The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

“There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than, and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin!”

 

Featured Text:

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” (Q 14:11)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purity Circles

This week we once again face one of Jesus’ sayings that we must be careful not to apply to everyone. Jesus specifically pointed the saying at those who had lifted themselves up to be above their peers.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, this saying is in the context of Matthew’s critique of the scribes and the Pharisees. A little background will help us understand.

In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce Malina tells us how the purity cultures of the ancient world like the Hebrew tradition gave their members a sense of order from the chaos of the material world around us.

Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangements wishing the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overruns boundaries.” (p. 125)

Notions of ritual cleanness or uncleanness were connected to a sense of belonging: in certain communities, well-defined boundaries marked insiders from outsiders. Within such cultures there was also a spectrum of cleanness. The greater your ability to remain clean, the purer you were. The opposite was also true. These notions of purity were not simply religious; they were but also social, economic, and political.

Think of a circle for a moment. If the circle represented the community, the purer you were, the closer you were to the center of the circle. The more unclean you were, the more you were pushed to the edges or margins. And guess who made the decisions for the group as a whole? You guessed it: those at the center. Those closer to the center had greater political, economic, and societal control. They maintained the status quo, a status quo that benefitted and privileged those at the center over those on the edges.

William Herzog once commented on the political struggle for the center in 1st Century Jewish society. His thoughts shed insight on why Matthew would have included this week’s saying.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. [Think if you’ve ever had seeds ruined by rain water while they were still in their envelopes.] The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees were the religious teachers of the masses, while the Sadducees were the elites who desired above all else to maintain their control on society. The Pharisees appeared to want to make purity more accessible to the masses, so in that context, they were considered the “liberals” while the Sadducees were the “conservatives.” Yet they were not really concerned with empowering the masses, but with placing power in their own hands, a power that the masses would legitimize. They did not dismantle the system; they only sought to co-opt it and hold the socio-political power and a populous base over the Sadducee elites in Jerusalem.

On the contrary, Jesus wanted to, proverbially, “burn the whole system down.” He repeatedly transgressed purity boundaries, bringing in those who had been pushed down and to the margins of his culture. He didn’t do this because he was anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. I believe he did this because he saw the purity model of societal order as deeply damaging to those of his Jewish siblings who were forced by those at the center to live on society’s fringes and edges.

In our saying this week, we see a Jesus who challenged and subverted the model of organizing society as a purity circle with insiders and outsiders. Jesus challenged this way of organizing society not just with his words, but also with his table, body, and temple/synagogue practices in the gospels.

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

Matthew describes a horizontal model, a circle, Luke uses a vertical image: a pyramid. The circle has a center and margins, but a pyramid has a few at the top who wield control or power over the masses below them. The lower one goes in a social pyramid, the greater the number of people and the less those people have any say about the world in which they live.

Luke places our saying this week in the context of a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these groups were closer to the top of Jesus’ social, economic, and political pyramid. Both were typically well-to-do financially. But where one of these groups responded positively to Jesus’s teachings, the other did not. As we have already discussed, Sayings Gospel Q 7:23-30 includes the statement, “For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Luke adds this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In Luke’s telling of the story, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” and his economic vision (Luke 16:14). By contrast, the hated tax-collector responded, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

The tax-collectors were the last ones expected to respond to Jesus’ economic teachings of mutual aid and wealth redistribution. Yet they came to Jesus’s shared table, while others did not, and Jesus welcomed them (see Luke 15:1-2).

In Luke, the Pharisees continued to compete with the temple elite for the exalted position of political control over the masses while the tax-collectors humbled themselves and embraced a world where there is enough for everyone. I’m sure there were exceptions; stories are often told with generalizations. What remains is the truth that when we seek to exalt ourselves over others, it leads to disastrous results for everyone.

How Not To Use This Passage

There is a difference between someone at the center or top of a group having their self-exaltation challenged, and those on the periphery and bottom working to lift themselves up to a equitable shared position. Let me explain.

I just finished reading Carol Anderson’s book White Rage. Over and over it recounted the history of how whiteness and structural racism have functioned in American society to impede social progress upward or toward the center for people of color. Sayings like ours this week have been aimed at people of color to try and silence or shame their efforts at equality.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is a difference between those who would exalt themselves over others and those who simply are seeking to lift themselves up to level ground. One group seeks to maintain an unjust status quo, and the other simply works toward equality. Our saying this week is not about those lifting themselves up toward equality. It’s about those who continually impede their work, who have exalted themselves over others, who are called to humility, equity and solidarity with those lower or on the periphery.

This month I also was blessed to be able to participate with SDA Kinship International in D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community. It is also a month when I see a lot of Evangelical Christians critiquing the idea of “pride” itself. “Pride is a sin!” they say. And they quote our saying this week, “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.”

But social location matters. There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than (think heterosexism) and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin! And our saying this week isn’t critiquing that kind of pride.

If a person is already being shamed and humiliated, they don’t need to humble themselves further. They are already experiencing humiliation from those who endeavor to marginalize them and their voices. Those who really need to humble themselves in that situation are those who think that just because someone is different they are broken or less than.

There was a time when those who were left-handed were considered less than, too. We don’t know why some are born one way and others are born another, but these differences do exist. Jesus subverted systems that push people to the margins or undersides of society, and that should challenge any Christian who believes cisgender heterosexuals are the ideal and all other people should stay on the margins of society. It is for them that this saying was given. They are the ones our saying this week is speaking to.

I’ve been reading Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I’m enjoying it immensely. It has been quite affirming and confirming for me personally, and I recommend the book highly if you have not read it. In the introduction, which I quoted from earlier, Ched shows how social pyramids and circles functioned in Jesus’ day and how they call those of us who want to follow Jesus to challenge similar models today.

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

“White North American Christians, especially those of us from the privileged strata of society, must come to terms with the fact that our reading site for the Gospel of Mark is empire, locus imperium . . . The ‘irreducible meaning’ of empire is the geopolitical control of the peripheries by the center . . . the fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those of us at the center do not.”

And

“The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome [center]. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience [was] those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine [is] those who are in a position of enjoy the privileges of the colonizer. In this sense, Third World liberation theologians, who today also write from the perspective of the collided periphery have the advantage of a certain ‘affinity of site’ in their reading of the Gospels.”

Whether we use the vertical model of a pyramid where the few at the top control everyone beneath them, or the horizontal model of a circle where those closer to the center have control of the body, our saying this week offers a critique and warning to all who push others from a position of input and influence to the margins, edges, or periphery:

Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted. (Q 14:11)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus sought to change the way communities were organized. Where there were pyramids with people on top and closed circles with people outside, Jesus sought to form a shared table.

So this week I want you to do something a little different. Each of you, take time to listen to a presentation I gave in the fall of 2015 in southern California entitled, A Shared Table.

Then after listening,

  1. Discuss your responses together as a group.
  2. Brainstorm how your group can become more of a shared table experience rather than in a pyramid or closed circle. Write these strategies out.
  3. Pick something from what you’ve written and put it into practice this week.

Something that may be helpful to you in your brainstorming is our newly updated HeartGroups page.

Together we can make choices that continue to transform our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. The teachings of Jesus don’t call us to escape from a hostile world. Radical discipleship, radical Jesus-following, calls us to engage the world so that it becomes a less hostile place. In the words of Sam Wells, “The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Remember, we are in this together. We are each other’s fate.

Also remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re launching weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation and thriving! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Judgment over Jerusalem

grave yard with lanterns lit

by Herb Montgomery

“Every day we each face the choice of whether to work toward a new inclusive community or not. What can we learn from this week’s saying? It’s not just a lamentation for 1st Century Jerusalem . . . It’s a lamentation that applies to all communities when justice-rooted social change is seen as a threat and those with the power to make change would rather silence the voices calling for it.”

Featured Text:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, and you were not willing! Look, your house is forsaken! I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when‚ you say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Q 13:34-35)

Companion Text:

Matthew 23:37-39: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Luke 13:34-35: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In our saying this week, social location couldn’t matter more! This text has historically been at the heart of anti-Semitism (hostility to or hatred of Jews) and Christian supersessionism (the teaching that Christians replace Jews as God’s chosen people). But every Christian who reads this saying should remember that Jesus was a Jew. He was never a Christian. A member of a subjugated community could perhaps speak to their community this way. But if you, like me, are outside that group, it would be inappropriate for us to do so.

With this saying, Jesus stood in the long Hebrew prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. Jerusalem and the temple had become the seat of the aristocracy around which a political and economically exploitative system revolved. So this week’s saying is not about pitting Christianity against Judaism: it’s not a religious discussion. It’s a socio-economic, political statement, and very much part of the world of the Jewish 1st Century community.

Jesus, remember, was a 1st Century, Jewish prophet of the poor. We can ask what his teachings might offer us today in our work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and liberation. But we must first listen to what these sayings might have meant in their original context.

Prophets proclaiming the “desolation” of the Jewish nation had a long history and was often linked to social justice:

Isaiah 3:8: “Jerusalem staggers, Judah is falling; their words and deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence.”

Jeremiah 1:15: “‘I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the LORD. ‘Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem; they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah.’”

Jeremiah 4:14: Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts?”

Jeremiah 5:1: “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.”

Jeremiah 8:5: “Why then have these people turned away? Why does Jerusalem always turn away? They cling to deceit; they refuse to return.”

Ezekiel 4:7, 16: “Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her . . . He then said to me: ‘Son of man, I am about to cut off the food supply in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair.’”

Ezekiel 12:19: “Say to the people of the land: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says about those living in Jerusalem and in the land of Israel: They will eat their food in anxiety and drink their water in despair, for their land will be stripped of everything in it because of the violence of all who live there.’”

Not one of these above passages by Hebrew prophets should be considered anti-Semitic. Often, after the Hebrew prophets strongly opposed injustices taking place in Jerusalem, they would offer Jerusalem words of comfort:

Isaiah 51:17: “Awake, awake! Rise up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes people stagger.”

Isaiah 52:1, 9: “Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive… Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 62:1: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.”

Isaiah 64:10: “Your sacred cities have become a wasteland; even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.”

Isaiah 65:18, 19: “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”

Isaiah 66:10, 13: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all you who mourn over her… As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 66:20: “‘And they will bring all your people, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD—on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,’ says the LORD. ‘They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels.’”

These passages don’t promote supersessionism. They are part of the Hebrew tradition of Jewish prophets critiquing social injustice, and there is nothing necessarily anti-Jewish or supersessionist in Jesus’ societal critique of his own society either.

Jesus called the subjugated of his day to nonviolent forms of resistance. As we’ve seen in previous weeks, to follow the path of violent resistance under the watchful eye of Rome would invite a backlash that would wipe out everything for everyone. Jesus saw nonviolence as the only option the people had to resist and still live to enjoy the liberation their resistance had accomplished. Jesus did call his oppressed audience (Luke 4:18-19) to do something where they could, and, when they couldn’t, to make those who could deeply uncomfortable until they did (see Matthew 5:39-41).

He also called the Jewish elite to liquidate their assets in radical wealth redistribution, debt cancellation, and resource sharing that would have been economically healing to the poor. (Luke 19; Matthew 19:21) Had the people been dedicated to nonviolent forms of resistance and power- and resource-sharing as Jesus taught, they could have prevented Jerusalem’s poor people’s revolt, the Jewish Roman war of 66-69 C.E., and Jerusalem’s utter destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

I believe Jesus saw a coming crisis, and his love for his own society moved him to warn them and work to set them on a different path. This is what I see happening in this week’s saying.

Jesus longs to protect Jerusalem from the Roman Eagle the way a hen covers her chicks to prevent birds of prey from attacking them. The elites are unwilling to listen. If only the aristocracy had led the way in the reparations Jesus was calling for (Luke 19:8 cf. 12:33), the poor might have never have had to make a decision between violent or nonviolent revolt three decades later. Who knows where those difference choices might have led Jesus’ society.

Last we see Jesus planning to leave and not return until the people affirm, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Nothing in this text requires us to interpret Jesus as meaning, “I’m going to heaven and you won’t see me until I return in vengeance.” No. Jesus is actually quoting Psalms 118:25-26:

“YHWH, save us! [Hosanna!] YHWH, grant us success! [Hosanna!] Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.”

Traditionally, Jews recite this passage during the third pilgrimage festival, Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles. They do not quote it during Passover, the festival underway at this point in the Jesus story. Sukkot is six months after Passover. So Jesus could have simply been planning to leave Jerusalem (desolate) and not return to the city until the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. He never got to fulfill that promise: instead of returning during Sukkot, Jesus completes his temple protest and is arrested and crucified six days later.

Stoning the prophets is nothing new. Every society, culture, and community has a long history of removing those who choose to speak up, stand in solidarity with those pushed to the edges, and call for change.

I know something of this myself.

Over the last six months, I’ve spent hours talking with pastors whose churches have invited me to speak around the US. These pastors have had to cancel my seminars at the last minute, even though, in some cases, they’ve been waiting for me to speak for years! One head elder’s congregation had been on the waiting list for three years before they were forced to cancel. The elder told me, “The journey to know God is not always easy.”

My seminars are being cancelled by church gatekeepers who are afraid. They’re afraid of conversations that might challenge or change their members. Pastors and congregations across the country want our ministry and message to come to them: they’ve invited me to speak and they want to learn. But gatekeepers are standing in the way.

In one town this year, when a pastor refused to cancel an invitation to me, a few well-funded critics used their conference ministerial department, which employed their pastor, to strong-arm that pastor. These people threatened to stop tithing to their conference if I was allowed to speak in their church! The conference president told me that they wanted to have me, but couldn’t risk losing their members’ tithes and would have to hope for another opportunity in the future.

Change is scary for some people. But changes that help us to make our communities a safer, just, more compassionate home for everyone should be leaned into, not run from, even if they’re scary.

So this fall we’re taking our educational weekends on the road! We’ll hold weekend seminars in areas where we’re desperately wanted and we’ll do it without having to go through gatekeepers.

We’ll be hosting face-to-face weekend events all across the nation starting this August in Asheville, NC. We’re really excited!

You can find out more about this new project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re making this change, how you can help to make these new events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come to your area for a weekend.

A friend of Renewed Heart Ministries signed up to be one of the first 500 supporters. Last week, he was lamenting that I was finally going to be teaching in the next state over from him during the very week he and his wife were going on their family vacation. I wish you could have seen the lights turn on for him when I said, “Well let’s look at what it would take to have a weekend event in your town, too! All we need to find is a place to rent for the weekend.” He’s considering possible venues now!

Every day we each face the choice of whether to work toward a new inclusive community or not. What can we learn from this week’s saying? It’s not just a lamentation for 1st Century Jerusalem. It can also address any community where exploitation and inequity forces those on the undersides and margins to feel as if violent revolt is their only hope. It’s a lamentation that applies to all communities when justice-rooted social change is seen as a threat and those with the power to make change would rather silence the voices calling for it.

It’s a solemn and sad saying that should give each of us pause.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her nestlings under her wings, and you were not willing! Look, your house is forsaken! I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when‚ you say: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Q 13:34-35)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, write down three ways that HeartGroups have been a safe place for you to grow, learn, practice community, and deepen your understanding of how Jesus’s teachings can inform our work today of survival, resistance, and liberation.
  2. Share your list with your HeartGroup. Let the other members know what they’ve meant to you!
  3. Discuss how else your group can be formed by your desire to make this space available to others, too. What would it look like to make your HeartGroup a safe space for someone not like you?

Our new HeartGroups page is finally on our website at http://www.rhmheartgroups.com. Feel free to check it out and let us know what you think! Also keep those testimonies of how your HeartGroup has impacted you coming in. We’ll be adding them to the page soon.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation, and thriving!

Together we are making a difference.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love you all.

I’ll see you next week.

The Reversal of the Last and the First 

 

by Herb Montgomery

“Economies that keeps workers desperate are structured that way by design . . . Just this past week it was published that there is not one state in the US where a 40 hours a week (full-time), minimum-wage worker can afford a 2-bedroom apartment. Let that sink in.  Not one.”

Featured Text:

“The last will be first and the first last.” Q 13:·30

Companion Texts:

Matthew 20:13-16: “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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

Gospel of Thomas 4:2-3: “For many who are first will become last, and they will become a single one.”

Our saying this week is found in two separate settings in Matthew and Luke. Luke shares this saying in the context of the sayings we’ve looked at over the last two weeks. Matthew’s context is different and comes at the end of the parable of the landowner who choose to pay all of that day’s workers the same full day’s wage regardless of how many hours they had worked:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16, emphasis added.)

In Matthew, “the last will be first and the first will be last” is not a reversal of fortunes as in Luke 6 where the poor are blessed and the rich are cursed. It’s not a revolution that only proves to create a new hegemony with a new status quo someone’s still dominating and someone else is still being subjugated. This week’s saying instead describes a movement toward equality and equity. Everyone is paid based on their need, not whether they were able to find work. In Jesus’ story, those who came last did not arrive late because they did not want to work, but because “no one hired us.” They could not find any work. Nonetheless, the landowner paid every worker the same wage regardless of how many hours they had labored: payment rooted in compassion and not the dispassionate capitalism of some winning because others lose. In this parable, the owner’s compassion was proportionate to every person’s ability and need.

That part of the saying seems to contrast with the “rule” quoted later in the New Testament: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Many often miss the word “unwilling,” and misquote the statement as “those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.” However, youth, elderly people, people with disabilities, and those who simply can’t find work aren’t addressed by the saying in Thessalonians. They are included in the story Jesus told, where people are paid according to their need and each contributes what they are able. Also, not every disability is visible and some people are too often grouped in with the “unwilling to work” when in fact those who can work are called to take care of them as well. Peter Kropotokin describes in the book Mutual Aid what we see among the “fittest” societies in nature. He also unknowingly described the world Jesus was inviting us to create.

“While [Darwin] was chiefly using the term [survival of the fittest] in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring’ (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.” (Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Chapter 1)

As Kropotkin did years later, Jesus described a society where members could “learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.” These are communities where those who are able support and care for those who are not.

This week’s saying also confronts us with something more familiar: an economy where there are more people who are willing to work than there is work available. Economies that keeps workers desperate are structured that way by design. The supply of jobs is low so that workers don’t get too picky or organize into labor unions. They don’t ask for better wages. They are simply desperately happy to find anything. They are just happy to have a job, like the people in the Hebrew story of Joseph: We’ll sell ourselves into slavery if need be, we just need to eat/survive. (See Genesis 47:25)

Testifying before the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, in February 26, 1997, Alan Greenspan described that state of job desperation in the US as good for the economy [rather than an evil]. It was good for the corporate elites and created an imbalance of power where elites could control the working masses and expect greater passivity regarding low wages and poor working conditions.

“A typical restraint on compensation increases has been evident for a few years now and appears to be mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity. In 1991, at the bottom of the recession, a survey of workers at large firms by International Survey Research Corporation indicated that 25 percent feared being laid off. In 1996 . . . the same survey organization found that 46 percent were fearful of a job layoff. The reluctance of workers to leave their jobs to seek other employment as the labor market tightened has provided further evidence of such concern, as has the tendency toward longer labor union contracts. For many decades, contracts rarely exceeded three years. Today, one can point to five-and six-year contracts—contracts that are commonly characterized by an emphasis on job security and that involve only modest wage increases. The low level of work stoppages of recent years also attests to concern about job security. Thus, the willingness of workers in recent years to trade off smaller increases in wages for greater job security seems to be reasonably well documented.”

Make laborers’ situation desperate enough and they will work forty or more hours a week and still not be able to feed their families, all while not organizing for higher wages and being content to have one of the few jobs available. Just this past week it was published that there is not one state in the US where a 40 hours a week (full-time), minimum-wage worker can afford a 2-bedroom apartment. Let that sink in.  Not one.  There are people working full time who cannot even afford a place to sleep. And a one bedroom apartment can only be afforded in 12 counties located in Arizona, Oregon and Washington states.

The late Peter Gomes calls us to see the unfairness of these rules and to make instead a world characterized by distributive justice among those who, in our story, are first or last in our economic status quo. In The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Gomes writes:

“It is interesting to note that those who most frequently call for fair play are those who are advantaged by the play as it currently is, and that only when that position of privilege is endangered are they likely to benefit from the change required to ‘play by the rules.’ What if the ‘rules’ are inherently unfair or simply wrong, or a greater good is to be accomplished by changing them? When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first. This problem of perception is at the heart of a serious hearing of what Jesus has to say, and most people are smart enough to recognize that their immediate self-interest is served not so much by Jesus and his teaching as by the church and its preaching. Thus, it is no accident that although Jesus came preaching a disturbing and redistributive gospel, we do not preach what Jesus preached. Instead, we preach Jesus. Desmond Tutu is fond of the African proverb that says that when the white Christians came to Africa they had the Bible and the Africans had the land. “Then,” he says, “the Africans were given the Bible and the white Christians took the land.” The legacy of worldwide colonialism is in many cases the pacification of a culture by the Bible, and the misappropriation of that culture by those who use the Bible as an instrument of control. For the Bible to be seen as an instrument of control rather than as one of liberation is to do violence to the substance of the Bible, but it is reassuring to those in whose interests the status quo stands. Why? Because the risk of displacement and transformation is too great. If the first shall be last and the last first, what happens to all of us who have spent every waking hour devising stratagems either to remain first or to become first?” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, pp. 42-44)

Since 1978, the salaries of those at the top have risen over 937% while workers’ wages have only increased an average of 10.2%. The labor of the working class has been exploited to make those at the top incredibly wealthy in the name of efficiency and customer satisfaction. There are now few protections against making the masses fully dependent on corporations for their survival. Those who know their labor history resonate deeply with this week’s saying.

What would it look like for us to work toward a world where those presently earning minimum wage earn as much as CEOs and those who are now CEOs earn the same as who once earned only a minimum wage?

As Jesus said, “The last will be first and the first last.” Q 13:·30

HeartGroup Application

Jesus gave this week’s saying in the context of 1st Century Jewish economic disparity and exploitation. John Ruskin addressed this saying in Unto the Last, and his treatment was life changing for Gandhi, who not only translated Ruskin’s work but also began experimenting with the principles of wage equity in India (see Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth).

But not all disparities are purely economic. There are other types of disparities of resources and power too: among people of different genders, races, sexes, heritages, religions, and sexualities. And these are just to name a few.

  1. Can you imagine a world where those who are presently last experience the same equity as those who are presently first and vice versa? Make a list of those you feel are presently treated as “first” and those who are treated as “last?”
  2. Brain storm together practices that your HeartGroup can engage in to foster a community characterized by equity. How can you as a group reach out to and connect with those outside of your HeartGroup, as well?
  3. How can your HeartGroup put things right where you can? How can you also speak truth to power, making those who can change things uncomfortable until they do? Pick an item from your lists and put it into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation, and thriving!

This week, too, I want to let you know about a new way that you can participate in the RHM community.  It our 500:25:1 project.  Beginning this August, we’ll begin hosting face-to-face weekend events all across the nation, and we’re so excited! You can find out more about our new project at https://renewedheartministries.com/news/500251. There you can find out why were are making this change, how you can have us come to your area, and how you can join in to assist us making these new events happen.

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.

For those of you supporting our work thank you. Together we are making a difference.

I’m so glad you’re engaging the work of making the world a safe, just, compassionate home for all, with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Replaced by People from East and West

A table with varied people eating

by Herb Montgomery

“When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!”

Featured Text:

“And many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

Companion Text:

Matthew 8:11-12: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 13:28-29: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

The Sayings Gospel Q scholars titled this week’s saying “Replaced by People from East and West.” If I’d organized the sayings, I wouldn’t have used the term “replaced.” As we’ll see this week, it’s not original to the text and it has a long anti-Semitic history rooted in supersessionism.

By contrast, Jesus’ saying is well centered in the Jewish prophetic tradition of Isaiah:

“And the almighty Yahweh will prepare for all the nations on this mountain a banquet of rich foods, a banquet of preserved wines, of spread out rich foods, and preserved refined wines. And on this mountain he will swallow up the covering that is over all peoples, even the covering woven on all the nations. He will swallow up death forever. And the Lord Yahweh will wipe clean the tears from upon all faces. And the shame of his people he will remove from upon all the earth. For Yahweh has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

In the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, the messianic feast is not prepared exclusively for the Hebrew people but includes “all the nations.” The apocalyptic Essenes of Jesus’ society were looking for this banquet in their “end of the age.” They expected it to mark the transition between the present age and the “age to come” (see The Rule of the Congregation 1QSa or The Community Rule 1QS.) And they understood this banquet both literally and metaphorically as definitive of the quality of the messianic age when all violence, injustice, and oppression was to be put right in the earth.

Matthew’s gospel tellingly tacks this saying on to the end of the story about the centurion and his slave (Matthew 8.5-10). For the Matthew’s community, the centurion story could have been seen as an evidence of how “all the nations” were to be included in Isaiah’s feast. If this is true, this would explain much about the inclusivity that this community hoped for.

Replacement versus Exclusion

The Q community did not understand including Gentiles in their feast as an anti-Jewish move. And they did not see “all the nations” being included only to replace the Jewish festival attendants. In this saying, some are being excluded. Yet, there is a vast difference between a party for everyone that some will be shut out of and a party meant exclusively for some and whose original audience would be replaced by others.

Why does this distinction matter?

The Pharisees included two schools of thought. One, the School of Shammai, drew strict lines between Jews and Gentiles, in a effort to preserve their Jewish identity. They also drew strict lines between those who practiced Torah according to the School’s interpretations and fellow Jewish people they labeled as “sinners.”

I t is understandable that a people removed from their original land and held captive in foreign territories or scattered abroad, would re-gather to seek liberation. It’s important to protect others’ heritage and identity as a people when they’re being erased by their oppressors and their oppressors’ heritage and culture.

Just like the indigenous people here on this continent, or the Africans uprooted, enslaved, and removed to colonial lands, the Jewish people were struggling desperately to preserve their own identities and uniquenesses among a people not like themselves and who dominated them. The Jewish people living in the empires that subjugated them were being dehumanized, and in that context, I can understand and applaud the School of Shammai for focusing on their people’s Jewish peculiarity.

How we preserve our identity and heritage matters, though. Subjugators typically preserve and parade their identity through exceptionalism. In the United States, for example, American exceptionalism and the Doctrine of Discovery was the soil out of which grew the destructive weed of Manifest Destiny. These dehumanizing philosophies made genocide possible for the Native peoples across this continent and those who, through slavery, were violently brought here.

Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism can also be a way for oppressed and subjugated peoples to survive: feeling superior to those dominating you can be a way to resist. This form of survival and resistance can also be unhealthy. Those under Roman domination in Jesus’ society who began to look forward to a feast eventually imagined that feast not for “all the nations” but for their own vindication. In that vision, the messianic feast would be an event where oppressors would be excluded or even punished. In Ezekiel, at the messianic banquet feast, YHWH turns the Hebrew people’s enemies into food for predators of both sky and the land.

“As for you, son of man, this is what the sovereign Lord says: Tell every kind of bird and every wild beast: ‘Assemble and come! Gather from all around to my slaughter which I am going to make for you, a great slaughter on the mountains of Israel! You will eat flesh and drink blood. You will eat the flesh of warriors and drink the blood of the princes of the earth – the rams, lambs, goats, and bulls, all of them fattened animals of Bashan. You will eat fat until you are full, and drink blood until you are drunk, at my slaughter which I have made for you. You will fill up at my table with horses and charioteers, with warriors and all the soldiers,’ declares the sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 39:17-19)

In our saying this week Jesus seems to be addressing those in his time who were looking for a retributive feast, one more like Ezekiel’s than like Isaiah’s inclusive, distributive, and restorative feast. Those looking forward to a time of retribution, who were so sure they were superior to others around them, would be found not at the places of honor around the festive table, but excluded and shut out from the feast entirely. They would be found “gnashing their teeth.”

This proverbial phrase is key. The gnashing of teeth referred to a level of anger that caused a person to clinch their jaw and grind their teeth (e.g. Acts 7:54).

In other words, Jesus is saying, those of you who are looking for a retributive feast where you are included to the exclusion of those you have deemed unworthy, like this Roman centurion, there will be so many from east to west included in my messianic feast that you’re not going to be able to emotionally cope. When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!

In the new world that is coming, he continues, if any are left in “outer darkness,” it won’t be those you believe don’t measure up to your standards of respectability or virtue. It will be you! You cannot accept the welcome, affirmation, and inclusion of those you feel should be excluded. You will be excluded because you cannot accept those who are being accepted.

This was the same point of Luke’s parable of the older brother (Luke 15:1-2; 25-32) and Matthew’s wedding banquet parable where a guest did not want to be dressed the same as those he felt superior to (Matthew 22:8-11).

Conclusion

I’m happy to be able to say that before the end of the first century, the Rabbis choose the School of Hillel’s earlier and more inclusive interpretations of the Torah (see BET HILLEL AND BET SHAMMAI).

One takeaway from this week’s saying is that there are better ways to protect identities and heritages than exclusion. Our differences should be preserved and celebrated, acknowledged, and mutually valued. As each of us finds our place at the table, as we honor each person’s voice in relationships of egalitarianism rather than domination and subjugation, we can learn to listen to one another. And we then can integrate the many experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: not a new homogenized mass, but a mosaic filled with beauty, diversity, and variations.

Lastly, this week we learn that exclusion is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. To hope for a world where certain ones are no longer there is to create a world where you yourself are no longer welcome. You get the world you always wanted. The only catch is that you’ll be the only one alone, in the “outer darkness,” in a world where exclusion is excluded. Exclusion won’t be included in a world that is characterized by inclusion, distributive justice, and peace.

Does inclusion still provoke anger? You bet. Over the last four years, Renewed Heart Ministries has become a more open, welcoming, affirming, and inclusive ministry, including for those who identify as LGBTQ. And do I have stories to tell. The common thread through all of them is anger from those who are upset that we’ve made this shift.

While I’m saddened by the loss of those who have rejected and now exclude RHM and me, I do take a small portion of comfort in the fact that at least we are in the right story. Solidarity breeds crosses. But the story of Jesus tells me that crosses can also be followed by resurrections.

When you practice inclusion of those whom others have inaccurately deemed as deserving exclusion, will some people get upset and angry with you? Absolutely. But be of courage: this is simply your story becoming more aligned with the Jesus story itself, for:

Many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God [and] there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. Recently I was introduced to the work of Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, a San Francisco Bay area Jewish Renewal Synagogue for Spiritual and Social Transformation. The Jewish Jesus lived life at the intersection of faith and social justice in the 1st Century. In the spirit of tikkun olam, Rabbi Lerner is working today to develop intersections between Jewish faith and social transformation.

Last week, Rabbi Lerner published a meditative piece of writing he titled Ten Commitments. He states, “Many of us find the notion of ‘commandments’ oppressive and hierarchical. Yet we know that a community cannot be built on the principle of only doing what feels right at the moment–it requires a sense of responsibility to each other. So, we encourage our community to take on the following ten commitments, based roughly on a rereading of the Torah’s ten commandments (and incorporating the framework and many specific ideas articulated by Rami Shapiro in his book Minyan).”

HeartGroups are also communities engaged in the work of healing our world. The Jesus we desire to follow grew up hearing teachings on these same ten commandments.

So this week, as a group:

1. As a group, read through Rabbi Lerner’s “Ten Commitments”:

http://www.beyttikkun.org/article.php/what_we_think_ten_commitments

2. Share which commitments spoke most loudly to you and why.

3. For each person in the group, pick one commitment to spend some time contemplating and meditating on this week. Come back the following week ready to share your experiences practicing it.

I’ll let you in on the one I’m practicing: I love the inclusivity and respect of #3 in Lerner’s list.

Which one speaks most loudly to you?

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living in love. And may the teaching of this 1st Century prophet of the poor continue to inform your work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains, is a world where only love reigns.

As we say each week, thank you to each of you who are supporting this ministry. We could not exist without you.

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 to make these resources as free as possible. To keep them free, we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, 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:

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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.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

I Do Not Know You

Two paths

by Herb Montgomery

Why is the path narrow? It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow. But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Featured Text

“Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:22-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 25:10-12: “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’”

Luke 13:24-27: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’”

In this week’s saying brings us the imagery of the “strait and narrow.” Typically this saying is read in relation to a post-mortem, divinely-imposed reward or punishment. I’m going to ask you to read it instead in the more immediate cultural context of the destruction in 70 C.E. that Jesus saw looming on Jerusalem’s horizon. We’ve discussed this at length previously. As the elites rejected Jesus’ call for debt cancelation and wealth distribution, exploitation of the poor increased. The poor rejected Jesus’ nonviolent forms of resistance, and they eventually initiated an uprising against the Temple and Rome’s occupation. Their uprising became the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. This eventually resulted in Rome’s violent backlash against Jerusalem.

When we recognize that context, our saying takes on a different taste. Jesus had witnessed many violent revolutions and revolutionaries come to destruction because of Rome’s backlash. History also tells us of many cultures where inequalities became so extreme through exploitation that they imploded and their societies were destroyed. This, we know, was how Rome’s empire eventually fell, too.

History teaches us:

Violent revolutions are typically embraced by the many and end in more costly consequences.

Exploitative societies, the way of domination and subjugation, have also been common—the way of the many. Such societies also have a self-created, expiration date: they will implode.

By contrast, there have been few revolutionaries throughout history, comparatively, who have chosen nonviolent forms of resistance and change.

Few societies have genuinely embraced egalitarianism or a distributive justice that produces life and peace. Few societies and communities have genuinely embraced the way of abundance and sharing, where each person contributes “according to their ability” (Acts 11:29), and the resources are “distributed to anyone according to their need” (Acts 4:35; cf. 2:45)

In our saying this week, Jesus is speaking about the realities of life in this world. Once again he calls fellow impoverished Jews to the form of resistance that gave them the greatest chances of surviving attempted liberation. And he also called those at the helm of their economically oppressive society to a Torah style Jubilee where all debts would be cancelled and the wealth of their society would be radically redistributed (cf. Luke 19:1-9, cf. Luke 12:33; 18:22; Mark 10:21).

Varying Failure Costs

In Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Wink compares the costs of failure for violent revolutions and nonviolent ones. Both kinds have histories of success, like the violent American Revolution that many American citizens celebrate each 4th of July. There are also successful nonviolent revolutions, and some of them are documented in the film A Force More Powerful. Our saying this week is about the cost of failure for both forms of revolutionary resistance. Wink writes:

“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’ nonviolent form of resistance] 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 . . . We need to be very clear that it 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 preset goals- though in another sense it always ‘works’—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe. I do not believe that the churches can adequately atone for their past inaction simply by baptizing revolutionary violence under the pretext of just war theory. No war today could be called just, given the inevitable level of casualties and atrocities. Nonviolent revolutions sometimes happen by accident. They are usually more effective, however, when they are carefully prepared by grassroots training, discipline, organizing, and hard work. Training, because we need to know how to deal with police riots, how to develop creative strategies, how to defuse potentially violent eruptions. Discipline, because all too often agents provocateurs are planted in peace groups, whose task is to try to stir up violence. So we need to know how to neutralize people we suspect, by their actions, to be such agents. Organize, so as to create affinity groups that can act in concert, be able to identify by name every person in their cluster, and develop esprit de corps. And all that is hard work. But also (and this is a heavily guarded secret), nonviolent action in concert can be one of the most rewarding-and sometimes fun-activities available able to human beings.” (Chapter 4)

I believe Jesus was trying to engage the work of survival and the work of liberation in creative nonviolent forms of resistance that provided the best chances for both.

Debt Forgiveness and Wealth Redistribution

At the heart of Jesus’s economic “path,” which few societies find, is the Jewish Torah’s and Hebrew prophets’ call to a distributive justice where inequality is seen as an intrinsic social harm. Debt forgiveness and support of the poor better societies, but few societies have practiced either. Yet there are a multitude of societies, much like America today, where wealth inequality became so extreme that it ultimately destroyed those societies from within. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”

Aristotle also saw this same truth:

“Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy. That is the reason why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity. This is in the interest of all classes, including the prosperous themselves; and therefore the proper policy is to accumulate any surplus revenue in a fund, and then to distribute this fund in block grants to the poor.” (Aristotle’s Politics, Book VI, Chapter 5)

In his new book, Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky comments on Aristotle’s call to redistribute the wealth of the elites.

“It’s of some interest that this debate [less democracy which protects the elite vs. less poverty that protects broad democracy] has a hoary tradition. It goes back to the first work on political democracy in classical Greece. The first major book on political systems is Aristotle’s Politics— a long study that investigates many different kinds of political systems. He concludes that of all of them, the best is democracy. But then he points out exactly the flaw that Madison pointed out. He wasn’t thinking of a country, he was thinking of the city-state of Athens, and remember, his democracy was for free men. But the same was true for Madison— it was free men, no women— and of course not slaves. Aristotle observed the same thing that Madison did much later. If Athens were a democracy for free men, the poor would get together and take away the property of the rich. Well, same dilemma, but they had opposite solutions. [James] Madison’s solution was to reduce democracy— that is, to organize the system so that power would be in the hands of the wealthy, and to fragment the population in many ways so that they couldn’t get together to organize to take away the power of the rich. Aristotle’s solution was the opposite— he proposed what we would nowadays call a welfare state. He said try to   reduce inequality—reduce inequality by public meals and other measures appropriate to the city-state. Same problem—opposite solutions. One is: reduce inequality, and you won’t have this problem. The other is: reduce democracy. Well, in those conflicting aspirations you have the foundation of the [American] country.” Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Kindle Locations 152-163, emphasis added).

Nonviolence and Wealth Redistribution (including debt forgiveness) are the soil of distributive justice and equity from which the fruit of peace grows out of. This “narrow” path leads to life.

Why is the path narrow?

It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow.

But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Isaiah 40:3:

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Before It’s Too Late

There is also an element of “before it’s too late” in this week’s saying:

“When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you.”

There is a point of no return that violence and inequality reaches in societies when those societies cannot recover. If Jesus could see his own society getting closer and closer to that point, it would make perfect sense that he would try to warn those who would listen. Many societies don’t accept what that means; even Jesus’s did not heed the wisdom. How often throughout history have the wealthy voluntarily let go of their power and resources to share with those who have less?

Even so, Aristotle saw this vision for Athens. Some in his day decried the inequalities in Athens that Rome was facing its last days. We see Jesus, three decades before Jerusalem would be turned to Gehenna, trying to turn the tide within first-century Palestine, too.

Today the poets and prophets still cry:

Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27 cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-4)

HeartGroup Application

The last phrase in our saying this week, “you who do lawlessness,” reveals that in Jesus’s call for debt forgiveness and wealth redistribution he was calling the people to follow those sections of the Torah that called for the same. Deuteronomy 15 stated clearly that if inequality were strictly guarded against, “there need be no poor people among you” (verse 4).

This week I want you as a group to watch a short documentary together and then engage in an exercise in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the book of Acts.

  1. The documentary I’d like to you watch is Requiem for the American Dream.
  2. Then I want you to find five places in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts where you see examples of either Jesus calling for the redistribution of wealth or Jesus followers heeding Jesus’ call and engaging the redistribution of their surplus wealth.
  3. This last part will be the most challenging. What do you envision wealth redistribution looking like today? Describe what forms this could possibly take within our own society. Discuss the various descriptions your group comes up with and how each of you could lean into these descriptions, like those in the book of Acts, in your daily lives.

At Renewed Heart Ministries, we believe that this first century, Jewish prophet of the poor has something to offer us today in our contemporary work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Each of us is called, together, to the work of making our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for all.

Where this finds you this week, lean into that work, and know you are not alone.

It is this work that defines what it means to keep living in love.

Thanks for checking in this week.

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.