Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Picture of mustardby Herb Montgomery

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.”

Featured Text:

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Companion Texts:

Matthew 17:20: “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”

Luke 17:6: “He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 48: “Jesus says, ‘If two make peace with one another in one and the same house, then they will say to the mountain: “Move away,” and it will move away.’”

Mark 11:23: “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”

The Mountain of the Temple State

We have a lot to unpack in this week’s saying. Let’s begin with talking about the mountain or mulberry tree. In the book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers writes about Mark’s use of this week’s saying under the heading “Faith as Political Imagination.” William Telford also saw an economic and political backdrop on which to understand this week’s saying:

“In Jewish circles, the correlative mountain and tree uprooting images [were] found in legal, legendary, thaumaturgic and eschatological contexts and employed in connection with the Rabbi, the king, the hero, the thaumaturge or the Messianic follower. In a legal context, the term ‘uprooter of mountains’ was found to have a technical meaning. Applied to the king (and to Herod in particular), it could be employed as a double entendre, bolstering a legal argument for the exceptional nature of Herod’s pulling down of the Temple . . . The function of [Mark’s] redaction is therefore to announce, we believe, that the ‘moving of mountains’ expected in the last days was now taking place. Indeed, about to be removed was the mountain par excellence, the Temple Mount. The Temple, known to the Jewish people as the ‘mountain of the house’ or ‘this mountain’ was not to be elevated, as expected, but cast down!” (William Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, p. 118)

Jesus’ narrative contrasts with the narrative of the elites of his day and of future Zealots in Jewish-Roman war, which would take place three decades later. Both of these groups saw the Temple State as enduring. The elites believed that as long as the Empire remained strong and the Temple aristocracy cooperated with Rome’s demands, the Temple State centered in Jerusalem could endure. The Zealots, on the other hand, sought to reform the Temple State. They, along with the Jewish poor, revolted against economic exploitation and wrested control of the Temple State from the aristocrats. They then launched a three-and-a-half year war to liberate Jerusalem from Roman occupation and the poor from the exploitation of the controlling Jewish families of their time.

But both of these narratives involved a Temple State enduring in some form, and Jesus taught that the Temple State could be overturned. I cannot state this strongly enough: Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. He did not envision a Christian religion replacing Judaism; rather he envisioned a Jewish society without a Temple State. Why? Because in his day the Temple State was at the heart of the exploitation of the poor he had dedicated his life to working in solidarity with. The Jesus of the gospels envisioned a world where the presence of YHWH could be expressed through a community of resource-sharing and redistribution as opposed to a Temple at the heart of the systemic exploitation of the poor.

Consider the following passages:

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. (Mark 12:42, cf. Luke 21:2)

“Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:43-44)

Then immediately following this account of the economic abuse of this poor woman, we read:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2)

It was a vision of a different world.

The exploiting Temple State is the mountain the Jesus envisions being cast in the sea in the synoptics.

Thrown into the Sea

In Mark’s gospel, we first encounter the imagery of being thrown into the sea in the story of the exorcism at Gerasenes. Here the demoniac is a symbol of the Jewish people being occupied by the Roman Empire—the demons’ name is “Legion,” like the unit of Roman soldiers. When the demons plead not to be driven out of the land, Jesus permits them to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs who hurl themselves (and the empire they symbolize) into the sea.

“A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, hurled themselves down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned.” (Mark 5:11-13)

Now Jesus is using this same image for his listeners, calling them to imagine a world where the exploitative Temple State (Mark and Matthew’s Mountain and Luke’s Mulberry Tree), too, could be thrown into the sea.

The message was that the world can be remade, without exploitation.

This is the part of the message that received the greatest pushback. It threatened not only the aristocratic Temple elites who finally had Jesus executed, but also those who saw the Temple as the manifestation of YHWH’s presence among them as a chosen people. Throughout history, religious worship of a God has often been tied to the oppression of vulnerable people, and the liberation of the oppressed has often involved throwing out God too. It’s no wonder. It makes perfect sense.

Jesus was calling the people to imagine that a different God, too, was possible: they could imagine a world without a Temple without having to embrace a world without their God. God’s presence, instead of in an apartment in the Temple, would show up in the midst of their community, a community that Jesus called “the kingdom.” That terminology is problematic for those of us who live in republics today but simply it meant a community that endeavored to practice God’s vision for human society according to Jesus. This was a world rooted in distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough. This was a community where we took responsibility for taking care of one another. Our interconnectedness was understood, embraced, and experienced. We have been robbed of so much in our capitalist society today by individualism and competition. Jesus taught that a very different world was possible.

Today

Today in the U.S., we don’t have a religious state with a temple at its heart. Our society is a secular pluralist society with a large sector of citizens claiming the Christian religion. We do have folks who feel that to abandon the religion they were raised in, the religion of their oppressors, they must also abandon their faith in their God. I believe there’s much to learn from Jesus’s distinction between faith in God and faith in a religious institution.

Let me be frank. Faith traditions and institutions have used their sacred texts and religions to oppress women, to hold on to and practice racism, to legitimize classism, and to condone and even prescribe their own homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a letter was sent to all the pastors of a conference in the tradition I was raised in from their conference president, warning, “We do not receive into membership anyone who is in a practicing homosexual relationship.” Last weekend I had a very different experience hosting as guests in my home two very dear friends of mine, women who are married and raising two beautiful daughters. This couple still very much identifies as being a part of the same denomination that wrote that letter excluding them. They are raising their kids in the denomination and one of their families goes back generations in this tradition. But the denomination’s letter singles out people like my friends, who are already marginalized.

Shame! Shame on those of us who use our religion as a tool of oppression and dehumanization rather than liberation.

And for those who find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination both in the world outside their religion and also within their religious tradition as well, actions like the denomination’s bring them the extra struggle of having to parse their faith in a God whom they believes loves them and a religious tradition where they first encountered God but that rejects them.

I love how Jon Sobrino sums up Jesus’ message to those who find themselves in this place:

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 82)

Jesus stood in solidarity with people the religious, socio-economic, and political powers of his day pushed to the margins. He called them to envision a different world without the oppressing Temple State. And he was crucified by the Temple State for doing so.

There’s an interesting detail in the story, though. At the moment Jesus died, each of the synoptic gospels includes this note:

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27.51)

“The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15.38)

“For the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23.45)

This curtain separated the innermost Holy Place in the temple from the rest of the structure.

The Holy Place was the room where YHWH’s very presence was believed to dwell.

But in the story when the curtain is torn in two, what is revealed?

What do the people see beyond the veil?

The room is empty.

The God of the poor, the God of the Oppressed, the God of those pushed to the edges of society, the God of the marginalized is not there. The room is empty. The God who stands with society’s vulnerable is actually present in the one suspended between heaven and earth, between two rebels, the one who lived his life in solidarity with them and died as a result of it. That God is not at the heart of the system exploiting or marginalizing them.

God is with them, the crucified community.

The resurrection undoes, overturns, and overcomes all that was accomplished by Jesus’ execution in the story. But before the resurrection, the first post-execution event is the rending of the temple’s veil.

It can be very painful to sever or tear the association of your religious institution with your God. But I believe that disillusionment must come. Deconstruction must be embraced. And as painful as it is, we must lean into that deconstruction and come out on the other side to reconstruct a beautiful revolution. And this is where we come full circle back to this week’s saying about faith.

Faith

Angela Davis describes activism as a matter of faith. She states, “We always have to act as if revolution were possible. We have to act as if it were possible to change the world. And if we do that work, the world is gonna change. Even if it doesn’t change the way we need it to change right now, it will change.” (Spirit of Justice with Michelle Alexander & Angela Davis)

In the Jesus stories, faith always makes the difference:

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)

“‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’” (Mark 10:52)

“According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Matthew 9:29)

“Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)

“Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’” (Mark 5:36)

“When Jesus saw their faith . . .” (Mark 2:5)

“Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’” (Matthew 8:13)

“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’” (Matthew 15:28)

“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5-6)

“Jesus said, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)

The text of Mark’s gospel suggests that it was written when people were struggling to continue believing—but believing in what?

It wasn’t the existence of God that they were struggling to believe. A person could opt out of the Jesus movement and still believe in the existence of God.

In Mark, faith is not defined in terms of accepting doctrinal truths of a religious organization or tradition.

It’s not even defined as confessing Jesus as the Christ or as Divine.

Jesus did not preach himself in the stories. Let me repeat that. Jesus did not preach himself. So what did Jesus preach? What did Jesus call his listeners to believe?

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15, emphasis added.)

Jesus called his listeners to believe the good news that the kingdom, the reign of God, or God’s vision for human society, had come. Belief was tied to embracing the kingdom, to “imagining another way of being another way of existing in the world” (Angela Davis, ibid). The good news of God calls us to imagine a new world and believe it’s possible. This kind of faith is what made all the difference in the stories of the gospels: the belief that things could actually be different, that we can choose a different world. It was a message of hope. And even if it doesn’t come to full fruition in our lifetimes, the kind of world we want to create cannot receive its finishing touches by future generations if we haven’t either laid the ground work for them or kept building today on the foundations of those that have come before us.

“It’s about how we show up in this world in the limited time we have.” — Michelle Alexander

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Heart Group Application

  1. This week I want you to work toward putting that kind of faith into action. As a group, make a list of all the things everyone enjoys doing in their free time.  Go around the room and have the group share the best qualities about each person present. What kind of skills are in the room? What kinds of things are the people in the room typically asked to help out with?
  2. Everyone has something special to contribute. With this list in hand, brainstorm ways your HeartGroup can volunteer in your community to help shape the world into what we believe our world can be. How can your group work as if revolution were possible?
  3. Pick an action and, as a group, do it.

Coming up on the 28th of this month is Giving Tuesday. This year, make a special year-end contribution to Renewed Heart Ministries to support our work on what is becoming one of the most important days for non-profits throughout the year.

On November 28 go to:

renewedheartministries.com/donate/ 

and help us meet our year-end goal!

Thank you in advance for partnering with us!

And thank you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation as we follow Jesus toward abundant life.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

“Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Featured Text:

“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. And if seven times a day he sins against you, also seven times shall you forgive him.” (Q 17:3-4)

Let’s jump right in this week with Matthew’s use of this week’s saying.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

Matthew 18:21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

This week’s saying is an in-house teaching: it’s about how Jesus followers were to relate to each other. As Deissmann reminds us, “By its very nature Primitive Christianity stood contrasted with the upper class not first as Christianity, but as a movement of the proletarian lower class” (New Light on the New Testament From the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1907, p. 7). And within this lower class movement, survival was a central concern: “Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 29). In this early community of Jesus followers, being divided from within was just as much a threat as being divided from forces that opposed the movement from without. As we look at this week’s saying, however, it’s not about forgiving “oppressors” or “enemies” outside of the community. It’s about how to navigate wrongs committed within the community itself. There are different sayings of Jesus that relate to the subject of enemy love. Our saying this week rather focuses on the community of the oppressed: “if your brother or sister sins against you” (emphasis added).

In the community of the early movement, there were those who used to be former oppressors who had chosen to stand in solidarity with this movement, repenting of their former lives and now choosing Jesus’s preferential option for the poor. Speaking of the internal struggle between predominantly white feminism and the struggle for liberation by women of color, Jacquelyn Grant shares, “From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation” (Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191) This week’s saying isn’t empty rhetoric. It values liberation before reconciliation within the early community of Jesus followers. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Internal Divisions

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25 cf. Luke 11:17). The context in Mark is that Jesus was speaking of the house of one’s oppressors, but it’s a universal truth that applies to any community working for social change as well. Last week, comments by Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church illustrated once again how internal differences can divide communities engaging the world of survival, resistance and liberation. He reminded me how necessary intersectional resistance is if we are going to make a difference. Those outside of our communities can divide us over our varied identities if we are not careful. “This division creates a kind of fragmented fellowship among progressives with advocates dispersed across a range of issues; income/wealth inequality, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, anti-poverty, education, environmental justice, LGBT rights, anti-violence work, healthcare, voting rights, the list goes on. This dynamic weakens our ability to create a unified front in combating the forces that oppose social and economic justice; forces which are much more unified and better financed than we are” (“The New Abolitionism” – Monetary Reform And The Future Of Social Justice)

We have to work to not allow our differences to divide us. This requires intention. Internal divisions can result from a variety of causes: intention, carelessness, ignorance, and more.

As an example, when I was first introduced to Christian LGBTQ communities, I remember being called on the carpet multiple times by two dear friends in particular. They were committed to the principle of putting liberation first, as a precursor to reconciliation or unity. They were committed to not letting me keep my blind spots or get away with my unintentional but still very real and damaging participation in their oppression.

At the time I believed respectability was required of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people if they were going to make progress in the minds and hearts of straight people. I offered the example of how seeing Christian LGBTQ folks and how that had contradicted every stereo type the kind of Christianity I was raised in had peddled to me of the LGBTQ community.

This respectability, though, was being defined by straight people, specifically certain Christian, straight people, but not required of us, and my friends were quick to call me out on it. Were the only folks of the LGBTQ community worthy of being “counted as human and therefore who get to live in a world that supports their flourishing” the Christian ones? My friends were part of a community that loved me too much to let me get away with treating them differently. It was a community of accountability. And this accountability was vital if our community was to be safe for oppressed people.

We recently covered this when we discussed Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Jesus’ community practices genuine love that does not allow people to get away with abuse and that prioritizes those to whom abuse would do the greatest damage. This starkly contrasts with the Christian communities I had been accustomed to. I was used to communities of “grace.” I know grace can have different meanings, and too often it means, “We don’t judge people other around here.” It produces an unhealthy environment where anything goes, and forgiveness is prioritized over accountability. Christian communities like that are dangerous for vulnerable people. They are communities where a preferential option for oppressors is practiced, consciously or unconsciously. They use the rhetoric of love but these communities are not loving because they don’t protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is where our saying comes in this week.

“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4, emphasis added.)

Jesus’s community practices rebuke and repentance when community members sin against each other. This is a community that seeks to set up healthy boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It not only “went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), but also required repentance within the community. Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; it is more than apologizing. Repentance also requires someone to change their mind and behavior regarding someone or something. Repentance is a change in how someone thinks about and acts toward someone or something.

And this change in how one thinks about someone or something requires listening, openness, belief, and choice. Examples include White people changing in relation to people of color, men changing in relation to women, straight folks changing in relation to LGB folks, cisgender folks changing in relation to trans folks, and the wealthy changing in relation to the poor. In order to allow one’s thinking to be changed (to allow repentance), you have to be willing to listen to the experiences of those whose lives are unlike your own. You have to be open to believing another person’s experience, and also choose to prioritize that person’s experience in your future choices.

There is a lot of talk today about what is being called “Third Way Spaces,” communities where people simply agree to disagree. Instead of defining community around one of two opposing positions, the community seeks to maintain a unity and cohesiveness without requiring any group to repent or change its mind. These types of communities are fine if we are disagreeing on the “best” flavor of ice cream. But they can be dangerous if the disagreement is over whether a person should exist or not. In matters such as orientation, gender, racial, or economic equality, for example, repentance is the necessary foundation of forgiveness and unity. “Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Seven times

Let’s talk about the part in both Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying where it is required to forgive even “seven times.” Understand that if someone makes the same so-called “mistake” seven times, that’s probably indicative that repentance, a change in how someone thinks about something or someone, has not really happened. In Mark’s gospel, we get a hint of what this could mean:

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).

Not the same demon seven time. Seven different demons. These were seven different instances, not the same instance being repeated seven times over and over again. As long as a person is willing to grow, they may have multiple issues they’re going to have to put the work into to deal with. As long as they are willing to do the necessary work intrinsic to repentance, then they can remain in the community. I think of those who were patient with me, who took note of my dedication to growing, my willingness to think differently and do the necessary work on my own, too, in challenging how I thought about things. These friends didn’t give up on me while I was still willing and working to change. I don’t want to be misunderstood. If others don’t bring to your relationship a prevenient willingness and investment in changing, it’s not your job to convince them to. They have to come to this in their own way. Our job is to create communities where reconciliation is built on the preceding foundation of liberation and that possess healthy boundaries of active repentance.

Ignorance is inevitable: our experiences are not all the same. But division is optional. Each of us can choose repentance. And if repentance is genuinely present, forgiveness can be chosen as well.

Unity at the price of silence

What I hope we are seeing this week is that in the early Jesus community, unity was not the highest value. Justice was. Liberation was. Thriving, especially for the vulnerable, was. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail places justice above unity and peace. This letter was Dr. King’s response to several criticisms made by his fellow clergymen who claimed to be allies and “brothers,” but published a letter entitled “A Call for Unity” and asked King to stop his work. King’s letter was the “rebuke” that called them to the kind of “repentance” required by our saying this week.

In my own faith tradition, presently there are those who are calling for ministerial ordination to include women. (I know. It’s 2017 and we’re still having to debate this.) Those opposed to ordaining women are calling for unity. But unity requires a change in how someone thinks about something or someone. There can be no unity while the official position and policy expresses that women are somehow “less than” men. There can be no unity where injustice toward others is not challenged and rejected. There is no genuine unity where injustice is practiced within the community.

I think of the recent interview of Angela Davis by Michelle Alexander hosted by Union Seminary and Riverside Church. In the question and answer session at the end, the dynamic of repentance being prioritized above unity in the relationship between White allies and people of color is discussed. It’s well worth your time to watch the entire interview if you have not already.

Choosing to think and live differently is not always easy, but it is possible. We can choose to center our community in the experiences of the vulnerable. Choosing to forgive is not easy either. Both repentance and forgiveness take work, and it’s worth it. Division only ends up empowering our oppressors.

If your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent forgive them. And if seven times a day they sin against you, also seven times shall you forgive them. Q 17:3-4

HeartGroup Application

  1. Those who feel comfortable sharing, share with the group a time when you found it deeply challenging to listen to another person’s experience, but chose to listen anyway. How did it end up changing the way you thought about something?
  2. Share with the group a time when someone who hurt you chose to change, and how that change impacted your ability to forgive them. Share the result of that forgiveness.
  3. Commit as a group to set up healthy boundaries where we hold each other accountable. Become a group that creates a safe space for the vulnerable among you. Practice Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Be willing to change.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, love that holds people accountable in our work of survival, resistance, and liberation on our path toward thriving.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

 

The Lost Coin

by Herb Montgomery | November 3, 2017

“Jesus willfully and intentionally transgressed the community boundaries of his day. We should too. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.”

Featured Text:

“Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose o ne coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

Companion Text:

Luke 15:8-10: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The term “sinner” is used in the gospels in a very particular sense. It’s not used in the universal “everyone’s a sinner” sense. We see this in Jesus’ socio-political context. Imagine a circle. Those at the center controlled and made the decisions for the circle while those pushed from the center toward the edges had less and less say the further away from the center they found themselves. What determined how close to the center someone operated was an idea that we  now have a difficult time understanding: this was the idea of purity. Those on the edges were pushed there by labelling them “sinners.” Those on the edges of the circle had no power, privilege, or voice. 

Cultural or ritual purity codes in any society are used to bring order to the chaos of our world. Ritual Purity codes are a way of organizing our communities.  What purity cultures are concerned about is found in Bruce Malina’s, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, describes 

“Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangement within 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 overturns boundaries.” (p. 125)

This way of ordering societies was not just practiced back then. We practice examples of this today. We manage purity in society and smaller communities within society, too! We misuse a person’s gender, race, orientation, gender expression, and gender identity to draw boundary lines in society. Examples might be the transgression of a community defined boundary within some religious groups by having a woman pastor. Or in larger society, examples might be found in how a community responds to the marriage of people from two different races, two men holding hands in public, or how a man in drag is interpreted in certain communities as transgressing or overturning “boundaries,” not fitting the “space in which it is found,” “belonging elsewhere,” or causing “confusion in the arrangement” of a “generally accepted social map.” 

Today we may or may not use the ancient language of “purity” to name something as clean or unclean, but we still in many social settings push those who transgress community boundaries from the center of that community to its edges. We marginalize them because we perceive them as not belonging.

In Jesus’ culture this was done primarily with various interpretations of the Torah. Those whose lives aligned with the community’s interpretation of the Torah were more clean or pure than others; they belonged. Those whose lives did not align were marginalized (pushed to the edges) and labeled “sinners.” The community looked upon them as outsiders even though they were Jewish. Again, in this use of the term “sinner,” not everyone was a sinner. Only those who did not measure up to the community’s definition of “clean” or “pure.” 

First let’s consider the Torah’s rituals about cleansing, and then we’ll consider the various interpretations of the Torah competing for control in Jesus’ day. 

Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo helps us to understand how the Torah’s occupation with purity operated:

“Dirt is the by-product of a systemic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity. We can recognize in our own notions of dirt that we are using a kind of omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of ordered systems. It is a relative idea. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on a dining room table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room . . . out of door things in doors . . . underclothing appearing where over-clothing should be, and so one. In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.” (p. 35)

The Torah’s concept of “clean and unclean” (or think order versus chaos) was not just about individuals but also applied to the community, the body politic, and so created and maintained community boundaries and therefore community identity as well. 

Two contemporary examples of this would be here in the United States during the Jim Crow era. All of life was once segregated based on race. Race separation is still the norm in many parts of the country today, even in the absence of explicit state enforcement. 

Another example could be how elite sectors of society still use etiquette rules today as their own purity code that maintains class separation. 

Purity Cultures historically have also resulted in exceptionalism. The pure community begins to also believe they are the “chosen” or “exceptional” or “superior” ones. Evidence of this today lies in the United States’ patriotic ideologies of global capitalism. We also witnessed it this fall in Charlottesville with white supremacists chanting “blood and soil.” We may not organize our societies around an ancient purity code, but we do follow unspoken community boundaries and practices regarding what belongs and what does not. Mary Douglas also writes, “There are no special distinctions between primitives and moderns: we are all subject to the same rules” (p. 40). As she explains, we need to begin perceiving and naming this destructive way of ordering society and become “aware of the seeds of alienation it contains.” (p. 190) 

In Jesus’s time, the society’s purity codes functioned politically and economically as well as socially. An example was given by William Herzog in 1982 and quoted in Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strong Man:

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. 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 the poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plaques 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 their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also become unclean. They were quite willing to pay sky rocketing prices commanded by the scarce domestic grain because they could afford it . . . One senses economic advantage being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued the the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from soil [before being planted]; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.”

You can see from this example that the Sadducees’ position was not only financially advantageous to them but it also kept them centered in their community as more pure than others. 

By contrast, the Pharisees’ position would have been more liberal and been more popular among the middle and working classes. 

The dispute would have been lost on the poor who had no money to buy either the cheaper Egyptian grain or the more expensive domestic grain of Sadducee land owners. (A similar example can be seen today in how political parties “hire” unpaid interns to work for them. This fills their ranks with young people who come from wealthy families and can afford not to work for wages just to survive. Over time, the worldview supported and promoted by these parties is going to tend toward the interests of the wealthy rather than those of the poor and working classes.)

Jesus, came teaching a preferential option for the poor; a partiality and solidarity with those on the margins.  These would have been those in society who did not resonate with either the teachings of the more liberal Pharisees or the more conservative interpretations of the Sadducee elites. They were marginalized by both of these. I share all of this background to help us understand how the term “sinner” would have been used in Jesus culture by both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and how Jesus willfully and intentionally violated these boundaries. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.

Repent

In Luke, those labeled as “sinners,” included not just the poor but the wealthy tax collectors. They, too, had been marginalized, but for them, their marginalization was based on their collusion with Rome. In Luke, these were the sector of the wealthy that responded to Jesus teachings and changed the course they were on. Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Jesus called the rich into a community of shared resources with the poor. His community was a community of distributive justice. No one was to have too much while others had too little. He called the wealthy, who had more than they needed, to share with or give to those exploited by the economics of the temple and whose basic daily needs were unmet.  Jesus called the wealthy to sell their surplus land and give it to the poor from whom they had been stolen. Those who responded to Jesus weren’t those the Sadducees and Pharisees labeled as clean or pure. It was those who were wealthy “sinners,” i.e. the tax collectors, who began heeding Jesus’ call to repent. One example is the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus:

Luke 19:8-10: “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.’”

Wealthy “sinners” like Zacchaeus gravitated toward Jesus’s call of wealth redistribution:

Luke 7:29: “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right.”

Luke 15:1: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” 

The question was raised why Jesus was sharing table fellowship with sinners and wealthy tax collectors, these “sinners,” these outsiders. These people were repenting of their participation in the systematic social, economic, and political exploitation of the poor, they were rejecting that system, and they were choosing to walk a radically different, more communal, path of taking responsibility of the care of those being exploited by the wealthy. 

There is a beautiful story truth here. Those who had been pushed to the margins and edges of society and labeled unclean were proving to be more righteous in relation to the poor and exploited than those around whom their society was centered. It’s even possible that the tax collectors sensed a connection between their own marginalization and the marginalization of the poor; that this shared experience of being excluded prepared them to respond compassionately to Jesus’ message and his call to inclusive, distributive justice. 

A Woman

Lastly this week, I love the fact that Jesus uses the story of a woman; a member of another marginalized group in his culture. Jesus lifts up the example of a woman to exemplify a more evolved kind of social righteousness then his male critics were living.  Just as a woman knows the value of rejoicing when that which was “lost” is “found,” Jesus says through this saying, so too you men should be rejoicing right now in the wealthy sinners’ change of direction. Instead, Jesus’ critics were well centered and wealthy themselves, and could not identify with either the marginalized wealthy or the marginalized poor. I think calling Jesus a feminist is anachronistic.  But given his space and time, his treatment of women and the equity of value he saw in them is noteworthy. He lived and taught within a deeply Roman and Jewish patriarchal world, but in holding up this women as an example who was exhibiting qualities that the men he was critiquing should have been more like, we also we catch glimpses of how his valuation of women was progressive for his culture.

What’s the take away this week?

Jesus transgressed the societal rules and boundaries of his day that pushed some people to the edges and excluded them. And we are called to, too! In this inclusion, he also taught a distributive justice for the needs of the poor. Justice is not giving people who have been marginalized or discriminated against simply an equal opportunity to compete in a system that still economically exploits a certain class.  Equity isn’t giving people equal opportunity to climb a ladder that’s leaning up against the wrong wall to begin with. Jesus’ vision for a compassionate society was one where BOTH exclusionary and marginalizing practices and economic exploitation are rejected in favor of including everyone at a shared table. His vision was heterogeneous: everyone’s voice mattered and everyone’s experience was valued. It was also communal: no one had too much while there were those who didn’t have enough.  It was a community of shared values, shared production, and shared consumption.

I’ll close this week with a passage from renowned liberation scholar and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition)

There’s a lot in this week’s saying:

Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose one coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

HeartGroup Application

I referenced the work of Mary Douglass in this week’s article above. Mary explains that the problem with communities rooted in ritual purity is not the ritual part. The solution is not that we should become anti-ritual. The problem is how the purity part functions to marginalize, discriminate against, and exclude. She goes on to say that we must create rituals in our communities that do the opposite. These would be rituals that organize community on something better than other-ing those who are different.These would be rituals that emphasize our interconnectedness where there is no more insider and outsider; rituals that shape us into being people who cooperate and share with one another rather than competing and striving against one another.  

The early Jesus community practices the ritual of a shared meal as the centerpiece of their gatherings together. Today it’s called communion by some and Eucharist by others, but the lessons of this ritual that shapes us into a community of both shared production and shared consumption can be (and has been) lost with all the theology that has come to surround this ritual meal. 

  1. This week I want you to plan a shared meal with your HeartGroup.
  2. During the meal, discuss together how this shared meal is an expression of shared production and shared consumption.
  3. Take some time as a group to dream how you could be a community where everyone’s voice is valued AND where everyone practices the principles of shared production and shared consumption in other areas of their life. 

Keep doing potluck meals together. They can become a ritual for you and your group that over time will shape us into people who practice this shared table philosophy in other areas of our life, too.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Thanks for supporting our work here at RHM. 

I’m just getting back from a month of being on the road, teaching at different events. And now we are entering our year-end season of donor support and this year we need your help. 

You can support our work by going to renewedheartministries.com/donate/

or by mailing your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
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Keep living in love, engaging the work of Luke 4:18-19 one day at a time. 

We are making a difference!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.