More Precious than Many Sparrows

Sparrow sitting on a barbed wire

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? And yet not one of them will fall to earth without your Father’s care. But even the hairs of your head all are numbered. Do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Q 12:6-7)

Companion Text:

Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Luke 12:6-7: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Self Affirming Nonviolence

We lose a lot when we remove this week’s saying from its context and either read it in a vacuum or read it in our modern context.

The original context of Matthew and Luke is last week’s saying: Jesus is warning against following militaristic resistance. He wants to win his audience to nonviolent forms of resistance. Today, and then, people considering using nonviolence as a means of creating societal change ask whether it will work and at what cost it might fail. To put it simply, “Will I die?”

Jesus doesn’t use pie-in-the-sky promises of success to gain a following toward his form of resistance. Sparrows die. But they are valuable and so are we. Jesus reminds his followers not to remain passive but to remember how valuable they are. He affirms their worth, hopes to foster self-affirmation, and encourages them to value courage to stand up for themselves or for others who are being abused.

It is a fearful thing to resist and stand up to one’s oppressors. It can be even more terrifying to do so while commited to doing so nonviolently. Sparrows were of the lowest value in the market place, and yet Jesus’ God cared even about them. And if the sparrows were cared about, how much more were the people Jesus taught? Every hair of their head was accounted for.

History does tell us that the people chose a more violent form of resistance and Rome’s backlash was merciless. But we are not at that part of the story yet.

In this saying, Jesus is seeking to win his followers to nonviolent direct action.

When faced with a choice between passively enduring suffering and engaging the work of nonviolent resistance and direct action, Jesus encourages,

Standing up is worth it.

You are valuable.

YOU are worth it.

Stand up, and don’t remain silent.

Jesus message in the context of the last two eSights is:

  1. Don’t keep silent. (https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/01-27-2017)
  2. Don’t use violent means of speaking out but nonviolent ones. Nonviolence offers your best chances of survival (https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/02-10-2017)
  3. You are valuable, you are worth standing up for.

Some teach that Jesus’ nonviolence is characterized by passive self-denial or self-sacrifice. But this is not true when one considers the tactics of cheek defiance, naked shaming, and refusal to play by the oppressor’s rules (see https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/02-19-2016).

Jesus’ nonviolence is a way for those on the underside of a society to stand up and affirm their selves, selves that are already being denied by their oppressors. It is self-affirming resistance to violence. It is standing up and refusing to let go of one’s hold on life, even if one is threatened with a cross for taking that stand.

As Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker write in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse: “It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (p.18)

Jesus’s Use of Nature and James Robinson’s Claim of an Illiterate Jesus

Jesus’ reference to the ravens here and elsewhere, his reference to lilies and grass, his illustrations of considering the indiscriminate sunshine and rainfall all bring to mind James Robinson’s claim for a the literacy rates of first century social prophets of which Jesus would have been a part of.

James Robinson in his book The Gospel of Jesus makes the claim:

“Practically no Galilean Aramaic of the first century has survived in writing, no doubt in large part because the native population was for all practical purposes illiterate.

“Jesus was immersed in Jewish culture, for he would have soaked up the oral traditions of his village. Since we are flooded with written material, not to speak of video images, it is difficult for us to imagine the extent to which oral material lived on in an illiterate premodern population.”

Speaking of literate Essenes, Robinson continues:

“All this learnedness is very different from what is found among Jesus and his immediate followers, who not only were not learned scholars, but were largely illiterate—they could not have read the scrolls if they had seen them!”

Robinson goes on to suggest that Luke’s literate Jesus (e.g. Luke 4) emerged when the church itself ceased to be full of the poor and illiterate, and became populated by a more literate population. The writing down of the gospels was not even possible for the illiterate early followers. Whether Jesus could read or not, it is quite evident that his followers could not and were deeply dependent on the oral tradition.

This explains why Jesus often referred to what we witness in nature as evidence of his teachings rather than using only literary passages from the Torah or other sacred writings as proof.

Today, everything taught in Christianity is compared to what’s in a book, the Bible. But this was not an option for Jesus when his followers (and possibly Jesus as well) could not read. Jesus called upon his followers to look around at nature and consider the evidence before their eyes. Here was a God who caused the sun to shine on the just and the unjust, the rain to fall on the good and the evil. His teachings are rooted in oral stories with most characters being the same class as most of his audience: poor working class. Jesus didn’t refer them to a book, he called them to consider the evidence they could observe.

This is similar to today’s scientific method of deriving conclusions from what one witnesses. Jesus took note of what he saw in nature, and discerned a picture of YHWH not exclusively based on a book of writings that he had heard in the synagogue, but also deeply informed by the evidence of the natural world.

Militant Nonviolence 

In our last eSight I shared a lengthy portion of Walter Wink’s book Jesus and Nonviolence. This week I want to share just a few more gems for your contemplation.

“Nonviolence is not the final objective. Nonviolence is a lifestyle. The final objective is humanity. It is life.”

“Why then does [Jesus] counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’”

“A proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would then be, ‘Don’t strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind.’ ‘Do not retaliate against violence with violence.’ The Scholars Version is brilliant: ‘Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.’ Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

“The issue is not, ‘What must I do in order to secure my salvation?’ but rather, ‘What does God require of me in response to the needs of others?’ It is not, ‘How can I be virtuous?’ But ‘How can I participate in the struggle of the oppressed for a more just world?’”

“Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options. Antistenai cannot be construed to mean submission.”

“Neutrality in a situation of oppression always supports the status quo. Reduction of conflict by means of a phony “peace” is not a Christian goal. Justice is the goal, and that may require an acceleration of conflict as a necessary stage in forcing those in power to bring about genuine change.”

“Violence is not an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs. It is not even the main problem, but only the presenting symptom of an unjust society. And peace is not the highest good; it is rather the outcome of a just social order.”

“Violence simply is not radical enough, since it generally changes only the rulers but not the rules. What use is a revolution that fails to address the fundamental problem: the existence of domination in all its forms, and the myth of redemptive violence that perpetuates it?”

Remember what we read last week, and stop to consider how valuable you are. You are worth standing up for. You are valuable.

“Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? And yet not one of them will fall to earth without your Father’s care. But even the hairs of your head all are numbered. Do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.” Q 12:6-7

HeartGroup Application

  1. What difference does it make to interpret Jesus’ nonviolence as self-denial for those on the underside of society or self-affirmation? What damage does the message of self-denial do for those whose self is already being denied by those subjugating them?
  2. What difference does it make to define Jesus nonviolence as militant, nonviolent resistance rather than as passive nonresistance? Discuss these differences with your group.
  3. What difference does it make to define Jesus’s teachings as the way of life that might inspire being threatened with a cross, and defining Jesus’ teachings as a way of death that uses a cross as a path to life? What difference does this make for victims, especially victims of interpersonal relational violence or domestic violence?

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. There is a lot to consider in this week’s saying for sure. Keep living in love, and keep up your vigilant work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation, engaging the work of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Not Fearing the Body’s Death

protest crowd

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

4 Maccabees 13:14-15: “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.”

This week’s saying is rooted in a Jewish text that precedes the gospels. 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees tell the story of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers, their mother, and their teacher. During the time of the Maccabee family, the Seleucid Empire through Antiochus Epiphanies was threatening fundamentalist Hebrew people with death if they refused to become Hellenized.

In 4 Maccabees 13:14-15, one of the Jewish brothers says, “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.” This was the rallying cry they used to strengthen Jewish resolve to resist their Hellenistic oppressors.

Fast forward two centuries to the time of Jesus. In Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, we know that there were continual efforts to spark revolution by following violent messiahs rising up against Rome. Rome also had a brutal history of lashing back against all violent uprisings. Josephus tells us how Varus responded to one of these attempts in Galilee:

“Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities 17: Book 10) [1]

It was in this same region, in the wake of memories like these, that Jesus grew up.

Jesus rephrases the Maccabean saying, and warns the people not to follow violent messiahs because complete annihilation from Rome would result. Let see how.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.”

In order to see what Jesus was saying, we have to step away from the Christian myth of hell and step back into a Jewish understanding of the term Gehenna.

Gehenna is a term that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uses regarding the deeds of Judean king Ahaz.

“And he [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. [Since his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest Hezekiah succeeded him as king, this is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines.]” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He [Manasseh, Ahaz’ grandson] made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

“And they go on building the high place of TOPHETH, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called TOPHETH, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in TOPHETH until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

“And go out to THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER. [Emphasis Added.] (Jeremiah 19:2-6; see also Jeremiah 19:11-15)

Jeremiah repurposed a literal landmark, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna), as a symbol of Hebrew annihilation at the hands of foreign powers. In Jeremiah’s day, the foreign power would have been Babylon; in the time of Jesus, it was Rome. Jesus takes the same language Jeremiah used, and he makes it a metaphor for Roman destruction of Judea if the Jews follow a violent messiah.

In the original Maccabean phrase, a faithful Jewish worshiper risked losing his life for remaining faithful but was warned of a worse post mortem fate (eternal punishment) if he did not stay faithful. Jesus repurposes this warning but removes the post-mortem warning. Instead he adds a very this-world, this life, concrete warning: Gehenna, destruction by a foreign power.

Remember that Jesus has just been teaching nonviolent forms of resistance. In this week’s saying, he is saying do not allow fear of the violent Romans to push you to abandon nonviolent forms of resistance as futile, naive, or ineffective. He warns his followers not to fear him who can “destroy the body,” but to fear instead the one who will end up destroying both “body and soul.” “Body and soul” is a phrase that means complete annihilation in the worldview of Hellenized, Galilean, Jewish listeners, and physical violence like the violence of the Romans was a very real fear for those worried about nonviolent forms of resistance.

How would a violent messiah destroy both body and soul? The same way they had in the past. If Galilean impoverished followers took over Jerusalem’s temple (as they did in the Jewish Roman war) and lashed out violently against Rome, they would not only lose their lives (“destroy the body”), but also Jerusalem, the Temple itself, and the surrounding areas would be totally obliterated (“Gehenna”). Jesus isn’t saying that nonviolence revolution won’t fail. He saying that even if it does fail, it won’t fail to the same catastrophic degree that violent revolution will.

The Maccabees didn’t worry about what could happen to their bodies if they remained faithful. They worried about what would happen to their souls if they didn’t. Unlike the Maccabees, Jesus told his followers to fear the complete annihilation of their entire world, obliterated by Rome if they took up violent resistance in Jerusalem.

Jesus was concerned for the survival and liberation of his people. And, keeping survival and liberation in tension, he called his society to embrace nonviolent forms of resistance that allowed oppressors to be overcome through the transformation of society, and which also provided the best possible probabilities of them living to enjoy that liberation once it was achieved. Nonviolence offers no guarantees, but even when it fails it produces fewer losses.

This is a rather long passage from Walter Wink’s work, Jesus and Nonviolence. Yet I believe it is extremely relevant to this week’s saying.

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.

Jesus’ way, which is the way of the cross, means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution.

Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1919-46). France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-1961) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.

The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British. And most of the French were fighting merely to keep a colony, not their native soil.

Solidarity in Poland nonviolently stood up to the ruthless power of a Communist government and lost about three hundred lives over a period of ten years. About the same time Argentina, in a violent but fruitless effort to take the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, lost approximately one thousand lives in two weeks against the British.

The armed revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets at the cost of five to six thousand Hungarian lives; forty thousand were imprisoned, tortured or detained. In Czechoslovakia, where a spontaneous nonviolent resistance was mounted, seventy died, and political prisoners were released.

In the Unites States civil rights struggle, about fifty thousand demonstrators were jailed, but fewer than one hundred of those engaged in campaigns were killed. By contrast, armed revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua cost twenty thousand lives each. In El Salvador, sixty thousand civilians died, quite apart from military casualties. Over the past thirty years one hundred thousand Guatemalans have lost their lives, out of a population of only 7.8 million. We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.

We need to be very clear that this is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails, better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of present goals—though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Chapter 4)

I disagree with Wink’s statement that the way of the cross is synonymous with nonviolence: we must be careful not to glorify the cross or promote the myth of redemptive suffering, and we’ll discuss both at length when we get to Jesus’ saying on taking up a cross. For now, it’s worth considering that both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance come with a price tag. I believe that Jesus was seeking to help his fellow Jewish, oppressed people stand up to violent Rome in a way that allowed them to survive the encounter rather than being annihilated by it whether it succeeded or failed.

Wink states in the same volume, “Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

It is this militant nonviolence that we see Jesus encouraging his followers to embrace. What we also see in this week’s saying is Jesus warning the people not to go down the path that they ultimately chose.

I wonder how far we can apply this militant nonviolence in our time.

The LGBTQ community has made great strides without great violence. Though I respect that many LGBTQ people no longer wish to be associated with Jesus because Jesus has been used to do much damage to them, they have nonetheless demonstrated how much society can be transformed positively by raising collective consciousness. Changing society from the inside out has borne positive fruit. Through relationships, marketing, lobbying, television media, and other nonviolent methods, this community has changed society not with a sword but by influence.

I remember being told by a friend when we were working for LGBTQ nondiscrimination here in my local town that here in Appalachia, once a person who was prejudiced against the LGBTQ community has five friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they can see common stereotypes as the destructive falsifications that they are. When they’ve released those stereotypes, people become allies and change how they vote for the protection of their friends’ rights. The discussion ceases to be about “issues” and rather becomes about human beings they know, are in community with, and actually care about. As someone who is always looking for modern examples of Jesus’ teachings on militant nonviolence, I believe this community’s experiences offer rich lessons.

This week, let’s consider the warning in Jesus’ saying. What might Gehenna—total destruction—look like in our society? We are to oppose injustice and resist oppression. But let’s do it together in a way that isn’t suicidal but could allow us to survive to enjoy liberation. There are no guarantees, and remaining passive is not an acceptable option.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to spend some time together considering the statements above from Wink. Wink ends his first chapter with some tough questions and I think they are appropriate for HeartGroups, too.

  1. What objections do you have to non-violence? What objections do you have to violence?
  2. Do you think you could be nonviolent during a specific demonstration or vigil, if not consistently across your life?
  3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love manifested through solidarity in the work of survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


 

[1] Josephus writes of revolutionary prophets leading large groups of people into the desert around 50 C.E. These prophets told the people that once they were in the desert, God would show them signs of coming freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and sent cavalry and heavy infantry into the desert to cut the crowds into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a violent messiah known as “the Egyptian” and mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberating Jerusalem. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the violent messiah, the Egyptian (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful violent messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of specifically violent human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power. If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted.”  The necessity of our action is the truth to be found the above logic. That our action has to be violent is short sighted. The rhetoric of these violent messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who were acting in obedience to another Jewish violent messiah “prophet.” This violent messiah had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).