Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Picture of mustardby Herb Montgomery

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

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

The Mountain of the Temple State

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

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

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

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

Consider the following passages:

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

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

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

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

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

It was a vision of a different world.

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

Thrown into the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do the people see beyond the veil?

The room is empty.

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

God is with them, the crucified community.

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

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

Faith

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

In the Jesus stories, faith always makes the difference:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart Group Application

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

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

On November 28 go to:

renewedheartministries.com/donate/ 

and help us meet our year-end goal!

Thank you in advance for partnering with us!

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

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

Featured Text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internal Divisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where our saying comes in this week.

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

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

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

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

Seven times

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

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

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

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

Unity at the price of silence

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

 

The Lost Coin

by Herb Montgomery | November 3, 2017

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

Featured Text:

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

Companion Text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to the poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plaques and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also become unclean. They were quite willing to pay sky rocketing prices commanded by the scarce domestic grain because they could afford it . . . One senses economic advantage being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued the the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from soil [before being planted]; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.”

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

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

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

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

Repent

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

Luke 19:8-10: “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

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

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

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

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

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

A Woman

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

What’s the take away this week?

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

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

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

There’s a lot in this week’s saying:

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Thanks for supporting our work here at RHM. 

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

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

or by mailing your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

We are making a difference!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Lost Sheep

Picture of a sheep

by Herb Montgomery | October 27, 2017

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

Featured Text:

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

Companion Text:

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

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

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

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

Matthew’s Vulnerable

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

The context is Jesus’ teaching about children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke’s “Sinners”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now contrast those passages with this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

This week I want you to:

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

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

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Against Enticing Little Ones

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

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

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

by Herb Montgomery | October 20, 2017

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native People 

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

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

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

Slavery

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

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

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

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

Against Women

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

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

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

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

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

LGBTQ Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

“Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40.4)

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

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

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Or you can always mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Every amount helps. Thank you!

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Divorce Leading to Adultery

by Herb Montgomery

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

Featured Text:

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

Companion Texts:

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

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

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

Let’s unpack that a bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at each.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

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

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

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

If you prefer, you can also mail your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

No Serif of the Law to Fall

Aged picture of the Hebrew Bibleby Herb Montgomery

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

Featured Text:

“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the law to fall.” (Q 16:17)

Companion Text:

Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Luke 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

This week we see Jesus’s Jewishness. We see a Jesus who holds the Torah in high regard. For him, the Torah is eternal. The Jesus of this week’s saying is not teaching a new religion or trying to replace a current one. This Jewish Jesus is offering an interpretation of the Torah that includes a preferential option for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Jesus’s interpretation contrasted with the elites in Jerusalem, and also differed from the populist Pharisees’ interpretation. The Pharisees opened the privilege of adhering to the Torah’s purity codes to a wider social group, but still left themselves in the position to control who was centered and who was pushed the margins. Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society and politics like the Essenes, nor did he champion raising the sword in revolt like other Judean Messiah figures during the first half of the 1st Century. His interpretation stood out from all of these.

Jesus’s interpretation of the Torah centered those on the edges of his society and invited them to be seated too alongside others at a shared table. Some have labeled him as radical; others as simply compassionate and just in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. For our purposes this week, we can say that, at minimum, it was still Jewish and the Torah was still central. His teachings appealed to the poor and outcast because he was interpreting the Torah, not because he offered something novel to replace the Torah.

Luke’s use of this week’s saying reassured those who were suffering violence because they followed Jesus’s interpretation and social vision. You can read about that here.

Matthew’s use of this saying is quite different from Luke’s. Luke’s gospel explained how what began as a Jewish movement of the lower class became so populated by Gentiles from the middle and upper classes. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, corrects many of the mistakes Mark’s gospel makes about Jewish culture, which leads many scholars to believe Mark’s gospel was primarily for lower class Gentile followers of Jesus. Matthew’s version of the saying is about completion and assures the community that Jesus had not come to supersede the Torah. Two words in the saying that help us understand this are “fulfill” and “accomplished.” Let’s look at both.

The Greek word translated as fulfill is pleroo. Pleroo means to fill to the full like a 1st Century fishing net full of fish, or to level up a hollow place in the ground by filling it with dirt. It means to fill to the very top, to the brim. It’s as if Jesus is saying that contemporary interpretations of the Torah were leaving gaps and weren’t full. Some parts of the Torah made provisions for the poor, that Pharisaical teachings negated. These were hollow places in their caretaking, hollow places that Jesus claimed to be filling up. With Jesus, those being kept on the margins, even by the Pharisees’ interpretations, were to be welcomed, affirmed and included. They were valuable. They, too, were the children of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9).

The second word is translated as accomplished is ginomai. Ginomai carries with it the idea of becoming: something comes into existence or onto the stage; something appears in public. I hear Jesus saying that his interpretation is not a destruction of the Torah, but simply an interpretation coming onto the stage that sought to re-prioritize the poor and socially vulnerable.

This is a rich teaching for us today.

Not all of the vulnerable sectors of 1st Century Jewish society were addressed by the Torah’s provisions, or even by the teachings of Jesus. I believe we must build on Jesus’s work and include those who today should also be affirmed and valued.

Who are vulnerable among us today? Is it the estimated 2,150 to 10,790 transgender military personnel now being targeted and scapegoated in the U.S.? Is it the DACA Dreamers whom some believe legislators will try to use to bargain for border wall funding? Is it people of color who continue to be the victims of implicit bias and systemic racism in this country? Surely the vulnerable includes Native people still fighting to preserve their right to clean drinking water despite the U.S. and state-protected oil industry. It includes women disproportionally targeted by diminishing access to women’s health services.

What does it mean to stand up for the vulnerable even while being accused of “destroying the Torah?” For Christians today, advocating for the vulnerable is sometimes met with the accusation that we are ignoring, throwing out, or contradicting the Bible. White Christians in antebellum America placed before Christian abolitionists the false choice of holding onto their abolitionism or holding onto the scriptures. Sternly those Christians told abolitionists that they could not continue to hold both. My own faith tradition still struggles to recognize women have equal status as men. Those institutions who are for ordaining women ministers are being given the same ultimatum: “the scriptures or the ordination of women,” it is said, “you can’t hold on to both.” I also know something about this. Over the last two years, I have had cancellation after cancellation from those concerned by my and RHM’s affirmation, welcome, and inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. These Christians have claimed that we have “abandoned the clear teachings of the Bible.”

But those standing alongside the vulnerable in our society today could follow Jesus’s teaching here and say to those holding on to old and destructive interpretations of sacred texts, “Do not think we are abolishing our sacred text. We aren’t throwing out the scriptures; we are simply interpreting the text in a way that fills up the glaring gaps in interpretations that are destroying vulnerable people. We aren’t destroying the scriptures; we are replacing interpretations that destroy people with interpretations that give life and liberate.”

For those who feel like they must choose between people’s well being and fidelity to a sacred text, that’s not the choice at all. You may have to let go of destructive interpretations of your sacred text. You may have to let go of the way you have viewed your sacred text. But you can still be an affirming Christian and hold your sacred text in a way that understands that text that affirms people. Choose people. Value people. When you do, you’ll see you aren’t destroying your text, but interpreting it in a way that, like Jesus and the Torah, includes those who are presently being harmed.

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

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the Torah to fall. (Q 16:17)

HeartGroup Application

In the context of working alongside the vulnerable and advocating for their rights, a verse that Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues is:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8

I would add today that many of those who can speak up for themselves are speaking up, so add your voice to theirs. The work of reclaiming of your own humanity is bound up with theirs. Speak up in tangible, concrete ways.

I shared this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King some weeks ago:

“The other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

This week, I want to emphasis that social location matters. Some people can’t afford to wait for an inside-out approach, for a future kingdom or new social order. Some people are dying now.

As I’ve shared, change happens from the outside in, not from the center, but from the edges or margins inward. The same is true for people. It took people outside of me to change me. Spiritual disciplines and community rituals also shape people over time. The gospels portray a Jesus who gave his listeners a list of practices that would change the way they saw, thought, and felt about themselves and the others with whom they shared their world.

Sam Wells, in the introduction of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, draws a line in the sand:

“We seem to have picked up the idea that holiness is a trance-like sense of peace and well-being in relation to those all around, an experience of floating on a magic carpet of tranquility. Wherever that picture of holiness came from, it certainly wasn’t Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is constantly having heated debates with everyone who held Israel in check. The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’”

How do we, in the short term, make life uncomfortable for those who can change things until they do? One way to do that is by connecting with your elected officials.

1. This week, find out the name and phone number of the following and write them down:

Your Federal House Representative
Your Federal Senators
Your State Governor
Your State House Representatives
Your State Senate Members
County Officials
City Mayor and Council members

2. Check out the following two websites. https://www.indivisibleguide.com and https://5calls.org

On these sites, you’ll find helpful instructions for how to connect with your officials in memorable and effective ways to create the changes you’d like to see.

3. If this is new to you, start out by making one phone call a week. Then graduate to two or three.

If you can put something right yourself, then by all means, take action and do so. If you do not have the power to change much larger systems that perpetuate injustice, take stock of your relationship with those in power and make their life pretty uncomfortable until they make those changes. Stand in solidarity with those on the edges and undersides of society. Reclaim your own humanity by working alongside those engaging the work of reclaiming theirs.

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

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

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference. If you prefer, you can also mail you support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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

I love each of you dearly.
I’ll see you next week.

Since John the Kingdom of God

Picture of protestorsby Herb Montgomery

“It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is ‘unpardonable.’”

Featured Text:

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:12-13: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”

Luke 16:16: “The law and the prophets were until John; from that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every one useth violence towards it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall.” (Douay-Rheims)

The Law and the Prophets

I have to confess that I used to interpret this passage differently than I do today. Growing up in a sector of Christianity that taught replacement theology, I interpreted this passage to mean that the Kingdom superseded the “Law and the Prophets.” I no longer believe that. Jesus was a Jew. He was never a Christian. As my friend Charlie Kraybill is fond of saying:

“Where did Jesus get his inspiration? From the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, of course. Little of what Jesus said was original with him. His genius was not so much in the substance of his sayings as in the way he curated his source material, the methodology he used for selecting what to highlight and what to leave on the shelf. And Jesus left a lot on the shelf. He ignored the negative qualities attributed to Yahweh: the wrath, the retribution, the jealousy, the rage, the pettiness. He also ignored Yahweh’s military exploits, the occasions where God was portrayed as siding with one tribe over other tribes on the battlefield. Jesus knew, intuitively, that stories of Yahweh behaving badly were projections of the humans who had written the texts. He understood that “Yahweh the Warrior” is a literary character, created by the scribes for their patriotic tales of Israel’s glorious past. At the same time, Jesus resonated with Yahweh’s noblest qualities: mercy, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, non-judgment, etc. He scoured the scrolls for passages where God is shown in the best light. These became Jesus’s favorite passages. They inspired his philosophy of conciliation, affirmation, and pacifism. Because Jesus was confident that the God who really exists — the Source of All Truth and Beauty in the Universe — is conciliatory, affirming, and non-violent. All the time. Any teachings or texts that contradict the mercy and compassion of God carry no weight. It was a radical perspective for a marginal Jew from the Galilean hinterlands, yet it’s the perspective that has made Jesus such a provocative and inspirational figure for the past two millennia.” (Marginal Mennonite Society)

The teachings that have been attributed to the historical Jesus are deeply Jewish. Here are a few examples of where we see Jesus’s teachings directly influenced by his Judaism:

Leviticus 19:17: “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but rather love your neighbor as yourself.”

Deuteronomy 4:31: “God is merciful. God will neither abandon you nor destroy you.”

Deuteronomy 15:11: “Open your hand to the poor and needy.”

Psalms 37:26: “The righteous are always giving liberally and lending.”

Psalms 103:8: “God is merciful, gracious, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Psalms 145:9: “God is good to All. God’s compassion is over all that God has made.”

Psalms 147:9: “God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.”

Proverbs 20:22: “Do not say ‘I will repay evil.’ Wait for God and God will help you.”

Proverbs 23:4-5: “Don’t wear yourself out to get rich. Be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone, for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”

Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat. If they are thirsty, water to drink.”

Proverbs 29:13: “The poor and the oppressor have this in common: God gives light to the eyes of both.”

Isaiah 44:22: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.”

Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I won’t forget you.”

Jeremiah 31:34: “I will forgive your iniquities, and remember your sins no more.”

Lamentations 3:30: “It is good to give one’s cheek to the smiter and be filled with insults.”

These verses show that Jesus’s vision for humanity (the kingdom) grew from these seeds found in the Law and the Prophets.

The Violation of Violence

In the second phrase of this week’s saying, “the kingdom of God is violated and the violent plunder it,” I hear Jesus speaking of the violence of the establishment’s opposition. In every version of the Jesus story in the gospels, the established social and political order responded violently to Jesus’s social vision. Mark, held by many as the earliest gospel, also describes violence as an early response to Jesus. In chapter three, “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (Mark 3:6).

Ched Myers explains that this violence is “the bottom line of the power of the state.”

“Fear of [the threat of death] keeps the dominant order intact. By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to the shattering of the power’s reign of death in history. To concede the state’s sovereignty in death is to refuse its authority in life.” (Binding the Strong Man, A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus)

This may sound like fatalistic nihilism, but it’s not. It’s the realization that sometimes protest and resistance come at the very high price of having to endure violence from the establishment.

Rome used crucifixion as political or military punishment inflicted on the lower classes and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces like Galilee and Judea. Crucifixion was reserve primarily for people who, in Roman society, had no rights. These were groups whose organizing had to be suppressed by whatever means necessary to ensure law and order within the state. As we have often said in this series, those in power will use violence when they feel threatened. Stand up anyway.

Reassurance

Luke assures Jesus’s followers facing the threat of violence: it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fall. Luke harmonizes Jesus’s teachings with the Torah, especially his teachings on debt cancellation and wealth redistribution. Jesus’s “kingdom” teachings were not anti-Torah, and in the 1st Century, assurances rooted in comparisons to the endurance of the earth held more meaning than they do today.

Today we are living in the midst of climate breakdown and realizing that the moral arc of the universe only bends toward justice if we choose to bend it that way. So today I would use different rhetoric than Jesus did to inspire people to keep hoping and to keep working despite the fact that there is violent pushback. We must work for justice anyway. The fact that we are all connected and share each other’s fate should make us engage with more intent, not less. As Alice Walker has said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Contemporary Displays of Violence Against Liberation

Those in positions of power and privilege accused Jesus’s liberation ministry of being demonic. He responded by defining that accusation as blasphemy. Juan Luis Segundo writes, “Blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable . . . What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes” (in Capitalism Versus Socialism: Crux Theologica).

It’s one thing to mistake something bad as good. It’s quite another to mistake the Sprit’s work of liberating and re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized and objectified as an evil that should be opposed. This is the sin that is “unpardonable.” Ched Myers echoes Segundo when he writes, “To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.”

This past week, Evangelical Christians once again engaged in violence against fellow Image-bearers. As in the days of Christian genocide of Native peoples, or enslavement of Africans, or objections to equal treatment of women, a group of Christians are again on the wrong side of history. The Coalition for Biblical Sexuality has repeated the anti-LGBT activism of the 1980s with a 14-article statement of bigotry signed by Evangelical Christian leaders including James Dobson, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Francis Chan. This document has been titled the Nashville Statement, although the Mayor of Nashville has made it clear that Nashville had absolutely nothing to do with it.

You can read it if you’d like, but you also don’t need to. It’s the same fear-driven, hateful rhetoric that has inspired violence toward the LGBTQ community throughout history. The Christian privileged elite has never been short of Biblical justifications for their oppression, exclusion, marginalization and dehumanization of socially vulnerable people.

Renewed Heart Ministries rejects the Nashville Statement in its entirety. We recognize and affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender nonconforming community members as fellow image-bearers, as sacred, as being fully human and deserving our respect, of love, and justice. Objectification and dehumanization is violence. And in response to this violence we join our voices and our actions with all those saying “No” to efforts such as these.

If you are reading this and are part of the LGBTQ community, you are holy. You are worthy. You are valuable. And you are not alone.

The outcry against this document on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook was swift and stern demonstrating a turning of the tide in our society. These are steps that must be taken as we together work to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for us all. There is still a lot of work to be done. And I am committed to that work.

Maybe this week’s saying can offer us some encouragement as we stand up to violence, bigotry and fear. The narrative of violence has been repeated over and over throughout history. We learn from the stories of Jesus in the gospels that God was not aligned with those placing others on crosses but in solidarity with the one they crucified for standing with the marginalized and calling for change.

We are not alone today. We are in the right story. If nothing else, may this give a little comfort, and encourage you to keep going.

“The law and the prophets were until John. From then on the kingdom of God is violated and the violent oppose it.” (Q 16:16)

Heart Group Application

This week I want you to do something simple. As Oscar Romero wrote in The Long View, “That is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.” Gandhi also wrote similarly, “It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

In times like this, we must remember we are each other’s keeper.

This week at your HeartGroup meeting, go around the room and say something you value and appreciate about each person in the group. Make sure no person is left out, and encourage one another. When there are those who are continually endeavoring to tear us down, we must take the time to build each other back up.
Go home and journal some of the things that others said to you during this exercise and read from those pages when you need to be reminded how valuable you really are.

Wherever you are this week, know you are loved, you are fully human, and you are worthy. I’m so glad you checked in with us. Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

We are making a difference and weeks like last week only demonstrate that. If there weren’t folks threatened by change, they wouldn’t be acting out of such desperation.

Thank you to each of you supporting our work. To support Renewed Heart Ministries directly, you can go to http://bit.ly/RHMSupport

or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

If you are new to RHM, find out more about us at http://bit.ly/WhoIsRHM

So glad you’re journeying with us.
I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

God or Money

picture of the monopoly game board

“Jesus’s ethic is not capitalist. In a capitalist system, the goal is simply to create capital. The game is won by those who are able to create the most capital and use it to create more . . . Jesus asks us to lift all boats together, rather than lift one or a few boats while others sink.”

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“No one can serve two masters; for a person will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” (Q 16:13)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Luke 16:13: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Gospel of Thomas 47:1-2: “Jesus says, ‘It is impossible for a person to mount two horses and to stretch two bows. And it is impossible for a servant to serve two masters. Else he will honor the one and insult the other.’”

Jesus taught a gospel that was “easy” to hear for laborers who were weary and heavy laden (Matthew 11:28-30). It was “hard” to hear and practice for those who were “rich” (Matthew 19:23) When it came to God and money, Jesus’s message was you can’t serve both. Why? Because the God that Jesus envisioned and asked others to envision was a God who caused the rain to fall and the sun to shine on everyone.

Jesus cast a moral vision of a world where we don’t compete with one another, but rather cooperate with and help one another. It’s a world where people are valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Jesus’s vision was of a world where people take responsibility for taking care of one another, and our resources are shared as we mutually aid each other. Jesus preached a radical wealth redistribution from the haves to the have-nots (Matthew 19:21). Not everyone would be poor. The goal was “equity,” for no one to have too much while there were those who did not have enough (2 Corinthians 8:13). The Jesus of Q did not teach a contemplative path toward privatized peace of mind. He taught a distributively just path toward peace on earth. On his path, we recognize the reality that we are in this together. We are not each our own. We are not alone here. We are connected. We belong to each other. We are part of one another. We not only share each other’s fate; we are each other’s fate.

A quotation often attributed to Gandhi is, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” There is truth in this. Whenever we serve money, whenever we try to hoard more than we could ever possibly need, most often someone somewhere will be going without or being exploited so we can have that surplus. You can’t serve both the accumulation of money and God too, because the God Jesus was referring to is a God who tells us to take care of people including those who would be exploited for you to accumulate. The bottom line is not our profit, but people, and taking care of people most often eats away at our profits.

Jesus’s ethic is not capitalist. In a capitalist system, the goal is simply to create capital. The game is won by those who are able to create the most capital and use it to create more, just as in Monopoly. Jesus asks us to lift all boats together, rather than lift one or a few boats while others sink. His world is not a closed end, win-lose world, but a world that is win-win. We all thrive together and no one is left out. Every person matters, and even our competitors or enemies are not disposable.

Edward Abby defines growth purely for “growth’s sake” as the “ideology of the cancer cell.” (Desert Solitaire, p. 114). If he’s right, this could mean that capitalism itself is a cancer for the global poor as well as our global environment. The wealthiest capitalist countries on the planet also have the largest disparities of wealth and inequality and all the harmful, intrinsic results for society that such inequality brings.

In this week’s saying, Jesus juxtaposed people and money. He did not teach that the way to help people is to make more money. He put the pursuit of wealth and the welfare of people in opposition: you can only pursue one or the other, but you cannot do both. This strikes at the core of differences between charity and justice.

To be clear, I think both charity and justice work are necessary. As retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson accurately stated, “There‘s an old saying that the church is pretty good at pulling drowning people out of a river. You know, we‘re good at the charity thing.

But what we need to do is to walk back upstream and figure out who‘s throwing them in, in the first place.”

Pursuing money in order to help people often leaves the system unchanged. Charity can be vital for the short term. But too often it leaves systemic injustice unchallenged. It’s easy to feed the homeless without asking why people lose their homes to begin with. Our work must go beyond charity to include justice work, the work of challenging, disrupting, and changing the systemic causes of injustice.

When Jesus says you can’t serve God and money, I hear him say you can’t put people first and keep seeking to advance in a system that pushes people down the line in your priorities. People matter. Poor and working class people matter. Black people matter. Women matter. Latinx people matter. Native people matter. Arab people matter. Asian people matter. Muslim people matter. Immigrant communities matter. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming people matter. In Jesus’s social vision, it’s money or people. We must make a choice.

This month in RHM’s annual reading course, we are reading James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus. In this volume, Robinson endeavors to rediscover what could have been the first gospel that the first Jesus-followers might have heard. This passage from his book is long, but it relates to our saying this week.

“By using the ‘kingdom of God,’ Jesus put his ideal for society in an antithetical relation both to other political and social systems and to individual self-interest (‘looking out for number one’). The human dilemma is, in large part, that we are each other’s fate. We become the tool of evil that ruins another person as we look out for ourselves, having long abandoned any youthful idealism we might once have cherished. But if we each would cease and desist from pushing the other down to keep ourselves up, then the vicious cycle would be broken. Society would become mutually supportive rather than self-destructive. This is what Jesus was up to. 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. God is somebody you can trust, so give it a try. Jesus found his role models for such godly living in the world of nature around him. Ravens and lilies do not seem to focus their attention on satisfying their own needs in order to survive, and yet God sees to it that they prosper. Sparrows are sold a dime a dozen and, one might say, who cares? God cares! Even about the tiniest things—he knows exactly how many hairs are on your head! So God will not give a stone when asked for bread or a snake when asked for fish, but can be counted on to give what you really need. You can trust him to know what you need even before you ask. This utopian vision of a caring God was the core of what Jesus had to say and what he himself put into practice. It was both good news—reassurance that in your actual experience good would happen to mitigate your plight—and the call upon you to do that same good toward others in actual practice. This radical trust in and responsiveness to God is what makes society function as God’s society. This was, for Jesus, what faith and discipleship were all about. As a result, nothing else had a right to claim any functional relationship to him. Put in language derived from his sayings: 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 God’s reigning is there for them, ‘Theirs is the kingdom of God.'” (Robinson, James M.. The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News, Kindle Locations 64-77, emphasis added.)

I agree with Robinson. Jesus vision for the world was one where people took care of people. It was a call not to rest your peace of mind about the future in hoarded wealth. Jesus called his followers to build a community where we trust God to send people who will take care of us if we come into a place of need and also trust God enough to be the one God is sending today to take care of those among us in need right now.

“No one can serve two masters; for a person will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Q 16:13

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you to do something out of the ordinary. Monopoly is a game that was created in 1903 as a “fun” way to demonstrate the benefits of an economy that rewards wealth creation and the pursuit of capital.

  1. Get a version of this game and, as a HeartGroup, sit down and play the game for 30 minutes.
  2. At the thirty minute mark I want you to change the rules. Take Jesus’s teachings on mutual aid, resource-sharing, and wealth redistribution, and try and play the game based on these teachings.
  3. What challenges do you run into with the new rules? How do you overcome those challenges? How does the goal of the game change? Can you change the rules enough so that it’s possible for everyone to thrive?
  4. Share what jumps out most to you by this exercise with the rest of the group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Remember, we are in this together. You are not alone. We are connected. We belong to each other. We are part of one another. We not only share each other’s fate, but we are each other’s fate. It’s not just about peace of mind, it’s a distributively just path toward peace on earth.

To those who are supporting our work, I want to say a special thank you to you this week. In a couple of weeks I’ll be in Arizona for a weekend of presentations and then off to Canada for a weekend as well. Each of these events depends on your contributions to RHM. Your support enables us to keep being a positive voice for change in our world today. Thank you! Together we are making a difference.

If you’ve benefited from RHM, and you’d like to support our ongoing work, you can make a one-time gift or become one of our regular monthly supporters by going to http://bit.ly/RHMSupport

You can also mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg WV 24901

Any amount helps!

Keep living in love, and keep following Jesus in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Insipid Salt: White Christianity in the Wake of Charlottesville

Protest sign stating white silence equals complicityby Herb Montgomery

“I do subscribe to nonviolence. I teach it. I uphold it. Yet, to claim a nonviolent neutrality, saying “I’m against violence on both sides,” while you yourself are socially privileged and benefit from violence being used against people of color, both public and privatized, is a violent form of nonviolence. I reject that. To compare oppressors and resistors based only on the use of violence is intellectually lazy. The two sides are not on the same moral plane. They are not morally equivalent. Social location also matters.”

Featured Text:

“Salt is good‚ but if salt becomes insipid, with what will it be seasoned? Neither for the earth nor for the dunghill is it fit—it gets thrown out.” Q 14:34-35

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Luke 14:34-35: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Last weekend, the U.S. witnessed an evil display of racism and white supremacy/nationalism in Charlottesville, VA. We at Renewed Heart Ministries reaffirm our commitment of solidarity with Black, Latinx, Native, Arab, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and immigrant communities, with women, our LGBTQ siblings, and the organizing working class who are all opposing White supremacy.

In a presentation on misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas explains, “We must recognize the intersecting realities of all of these [forces]. That misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia are all a part of a social political narrative of power. That is they are all a part of the White, patriarchal, imperialistic, capitalistic power. Misogyny, heterosexism, and homophobia are secreted by that narrative, and they feed the agenda of White, male hegemony. In as much as non-White, non-male, non-heterosexual persons can be effectively marginalized, can be set against one another, and in as much as marginalized communities marginalize and oppress one another, well then. The White, male agenda of oppressive power has been served.”

We at Renewed Heart Ministries affirm the work of those who came together and opposed and resisted White supremacy in Charlottesville, VA, last weekend. And we will continue to do our part in standing against white supremacy in all its forms.

That brings me to this week’s saying and its relevance to what we are seeing right now in the discussions around race here in the U.S. First, lets ask an important question of our saying. Our saying asks what happens to salt when it becomes salt-less. But how could that happen? How could salt lose its saltiness? That’s chemically impossible. Salt is salt is salt is salt—at least today.

In the 1st Century, rock salt in the Roman Empire naturally occurred in vast salt beds where evaporated minerals left sediment behind. Salt was not the only sediment in these beds, nor was it the only white sediment present. Salt mingled with other white sediments, was harvested, and then sold. In a cook’s broth, for example, the sediment (composed of salt and other rock) would be placed in a cooking cloth and used to stir the hot liquid broth. The salt would naturally dissolve, flavoring the broth, while other sediments with less ability to dissolve would not.

Over time, however, the salt would be used up and the other sediments left behind. The salt would be spent: it would have “lost its saltiness.” It would be “insipid” or tasteless and at that point it would be worthless, its use to be thrown out with the gravel on the road but it wasn’t even fit to be mixed with soil as fertilizer. Each of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) mention salt becoming insipid (cf. Mark 9:49-50, Matthew 5:13 and Luke 14:34-35).

In Matthew and Luke, the context of this week’s saying is different. For Matthew, this is a saying included in the list of Jesus’ sayings that we call the Sermon on the Mount. For Luke, this saying is set among a list of criteria, an explanation of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Luke seems to be reminding his readers of what it means to be a Jesus follower in deeds and practice, not just in label or name.

This holds relevance for me. As I travel from place to place trying to help groups of Christians rediscover the teachings of the Jesus at the heart of their faith, I’m struck by how often we Christians are opposed to what Jesus actually taught. Recently, I was sharing Jesus’ ideas of mutual aid and wealth redistribution and once again, Christians in the audience raised strident objections. This past week, too, I watched my Christian friends on social media demonstrating an alarming lack of discernment, echoing the harmful rhetoric of blaming “many” or “both sides,” placing evil and opposition to evil on the same moral plane. These experiences have cemented the relevance of this week’s saying for me.

I have often wondered whether Christianity today has fallen much more in love with the idea of Jesus than with the reality of him. We seem to resonate with the hope of heavenly bliss after death; we want a gospel that liberates us from our mortality. We also have a very low interest in a gospel that liberates us from oppression, subjugation, and marginalization here, now, today. We like a Jesus who gives us hope for the future but leaves the present untouched. We are content with a Jesus who leaves our economic, racial, and sexist injustice in place. We are happy with a Jesus who promises heaven and leaves our present homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia unaddressed—or even worse, affirmed.

I’m working through my own frustration with this reality. I don’t resonate with a Jesus who is only concerned with our after-life, and I’m honestly at a loss to understand those only interested in that Jesus.

The Jesus in the gospel stories addressed and challenged the social, economic and political injustice of his day. We never see him telling people how to get to heaven or how to have a private relationship with him. We do see him teaching us how to enter into relationships with one another, how to share with one another, how to take care of one another. We encounter a Jesus who cautions us to make sure no one has too much and that everyone has enough. Jesus isn’t preoccupied with a future heaven but rather a present hell in which too many are trying to scrape out an existence.

A Christianity that has forgotten what the Jesus of the gospels actually taught is a Christianity that has lost its way. It’s lost the way. It’s lost its saltiness. It has become insipid or worse, dangerous.

Throughout history, forms of Christianity that have become divorced from Jesus’ ethical teachings have produced a Christianity that becomes the tool the powerful use to push the vulnerable to the underside or the margins. We see this in Europe before the Enlightenment and at the heart of colonialism. We see it in the history of America with Native people and the Africans brought here against their will through the inhumane trade of slavery. And we see it globally in the economic exploitation of developing countries by the West.

Parts of contemporary U.S. Christianity have departed starkly from the teachings of the historical Jesus. Recently one Christian claimed that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” Christians applaud the administration’s dismantling decades of protecting the vulnerable through regulation. Christians support the denial of climate change and respond “all lives matter” to silence people of color standing up to systemic injustice. Christians chant “religious liberty” as they did during the civil rights movement, as code for the demand to live out bigotry. While many CEOs demonstrated their opposition to Trump’s defense of White supremacists this past week, most Evangelical leaders carried on with business as usual.

I live in West Virginia, which is the most pro-Trump state in the U.S., but I know West Virginians are not alone in their support. I see church signs here that attribute to Trump a savior status: to some Christians, he is a “Godsend” in whom they find hope. This is the same man who bragged of sexually assaulting women and whose campaign included dog-whistle racism and blatant xenophobia. He dropped the dog-whistle this week, and defended white supremacists outright. My Christian friends who are Trump supporters took it all in stride and didn’t bat an eye. It wasn’t a deal breaker for these Christians. The Christianity of the socially privileged is not a counter cultural movement that speaks truth to the powerful or calls for a radically different way of organizing society. Although those traits are the traits of the ancient Hebrew prophets, they are either absent or opposed within this sector of Christianity today.

Last weekend, a multi-faith coalition of clergy who do demonstrate these traits met in Charlottesville, VA, to counter-protest the white supremacist, alt-right rally there. Their lives were in jeopardy multiple times, and they were saved not by police who stood by, but by groups such as Anti-fa and other anarchists who stepped in. Yet so many White Christians here in the U.S. criticized the violence of the groups that came to these faith leader’s aid with their “both sides” rhetoric, oblivious to their own social location in the discussion.

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas spoke this week about where the critique of violence should land. “Make no mistake about it,” she said. ”Such ideologies in and of themselves are violent. For any ideology or system of thought that objectifies another human being and fails to recognize their very humanity must be recognized as violent. Moreover, such ideologies and systems serve only to precipitate more violence.”

The violence of objectification is the violence that my White Christian friends should have been critiquing. Paulo Freire’s words in Pedagogy of the Oppressed could pull back the veil from White Christians’ understanding: “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation. Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons— not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized.”

I want to be clear. I do subscribe to nonviolence. I teach it. I uphold it. Yet, to claim a nonviolent neutrality, saying “I’m against violence on both sides,” while you yourself are socially privileged and benefit from violence being used against people of color, both public and privatized, is a violent form of nonviolence. I reject that. To compare oppressors and resistors based only on the use of violence is intellectually lazy. The two sides are not on the same moral plane. They are not morally equivalent. Social location also matters. It is not for us to determine what form people’s opposition should take when we socially benefit from their oppression. That’s not our place and it’s another subtle form of White supremacy to believe that we are in a moral position to critique the resistance of those threatened by White supremacists. We may not like it, but James H. Cone correctly states, “Since whites have been the most violent race on the planet, their theologians and preachers are not in a position to tell black people, or any other people for that matter, what they must do be like Jesus” (God of the Oppressed). All White people benefit from one degree to another from the White supremacy that is baked into our country’s history and design. THAT is what we should be opposing right now. If the resistance is to be critiqued, that critique should come from those being targeted by the violence of White supremacy, not those standing on the sidelines and claiming moral superiority to violence.

What should I, as a White Christian cisgender straight male be speaking out to this week? The Christianity of the socially privileged here in the U.S. is one of those things on the list.

What happened to the movement spawned by a Jewish prophet of the poor who stood in solidarity with the exploited and marginalized, and whose work was characterized as “good news to the poor” and “liberation for the oppressed?” (See Luke 4:18-19)

The salt has become insipid and its flavor is rancid. It is no longer based on the sayings and teachings of the one whose work it was founded to honor. As Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois III has stated, it has become “duplicitous.”

But there is another way to understand Christianity.

As Delores S. Williams reminds us, “It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

Salvation in Sayings Gospel Q was not about “getting to post-mortem bliss.” Salvation was defined as righting the injustice, oppression, and violence in our world. It had a distinctly Jewish character to it, of a hope where one day all injustice, oppression and violence in the earth would be put right. Q does not point to a future messiah figure but to a then-contemporary prophet of the poor who showed a way whereby followers could choose to right injustice, oppression, and violence then and there, beginning with them.

Salvation defined this way is based on action, not in the sense of merit we earn, but intrinsically. Because our choices have intrinsic results, humanly-created problems can have humanly-chosen solutions. Q’s gospel isn’t primarily fixated on “guilt alleviation,” grace, forgiveness, no condemnation, and unconditional love for oppressors. In Q, Jesus’s salvific way included mutual aid or resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, nonviolent, self-affirming resistance. It was a values shift that centered those on edges and sat those on the undersides of society around a shared table. It wasn’t liberal, it wasn’t “progressive,” it was liberation, and it was radical! Characters in the gospels who held positions of power felt threatened by it. People in power don’t feel threatened by people handing out tickets to post mortem heaven. They feel threatened by people unifying around a shared vision of how things can change here and now, today.

Today, many people believe Christianity has become worthless, fit for neither the earth nor the dung hill. I’m not sure what Christianity’s future is. But I do believe that, to the best of our ability, we must rediscover the gospel Jesus himself taught, not merely a gospel about him. We must then take these teachings and weight their fruit, asking what they may offer our work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation today. Anything less, in my estimation, would be unfaithful to the Jesus stories.

“Salt is good‚ but if salt becomes insipid, with what will it be seasoned? Neither for the earth nor for the dunghill is it fit—it gets thrown out.” Q 14:34-35

HeartGroup Application

In the statement Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas made this past week, she also states:

“If it wasn’t clear before, the events in Charlottesville have now made it abundantly clear—we have reached a decision point as a nation. We must decide whether we want to be a nation defined by its Anglo-Saxon myth of exceptionalism and White supremacist culture or one defined by its democratic rhetoric of being a nation of liberty and justice for all. This question is even more poignant for people of faith. For we must decide if we are a people committed to a vision of a country that reflects an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ God or a God whose image is revealed through a racial/ethnic/religiously and culturally diverse humanity. If we are in fact committed to building a nation and being a people reflective of a God with a vision of justice and freedom for all, then we must do more than just counter-protest. Rather, we must proactively protest for the kind of nation and people we want to be.”

This week I want you to read the whole article and discuss it together as a group. You can find it at: https://btpbase.org/charlottesville-truth-america/

2. The Souther Poverty Law Center also has released a document, Ten Ways to Fight Hate. Read through this document, too, and discuss which of the ten you as a group could begin putting into practice.

3. Pick the way to fight hate that you discussed and do it.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, for “when you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes, Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

Remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project to discover a new way to participate in the RHM community. We just completed our 500:25:1 weekend. I wrote about it here.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.