Those Things Which Are Eternal


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Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


hands held in community

Herb Montgomery | July 30, 2021


“The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right. In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

‘Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” So they asked him, What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Sir,” they said, always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:24-35)

I grew up understanding this passage as encouraging focus on getting to heaven in the afterlife, and not focusing on earthly realities that impact our lives in the here and now. An earthward focus was considered a waste of time, “arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.” This school of interpretive thought has born deeply destructive fruit and has always been coopted by oppressive powers to create a kind of Christianity that leaves the oppressive systems of the powerful untouched by Christian followers. This kind of Christianity led those such as Karl Marx to label religion an opiate of the masses.

I want to offer an alternative interpretation of Jesus’s words in John. Jesus said to those wanting to use him to gain political power, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.” (See last week’s eSight.)

Most Biblical Greek scholars recognize that the word translated “eternal”, aionios, described a future time when God would establish justice on Earth. That vision contrasted this present age of violence, injustice, and oppression with a future age of justice, restoration, and peace. The eternal age contrasted with a present temporary age. The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right.

In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.

Let me offer some examples.

Those in control of and benefiting from the US fossil fuel industries have a decision to make: continue making enormous profits today and make our planet uninhabitable through the climate change that results from burning industry products, or abandon those profits (“food that spoils”) to ensure our planet remains a safe, habitable home for everyone (“food that endures to eternal life”).

A friend connected to various Evangelical and fundamentalist ministries shares another example. My friend has witnessed those who have successful ministries pressured to embrace or align with the current surge in Christian nationalism and that movement’s politics. If they do, they’re choosing to support or at least go along with things they never would have imagined themselves supporting just to keep money flowing into their ministries. Their choice is between standing against what they see happening, trying to rightly inform their supporters, losing financial support, and downsizing their “successful” ministries, and staying silent, going along with troubling things, and trying to maintain supporters who understand what they are doing and supporters who are sincere but misled or misinformed. This is a textbook example of working for “food that spoils” rather than “food that endures to eternal life.”

US politicians now have a very similar choice: go along with Trumpism, anti-vaccination, and/or other troubling party platforms to get re-elected next year (working for “food that spoils”) or stand against what they feel is harmful and face political ruin over the right thing to do long-term (working for “food that endures to eternal life”).

This is another variant of the choice laid before Luke’s gospel’s audience:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25)

I know something of having to make this kind of choice.

When I had these decisions to make, I was naïve and did not fully understand what doing the right thing would cost. My line in the sand was for Renewed Heart Ministries to choose between inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ folk and exclusion. My choice to embrace affirming Christian theology has cost this ministry everything to this day, and my journey has included consequences that have not always been easy to bear. I don’t regret my decision. I also want to be honest that the decision almost tanked Renewed Heart Ministries. One year we were one of the most successful ministries of our denomination, and the next we were on the brink of having to close—and more than eight years later, we’re still coming back from that.

For me, not “working for food that spoils” meant refusing to stay silent (and conventionally employable) when I saw my LGBTQ friends being harmed by our denomination. Working for food that endures to eternal life meant doing the right thing, the just thing, the compassionate thing, the nonviolent thing, even if that meant I had to give up some things on that journey.

And what has been the result? Today I belong to a community that’s very different than the one I used to belong to. Some folks from the old days have kept on journeying with me. Some have yet to make that journey, and still others never will; I’ve had to accept that.

But my community today includes people who feel as passionate as I do about justice and making our present world a better and safer place for those marginalized in the present system. Have we seen sacrifices? Absolutely. But have we seen gains as well? Yes! Our ministry is still recovering materially, but those I have met and am in relationship with today I might never have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing if I had not chosen this path. They make it worth it for me. If there is an age to come, as Jesus taught, what we will be able to take with us is not our money, political power, or our property, but rather the relationships we’ve made here, in our present age, with the people we hold most dear. Working with them is working for food that endures to eternal life for me.

What does that mean for you?

What decisions have you made in your own journey?

What have they cost you?

What have you gained instead as a result of making those difficult choices?

And, for all of us, what decisions still lie ahead?

Whatever they are, I have confidence today that the food that endures is the better choice. It may not always be the easiest choice, but it is ultimately the better choice, and together, in community, we can face the fallout of our better choices, come what may.

As Jesus said, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does eternal versus temporary mean to you? Discuss with your group.

3.  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 everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Enough for Everyone

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Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


steeple

Herb Montgomery | July 23, 2021


This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth. But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, It would take more than half a years wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peters brother, spoke up, Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, It is I; dont be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. (John 6:1-20)

Among the canonical gospels, there are six versions of this story. Five are in the synoptics, originating in Mark’s version (Mark 6, Mark 8, Matthew 14, Matthew 15, and Luke 9). The sixth version is found here in John.

Most Jesus scholars see evidence that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions were copied from Mark’s telling of this story. John’s version is quite different than Mark’s, leading some scholars to believe that both versions may have had a common ancestor, a version that existed in the early oral tradition. We still don’t know today for sure, but it is clear that each version of the Jesus story contains the story of Jesus’ community sharing resources.

This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth.

But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.

Rooted in the economics of the Hebrew manna story, where those who gathered much shared with those who didn’t have as much (see Exodus 16), the ethic of resource-sharing was recorded as the first act Jesus followers took after Pentecost.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47, emphasis added.)

We read of this ethic a second time in the book of Acts in chapter 4:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And Gods grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostlesfeet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4.32-35, emphasis added.)

This social consciousness appears to be part of the fabric of what it meant to follow Jesus early on.

We find a different spin on this story in the gospel of John.

John takes this story with its emphasis on a young person who chose to share what he had and whose resources Jesus blessed to become enough for everyone in the community, and then transforms it into a story of Jesus doing miracle work. Rather than the story staying a story about people sharing what they have with one another, the author of John evolves it into a story about the supernatural power of Jesus.

Consider this phrase in John’s version of the story:

“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

John’s version becomes a prophetic warning against what we, looking back after the fact, see has become of the Jesus community and the imperial powers of the state that has sought to co-opt the Christian religion in repeated generations and repeated expressions. I think of how Christianity has been used by the Christian Right here in the U.S. to gain power to push racist, classist, sexist, and cis-heterosexist political policies in our era. I’m disgusted each time I think of how flags were carried by White Christians alongside their Trump flags as they violently stormed the U.S. capitol building on January 6, all because of a lie that somehow an election process that also installed Republicans in various elected positions on the same ballots was mysteriously “stollen.” As Miguel A. De La Torre wrote in his recent book Decolonizing Christianity, “We focus on the Trump presidency because probably no other president has wrapped himself so fervently in both the flag and the cross, merging the two with himself and the Republican Party.” (p. 15)

Since his life and death, Jesus has repeatedly been “taken” and used to by those who wished to have the power of a “king”. Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass writes, “Unjust social relationality is not effectively sustained solely, if at all, through the use of brutal force.” She stresses that power, “particularly inequitable power, is not coercive or even repressive. Rather, it is productive. Power’s productive character begins with a ‘will to knowledge.’ That is, power itself generates the kind of knowledge it needs to be sustained. It enlists various communities of authority, such as the scientific and religious communities, to provide the knowledge base to legitimize the social, political, and institutional constructs of power itself.” (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 72-73, emphasis added)

Various expressions of Christianity have likewise been complicit in seizing power. Powerful Christians have cooperated with harmful social and political structures that are rooted in distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and more.

In using Jesus to gain political power, both Christians and non-Christians reject the Jesus of this story who himself rejected attempts to seize power and isolated himself so he could not be found and used. Ched Myers rightly perceives, “The truth is, the ‘battle for the Bible’ [the battle over how one interprets the Bible] today has increasingly less to do with theological divisions and allegiances and more to do with political and economic allegiances.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 10.) Senator and Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock stated similarly; speaking last year at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, Warnock said, “You are not following God when you allow your profit motive to silence your prophet motive.” That ‘profit motive” can be about money, but can also be about both money and political power.

As Jesus followers, we have to allow ourselves to be confronted by how we could be allowing or even participating in people taking the Jesus of these stories and using him today, instead of using the stories to support, or and bring liberation to those within our society deemed as “the least of these.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What would a Christianity whose emphasis is about resource-sharing in our world look like for you? What harmful fruit have you witnessed from Christianity’s political power grab in our society? Discuss with your group.

3.  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 everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


sunrise through grass

Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

Herb Montgomery | July 16, 2021


Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories.”


Our reading this week is again from the gospel of Mark:

“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things . . . When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

This passage takes place in Mark’s narrative after John’s arrest and execution. It transports us all the way back to the words the gospel of Mark began with:

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

In Chapter 6, the author of Mark takes that first passage and enlarges it so that readers can understand what Jesus’ gospel looked like in practice. In short, Jesus is characterized as a miracle-working, folk healer announcing liberation for those who are oppressed, whether they’re oppressed by sickness or a sick system of injustice. Ched Myers reminds us that even the stories of individual healings were “symbolic action” of systemic confrontation. In his book Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, Myers correctly states, “[The acts of Jesus’] ‘divine power’ lay not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities.” (p.146)

The itinerant liberator image of Jesus that we encounter in Mark raises a question of contrast between many preachers today and the Jesus they claim to be worshiping. As I’ve often said in the past, the gospels don’t show Jesus going from place to place trying to get people to say a special “sinners’ prayer” so they can have the assurance of going to some post mortem heaven when they die. Not at all. What we see instead is a Jesus who announces that the reign of heaven has come to earth, here, now, and it manifests not in future, afterlife assurance, but in concrete, material liberation from that which diminishes and oppresses human thriving in our lives today, right now, on earth. This is the picture we get from each of the synoptic gospels.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the reign of God, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

As you go, proclaim this message: The reign of heaven has come near.Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:7-8)

But he said, I must proclaim the good news of the reign of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

Heal the sick who are there and tell them, The reign of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. (Luke 9:6)

The section of Mark we read this week includes the stories of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, and having twelve basketfuls left over. This story draws our attention to Jesus’ concern for people’s concrete, material needs. Many scholars also believe that this story may point to an early form of eucharist among early Jesus followers: a shared meal, a shared resource, of bread and fish that was later subsumed by what today’s eucharist of bread and wine.

Regardless, the scene is not about heaven or later, but about what people are experiencing here on earth right now. It speaks to the earthly, liberation-centered gospel taught by Jesus, not the heaven-centered gospel about Jesus that many within Christianity teach today. There is a difference between the two gospels and these differences are well worth our time to explore and understand. (See James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News, p. 1-2)

Two statements that have kept me centered in Jesus’ gospel of making a difference here on earth rather than in a gospel about Jesus focused primarily on getting to heaven come from the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in his classic work, God of the Oppressed.

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

“There can be no Christian theology that is not social and political. If theology is to speak about the God of Jesus who is revealed in the struggle of the oppressed for freedom, then theology must also become political, speaking for the God of the poor and the oppressed.” (p. 75)

For Cone, following Jesus was political, not in the partisan sense but in the sense that politics is about how power and property are distributed among the people. When we define politics like this, Jesus’ teachings were deeply political and all about a social peace that comes from justly distributing what humans need in their daily lives to thrive. This was God’s will as taught within Jesus’ gospel: humanity’s collective thriving.

In this focus, Jesus is standing squarely in his own Hebrew prophetic tradition:

“Everyone will sit under their own vine

and under their own fig tree,

and no one will make them afraid,

for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:4)

What might it mean for us today, with our post-enlightenment, naturalistic, material worldview, to follow Jesus, proclaim “the reign of God,” and “heal the sick”?

As we consider our social context, there is much sickness that we Jesus followers can address. With so many U.S. churches having hosted July 4 celebrations recently, we can address the sickness of Christian nationalism. What about the sicknesses of White supremacy and its offspring, American exceptionalism? What about the sicknesses of racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and cisgender-heterosexism? What about the sickness of ableism? Even if we hold a worldview where “healing the sick” or “casting out demons” no longer resonates, we can focus on the substance of our work and whether or not that substance looks like the Jesus of the story or like a 2,000-year-old religion about Jesus that has evolved in his name.

Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories. Our work may have a different focus than the work we see Jesus doing in the stories, and still be considered Christian by certain sectors within Christianity. Nonetheless, the contradiction between our stories and the Jesus story remains.

Can the themes of our work be found in Jesus’ work in the gospels? Is that Jesus passionate about the things we’re passionate about? In my journey, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that the Christian elements I was most passionate about were elements that the Jesus of the story never spoke about, and the things the Jesus of the story was passionate about were things I didn’t care about. It’s not been easy to admit, and making corrections and aligning my story with the Jesus story isn’t always easy either. That work for me is still ongoing today. But, even with the hard times, I can look back and say the journey has so far been worth it.

That the journey is worth it is my prayer for you too. I pray that as we allow our stories to look more like the Jesus story, and as we work together on making our world here and now a better place, we will look back one day, even at the hard times, and say, “It was a journey worth taking.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does a focus on “concrete, earthly liberation” mean to you? Share with your group.

3.  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 everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Speaking Truth to Those in Power

sculpture on capitol building

Herb Montgomery | July 9, 2021


Remember, there are consequences to speaking truth to those in positions of power. Those in power rarely responds well to having truth spoken to them . . . Perhaps the combination of sounding outrageous, along with the threat of consequences, is why so few of us actually practice speaking truth to power when we have the opportunity . . . Maybe we can begin with committing to tell the truth, period.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others said, He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philips wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, It is not lawful for you to have your brothers wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, Ask me for anything you want, and Ill give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring Johns head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, Johns disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6.14-29)

The parts of this story corroborated by extrabiblical sources are that John the Baptist was arrested and ultimately executed by Herod the tetrarch (son of Herod the Great). One reason could very well have been John’s outspoken criticism of Herod’s second marriage to Herodias. Herod was first married to a Nabatean princess. Herod threw that marriage away to marry Herodias, who was the wife of another Herod. We now know from historical records that the gospel of Mark records the detail about Herodias’ first husband incorrect, though. Herodias was never married to Herod’s brother Philip. Regardless, John may have been criticizing the way in which Herod took Herodias as his second wife.

In Jewish Antiquities, Josephus doesn’t mention Herod’s marriage as the reason for John’s death, but focuses instead on John’s popularity with the crowd and thus his power over the masses:

“Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death.” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.118-119)

This story is an example of a familiar theme in the Hebrew prophets: the call to speak truth to unjust powers. The phrase “Speak Truth to Power” has its origins in the American Friends Service Committee in 1955 (see Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence). Yet the idea is ancient. Here are just a few examples of Hebrew prophets speaking truth to power in the Hebrew scriptures:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go.’” (Exodus 5:1)

“Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your masters house to you, and your masters wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.” (2 Samuel 12:7-10)

“When [Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. But you and your fathers family have. You have abandoned the LORDS commands and have followed the Baals.” (1 Kings 18:17-18)

“The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me . . .Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:1-17)

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: Hear the word of the LORD to you, king of Judah, you who sit on Davids throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” (Jeremiah 22:1-3)

“When Jonahs warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Jonah 3:6)

“And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the LORD Almighty said: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zechariah 7:8-10)

“Then I said, ‘Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice?’” (Micah 3:1)

“There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” (Amos 5:10-12)

What about us? What does it mean for us to speak truth to power today?

What are some ways in which we, even if our sphere of influence is limited, can speak truth to those in power?

Remember, there are consequences to speaking truth to those in positions of power. Those in power rarely responds well to having truth spoken to them. John the Baptist’s story illustrates those consequences: he was executed. As the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone used to say, “The truth about injustice always sounds outrageous.” Perhaps the combination of sounding outrageous, along with the threat of consequences, is why so few of us actually practice speaking truth to power when we have the opportunity.

Maybe we can start smaller than speaking truth to someone like Herod. Maybe we can begin with committing to tell the truth, period. Then, if and when the opportunity arises to speak to power, we will already be in the habit of speaking the truth. In this spirit, I have always cherished this statement by Leo Tolstoy at the end of his book The Kingdom of God is Within You:

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination. If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible. But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so. You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it. You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society. You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth. And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself. There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, p. 433)

Truth telling will always carry consequences, some beneficial and others difficult to bear. We may not always have the courage or power to change unjust conditions ourselves, but maybe we can do the bare minimum of speaking the truth about them.

May we at least have the courage to speak truth. Because that truth will enable and empower us to choose to change things after all.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does the phrase “speaking truth to power” mean to you in your sphere of influence? Share with your group.

3.  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 everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


 

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A Community of Dependence and Connectedness

diverse hands forming network

Herb Montgomery | July 2, 2021


“In Jesus’ vision for human community in the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, we take responsibility for taking care of one another, not to establish dependency, but because we already are dependent on one another.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. Where did this man get these things?” they asked. Whats this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isnt this the carpenter? Isnt this Marys son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Arent his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 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.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:1-13)

This is one of my favorite sections in Mark’s gospel because it lays out a life-giving value of communities throughout human existence: our interdependence. Stephen Patterson explains in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins:

What does it actually mean for the empire of God to come? It begins with a knock at the door. On the stoop stand two itinerant beggars, with no purse, no knapsack, no shoes, no staff. They are so ill-equipped that they must cast their fate before the feet of a would-be host. This is a point often made by historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan. These Q folk are sort of like ancient Cynics, but their goal is not the Cynic goal of self-sufficiency; these itinerants are set only for dependency. To survive they must reach out to other human beings. They offer them peace—this is how the empire arrives. And if their peace is accepted, they eat and drink—this is how the empire of God is consummated, in table fellowship. Then another tradition is tacked on, beginning with the words Whenever you enter a town.This is perhaps the older part of the tradition, for this, and only this, also has a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas (14). There is also an echo of it in Pauls letter known as 1 Corinthians (10: 27). Here, as in the first tradition, the itinerants are instructed, Eat what is set before you.Again, the first move is to ask. The empire comes when someone receives food from another. But then something is offered in return: care for the sick. The empire of God here involves an exchange: food for care.” (Stephen Patterson, The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, p. 74-75)

In our context, American capitalistic individualism and independence, which too often masquerade as freedom,  dependence as a good thing and a life-giving ethic for human thriving may be a bit difficult to get our minds around. Nonetheless we can make a strong case that the good news that Jesus taught was deeply rooted in what it meant to be community, and that included our dependence on one another. Jesus scholar James Robinson writes in his book The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News:

[Jesuss] basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society . . . I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that Gods reigning is there for them (Theirs is the kingdom of God”) . . . Jesus’ message was simple, for he wanted to cut straight through to the point: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them.” (James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News, Kindle Location 138)

The Jesus of the synoptic gospels called his listeners and followers back to a practice of mutual dependence. He called them to let go of their hoarded resources, and to be the ones God sends to help those who don’t have enough for today. He invited them to trust that if a crisis should arise in future for us, we should not trust in our once-hoarded resources, but in those we have fostered community alongside. We should trust that they will be there for us. We don’t gain the ability to sleep at night because we have hoarded enough wealth. We gain the ability to sleep at night because no matter what the future holds, we are not facing it alone. As a community, we have each other.

Many years ago, I remember a very wealthy person asked a question at a seminar I was conducting: “Does that mean we should all just sell our retirement accounts and give it all away?”

That’s a great question. My response was no. As long as we are living in a society that so highly prioritizes independence and isolated individualism even for the elderly, retirement accounts are vital. But what can we do? We can take steps to foster community, rejecting the kool-aid of individualism, and work toward shaping a society where our dependence is recognized and celebrated, a community that makes retirement accounts obsolete. At that point, people will no longer need such large retirement accounts because we will all take care of the aged among us. Social security, done correctly, is a good thing, and we should be seeking to create a society where our elderly can thrive, not just barely survive.

In Paul’s ministry, a different principle enters the early church:

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Dont we have the right to food and drink? Dont we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lords brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? . . . If others have this right of support from you, shouldnt we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 9:1-6, 12)

Here we see a move away from the dependence value in what may have been the original teachings of Jesus. Mark’s gospel was written after Paul, but most scholars believe it preserves the early ethic of dependence.

Luke’s gospel shows the tension growing between Paul’s independence and the early Jesus community’s dependence. By the time of Luke, followers are now permitted to take a staff, and what is shared is now labelled as “wages.”

“Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house, first say, Peace to this house.If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (Luke 10:4-9, emphasis added.)

In the Didache we also see parameters being made in response to possible abuses of the original dependence ethic:

Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.” (Didache: The Lords Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations, Chapter 11)

This is more than an interesting discussion among Jesus scholars though. We have to ask ourselves today: what do we as Jesus followers in the 21st Century find most life-giving—Paul’s independence or Jesus’ interdependence?

In Jesus’ vision for human community in the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, we take responsibility for taking care of one another, not to establish dependency, but because we already are dependent on one another. Jesus’ community chose to practice mutual aid, resource sharing, and wealth redistribution.

We also have that choice before us. Could it be that societies that survive are not societies that practice the survival of the individual fittest, where the strong eat the weak, but societies that define “fittest” as one where we all take care of one another, including those who may be weak.

Our choice today is the same as in the Jesus story: individualism, independence, and competition or community, cooperation, and connectedness; dependency or interdependency.

We are connected whether we realize it or not. We are also dependent on one another whether we cherish that idea or not.

Life is born when we share.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Can you share ways that you experience our dependence on one another? How can we support and care for each other in that interdependency? Discuss with your group.

3.  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 everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week