The Lost Sheep

Picture of a sheep

by Herb Montgomery | October 27, 2017

“This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.”

Featured Text:

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

Companion Text:

Matthew 18:12-13—“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”

Luke 15:4-7—“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Gospel of Thomas 107: “Jesus says: ‘The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray, the largest. He left the ninety-nine, and he sought the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep: “I love you more than the ninety-nine.”’”

In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, this saying is used in different contexts for two different narrative purposes. We’ll look at both.

Matthew’s Vulnerable

In Matthew, this saying about 99 abandoned but safe sheep focuses on the vulnerability of the one lost sheep. Matthew prepares the reader by Jesus saying first, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” (Matthew 18:10)

The context is Jesus’ teaching about children.

In Jesus’ ancient Mediterannean world, children were at the bottom of the social and economic scale when it came to status and rights. Thomas Carney, in The Shape of the Past: Models of Antiquity, explains:

“Age division, and commensurate power and responsibility, were hierarchical, sharply demarcated and significant. Authority ran vertically downward. Age and tradition were revered and powerful . . . Early training was harshly disciplined. It was not until early adulthood that the young person began receiving serious consideration as a member of the family group.” (p. 92)

Here in Greenbrier County, WV, I sit on the board of our Child and Youth Advocacy Center (CYAC). This CYAC brings justice, hope, and healing to children in Greenbrier, and the nearby Monroe and Pocahontas Counties. The CYAC is a nationally-accredited child advocacy center that compassionately and effectively puts first the needs of children who are victims of abuse. In a society where those with access to resources have greater power and social control, children have access to neither power nor resources. In Western society, children have no independent access to the typical avenues to power and self-determination: education, income, or work. They are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Whatever discrimination we speak of on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity, we must remember that all of these discriminations are significantly compounded when they apply to children who depend on others for both their survival and their thriving.

Matthew points to the singular lamb that receives the shepherd’s preferential option for the most vulnerable in his flock—the “little ones” Jesus taught about.

Gustavo Gutiérrez often states that Jesus’ preferential option for the vulnerable is 90% of liberation theologies, and it’s this preferential option that we come face to face with in this week’s saying. What does “preferential option” mean?

The world of society’s most vulnerable is a world of both poverty and death. Poverty, in most societies, means death before one’s time. Societal vulnerability comes in multiple forms and has different causes, but is characterized by certain ones in a community being considered less than, other, insignificant, or less human. They become dehumanized and objectified. Vulnerability can be simply economic or can also involve gender, race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Because it is complex, vulnerability demands more than individual acts of charity: it requires the work of justice. As I am fond of saying, the prophets did not call for charity; they called for justice. Our tools must help us to identify and then actively resist the unjust structures that cause societal vulnerability.

So when liberation theologians speak of a preferential option for the vulnerable, they do not mean that it is optional. Option in this case means a commitment. It means to opt for this rather than that. In this week’s saying we see a teaching that calls us to choose the side of the vulnerable people in our societies.

Making certain ones vulnerable to benefit others at their expense wounds the entire society. Their vulnerability can only be healed by us “choosing” solidarity alongside the vulnerable. And that is where the preferential part comes in. By “preferential” we mean who should first have our solidarity? The preferential option means subscribing to Jesus’ vision for society where the last become first and the first become last. Jesus’ followers are to stand in preferential solidarity with the “poor,” the “hungry,” and those who “weep” (Luke 6:20-21)

This weeks’ saying calls each of us to stand in solidarity with the ones who are vulnerable rather than remaining safe in our social status among the ninety-nine who are not threatened.

Luke’s “Sinners”

Luke’s use of this saying is similar, but different. He uses this saying to explain why Jesus is standing in solidarity with people whom some of the more popular religious leading voices of his day said are unclean, are sinners, and should be marginalized.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Luke 15:1, 2)

The use of the label “sinners” in the gospels is specific not universal. Christians today, especially evangelical Christians see the label of “sinner” as applying to everyone. In the Jesus stories there’s a cultural context for the label “sinner.” It was used to refer to Jewish people who were not living up to contemporary interpretations and definitions of Torah observance. (We’ll discuss this at length in next week’s saying.)

In Luke, these “sinners” are responding positively to Jesus’ economic teachings while the wealthy progressive Pharisees are not.

Luke 5:27-28: “After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”

Luke 19:1-9: “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Now contrast those passages with this one.

Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Ched Myers does an excellent job at distilling for us the social and political positions of the Pharisees in the Gospels. The scholarly evidence can be found in his book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (see pages 75-78 and 431). What I had missed in my modern reading is that one of the tensions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the Jesus story was political power from their interpretations of the purity codes. (We’ll unpack this in detail next week, too.) The Sadducees kept a tight rein on political power by maintaining a more conservative interpretation of purity that keep them firmly centered as social elites and sole community decision-makers.

By contrast, the Pharisees sought to gain political power by opening up the definitions of purity to more people but still leaving themselves in control of determining who was “clean” and who was “unclean.” The Pharisees’ interpretation of purity according to the Torah was much more progressive or “liberal”, and therefore gave access to more people than the Sadducee’s interpretations did, but it still left them holding all the reins. It was therefore more popular with the masses than the Sadducee interpretation and was what gave the Pharisees their social power.

But whereas the Sadducees appealed to the upper class elites, the Pharisees appealed to those we would today call “middle class,” and the poor masses were still unclean and therefore excluded. Jesus emerged within Galilee as a prophet of the poor. The Gospels are an effort to convince readers that “the Pharisaic social strategy practice, that it is not the populist alternative it seems, but merely a cosmetic alternative to the oppressive clerical hierarchy.” Jesus does this repeatedly in the stories by “raising a deeper issue concerning the place of the poor in the [Pharisaical] social order” (Ibid. p 431).

This brings to my mind the reality I’ve witnessed within more progressive strands of modern Christianity. A Christian group or ministry can be very progressive compared to others, but still be racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, or capitalist. The label of “liberal” is not synonymous with liberation; and “progressive” does not necessarily mean radical.

Jesus wasn’t a liberal. He taught what could be termed radical liberation. Jesus wasn’t offering people greater access and opportunity in the current domination and/or competition system, but he rather offered an entirely new way for people to relate to each other as humans in community. Because he repudiated the then-present system and had an alternative vision for human community, Jesus rejoiced in centering voices long neglected rather than those who through religious ritual perfection and purity located themselves at the center or top of community power structures.

This has implications for our justice work today as well. There are two types of justice work. One seeks to give people equal access to a competitive system where there will still be winners and losers regardless of race, gender, orientation, or other traits. The other is a type of social justice that seeks to include everyone, yet has a radical vision for society of no more winners and losers, and cooperation over competition. In the second vision, people aren’t simply given the education and tools required for them to play the game with equal ability. Rather, we call into question whether the game itself is good for humans to play at all.

Where Matthew focuses on solidarity with the vulnerable, Luke focuses on including those who have been marginalized as unclean outsiders, announcing their inclusion in the shared table that Jesus is promoting. Both Matthew and Luke give us much to ponder in our work today.

“Which person is there among you who has a hundred sheep, on losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains‚ and go hunt for the lost one? And if it should happen that he finds it, I say to you that he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Q 15:4-5a, 7)

HeartGroup Application

This past week, Keisha McKenzie directed my attention to an article by Chanequa Walker-Barnes entitled Why I Gave Up Church. In this article, Walker-Barnes asks the question:

“What word does Christianity have to offer for those of us who live with our backs constantly against the walls of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal ableist capitalism?”

This week I want you to:

  1. Read the article together as a group.
  2. Once you’re finished, take some time to discuss the article together. How did Walker-Barnes affirm what you were already feeling? How did she challenge you? Which of her points, if any, did you agree with? Explain your answers in your group.
  3. Lastly, this week, please remember that 80% of Puerto Rico is still without drinking water and electricity. As Rosa Clemente stated last week, “This is a colonial problem that began 119 years ago.” As a HeartGroup, come up with a way to help.

One HeartGroup shared with me one of their group members had convinced their workplace to have a casual Friday where a donation of $10 or more to Puerto Rico allowed employees to come to work in casual clothing. All income was donated. If you need help knowing exactly how to do something concrete that will help, there are many suggestions right now. An example is Puerto Rico Still Needs Our Help. Here’s What You Can Do. The point is to come up with something your group can do and then take action.

Thank you for checking in with us again this week. Keep living in love, and keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation.

And for those of you who are supporting our work, I just can’t thank you enough. This past weekend proved once again just how vital and much needed our work here at RHM is. We could not exist without you, and I thank you for your financial partnership with us. For others of you who are interested in supporting our work as well, please go to renewedheartministries.com and click donate. There you can become one of our monthly contributors or make a one-time donation. Either way, every amount helps.

Together we are making a difference, carrying on the work found in Luke 4:18-19 one engagement at a time.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Against Enticing Little Ones

“Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

Photo Credit: “Cristo de la Liberacion” (Christ of the Liberation) by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, who’s been dubbed “liberation painter.”

“Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society.”

by Herb Montgomery | October 20, 2017

Featured Text:

“It is necessary for enticements to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is put around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he should entice one of these little ones.” Q 17:1-2

Companion Texts:

Matthew 18:6-7: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

Luke 17:1, 2: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’”

We stumble when we’re learning to walk. This week, we are focusing on those who are walking toward a safer, more just, and compassionate world, and we’ll be considering how as they move forward, others will actively obstruct their path rather than smoothing it out. Obstructionists place stumbling blocks in the way of those moving forward, causing their advance to be harder than it should be.

We are, again, considering one of Jesus’ sayings about “little ones.” As I wrote in Thanksgiving that God Reveals Only to Children:

“The family structure in Palestine in the first century was a hierarchical pyramid with the male patriarch at the top. On the bottom rung of the social ladder, below slaves, were children (see Galatians 4:1).

Social status is typically evaluated by the degree to which one has both power and resources. Those with large measures of control over power and resources operate in higher social positions, while those with very little access to power and resources live at the bottom.

Children have access to neither power nor resources. The typical avenues to power and control of resources are education, income, or work. In our societies, children have none of these, and they are vulnerable to abuse and neglect so child advocacy and children’s rights are much needed. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, disability, color, or ethnicity are also compounded when they apply to children.”

Our focus in this week’s saying is directed toward the “little ones” Jesus spoke of—the most vulnerable sectors of society. In the Greek, “little ones” (mikros) can not only refer to children, but also any who are vulnerable to exploitation by the status quo. It doesn’t have to mean a young person; it can also refer to a person’s “rank or influence” within a society. Christianity has a long history in doing damage to our most vulnerable and most marginalized.

Native People 

One example in this history is the way Christian preachers and missionaries used the Canaanite conquest and genocide stories in the Bible to legitimize the genocide of Native peoples here in the U.S.:

“Biblical notions of extirpation influenced colonial America from the earliest days of the settlement. In a tract publicizing the new Virginia settlement, Robert Gray expressed the hope that Indians might accept Christianity, but if they did not, biblical commands were clear: ‘Saul had his kingdom rent from him and his posterity because he spared Agag . . . whom God would not have spared; so acceptable a service is it to destroy idolaters, whom God hateth.’” (Philip Jenkins, in Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, p. 133)

During the colonial era, many New England preachers such as Cotton Mather compared Pequot Indians to modern Ammonites and New England to a modern Israel (see Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, vol. 1, p. 553). With this interpretation, if Saul had had his kingdom taken away because he failed to utterly destroy the Ammonites, the new American Christians were not to fail in the complete annihilation of their modern, native “Ammonites” if they wanted ensure their place on this continent, their “promised land.” The genocide of Native people was rooted in Christians’ lethal interpretation of violent Bible passages; it was a genocide they believed God had commanded them to execute.

Slavery

During the abolitionist years leading up to the American Civil War, many Christian preachers quoted Leviticus’ passages affirming slavery and claimed that neither Paul nor Jesus had reversed those passages. One famous preacher, ironically named Moses Stuart, wrote:

“Not one word has Christ said, to annul the Mosaic law while it lasted. Neither Paul nor Peter have uttered one. Neither of these have said to Christian masters: ‘Instantly free your slaves.’ Yet they lived under Roman laws concerning slavery, which were rigid to the last degree. How is it explicable on any ground, when we view them as humane and benevolent teachers, and especially as having a divine commission-how is it possible that they should not have declared and explicitly [so] against a malum in se [something evil in itself]?”

He confidently pronounced that those calling for the end of slavery “must give up the New Testament authority, or abandon the fiery course which they are pursuing” (Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution; with Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery, 1850).

Another minister, a Southern Methodist named J.W. Tucker, proclaimed to his Confederate audience fighting for their right to own slaves, “Your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error-of Bible with Northern infidelity-of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.” (Kurt O. Berends, “Confederate Sacrifice and the ‘Redemption’ of the South,” in Religion and the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews, p. 105.) Tucker’s rhetoric sounds almost identical to the rhetoric of Christians today as they condemn movement in many faith traditions toward the affirmation of LGBTQ people.

Against Women

Christianity also has a long history with patriarchy and misogyny. Roman Catholic writer John Paul Boyer explains in Some thoughts on the Ordination of Women: 

Being a Jew, being a Palestinian, being a first century man—all these are what we might call, in the language of Aristotelian metaphysical, the ‘accidents of Christ’s humanity;’ but his being a man rather than a woman is of the ‘substance’ of his humanity. He could have been a twentieth-century Chinese and been, cultural differences notwithstanding, much the same person he was, but he could not have been a woman without having been a different sort of personality altogether.” (A Monthly Bulletin of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, ())

Womanist scholar Jacqueline Grant rightly states in her book White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus that “the most significant use of this argument” came from Pope Paul VI on October 15, 1976, when he approved and published the following declaration:

“The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based up on natural signs, or symbols imprinted up on the human psychology: ‘Sacramental signs’, says Saint Thomas, ‘represent what they signify by natural resemblance.’ The same natural resemblance is required for personas as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man. In such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.” (Franjo Cardinal Seper, Vatican Declaration, Feb 6, 1977, p. 6)

Never mind that the church’s own creation story states clearly that both male and female were made in the image of God. There have long been interpretations of these stories that have marginalized, wholly excluded, and damaged women personally and institutionally. Because of the patriarchal nature of many sectors of Christianity, and despite the fact that there are feminist and womanist Christians, some have gone so far as to say that Christianity is a man’s religion.

LGBTQ Fear

Anyone who lived through the 1980s here in the U.S. knows all too well how Christianity has done untold damage to the LGBTQ community, legitimizing the inmate homophobia of straight parishioners through interpretations that are trans-, bi-, genderqueer-, and homo-phobic. For a history that reaches back into the 1970s, the Southern Poverty Law Center offers an excellent history of the modern Christian anti-gay movement, starting with Anita Bryant in 1977. Just a quick read demonstrates how monstrously Christians have mischaracterized this community and used damaging interpretations of the Bible to bolster their mischaracterization. Jay Grimstead, a founder of The Coalition on Revival, bluntly stated that “Homosexuality makes God vomit”. Many similar arguments are rhetorically identical to those Christians in the 1800’s used in their opposition to ending slavery. The Christian Moral Majority didn’t get its start opposing abortion or gay people, but by opposing integration after Brown v. Board of Education. They began a network of private Christian schools to make sure their White children did not have to attend school with Black and Brown children.

I’ve given you four examples of how interpretations of our sacred text have done and continue to do damage to those who are most vulnerable within our society. I also, wrote two weeks ago:

“Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.”

In each of the above examples, you can come up with Bible interpretations to oppose valuing and protecting Native people and lands, ending slavery, promoting equity for women, and seeking justice for the LGBTQ community. Some claim they are just reading the Bible plainly. But we never see things objectively. As the saying goes, we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.

Our experiences determine not only the questions we ask, but also the answers we get back. Plain readings are not plain but are read through the lens of our own paradigms and fears. And this is one reason why it is so vital, if we are going to make our world safe and just for everyone, that we learn to listen to stories, experiences, and interpretations of our sacred texts from the most vulnerable communities in our society. This is how liberation theology was born: those in South America read the Bible very differently than their colonial Christian exploiters. It’s how Black liberation theology was born: Black Christians in the U.S. read the Bible radically differently than white Christians read it. It’s how feminist and womanist theologies were born and how queer theology was born. We need these voices and perspectives if we are to arrive at interpretations of our sacred text that cease to do harm.

Today we have a broad swathe of people who want nothing to do with Jesus because of the history of the church as the largest stumbling block in the path of the vulnerable in their work toward a world of justice and compassion. They see a Christianity that seems to habitually do harm, ever landing on the wrong side of history. They don’t see a Jesus who taught survival, resistance, liberation, and justice. They don’t see a Jewish Jesus on the side of the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Rather, that Jesus is eclipsed by a religion that was formed in his name. This is gives me great reason to pause. I know first-hand how my own faith has been fractured by watching Christian racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia just in my local community here in West Virginia. I love Jesus, but I have zero tolerance for the kind of Christianity my family seems to be surrounded by where we live.

I do not apologize for this week’s eSight. And I don’t believe the truth of our history to be too harsh to share. As someone who loves the historic, first-century Jewish Jesus, I have simply  become disillusioned with the most vocal sectors of Christianity in our culture. Just this week I’ve endured disappointment again as Christians who should have been passionately living out the value of compassionate listening to the voices of the vulnerable, who claim to believe God love’s everyone, were passionate instead to protect their own cherished theology that has been shown to be hurtful to the vulnerable. Does your God love the vulnerable or your theology? Which is it that should be given a priority of worth? As Emilie Townes states, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”  But what happens when you believe God loves everyone and that doesn’t lead to justice? What about when the ones preaching “God loves everyone” are the stumbling block for those working toward a safer, just, more compassionate world for the vulnerable?

As a Christian myself, I take this week’s saying seriously. It was said to Jesus’ followers, and we who take his name today must allow this week’s saying to confront us:

“Woe to the one through [whom stumbling blocks] come! It is better for them if a millstone is put around their neck and they are thrown into the sea, than that they should cause one of the vulnerable to stumble.” Q 17:1-2 

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to spend some time with the above article.

  1. As a group discuss what challenges this week’s eSight creates for you.
  2. Discuss together where you feel encouraged by this week’s eSight. Maybe encouragement comes just from hearing that you’re not alone in your feelings of frustration toward your Christianity being a stumbling block to so many people.
  3. What are some ways you can move toward interpretations of our sacred texts that are not damaging and don’t create stumbling blocks for those pushed to the edges of our society? Which interpretations can also move you to take tangible, concrete actions as an individual and as a group to stand in solidarity with those walking toward a more just world? How can you smooth out another person’s way toward liberation? As it states in Isaiah:

“Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40.4)

Thank you for checking in with us this week. Wherever this finds you, keep living in love engaging the work of transforming our world.

And to each of you who are supporting the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, we simply could not do this without you. We have a lot of educational events lined up for this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Or you can always mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Every amount helps. Thank you!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Divorce Leading to Adultery

by Herb Montgomery

“Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.”

Featured Text:

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:32: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Christians taking Jesus’ saying on divorce at face value have forced women to stay in untold situations of abuse. I want to argue this week that in the context of the 1st Century’s economic realities for women in Roman and Jewish patriarchal society, and in the context of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel on divorce, Jesus’s saying about divorce did not judge women but was instead concerned with social justice for them.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

First, within at least Jewish society at the time of Jesus, divorce was the prerogative of the man. The laws were patriarchal:

Deuteronomy 22:13-18: “If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, ‘I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,’ then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. Her father will say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered her and said,  “I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.” But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.”

This passage is disturbing for multiple reasons, but this week  I’d like to focus on the fact that reparation for the unjust slander in the text would be paid “to the young woman’s father.” There is no reparation to the woman in that case and she would also have to remain married to her offender.

Another disturbing example is found a few verses further on in Deuteronomy 22:

Deuteronomy 22:23-24: “If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.”

Blaming the victim because “she didn’t scream for help” is sick. This law blames rape victims for their own rape. But also notice that the man is punished because he violated “another man’s wife.” The crime is against the other man, not against the woman who is simply “another man’s wife.”

The last deeply disturbing example to consider is just a few more verses even further:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

This is sick on multiple levels, too! The victim of rape must marry her rapist, and without the option of divorce? Again the financial penalty is one that must be paid to the woman’s “father.”

Jesus’s saying must be interpreted in light of a culture where a women had few rights. She could not send her husband away with a certificate of divorce; only men were allowed to do that.

Also, the Torah’s criteria for divorce was problematic.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”

Notice that within the Torah, the only prerequisite for divorce was if the woman “displeased” her husband in any way. Deuteronomy was at the heart of the debate between the Pharisaical schools of Shammai and Hillel. Hillel focused on the “displeasing” portion of this text and stated that a man could send his wife away, giving her a certificate of divorce, for any reason if he was “displeased” with her. Shammai, on the other hand, focused on the word “indecent” and said the permissible reason for a man to send his wife away was if she had committed an indecent act of infidelity, such as adultery. Notice that language. “Only if she” did. His adultery was not addressed because until Hellenistic influence, only men could issue a certificate of divorce. So you have two arguing factions. One said a man could divorce a woman for any reason he chose. And the other sought to limit the justification for divorce only to adultery.

Jesus and Hillel had so much in common in their teachings. Yes, Jesus and Hillel differed on the prozbul. Jesus called for the year of Jubilee where all debts would be forgiven and accumulated wealth redistributed to the poor. But in most every other area, Jesus interpreted the Torah in much the same way as Hillel. In the case of divorce, however, Jesus rejected the school of Hillel and sided either in the gospel of Matthew with Shammai, or in the gospel of Mark, a more stringent rejection of divorce than even Shammai (and Moses as well for that matter) would have been comfortable with.

Let’s look at each.

In Matthew, Jesus states that divorce in the Torah was a concession or an accommodation to male “hard-heartedness” within patriarchal marriages. Reasons could include something as minor as “finding something objectionable or unpleasing” about one’s wife (see Deuteronomy 24:1). In Matthew, Jesus goes beyond Torah and limits the reasons for a husband to divorce his wife to only infidelity.

Matthew 19:8-9: “He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’”

In Mark, we find a Jesus that is even more strident than in Matthew. There is no justification of divorce here, and even the reason of “infidelity” in Matthew is left out. “Whoever divorces his wife,” period.

Mark 10:5-10: “But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In the house, the disciples ask Jesus again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.*”[*Mark was written for a gentile audience, and within Roman culture women could divorce men as is seen here. In first-century Judaism it remained that only men could serve a certificate of divorce to a woman.]

I would argue that in each of these examples we see a Jesus who is living within the boundaries of his own Roman and Jewish patriarchal social order and marriage. His concern, within those constraints, is justice for women in a culture that disadvantages women, making women dependent on fathers and husbands for survival, with very few exceptions. In more egalitarian marriages, the principle would be the same: distributive justice for all parties involved.

I come from a long history of divorce on both my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family. I am the son of both my mother’s and father’s second marriages. My mother would go on to be married a total of four times and my father, three. I grew up with my mother living despite a physically and emotionally abusive situation, afraid to leave because there had been no case of marital infidelity on her or husband’s part. I see this as a gross misunderstanding of the cultural context of Jesus’ words. In Jesus’ culture, where Jesus speaks of divorce, we see a double standard where men didn’t commit adultery against their wives, but only against the husbands of the married women they may have had sex with. If woman was unmarried, the man paid a penalty to the father of the woman (cf. Deuteronomy 22:29), but it was not labeled as adultery, even if the man himself was married. This was a culture whose adultery laws were written when men were permitted to have multiple wives, as long as the rights of fathers in those wives’s lives were “respected.”

Jesus words in the gospels regarding divorce should not be shallowly interpreted and lifted out of their context to promote injustice and abuse toward women today. This would be to contradict the spirit of justice for women originally within those words.

Nor should they be used today to support patriarchal marriage as an ideal for human society. Speaking of Jesus’ words in the Temple debates (see Mark 12:24-27) where he unequivocally denounces patriarchal marriage as having a place in the world transformed, made just, safe and compassionate for all, Elizabeth Schüssel Fiorenza writes in In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins:

“[Jesus is not claiming] that sexual differentiation and sexuality do not exist in the ‘world’ of God, but that ‘patriarchal marriage is no more,’ because its function in maintaining and continuing patriarchal economic and religious structures is no longer necessary . . . [Mark 12:26-27] replies directly to the question of the continuation of the patriarchal family: in the burning bush God is revealed to Moses as the God of promise given to the patriarchs and their posterity. The ‘house’ of Israel is not guaranteed in and through patriarchal marriage structures, but through the promise and faithfulness of Israel’s powerful, life-giving God. While the God of the patriarchal systems and its securities is the ‘God of the dead,’ the God of Israel is the ‘God of the living.’ In God’s world women and men no longer relate to each other in terms of patriarchal dominance and dependence, but as persons who live in the presence of the living God . . . The Sadducees have ‘erred much’ in assuming that the structures of patriarchy are unquestionably a dimension of God’s world as well. So, too, all subsequent Christians have erred in maintaining oppressive patriarchal structures.” (pp. 144-145)

Today, I hear Jesus’ words this week calling us to prioritize the vulnerable within our societies. Whether that vulnerability is rooted in discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, gender identity, class, education, sexuality, ability, age, culture, language, and/or religion, we are called to put people and their well-being first, even if that means we going against traditional and popular interpretations of our sacred texts. This week’s saying speaks of women being more than disposable objects, easily discarded in consumer-style patriarchal marriages. People couldn’t simply discard or trade wives based on legal loopholes in the Torah without acknowledging the damage done to the women involved. In Spirit, it calls us to reject seeing anyone as a disposable means to our own pleasure and gratification. People matter.

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another‚ commits adultery, and the one who marries a divorcée commits adultery.” (Q 16:18)

HeartGroup Application

Our saying this week has been used to harm spouses in abusive marriages.

  1. How have you witnessed our saying this week used to keep people in abusive relationships?
  2. Does seeing this week’s saying through the lens of a call for social justice toward women in a patriarchal society make a difference for you?
  3. Discuss as a group which other sectors of society are presently being objectified, used for another sector’s benefit, or scapegoated in the name of community integrity and unity? Brainstorm things your group can do to make a change.

People matter. They aren’t disposable. They aren’t means to another person’s ends. We are worthy of more than being cogs in other people’s machinery.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice if we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so by giving on our Donate page.

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference! This month an attendee of one of our events contacted us via our website and shared:

“I heard Herb speak today for the first time and was deeply moved by his presentation. I came away understanding The Lord’s Prayer from a new perspective and committed to become more involved in social justice. Thank you for your honesty and ability to shed new light on basis truths.”—Attendee in Arizona

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Renewed Heart Ministries
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Thank you in advance for your partnership in the work of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.