A Different Kind of Messiah

Herb Montgomery | May 29, 2020

Appalachian mountains


“Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.”


In Luke, Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God was coming. He answers:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [plural].” Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” (Luke 17:20-37)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is warning his society about certain paths toward liberation given the violent retribution that Rome responded to uprisings with.

I believe that Jesus taught liberation, but what is clear is that he is balancing that desire with the desire for survival, too. Womanist scholars introduced me to this tension between liberation and survival, and I see it in Luke’s version of the Jesus story.

Jesus provides an alternative to liberation attempts that create devastation in verses 20-21:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Kingdom rhetoric is problematic for us today given both its non-democratic and patriarchal nature. I have struggled over the years to find other language for the gospel’s use of the term “kingdom.” I know it had meaning for the original audience of the gospels. What language might we use today? I like the language I’ve heard Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas use: “God’s just future.” God’s just future is societal justice and distributive justice. It’s a vision for a distributively just society, a way of orienting society after the golden rule.

The proclamation of God’s just future and the seeds for that future being present with us right now: that was Jesus’ gospel! It is the centerpiece of each synoptic Jesus story (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), especially Luke’s gospel.

Pervading each step through Luke’s version is this announcement of the kingdom or God’s just future:

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of THE KINGDOM OF GOD.” (Luke 8:1)

“And he sent them out to proclaim THE KINGDOM OF GOD and to heal.” (Luke 9:2)

“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘THE KINGDOM OF GOD has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:8-9)

In our original passage, the disciples are challenging Jesus as a “prophet” to present his “revolutionary vision,” to explain what his vision of a liberated society is. In response, Luke’s Jesus contrasts his approach with other liberation theories current at the time Luke’s gospel was written, and he issues a warning.

I’ve written on the problems of privatizing and individualizing Jesus’ response to the disciples before.

Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” had a social context. The 1st Century historian Josephus gives us a window into Jesus’ words, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” Josephus writes around 50 C.E. when revolutionary prophets led large groups of people into the desert under the pretense that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. During these incidents, the Roman procurator, Felix, viewed this as the first stage of revolt and sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the groups into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson, and Smallwood, p. 147).

The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian,” who is also mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

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

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

These leaders were not lunatics but hopeful messiah figures, action prophets who contemporary scholars now see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants to exert human efforts that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. Their logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power.” If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present a violent human effort for Yahweh to bless, and God would meet their efforts if they acted.

The rhetoric of these militaristic messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Today, this is called sign propaganda. When a contemporary politician uses symbols of the American Revolution to inspire a following, they are doing the same. A much darker example is when White supremacists wave the Confederate flag when then they protest or rally. The militaristic messiahs of the mid-1st Century in Jerusalem used this technique of employing symbols from their own past to win over sectors of their populace that wanted liberation from Rome.

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

So when Jesus says “The Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” Luke is emphatically rejecting these popular methods of leading masses of Jewish poor people to die when Roman soldiers retaliated. He warns specifically, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these would-be messiahs would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters.

Today, there is a breaking point once again. Those most deeply impacted by the injustice inherent in our present system face injustice amplified and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can Jesus’ warnings offer us anything as we work toward building the kind of world we want to live in? We often use the language at RHM of building a world that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for everyone. I also like the language Ashlee Woodard Henderson, co-director of the Highland Center in Tennessee, used to sign off on a Facebook post: “Sweet dreams of revolutionary change, a world where everyone has what they need, and no harm exists for any of us.”

That’s what we need right now. That’s the kind of world I want to be building. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, where everyone has when they need, not just to survive but to thrive, and no systemic harm exists for anyone.

We’ll discuss the last part of Jesus’ warning in our passage next.

Jesus warns, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” Following would-be messiah figures might have seemed right to them at the time, but they would lead to death, not liberation (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). The “son of man” reference here, I believe, points to the liberation work in the Hebrew apocalyptic writings of Daniel 7. In Daniel, the beast-like oppressive world empires are contrasted with the work of the humanizing messiah (“son of humanity”) who makes real God’s just future for the people. Luke’s Jesus is here saying that in following common messiah figures you may long for the fulfillment of expectations around Daniel’s “son of man,” but you will not see it and the end will not be as you hope.

Again, it’s easy for Luke’s gospel, which was written after the occurrence of the events in 70 C.E., to connect these dots for its audience. It would have been harder for those caught up in the moment/movement to foresee that outcome at the time.

In our passage, Jesus states that the son of man, or expectations of the liberation described in Daniel 7, would appear in a more obvious manner, as lightning streaming across the sky from east to west. This would not be a conspiracy or a movement where only a select few perceived what is happening. It would be more noticeable, much more.

During our stay home/safer at home executive orders here in WV, I’ve been reading Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making: Political & Religious Roots of European Socialism. The part that most recently spoke to me was about how theologian Karl Barth forbade students from bringing politics into his lectures and classroom discussions during the rise of Nazi-ism in Germany. He dangerously believed doctrine could be separated from politics and failed to understand that all theology is political, either in the side it takes outspokenly or the side it takes in its silence.

Barth, at a time when his voice could have done valuable good, instead believed that Nazi ideology “was too absurd to take seriously, and he respected Germans too much to believe they would fall for it” (Dorrien, p. 259). Barth did not take into account how desperate things had become for the German people in the wake of the Versailles Treaty. And desperate communities are far more dangerous than desperate individuals.

That struck me deeply and reminded me of my own feelings during the last U.S. election. I thought Trump was too absurd to take seriously. I mistakenly believed too much in many of my own Appalachian friends and neighbors, thinking they would not fall for Trump. Many in these hills who voted for Trump in 2016 now find that his failures to respond adequately to this pandemic has finally pushed them over the line. They, too, now say he is dangerous. I also know far too many whose opinion has not changed and who are planning to vote for him again.

In Times Square in New York City, a 56-foot billboard called the Trump Death Clock now hangs. The brain-child of Eugene Jarecki, it shows a very conservative estimate of the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths that have resulted from the president and his team’s failed response to the coronavirus outbreak. According to Dr. Fauci and leading epidemiologists, if mitigation guidelines had been put into effect just one week earlier, on March 9 instead of March 16, 60% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths would have been prevented. During that time, Trump, Fox News, and other right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh were still downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.

Jarecki has received criticism of his billboard from both the left and the right: criticism from the right for obvious reasons, and from those on the left who believe his numbers are much lower than they should be. Jarecki has erected the Trump Death Clock on behalf of all those who’ve died because of failed leadership in a pandemic. It stands as a symbol, not only for accountability but also for more responsible and responsive stewardship going forward.

Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.

“The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.” (Luke 17:20-37)

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. How is all theology political? Please discuss this with your group. What is our political responsibility presently as followers of Jesus?
  3. What is currently taking place in your own life right now? What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to do this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well. Stay safe.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Building the World We Want to Live In


“Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.”


In Luke’s gospel, we read,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” —Jesus (Luke 13:34-35)

Christians have long interpreted this week’s passage in deeply antisemitic. But this passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It explicitly refers to a “city.” It is a civic critique, not a religious one.

There was no such thing as a separation of “church” and “state” when this passage was written. But Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the temple-state based in Jerusalem who resisted his distributive justice teachings as well as those in the Torah and from the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to the exploitation of the poor.

Jesus himself was a Jew. He was never a Christian. And although Luke’s gospel was written by Christians, we do not have to interpret this passage in an anti-Jewish way. Jesus was one of many voices within Judaism calling for a return to the economic justice teachings of the Torah (see Deuteronomy 15). Any society, Jewish or not, produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides of that society. The passage could today just as easily say “America, America, the country that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

This is a passage that implies repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. Teshuvah suggests “turning”—a turning from one path to an alternative. Jesus was calling those in control of his own society to repent, to turn from their economic violence against the poor toward a path of distributive justice. The verb form of teshuvah is shuv, which means to return. Originally it suggested returning to God from exile,” to go from the place of alienation and separation back to God. It meant a return from the path of destruction and the way of violence to God and God’s path of life, the way of peace. In Jesus’ world, it would mean returning to the Torah’s economic teachings. The rich were to be taxed and their taxes and gains distributed back to the poor. Debts were to be canceled, and poverty eliminated.

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:5, emphasis added)

Repenting, in the Jesus story, meant leaving the path of economic exploitation and “returning” to a path toward a world where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough.

Today, capitalism has a long history of straining its inherent contradictions to the breaking point and causing a social and economic crisis. Could we be on the edge of another such moment now in the U.S. as a result of the response to the current pandemic? We have more people in the U.S. unemployed than we had during the Great Depression. What might Jesus’ economic teachings offer us right now?

Gather Your Children Together

Like the Hebrew prophets of the poor, Luke’s Jesus confronts the state’s exploitation of the poor (see Luke 20:47; 21:2) with imagery that expresses the call for justice. The image in Luke is that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings in the presence of a predator. This image could represent Jesus’ desire to protect the poor from the predatory economic practices in his society. By the late 60s CE, the poor of Judea had had enough of their exploitation and they rose up. They overtook the temple state in Jerusalem, burned the debt records, and then expanded their uprising to oppose Roman oppression as well. The Jewish-Roman war, which ended in 69 C.E., did not end well. Rome responded to the uprising by razing the Jerusalem temple to the ground in 70 C.E. The only response more excessive in the Judean province was Rome’s response to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 C.E.) when Rome genocidally depopulated Judean communities in that region and forbade surviving Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again.

How fitting that Jesus would take up the image of a mother hen covering her baby chicks with her wings, protecting them from the circling predatory eagle in the sky above. It was a very fitting description: Rome’s symbol was the eagle.

Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.

I recently learned of a youth-led campaign here in West Virginia in response to the pandemic. The Youth Mutual Aid Fund is a partnership between the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (The STAY Project) and The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC). West Virginian and Appalachian communities have a long history of pulling together to support one another during tough times. As someone who sees mutual aid as a central teaching in the Jesus stories, the Youth Mutual Aid Fund immediately caught my attention. One of their catch phases is. “Modeling the new world, building the world we want to live in.”

How can we model the new world? How do you want to begin building the kind of world you want to live in?

Disproportionate Impact

I learned about what STAY and KSEC were doing the same day I read about how “COVID-19 tore through a black Baptist church community in WV. Nobody said a word about it.” It cannot be stated enough that although we are all affected by this pandemic we are not all affected equally. COVID-19 is amplifying already present injustices in our social system. An economic system that plunges some communities into ways of surviving and working that make them vulnerable to certain diseases only makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. This pandemic is disproportionally impacting Black communities and communities of color.

We can, and must do better.

The phrase in our above passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” can take on new significance in our context.

Will the power brokers and economic elites be any more open to more equity as we witness a massive loss of life? Or will we keep capitalism going at the cost of human life? All human life is precious. On the one hand, we have a massive loss of life because of the virus. On the other, we have a massive loss of life because of our fragile economic system. Millions are unemployed and hungry. There must be another path!

Will those who have long benefitted from the present system be any more open to structural, systemic changes today than they have been in the past? Again, that phrase haunts me, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

I see so many helpers right now. I also see structural, systemic inequities that need to be changed. What are you seeing? Again, how can you, this coming week, model the new world? How do you want to begin building the world you want to live in?

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

1. Share something from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode that spoke to you with your HeartGroup.

2. What could the economic teachings of the Torah and the Gospels about debt forgiveness and wealth tithe (wealth tax) and redistribution to the poor and migrant communities look like if they were to be applied in our society presently during this pandemic?

3. This week, The Poor People’s Campaign launched the “Stay in Place Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies!” campaign. The term “essential workers” is evolving into meaning expendable workers. You can find out more and how you, too, can participate here. As part of this campaign, Faith leaders, faith communities, houses of worship are being called to help remember and honor the precious lives that we have lost and will continue to lose during this pandemic. To find out how your HeartGroup can participate, click #TollingTogether. This coming week, how can you as a group begin building the world you want to live in?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Growth For Growth’s Sake

Herb Montgomery | May 15, 2020

city scape


“The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“At that very time, there were some present that told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

As we discussed in A Gospel for the Earth, Jesus had called the elites in his audience to make reparations to exploited and marginalized people in their society before the response to their exploitation escalated out of control (see Luke 12:58). In our passage today, some in his audience respond by raising Pilate’s slaying Galilean rebels. Did they bring up this incident as a rebuttal to Jesus’ call for reparations in a society on the verge of rebellion?

Rome very carefully watched when any of its subservient people congregated, but it especially watched those with subversive tendencies leaning toward revolt. The Galilean Jews certainly fit this description. Being exploited nationally by Rome and economically by Jewish elites cooperating with Rome left some on the edge of rebellion, ready to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression by any means necessary. One of the ways the elite responded was to accuse the exploited rebels who hungered and thirsted for things to be put right (see Matthew 5:6) of being “sinners” getting what they deserved. Jesus called them blessed.

The elites were victim-blaming. The oppressed class’s failure to put things right was not because they lacked moral uprightness. It was the result of an almost insurmountably heavy system that had been designed to work against them, violently if need be.

As we all respond to COVID-19 now, where do you see injustices in our society being laid bare, amplified, and pushed to a breaking point? Are you seeing those most vulnerable being blamed today? Who is defending the system now? Who is calling repeatedly for change?

There are some parallels between Jesus’ context and our own economic and political breaking point. The story in Luke invites us to ask: how can we stand in solidarity with vulnerable people who are hungering for things to be put right, right now?

Most scholars agree that in the Galilean revolt referred to in Luke 13, Roman soldiers must have surprised Galilean insurgents while the rebels were sacrificing in preparation for their revolt. The Roman soldiers slaughtered the Galileans right then and there, and the religiopolitical elite responded by questioning whether the people revolting had been morally upright. Jesus replied:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

He goes on to say:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Then Jesus responds to these objectors with a second occurrence everyone was talking about during that time:

“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

According to some sources, the tower of Siloam was a tower that Rome used for weapons storage. A group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel under the tower, hoping to seize the weapons stored there and use them in a violent revolt against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already decaying, and the Zealots’ tunnel further compromised the integrity of the foundation. The entire construction suddenly collapsed and claimed the lives of several Galileans.

Jesus said again:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

In Jesus’ calls for repentance, I don’t hear the evangelical, moralistic idea of repentance so many of us are used to today. I hear a Jewish prophet of the poor calling for a change in society so that the poor and indebted are not further exploited, but could experience the distributive justice called for by the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see the book of Amos).

Luke’s gospel was written long after Jerusalem’s catastrophic crisis in 70 C.E. Yet in that gospel, Jesus warns that if the people did not change their society’s path, inequities would continue to escalate until their society imploded and all would be destroyed together. Because it was written after the fact, Luke’s gospel can connect these dots for its audience.

Jesus then finishes this warning with a story. Please read this story prayerfully, remembering the social and political context in which Jesus told it:

“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’”

The system of exploitation of the masses for the benefit of a few was set on a collision course with annihilation if something didn’t change. What was the fruit the gardener looked for that would ensure it remains?

I believe it was a more distributively just shaping of society, where the rain fell and the sun shone on all equitably (see Matthew 5:45).

What does this mean for us today?

The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.

Our food distribution chain is breaking down.

People have lost their income.

They can’t afford to feed their families.

Those who were barely surviving already now can’t pay their rent and/or mortgages.

The solution here in the U.S. so far has been to plunge those in need further into debt. Bailouts for people in the U.S. are very different than those other countries are offering to their citizens. States’ are also quickly running out of money.

The immigrant population here is especially vulnerable during all of this, and our present food chain depends on them.

The for-profit-health system is also at a breaking point, and healthcare professionals now have to place their own lives at risk.

Nonprofits that typically provide charity are also feeling the strain as they operate at significantly lower income levels than they usually do.

It’s time to dream of and work toward a system the places people over profit. Imagine the world we could create if Jesus followers insisted on following Jesus’ clear call to distributive justice.

In Luke’s gospel, the fig tree continued to grow but did not produce any life-giving fruit.

Growth for growth’s sake in capitalist economics is called profit. It’s good for business. But on a cellular level in biology, it’s called cancer.

It’s not good for creatures or for the planet. And it’s not good for those at the bottom and edges of our present economic system. It was once named a recipe for potential disaster, and today it’s proving to be just that.

In our passage, the fig tree won’t be allowed to continue to grow exponentially or indefinitely without providing fruit for the sustenance and life of those around it.

What can this say to us right now during this crisis about our own systems?

Our present system is not working. It’s not simply not working and for those our present system deems “the least of these,” it’s doing immeasurable harm.

I want to believe that another world is possible.

If it is, we will have to choose it.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

  1. How have Jesus’ social teachings spoken to you during our present pandemic? Share with your group.
  2. Our present system with its long history of placing profit above people and planet is not pivoting well now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society. What is the parable of the fig tree saying to you in this context this week? Share with your group.
  3. Thinking of those most impacted in our society by our present pandemic, a statement by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has been on my heart. In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s justice means a restoration of the dignity of all people. This begins with the crucified class of people . . . God’s peace thus requires a radical restructuring of a political, social and economic order that is sustained by and thus creates ‘crucified classes of people.’” (p. 200) This week, how can we work toward a world where crucified classes of people no longer exist. Brainstorm with your group. Then pick something from what you come up with and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Gospel for the Earth

by Herb Montgomery | May 8, 2020

sprout


“What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain, ’and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot, ’and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” —Jesus (Luke 12:54-56)

The weather-wise members of Jesus’s community could tell the weather by watching the clouds over the Mediterranean or by observing the wind changing direction, and they planned accordingly.

Here, Jesus is drawing attention to their ability to reason from cause to effect when it came to matters of weather, but their inability to do so when it came to their economic, political, and social trajectory.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues:

“As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:58-59)

I have to confess that I have always struggled with this saying. I found it disjointed and out of place until I eventually realized its social and economic context. Jesus is talking about settling disputes and not allowing them to escalate out of control.

In Jesus’ society, the disparity and inequality between the haves and the have-nots were growing. We know that by the time the gospels were written, the poor people’s revolt of the late 60s had escalated until they overtook the Jewish temple-state in Jerusalem. From there, their conflict with the elite ruling class continued to escalate into the war with Rome itself (the Jewish-Roman war 66-69 CE), which ultimately and eventually resulted in Jerusalem being razed to the ground by Rome in 70 CE.

If ever there were a warning for privileged elites to make restitution to the masses at whose expense they had accumulated their wealth and power, this is a textbook example. In Jesus’ lifetime, a struggle was brewing, and by the time the gospels were written, that struggle had escalated into insurrection, war, and heartbreaking destruction.

Today, there is a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots again. (Read From Private Helicopters To Concierge Doctors, Inequality Is A ‘Big Business’.) Experts, whether researchers or people who know how to scratch out an existence are worried about the disappearance of the middle class, which can be traced back to the economic and political policies of the 80s and has been escalating continually since.

Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). What would it mean today for us to seek a path of equity, redistribution, and/or reparations rather than continue on our present path despite where it leads?

A Gospel for the Earth

Many of us recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day here in the U.S. Environmentalism has come a long way in the last fifty years, and so has the damage to our environment.

Earth’s temperatures are higher. Our ocean chemistry has changed. More animals have gone extinct. Significant portions of Amazonian rain forests and the Great Barrier reef that we need for our survival are now lost.

We are also moving in the wrong direction with the current U.S. Administration scaling back essential environmental protections. I live in West Virginia where various industries, including coal, have caused significant damage to both our environment and our economy. We have repeatedly dealt with polluted water supplies, disappearing landscapes, and one of the worst unemployment rates in the country in areas that used to have the largest concentration of millionaires in the U.S. because of the coal mining boom and bust. One more injustice that this COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare is the daily damage to our planet from our global, consumer, capitalist system. The images are stark in the recent Richmond Times Dispatch article, “As people stay home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner. These before-and-after images show the change.” Check out the pictures of New Delhi’s skyline. Wow.

The Hebrew scriptures include a strong case for our duty as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). The earth is not here for us to exploit. We are in a symbiotic relationship with it. If we do not take care of it, it will cease to be home for us.

Christianity has a long and complicated history when it comes to environmentalism. Much of this history can be read in Brock and Parker’s Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Another book I recommend on the environmental and other impacts of our present economic and political system is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Patel and Moore. Both books have been on RHM’s recommended reading lists.

What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today?

Let’s read the passage again from Matthew’s sermon on the mount:

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)

This says to me that it is better to deal with things now, at this stage, than to deal with them later. Change is coming and there’s no way around it. Change that we choose today is always preferable to change that our environment forces upon us tomorrow. We can begin building a better world today. (Read Bill McKibben‘s article in The New Yorker How We Can Build a Hardier World After the Coronavirus.)

I’m encouraged to see signs that the financial industries are beginning to divest from their fossil fuel portfolios. I’m also alarmed at talk of bailing out industries we need to begin transitioning away from. We should instead be training workers dependent on fossil fuel industries to work in greener industries.

What causes and effects are you seeing in the present system? What changes would you like to see? Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Settle Matters Quickly

Matthew’s account (Matthew 5:25-26) is part of a section on leaving your gift at the altar when offering a sacrifice if you remember that you have an adversary. Jesus commands, “First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” Twice in Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; cf. Hosea 6:6) This is the path that leads to life.

In all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) we see Jesus calling for a change of direction, a change of action, a transition to a different social path than the one his listeners were on, and quickly! Things were escalating in his own society politically and economically, as the second half of the 1st Century in Galilee and Judea revealed.

For those paying attention today, things are escalating quickly for us, too. Jesus’ audience was faced with alternative paths and trajectories. If things did not change, if the elites did not begin listening to the exploited and marginalized, Jesus’ society would “not get out until they had paid the last penny.”

The path before them was transformation. But I do not believe that what happened to 1st Century Judaea was annihilation forced on the people by a violent God. Rather it was the intrinsic, natural result of a course of action that we have repeatedly seen through history when the haves ignore the cries of the have-nots who are barely surviving.

Luke’s Jesus laments:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

Today we plan our daily activities around listening to weather forecasts or checking our weather apps on our phones while being strangely ignorant of the clouds of our own making that are gathering on the horizon of our lives. The Jesus story is whispering to us today to take a different social and global path. Some ways seem right to those in positions of power and privilege, but their end is death (Proverbs 14:12 cf. Matthew 7:13-14).

What would happen if, instead of spending trillions of dollars supporting a military-industrial complex, we began spending trillions on feeding the world’s starving? What if we began spending trillions on repairing our earth? What if we spent trillions transitioning from unsustainable ways of living on our planet toward sustainable ways of surviving and thriving? What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?

The Jesus story found in the gospels is still whispering to Christians today. He asks us to settle these matters quickly. The end result will be much better, both in the short and long term.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

1. Is environmentalism a part of what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus? Share with your group why?

2. What does it mean for you to settle matters now rather than later in your own personal lives? What could it mean systemically for our society as a whole right now during our current pandemic? Share with the group.

3. What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today? Discuss with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

A More Distributively Just Way

by Herb Montgomery | May 1, 2020

workers


“The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.”


Happy International Worker’s Day!

Every community has its own way of relating to the rejection of leaders in whom they see hope for the future wellbeing of their society.

“Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Luke 11:49-51)

Many scholars believe this passage in Luke to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem. In this passage, the Gospel authors are trying to make sense of such devastation. Was their interpretation healthy and life-giving or not?

I want to be careful here. Christianity has a long, anti-Semitic history of attaching punitive explanations to Jerusalem’s destruction, saying it was God’s punishment of the city for rejecting Jesus. I don’t believe that, even if the gospel authors connected Jesus’ rejection with what later happened to Jerusalem.

Whether it was life-giving or not, though, they made this connection. I also see them making a much more organic, intrinsic connection between a society that rejected Jesus’ teachings about wealth redistribution and restructuring the community to prioritize the poor and the poor people’s uprising and the revolt of the late 60s. The poor people’s revolt led to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 and then to Rome’s reprisal and razing Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The connection is less divinely imposed and arbitrary and much more natural about a political, economic, and social cause and effect.

Today, we as a society are witnessing resistance to a more distributively just way of organizing our society. A widening gap between haves and have-nots has been building over the last half-century here in the U.S. Do Jesus’ economic and political teachings have anything to offer our lives today? Even if we were to reduce Jesus’ teachings to his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, might they be able to speak into our struggles today?

Take a moment to consider Jesus’ teaching of the Golden Rule. What would a society that prioritizes treating others as you would like to be treated look like? Would it be a system that made the members of the community more “selfish, hypocritical, crass and violent” (see Robert Owen’s, A New View of Society: Essays on the Principles of the Formation of Human Character, 1813), or would it create people who are less competitive, less individualistic, more generous, and collectively sustainable?

In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)

Jesus’ version of the “golden rule” was the small gate and narrow path that leads to life.

And in the context of the golden rule, two things have caught my attention over the past few weeks as we all respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: 1) the criminal justice system in the U.S. and 2) the economic impact on the U.S. migrant community.

Setting Prisoners Free

Luke 4:18-19 is one of the key points of Jesus’ gospel: setting prisoners free. What would that mean for us today? Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney General issued an emergency order calling for especially vulnerable prisoners to be released into home confinement. Because of how closely packed people are in the U.S. prison systems, physical distancing is impossible. Prisons are being revealed to be places of mass death placing all inmates, regardless of their charges, on a kind of death row. This is specifically concerning for those who have not committed violent crimes. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses don’t deserve a death penalty in the form of COVID-19.

I also think of those behind bars whose sentencing has not come up yet, who are there, guilty or innocent, simply because they cannot afford bail. Poverty in our global society already means an earlier death for too many, and this is deeply concerning.

Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to liberate the poor, to give the entire “kingdom” to the poor. Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to shape their society according to distributive justice. In our current setting, people in prison could become infected with and die of COVID-19 only because they could not afford bail or some other technicality. That is immoral.

Hundreds of prisoners and prison workers have already tested positive for the virus. It is a cruel irony that prisoners are producing hand sanitizer for the outside world, hand sanitizer that is desperately needed within prisons, and yet the very prisoners producing the sanitizer are being denied access themselves. I heard on the news last week that 20% of people infected will need hospitalization and 5% will need to be placed on ventilators. What does this mean for our prison population, mostly and disproportionately people of color? COVID-19 sharpens an already unjust system with an even sharper lethal edge.

Again, what does it mean for us today to take Jesus’ gospel seriously, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18)? What does the golden rule look like in this context? What does basic humanity look like in this context?

Migrant Workers

My second concern over the last couple of weeks has been for the population of migrant workers at the heart of the U.S.’s food supply chain. These people are among those our present system deems the “least of these.” They already go to work every day in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. What does social distancing look like for them? They are not being provided with personal protective equipment and are working for poverty wages. They don’t receive any kind of extended sick leave or child care now that their children are not in school, nor are their work environments more sanitary or less crowded.

Thinking of our migrant community members working in these settings, I thought of a statement I read years ago now by Stephen J. Patterson:

“In the ancient world, those who lived on the margins of peasant life were never far from death’s door. In the struggle to survive, food was their friend and sickness their enemy. Each day subsistence peasants earn enough to eat for a day. Each day they awaken with the question: Will I earn enough to eat today? This is quickly followed by a second: Will I get sick today? If I get sick, I won’t eat, and if I don’t eat, I’ll get sicker. With each passing day, the spiral of starvation and sickness becomes deeper and finally, deadly. Crossan has argued that this little snippet of ancient tradition is critical to understanding why followers of Jesus and their empire of God were compelling to the marginalized peasants who were drawn to it. ‘Eat what is set before you and care for the sick.’ Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive—which is to say, salvation.” (The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, p. 74)

The migrant farmworker community is a modern-day reflection of the original audience Jesus taught about a preferential option for positive systemic change.

Because of the U.S. food supply chain, these workers are deemed critically essential. Yet this system may break down soon if their situation doesn’t change. Many are in the U.S. working on H-2A visas. While the present administration touts stimulus packages for other kinds of workers in our society, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is presently pushing to reduce wages for H-2A workers. There has to be a better way to save farmers.

Leviticus includes a Jewish application of the golden rule to “foreigners”:

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

This text informed Jesus’ preaching on loving others as oneself. It is the basis of the Golden Rule.

What would a society look like if structured on the golden rule rather than profit or a corporation’s bottom line?

The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.

And depending on how we respond right now, it may also be said of the powerful and privileged elite today, “this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

HeartGroup Application

[We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?]

1. We’ve discussed two sectors of our society deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. What other sectors of our society have been on your heart, lately? Share with your group.

2. Yesterday, Jim Wallis published UNEQUAL SUFFERING: HERE’S HOW CONGRESS SHOULD HELP on Sojourner’s website. Following Jesus involves taking action. Many charities are also on the front line providing care and help to those presently in need; many while operating with a lower level of contributions than is typical. What are you seeing organizations in your area doing and what can your HeartGroup do to come alongside these organizations and offer help? Discuss with your group.

3. Together, rewrite Matthew 25:35-36 in light of the present pandemic. Who would be listed if the text were to be written during our present crisis?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Pick something from your discussion in number two and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.