The Parable of the Yeast

hands kneading dough

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And again‚ with what am I to compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was fully fermented.” (Q 13:20-21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 13:33 “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’”

Luke 13:20-21 “And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’”

Gospel of Thomas 96:1-2: “Jesus says: ’The kingdom of the Father is like a woman. She took a little bit of yeast. She hid it in dough and made it into huge loaves of bread.’”

About a decade ago I started an experiment with Appalachian sour dough bread. I placed a container outside to catch some rain water and then slowly over the next few weeks added flour hoping to catch some local Greenbrier county yeast strains to make my own local sourdough starter. I learned a lot.

I still have that starter alive in my refrigerator. I feed it once a week. I probably only use it twice a year, but when I do, it’s the joy of having my own locally sourced sourdough bread.

This week’s saying is all about leaven.

Leaven wasn’t always a positive term in 1st Century Palestine. The Passover ritual of eating unleavened bread reminded the people of the stories about their hasty departure from Egyptian slavery. These stories were the soil that Hebrew prophetic and liberation theology grew out of.

The community was oppressed, scattered, and returning and their theology and practice reflected this arc. During Passover, they removed all leaven from their homes. And over time, leaven took on a negative association.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses yeast in a negative way, and warns the people about “the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:15)

Jesus’ disciples mistakenly thought he was speaking of literal yeast, as if the Pharisees and Herod had opened a bakery! (Mark 8:16) Instead, he was using the metaphor of yeast for greed, harmful teachings, anything that could spread through society with ill effects.

In Matthew and Luke, we see a different use of yeast/leaven. Jesus hints that his own teachings, values, and the ethic of people taking care of people (the “empire of God”) were being viewed as negative, as leaven that could ferment in society and change society’s nature.

Last week we talked about the harm that results when we misclassify as negative something that not only isn’t harmful to society but also bears good fruit. This week’s saying was part of that section of the text and so was preserved in that context.

Sometimes things that are perfectly harmless are classified as “wrong” and things that are actually very harmful are classified as “good and right.” Religious communities aren’t the only type of community that does this, but they do have a long history with it. Some of us grew up in religious communities that prohibited harmless things yet allowed or even praised things that were intrinsically destructive. Part of the journey of growing up is learning to distinguish between that which is harmful and that which isn’t by looking at the intrinsic results of something rather than external bans or affirmations.

Religious and secular history provides a long list of people who received religiously legitimized bigotry and oppression. Even in Jesus’ own society, religion had been co-opted to justify the exploitation and marginalization of the poor by the elite, temple aristocracy. Not much has changed. The characters of the stories may have changed, but the narrative is much the same.

How does one tell the difference between what is right and what is wrong, between something that’s harmful and something that’s either neutral or beneficial? For those who have discovered that their previously cherished rule was not aligned with reality, these questions can be quite unsettling. I’ll share with you something that has helped me.

Say a child is running down the sidewalk and you say, “Listen if you keep running down the sidewalk, there’s a chance you could fall and skin your knee.” Let’s say the child doesn’t listen and, sure enough, they fall and get hurt. Did you impose that pain on the child for running on the sidewalk? Or did they experience pain as an intrinsic result of the activity they were engaging in?

Now let’s imagine you said to the child, “Listen, if you keep running around on this sidewalk I’m going to put you in time out and you have to sit still until you can calm down.” This might mean a type of pain or discomfort. But would this pain be intrinsic to the nature of the activity the child was engaging in? Or would you have imposed that “penalty” on the child for engaging in the activity?

Moving from being governed by fear of imposed penalties to understanding the intrinsic consequences and results of our choices is maturity. It’s “growing up.” We are quick to do this in certain areas of our lives. And we are painfully slow to do so in other areas, especially the areas of our life that are religious. In some areas of our religious life, we have moved from being motivated by the fear of divinely imposed punishment or the hope of divinely bestowed reward. We make these choices based on what these choices will result in. And there are areas in our religious lives where we still need to mature.

This journey toward maturity in a religious context is always met with fear by those who have not traversed this ground as of yet. But in our material lives, motives that may be appropriate for a five year old are developmentally inappropriate for an adult.

So how do we know if something is good or “right?” We could try to find a rule that does all of our thinking for us. We could look at the evidence before our eyes for what certain choices will result in. And we could do a hybrid of both. We could look at instructions in our sacred text and  try to ascertain what intrinsic negative results the instruction was seeking to help adherents avoid. We could then discern whether those intrinsic results still apply today, given the time and culture differences. We will then understand why something may be in a 3,000-year-old sacred text, but it would be foolish to try and follow the same instruction in our contexts today.

This is all part of growing up.

Will we always get it right? No. But we aren’t supposed to. Growing up is about sometime making mistakes and gaining experience and the wisdom to avoid larger mistakes in the future. It’s okay. Give yourself permission to grow and mature. As the old adage states, “The only way to not make mistakes is to gain experience. And the only way to gain experience is to make a few mistakes.”

Here in America we are seeing a backlash from those who are threatened by society maturing. Change scares us. But change that means moving away from discrimination and bigotry is not something that should scare us. Our consciousness is broadened and informed when we listen to the truth of others’ suffering. And these changes work toward making our world a safe place for us all, not just a few.

Yes, these changes may be properly referred to as leaven. They may permeate and change the nature of society. But they are not bad: these changes are actually good things! Equality, justice, reparation, the removal of power from those who would wield it to benefit themselves at others’ expense is a good thing regardless of how negatively labeled it may be.

As James Cone reminds us:

“For the oppressed, [Yahweh’s] justice is the rescue from hurt; and for the oppressors it is the removal of the power to hurt others—even against their will—so that justice can be realized for all.” (in God of the Oppressed, p. 159).

Those who possess the power to hurt others never view its removal as a good thing. They will always see it as a threat to the status quo from which they receive benefit or privilege.

But as Paulo Fierre states, whether it is perceived as good or not, this “leaven” is in fact “humanizing” to all, both those who wield this power and those who are harmed by this power.

“Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. This distortion occurs within history; but it is not an historical vocation. Indeed, to admit of dehumanization as an historical vocation would lead either to cynicism or total despair. The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons would be meaningless. This struggle is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed. Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.” Paulo Freire; Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition

This humanizing will require change on the part of oppressors too:

“Nor does the discovery by the oppressed that they exist in dialectical relationship to the oppressor, as his antithesis— that without them the oppressor could not exist— in itself constitute liberation. The oppressed can overcome the contradiction in which they are caught only when this perception enlists them in the struggle to free themselves. The same is true with respect to the individual oppressor as a person. Discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalizing his guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is [in solidarity]; it is a radical posture. If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master, as Hegel affirms, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these beings for another. The oppressor is [in solidarity] with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor— when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in its existentiality, in its praxis. To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.” (Ibid.)

In the 1st Century, Jesus called the exploited in his community to forms of nonviolent resistance. He called exploiters to cancel all debts and redistribute their wealth. Had they followed his teachings, they would have leavened their entire social structure and so fulfilled the summary of Jesus’ purpose in Luke 4:18-19. Was Jesus’ leaven a good or an evil for his time and culture? The answer to that question might have depended on which “side of the tracks” you asked. I argue that it was ultimately humanizing for all people and therefore good.

What are the leavening elements you see at work in our society today? What are the intrinsic results of those elements? Is it equity, fairness, justice, the protection of the rights of minorities, and enough for everyone? Do those who disproportionately benefit from imbalances in society get upset? Are the oppressed calling for justice? Do you see the other side labeling changes for those who have been historically marginalized and excluded as part of a sinister, evil agenda?

If so, there’s leaven at work again in our generation.

Pick up some dough yourself, and start kneading.

And again‚ with what am I to compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until it was fully fermented.” (Q 13:20-21)

HeartGroup Application

Cleve Jones writes in his recent book, When We Rise: My Life In The Movement, “The basic human rights of any group of people should never be subjected to a popular vote.” Minorities’ rights can never be protected as long as they are dependent on the whim of the majority. Rights given by the majority can just as easily be taken away by such, too.

  1. What difference has listening to minority voices made for you personally? Stop and write out a list.
  2. How have these differences affected the choices you now make in your daily life?
  3. What can your group do together to center the voices of the vulnerable and broaden your capacity to listen to the voices and experiences of minorities? Pick one action and put it into practice this next week.

We are still taking testimonials of your experiences in HeartGroups for our new HeartGroups page. Share your experience by going to the Contact Us page on our website and sharing with us.

Thank you to all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. People like you enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed 

Lone standing tree at sunset

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“What is the kingdom of God like, and with what am I to compare it? It is like a seed of mustard, which a person took and threw into his garden. And it grew and developed into a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches.” (Q 13:18-19)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 13:31-32: “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’”

Luke 13:18-19: “Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.’”

Gospel of Thomas 20: “The disciples said to Jesus: ‘Tell us whom the kingdom of heaven is like!’ He said to them: ‘It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on cultivated soil, it produces a large branch and becomes shelter for the birds of the sky.’”

Daniel 4:20-22: “The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds, Your Majesty, you are that tree!”

Mistaken Classification

In the 1st Century, mustard seeds were considered an invasive, noxious weed. If a gardener did not uproot it from their garden, they’d soon not have a garden left to tend. Then, as now, weeds should be rooted out lest they take over, crowding out crops that are intentionally planted there.

Yet mustard seeds don’t actually grow into trees. The image of a weed growing into a tree that benefits those around it means that we’ve classified as a weed something that is actually a fruit bearing tree.

Let me say it again for clarity. Mustard plants don’t grow into trees. If what we have labeled as “mustard” grows into a tree, it’s not mustard weed. We’ve made a mistake. It’s something entirely different from mustard.

This week’s saying likens Jesus new community of nonviolence, mutual aid, and resource redistribution to a tree that is originally seen as a weed. In other words, the way 1st Century farmers viewed the mustard plant was the way people viewed Jesus’s teachings and the community of Jesus-followers centered in those teachings. Their existence was to be rooted out. They were as welcome as the weed.

But then Jesus’s saying takes a hard right turn. What the people think is a noxious mustard weed doesn’t produce the same results as mustard. It doesn’t take over the garden like a weed and leave nothing for anyone. No, it becomes a tree, a source of shelter and food for all in its vicinity! It’s originally viewed as a weed, but it does not bear the same fruit as a weed.

The image Jesus uses for his community, the tree mistaken for a weed, is from a story in the Hebrew apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was likened to a fruit tree that provided food, a resting place, and shelter to all. Our saying takes this imagery as a message: “You’re working so hard to keep me out of your garden as if I’m a mustard weed, and are trying to uproot me completely, but you have misjudged me. My fruit is not harmful, but life and peace and good for all.”

This week’s saying isn’t saying all weeds should be welcomed in the garden, that we shouldn’t weed, or that all weeds are good now. It’s asking us to check our assumptions about what we have classified as weeds. What if we’ve made a mistake? What if you’ve judged something to be a harmful weed, but that judgment is quite incorrect?

Jesus’s society was beginning to view his teachings on nonviolent resistance and wealth redistribution as a weed that must be removed. And so his saying called them to see their judgment as a mistake. What Jesus was teaching could lead to peace and liberation rooted in an expression of distributive justice for all. What the people viewed as a weed to be rooted out was actually a tree of life.

Today

I get letters from time to time asking me to explain how on earth I can be a Jesus follower and affirm the LGBTQ community. These writers typically use misinformed language such as “lifestyle” when they are actually referring to same-sex intimacy. They are often also profoundly certain about how clear the Bible’s teachings are, and they compare my LGBTQ friends with “adulterers,” “fornicators,” “alcoholics,” “drug abusers,” and “child-molesters.” And they want me to explain to them how I could affirm LGBTQ people in their allegedly “sinful behaviors.”

One of my lesbian friends is a more devoted Christian than I am. She has been with her wife for over twenty years, and I admire their commitment to each other.  She is a teetotaler: no tea or coffee, much less drugs and alcohol. To even place my friends in the same category with abusers is offensive.

As I consider the misclassification of the mustard seed in this week’s saying and the misclassification of Jesus’s kingless kingdom in the 1st Century, I can’t help but think of the misclassification of my LGBTQ friends today.

Let me be clear. This week’s saying is not calling its audience to embrace weeds but to question their classification of a tree as a weed. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful. Rather it should help us recognize that the LGBTQ community does not deserve to be on that “harmful” list in the first place.

There are two lists in the New Testament that my letter writers often mention:

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (emphasis added.)

1 Timothy 1:9-11(ESV): Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (emphasis added.)

The question I want us to consider is whether the modern phrase “men who practice homosexuality” is the most accurate translation of the ancient Greek word arsenokoitai. It isn’t. In English, the category “homosexuality” wasn’t even used till 1886. And the word wasn’t inserted into any English translations of the Bible for another 60 years after that (1946). There were several English language Bibles before 1946. Yet none of them used the word “homosexuality” or euphemisms for it. The Greek used when the New Testament was written included multiple terms for same-sex sexual activities, and those terms never appear in the New Testament. Instead we find the extremely rare and quite specific term arsenokoitai.

Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network writes:

“The most likely explanation is that Paul is referring to a practice that was fairly common in the Greek culture of his day — married men who had sex with male youths on the side. The extramarital relationships of men with boys in ancient Greece are infamous even today. Archaeological and literary evidence prove that these relationships were common for centuries in Greece, though they were frowned upon by many even while they were publicly practiced. This would make a perfect target for Paul’s vice lists, and it would explain why, in both lists, he mentions the sin of the arsenokoitai separately after he mentions adultery — because technically, by Greek thought, having a boy on the side wasn’t adultery.” (https://www.gaychristian.net/justins_view.php)

What many scholars today agree on is that these two passages are referring to the then-common practice of pederasty, not to what we now know as homosexuality. Using the term homosexuality is not accurate.

Consider how the passages would read if we were more careful with our translations:

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice pederasty [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (emphasis added)

1 Timothy 1:9-11(ESV): “Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice pederasty [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

For more on the other passages in the Christian scriptures typically used in this debate, read Justin’s View from GCN.

Our saying this week isn’t a call to let one’s garden be overrun by weeds, and, yes, the vices in Paul’s lists are weeds. This week’s saying challenges the misclassification of Jesus’s movement as a weed that must rooted out. We could learn a lot about what it’s like to be misclassified by listening to LGBTQ people and others whom the Christian community has misclassified and tried to root out.

We have misclassified as a weed something that produces good fruit and doesn’t look like a weed at all. In fact, it’s our misclassifying the LGBTQ community on this list that’s producing noxious weed-like results. It’s at the root of the disproportionate homelessness and suicide rates among Christian LGBTQ youth rejected by their religious families and churches. The fruit of our recent translations and misclassification of LGBTQ people is not life, but quite literally death.

Here are just a few of the lessons I have learned as I’ve listened to the LGBTQ community:

  • An apology that simply calls straight Christians to a more loving and respectful form of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia is not an apology.
  • The language of reconciliation devoid of liberation is empty rhetoric.
  • Saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.
  • Kindness and respect are not synonyms of reparation for harm done in the past.
  • Allowing even “respectful” disagreement over whether another person should exist is not “creating safe space.”

This last one is vital. The debate over LGBTQ people is really a disagreement over whether LGBTQ people should exist, live openly, and form families in our communities. The lists in Paul’s writings are lists of behaviors that can be changed. Sexual orientation is much more like a person’s skin color than their actions. It’s not something to be changed; it’s who people are. Reparative therapy, however, is an attempt to weed out a certain type of person—an LGBTQ person—from existence. Ultimately, it’s a form of genocide.

Learning to listen to those who are not like you as they share the harm that has been done to them through misclassification offers you the opportunity to make a choice between compassion or fear. I remember a statement that Justin Lee once made during a presentation. He likened straight, cisgender people’s emotional response to LGBTQ folks to the emotional response one might make to the statement, “Aliens have landed.” It all depends on whether you grew up watching the movie E.T. or War of the Worlds. Differences can be scary, but they don’t have to be. Remember, although we have differences, there is much we have in common, too. Those who are different from you are also someone’s child. They are someone’s sibling. They are someone’s best friend. Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.

Have you ever been misjudged or misclassified?  The mustard seed that was considered a noxious weed actually grew into a tree, providing “shelter” and “nesting places in its branches for the birds.”

Dr. Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary says it best:

“Even when people call your truth a lie, tell it anyway. Tell it anyway.” (Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

What is the kingdom of God like, and with what am I to compare it? It is like a seed of mustard [considered to be a noxious weed], which a person took and threw into his garden. And it grew and developed into a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches.” (Q 13:18-19)

HeartGroup Application

This week I need your help. We are updating our HeartGroups page on the Renewed Heart Ministries website and we want to be able to share testimonials from those of you who’ve experienced what HeartGroups have to offer.

Please share how HeartGroups have been a benefit to you, either as a group or individually, by going to the Contact Us page and typing in your testimony.

I want to again thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. People like you enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Settling out of Court

Court room scales

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

While you go along with your opponent on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny. Q 12:58-59

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:25-26: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Luke 12:58-59: “Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

The Intended Audience

The social location of the first audience of this week’s saying impacts its meaning. As I shared last month, I believe the audience Jesus was speaking to in this discourse was in the more affluent segment of his society. Matthew compiles this saying with the collection of Jesus’ sayings that today we call the Sermon on the Mount. If all we had was Matthew’s compilation, we could wrongly conclude that this week’s saying was intended for a universal audience. Fortunately, Luke is more specific and tells us the social location of the audience Jesus aimed this week’s saying at.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’” (Luke 12:13,14)

Arguments over inheritances aren’t common among the poor or lower middle classes. These are problems that exist among the affluent. Jesus did not see himself as called to mediate between competing factions of the affluent. Instead he had emerged among his Jewish poor peers as prophet of the oppressed and liberator of the poor (Luke 4).

“And he told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.’” (Luke 12:16, emphasis added)

Jesus then tells this affluent audience the parable of a rich man, someone like themselves. To that man he says,

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12:33)

Jesus sums up this parable with the call for you, the affluent, to sell your possessions and give them to the poor. Jesus’ audience here is not the poor. He isn’t calling the poor to share their resources as a means to survive. He’s instead  speaking to the affluent and calling for radical wealth redistribution. Just as in God’s world the sun and rain belong to all alike, so too we must abandon the systems we’ve created where some have much more than they could ever use and others’ needs are going without being met.

As we’ve read thorough this cluster of sayings in the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed Jesus call his society’s affluent to wealth redistribution. We’ve described him trying to avert the political and economic crisis he saw on the horizon, and this week’s saying continues that appeal to his affluent listeners:

“While you go along with your opponent [the poor] on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny.” (Q 12:58-59)

It could have been highly offensive to threaten someone from the upper sectors of first century Jewish social class with being thrown into debtors prison. But as is often the case in the gospels, Jesus is not speaking literally but in parable form.

What we know from history now is that the poor did finally revolt. The exploited poor of Jesus’ day did violently rise up against the elites in Jerusalem, and they went on to take up arms and revolt against Rome itself as well. As I stated in The Faithful or Unfaithful Slave, the Roman backlash was merciless and the entire “household” of the nation was laid waste. If Jesus saw this coming, I can understand his trying to warn them. The uprising of the poor would end up implicating even the wealthy elites (“your opponent would hand you over to the judge”). And they did end up losing everything down to “the last penny.” Jerusalem was left a barren waste, everything lost, for everyone.

Social Location Matters

The social location of this week’s intended audience of this week’s saying matters. Let me briefly share three examples.

The message of self-denial is heard very differently by those at the bottom and edges of society than from those whom society is shaped to benefit. While those at the top need to hear a message that involves self-denial, those at the bottom of society are already experiencing oppressors deny them their selves.

The message those at the bottom of society need is one of self-affirmation not self-denial. Their need is imaginative ways to affirm their self in a world where their self is already being denied by those pushing them to the underside or edges of their world. They need a message that affirms their standing up for themselves, not a message that denies their selves. Such would only leave them passive and the systemic injustice unchallenged and thus unchanged. Telling the self-denied to deny their self even further makes for quite a convenient gospel for White oppressors.

The same is equally true of a gospel defined only as self-sacrifice. I believe in restoring people’s true selves, not sacrificing them. Consider for a moment how the Gospel and Jesus have been reduced to a message of self-sacrifice. When we define being like Jesus to be simply self-sacrifice, we do untold damage to victims of abuse. Consider domestic violence for a moment. A survivor of domestic violence has been told at some point that they are worthy, they are valuable, that they are worth standing up for and saying no to their oppressor. Too often well meaning Christians have, through a message of “Christlike” self-sacrifice, left spouses abandoned in violent situations only to endure in the hopes of saving their victimizer. This has often had very lethal results.

Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.”  (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

Brown and Parker in their essay, “For God So Loved the World?” write:

“The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive . . . The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Ibid., p. 20.)

Social location matters. Listening to how certain theologies impact those on the undersides or edges of our society matters. These are perspectives and concerns that must be heard.

Lastly is the subject of self-care for those whom society either wants to extinguish from existence (Chechnya wants to eliminate gay community by end of May, reports suggest) or for those in society who still deny they even exist (Examples would be those who deny that being transgender exists).

(In 2012 the APA gave a shot of hope to the transgender community by revising its material stating that being transgender was no long a mental disorder.) Self-care is vitally important for communities of color (for both men and especially women) when these are communities find themselves within larger communities where the “justice system” of the status quo daily threatens their existence.

As Audre Lorde stated, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, its self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

In an organizational way, alongside those who are thankful for Renewed Heart Ministers, there are also those folks who wish Renewed Heart Ministries also did not exist or could be silenced or shut out, as well. Existence matters, both personally and organizationally as we move toward transforming our world into a safe place for all of us.

In his saying, though, Jesus was not telling the oppressed, marginalized, or the subjugated that they need to make peace with their oppressors before it’s too late. He was not preaching reconciliation without concrete changes in an exploitative society. As Jacqueline Grant rightly states, “the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of ‘reconciliation,’ which proves to be empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation.” (White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191)

Jesus was not preaching passive reconciliation and forgiveness of those at the helm of an unjust system. On the contrary, Jesus invited those at the top, whom the oppressed were calling to change, to stop fighting those changes and instead make reparations.

Paying the Last Penny

As I shared two weeks ago, what loomed on the people’s horizon was not that the poor were finally able to take back what had been taken from them. No, poor and the rich alike were annihilated by Rome in 70 C.E. Threats of impending doom didn’t motivate those who belonged to the dominating sectors of the society to change. And it doesn’t seem to be doing so today either.

What I can attest, is that compassion, seeing my interconnectedness with others, stopping to listen to what the experience of this life is like for those on the undersides and edges of our world today does motivate me to lean into the social teachings of Jesus and actively engage in relationship with others. Just like in 70 C.E. We are all in this together. The choices we are making today will affect us all to varying degrees. We all inescapably share our world with each other. We are each other’s neighbor. And thus we must learn to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We are not as disconnected from our neighbors as we are taught to believe. What does it mean to come to terms with those who are being oppressed and marginalized in our society before we are placed in a scenario where we all pay the last penny?

It means we have the choice whether or not to share this space in a way that makes sure everyone is taken care of. To make sure there is enough for everyone. Where no one has too much and no one has too little.

The call to distributive justice mimics Jesus’ sunshine and indiscriminate rain, and later invites the decision to ensure each one possesses “their daily bread.”

The choice is stark.

Enough for everyone, or nothing for anyone.

We are in this together. We are each other’s keeper.

“While you go along with your opponent on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny. (Q 12:58-59)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to

1. Sit down together and watch a short 2011 Ted Talk by Richard Wilkinson.

How Economic Inequality Harms Societies.

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

2. In the book of Acts we find the claim that in the beginning of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem:

“That there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4.34)

“Those who had more than they needed shared with those who had needs not being met.

Discuss together some of the things that impacted you in Wilkinson’s Ted talk.

3. List how you, as a HeartGroup, can work toward supporting one another and closing the inequality gap among even yourselves. In Paul’s letter to his church in Corinth he wrote, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8.13, 14, emphasis added.)

Pick just one thing off that list and put it into practice this week.

Gandhi titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. That’s what we are doing here. We are experimenting with the teachings of Jesus and seeing which applications of his principles work and which only complicate our societal problems. If we don’t seek, we’ll never find. Experimenting with truth starts here.

I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

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For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.