “For if there be a Faith, from of old, it is this, as we often repeat, that no Lie can live for ever” (The French Revolution, A History; Part 1, Book 6, Chapter 3). I truly do hope that truth and light will ultimately win, and I think Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying has much to offer us this week.

Matthew

In Matthew’s gospel, this week’s saying is in chapter 10, where Jesus is seeking to inspire his followers as opposition mounts and their courage is starting to wane. At this moment, Jesus calls them not to fear but to boldly speak out “from the rooftops.” The recent federal holiday, Martin Luther King Day, reminded me of how often King spoke negatively about “keeping silent.”

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail [1963])

“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence [1967])

“There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” (Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam [1967])

“Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told . . .” (Ibid.)

“Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. He died . . . A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we’re going to stand up amid horses. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama, amid the billy-clubs. We’re going to stand up right here in Alabama amid police dogs, if they have them. We’re going to stand up amid tear gas! We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!” (Sermon in Selma, Alabama; March 8, 1965; the day after “Bloody Sunday,” on which civil rights protesters were attacked and beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.)

In the 1st Century, Jesus emerged among the Jewish economically impoverished and politically oppressed. He came in the wake of Hillel’s golden rule, and applied it to the poor. He came announcing the “rule of God” which Jesus repeatedly defined as people taking care of people. He called the rich to redistribute their wealth, and inspired the poor to share or pool what meager resources they had among themselves for their survival. People were to prioritize each other over and above power, property, profits, possessions, prosperity, and privilege.

This message always produces enemies. Over the Christmas holidays, I shared what I considered to be a very mild presentation on our responsibility to the poor. However, I was speaking to a very wealthy congregation, and repeatedly I received the question of whether or not I found the topic of helping the poor to be very popular. My response was that popularity is irrelevant. Popular or not, helping the poor is what our Jesus taught. If our gospel is not good news to the poor, then we must question whether our Jesus is the same as the one in the biblical story.

We must get this right. Jesus’ preferential option for the economically oppressed of his day is our springboard as we apply his teachings to our lives today and to all who are oppressed, marginalized, subjugated, and disinherited. Today, whether it’s age, ability, education, gender, sex, orientation, race, gender identity and expression, or whatever that becomes a basis for oppression, marginalization, exclusion, or discrimination, Jesus’ followers are called to solidarity. We’re called to walk alongside whomever is being subjugated and do the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation with them.

Yes, breaking our silence in these areas is at times very unpopular. The social pressure may be immensely strong to just avert one’s gaze, shut one’s mouth, and go along to get along, but as Dr. King said the day after Bloody Sunday, the moment we begin to be silent about the oppression that any part of the human family faces, that is the moment something inside of us begins to die. For me, solidarity is not purely altruistic. It is not what reclaims the humanity of those on the undersides of our society; it also reclaims my own humanity. We are part of each other. And that is the reality I desire to lean into.

I do get feedback from time to time—some may call it hate-mail; I think that’s a little too strong—questioning why I speak out with the groups I choose to stand in solidarity with. I speak out because I cannot keep silent. The personal cost is great, yes, but I would rather lose acquaintances than be the shell of a dead person, or, as we heard from Jesus a couple weeks ago, like the “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).

So I take this week’s saying very seriously. Come what may, we simply cannot keep silent.

Luke

Luke’s encouragement is a little different from Matthew’s. What Luke does is to point Jesus’ words toward the hypocrisy of the religious teachers of that day. He encourages Jesus’ followers with the hope that others’ hypocrisy will one day be uncovered. Luke’s saying isn’t a call to speak out. It’s rather a call to endure and to keep holding on. One day, Luke says, the truth will come to light.

Luke’s version of the saying brings to mind King’s own optimism and Carlyle’s statement that “No lie can live forever”:

“Somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’ With this faith we will be able to hue out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy,

‘Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’

“This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment, figuratively speaking in biblical words: ‘The morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.’” (Second sermon at Temple of Israel of Hollywood; February 26, 1965)

What I believe we must guard against in King’s words as well as Luke’s is the mistake of embracing inevitability in all of this. Not all truth rises. Some truths are lost forever. And when truth does rise, it doesn’t rise on its own. Truth rises when others choose to resurrect it and lies fade when we choose to pursue the truth.

Human progress does not roll on the “wheels of inevitability.” It can be delayed; it can be prevented. It can be abandoned, and it can be chosen. We can choose whether to become a compassionate, just people who live healthy, mutually interdependent lives with one another and our planet, or take a path of extinction. We can choose to embrace truth, justice, and compassion, or we can choose the path of individualistic, independent survival in a zero-sum system, one where for one to win another must lose.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes two paths: “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction . . . But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life . . .” (Matthew 7:13,14) The redactors of the Torah chose similar language: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Today, we too must choose between a path of life or death. Shaping this world into a just, compassionate, safe, home for us all is only an impossible task if we choose to believe it to be! This world is what we collectively choose to make it and each of us has a part to play. This is where I believe Jesus’ teachings still hold relevance for us today. The world has changed since he taught his followers, but we still tend to dominate one another rather than care for each another. Jesus envisioned a world where people take care of people and that world is still available for us to choose. He showed the way, and the results of our choice will be seen in our collective future and the future of our children. We are in this together, along with the generations that have come before us and the generations who will come after us.

In light of this week’s saying, seek truth, compassion, and justice. Then make the choice not to remain silent. Name truth. What you have discovered in the dark, bring out into the light so that others may hear and speak it, too. Proclaim it from the rooftops! It is in our “speaking in the light” what we have “heard in the dark” that we make true the statement, “Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed.”

Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed, and hidden that will not be known. What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops. Q 12:2-3

HeartGroup Application

In the gospels, Jesus spends his life resisting and teaching others how to resist those elements in his society that marginalize, discriminate, and push down vulnerable people. James H. Cone in his classic volume God of the Oppressed correctly states:

“Any interpretation of the gospel in any historical period that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical. Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical. Within this context the issue of heresy must be debated.” (p. 35)

In Luke 4:18-19, we find this claim:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

  1. This week, together, pick one of the themes in the above passage and commit the next week to exploring what it meant in its original cultural context.

“good news to the poor”

“freedom for the prisoners”

“recovery of sight for those in darkness”

“setting the oppressed free”

“year of all debts cancelled.”

2. As you explore on your own throughout the week, also explore what possible application these themes may hold today. What does the theme you are exploring mean in today’s socio-economic-political context?

3. As you come back together, discuss what you have discovered with each other and decide what action, you can take as a group and as followers of Jesus today. How can you make the world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for everyone?

Thank you for joining us this week. Wherever this finds you, my hope is that your heart is encouraged and renewed to engage with others in our continuing work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Keep living in love, a love characterized by justice for the oppressed, mercy for the subjugated and marginalized, and faithfulness in our commitment to be people who choose to take care of people. (cf. Matthew 23:23)

I love each one of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Wisdom’s Judgment on This Generation

Memorial candlesby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:34-36: “Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.”

Luke 11:49-51: “Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

Context! Context! Context!

As we begin this week, we must not remove this week’s saying from its context. This week’s saying has a long, anti-Semitic history with Christians using it to persecute, marginalize, and even execute Jewish people. But Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew standing firmly in the long line of Jewish prophets who pronounced judgments for societal injustice on their generations. So first we must see the Jewishness of this week’s saying. Only then will we be able to rightly critique how Christianity has co-opted it and sorely abused it.

We must also keep in mind that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of this saying were both written after the catastrophic events that took place in their generation in Jerusalem. These are post-trauma writings designed to explain and understand what has just happened for the Jewish people.

I do not believe that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem because the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. I believe that all human civilizations give themselves an expiration date when the elites’ abuses of the proletariat become the policy of the day. Social abuse eventually catches up with us, and all empires that become characterized by exploitation and economic disparity eventually meet their demise. People long abused rise up. Revolutions occur. Power shifts. The path toward this end for Jerusalem (that would later happen with Rome, as well) is what we are witnessing in this week’s saying.

We know from Josephus that ultimately the lower, poorer classes in Judea and Galilee did rise up and violently revolt. First they revolted against oppression from their own people, and took over the elite’s centralized control of the temple. Then they revolted against Rome in the Jewish-Roman war. This overreach led to Rome’s inhumane backlash in the annihilation of Jerusalem.

In this week’s saying, Jesus warns that if the people continue their socio-economic exploitative path, then just as the prophets had warned before him, that generation would see catastrophic results.

This week’s saying connects us with the Hebrew economic prophets (e.g. Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, Jeremiah), who were rejected and in some cases murdered because of their societal critiques. Here in America, during the 1960s, we saw a similar history of repressing calls for change from those whose voices threatened the status quo and those in positions of power and privilege. Some historians refer to the 60s as the era of assassinations. Among those who were murdered were President John F. Kennedy (1963), el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X; 1965), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968).

Our world has a long history of removing those who threaten our societal structures and the exploitation and injustice that those structures enable. Jesus’ societal structure had its own victims, as ours does. His generation was once again rejecting the call to change, and Jesus was about to have his name added to the long list of prophets and poets who weren’t afraid to name the oppressions of their time or stand in solidarity with those being marginalized and subjugated—even if they ended up losing their life for the dream of an world that is a safe, just, compassionate home for us all.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Abel is the first voice in the narratives to be silenced. He represented the nomadic class in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Northern Africa. His social group was a minority: itinerant shepherd wanderers who moved from place to place as herdsmen. Cain, Abel’s brother, belonged to a larger, more established, and more powerful class of tillers of the soil. They represented those who sought to control land ownership because of their need to work the land. They were the ones who chased off vagabond herdsmen like Abel. In a time when civilization transitioned from wandering hunters and gatherers to more centralized, localized cities, the tillers of the ground were the pivotal population. Abel would have represented the people oppressed by the tillers of the ground, and at the end of this story, Cain is made to wander like his brother to learn what the wanderers’ life was like. His banishment gives him firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of those whom the society was pressing down so that others might find a way up. (For more on this, see the article I wrote at the end of 2014 entitled No More Sacrifice.)

Thousands of years later, Zechariah is the last prophetic voice in the Hebrew Masoretic text to be silenced for speaking out against those in positions of power. (The Masoretic collection of Hebrew scriptures ends with 2 Chronicles; see 2 Chronicles 24:20) Zechariah’s history is complex and so is the political agenda of the narratives his name is mentioned in. For our saying this week, it’s enough to recognize that he was one of the bookends of those within Jewish history who had the courage to critique those in power.

As 2016 closed, the book on my nightstand was My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk by Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. In the chapter entitled “Womanist Reflections on Jesus as Dust and Spirit,” Karen writes:

“The only way to erase those who have died unjustly is to erase memory, but not even memory can be erased permanently” (p. 90).

It is important to remember and never forget the names of those who have given their lives to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all. Author Susan Jacoby tells us that early 19th Century freethinkers observed the birthdays of freethinkers in the century before them as a ritual that shaped them and inspired them to continue the causes and dreams of those who had travelled that path before them. They remembered them together.

A friend of mine, Charlie Kraybill, curates the Marginal Mennonite Society (MMS) in New York. One thing I appreciate about MMS is their continual work to keep alive the memory of Anabaptists and other historical figures who have worked toward societal transformation. They continually commemorate the dates on which Anabaptists were executed in the 1600s and the dates on which relevant historical figures were either born or died. This is a way of keeping both their memory and our common work alive.

Karen Baker-Fletcher, as a Christian womanist, reflects on Toni Morrison’s text Beloved and its characters’ belief that Jesus is the greatest “ancestor”:

“Whoever Beloved is, Stamp Paid observes that she is a reminder that people ‘who die bad won’t stay in the ground’ — not ‘Jesus Christ Himself.’ Reflecting African pre-Christian and African American Christian worldviews, he suggests Jesus is one of many who will not stay buried because they have died violently. Jesus is one of millions of persecuted ancestors who live in the margins of everyday consciousness. Moving beyond Morrison’s text, one might consider that the ground itself will not hold the blood of murder. Just as the earth cried out at Cain’s slaying of Abel, so it continues to cry out across the centuries against injustice.

Christian womanists might argue that in the ancestral community of Moses, Zipporah, Jethro, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, Christ perfectly embodies the power of the God of Moses, ‘I Am,’ Being-Itself. Jesus Christ as the greatest of the ancestors sustains community.” (p. 91)

Keeping alive the memories of those who have died violently at the hands of unjust systems throughout scriptures and history, and remembering not just the Hebrew Prophets but also more contemporary figures and Jesus as the greatest of them can impact how we engage the ritual of communion.

Communion is a shared meal around an egalitarian table, not a hierarchical structure as is the case in too many churches today. It is not a social pyramid or exclusive circle, but a shared table where we keep alive the memory of those who have been broken and spilled out by unjust systems. This ritual motivates and shapes us today. The very elements of the broken bread and spilled wine, the food we share with one another, could be reclaimed into a very powerful transforming ritual of memory.

Co-opting Memory

Lastly this week, I want to talk about co-opting memory. We spoke last week of unjust systems that make memorials to those they have killed: making memorials is much easier than doing the hard work of actually transforming our world. There is a difference between us keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us and the systems we seek to change co-opting the memory of those it has executed.

Vincent Harding’s book Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero is a great read on how the United States has done this with the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King Day is complicated. On one side, we see the work of those such as Coretta Scott King to preserve Martin’s memory. On the other hand, we see the system King critiqued co-opting him while keeping the changes he called for at arms’ length.

During his life, King called for an abandonment of capitalism and a move toward democratic socialism. He called for the rejection of militarism and violence as the weapons of a global economic capitalist agenda. He fought tirelessly against systemic racism in its many forms. The FBI deemed him to be the greatest domestic threat to America. And yet today he is one of America’s heroes. Not much has changed economically since the days of King’s critiques, and precious little has changed racially. Yet King is memorialized by a government that would still be voicing the loudest criticism of him if he were still alive.

I do believe King should be kept alive in our memory as one of our great transformative ancestors. I also believe that his memory has been co-opted by the very system he sought and failed to change. The next time social protest erupts, watch how quickly critics pull Dr. King off the shelf to try and silence those speaking out.

Martin Luther King Day has just been celebrated by the most violent, militaristic, and capitalist power on the globe and the wealth disparity between the rich and poor and between White people and people of color continues to grow steadily. Last week’s and this week’s saying give us much to consider today.

“Therefore also Wisdom said: I will send them prophets and sages, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that a settling of accounts for the blood of all the prophets poured out from the founding of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, murdered between the sacrificial altar and the House. Yes, I tell you, an accounting will be required of this generation!” (Q 11:49-51)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like your group to read this article first published in 2013:

Now That He Is Safely Dead: Silencing the Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Discuss the article with your group.
  2. Discuss how the article relates to last week’s saying and this week’s saying, and possible applications to events transpiring in our world today.
  3. What new ways of perceiving has this awakened for you and what actions do you feel called to engage in? Pick one of those actions and do it this week.

Wherever this week finds you, press close to your community. We are in this together. As we preserve the memories of those who have gone before us and these memories spur us onto action in our lives today, together we can sustain the work needed to make those changes happen.

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living love, justice, faithfulness, and mercy, transforming our world in both small and large ways into a safer, more compassionate home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Pharisees

Making 2017 a year of compassion and justice. 

black and white image of hands unitedby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:23, 25–27, 6–7: “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self–indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean . . . [The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Luke 11:42, 39, 41, 43–44: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone . . . Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness . . . But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you . . . Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces . . . Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Gospel of Thomas 89:1-2: “Jesus says: ’Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that the one who created the inside is also the one who created the outside?’”

What a zinger to start off the new year with!

This saying in Sayings Q is Jesus’ rant against some of the Pharisees. I do not believe this rant to be against all the Pharisees. Many of those who comprised the teaching Pharisees were wise, honest, good people, including the apostle Paul who joined the followers of Jesus later, and perhaps also Jesus himself. The Pharisees were made up of two groups: those of the school of Hillel and those of the school of Shammai. I believe it was the school of Shammai, which Judaism ultimately rejected too, that Jesus is railing against in this saying. Jesus taught much of what the school of Hillel taught (except Hillel’s economic protections of the rich and his socially unjust teachings on divorce for women). As Jesus was raised as a poor, working class Jew, he may also have been raised by parents who resonated deeply with the school of Hillel interpreting the Torah through the lens of the golden rule.

Also, there is nothing anti-Jewish in this week’s saying. Jesus is standing in the very long tradition of the Hebrew prophets in calling religious and political leaders to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Consider the following from Isaiah:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even if you offer many prayers,

I will not listen.

Your hands are full of blood;

wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds

out of my sight!

Stop doing wrong,

learn to do right!

Seek justice,

liberate the oppressed.

Defend the cause of the fatherless,

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-14)

 

There are also these words from the book of Amos:

 

“Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

‘When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?’—

skimping on the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

In the same book, the prophet speaks for God when he says:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him in Judaism, is prioritizing and centering justice for the oppressed, mercy for the less fortunate and disinherited, and faithfulness to the marginalized and downtrodden over and above religious ritual, worship, and festivals.

Ritual can be done in such a way that shapes us into people who actively work toward justice and compassion for the oppressed of our world. But if it doesn’t shape us into active agents of liberation for the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19), ritual has very little meaning. I resonate deeply with the priorities found in Isaiah, Amos, and this week’s saying from Jesus.

In these gospels, Jesus contrasts conscientious tithing of the most minute items in the market with neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward the poor. He contrasts the external ritual purity rituals (washing hands, etc.) with being generous toward the poor. He then calls to account those who love making a show, receiving accolades, but being inwardly “dead bones.” Remember as we have seen over and over again this year, the reign of Jesus’ God looked like people taking responsibility for taking care of other people.

The Jewish Jesus-followers in the early church preserved a similar statement rooted in Jesus’ teachings:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

As someone who doesn’t have much taste for most things “religious” but who resonates with the values of Jesus, I love this statement. I shared this quotation from Marcus Borg two weeks ago, but it bears repeating here as we begin our new year.

“For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 58)

Jesus, much like the Pharisee Hillel a generation before him, taught a politics of compassion, and he taught it very specifically in terms of compassion and justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

What If We Did What Jesus Taught?

What would Christianity look like today if we began to filter every religious thing we do, even our ritual and liturgies, through the filter of justice and compassion?

Consider the following from the book of James:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world . . .” (James 2:5)

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16-17)

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)

I love the book of James because it is the only New Testament commentary we have on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than following Paul’s more cosmic Christ, the author expounds on Jesus’ actual teachings and helps other Jewish Jesus followers to practice them.

An experiment that I have engaged in over the last two years is a practice of making central in my teaching the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and how we relate to one another. I have placed matters of dogma, worship, and less practical theology on the periphery. I firmly believe that you and I are made in the image of the divine. That means that, in this life, the closest I will ever come to the Divine, is YOU! This is what I believe the author of 1 John is trying to get at in this verse:

“If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

This means that my actions toward others is my faith and don’t just reflect it. My actions are what I believe. God-talk can become very theoretical and pointlessly argumentative as well! It is only when we acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to respect each person’s piece that God-talk can bear any good fruit. I want my faith to bear fruit and my focus to be right here on Planet Earth with you.

What would happen if we began to prioritize our religious practices according to how those practices express compassion and justice in the lives of others?

As this year begins, let’s contemplate prioritizing matters of justice, compassion, and faithfulness to our fellow humans above all else:

Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

HeartGroup Application

  1. As we begin a new year, sit down with your HeartGroup and talk about whether your group needs to start centralizing justice and compassion or can simply reaffirm that you are already practicing it.
  2. Discuss what it would look like to make justice and compassion more central for your group and what it looks like to grow your focus on compassion and justice.
  3. Map out a few things you can do this week, to kick off 2017: actions you can take as a group that emphasize and affirm your focus as Jesus followers on justice, compassion, and making our world a safer home for us all.

Happy New Year to each of you.

I’m glad you’re here journeying alongside us.

Let’s make 2017 the year for living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

We are in this together.

I’ll see you next week.