Judging the Time

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“But he said to them, ‘When evening has come, you say: Good weather! For the sky is flame red.” And at dawn: “Today it’s wintry! For the lowering sky is flame red.” The face of the sky you know to interpret, but the time you are not able to?’” (Q 12:·54-56)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 16:2-3: “He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say,  “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’”

Luke 12:54-56: “He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say,“It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’”

Gospel of Thomas 91:2: “He said to them: ‘You examine the face of sky and earth, but the one who is before you, you have not recognized, and you do not know how to test this opportunity.’”

As we’ve been discussing over the past two weeks, the context of our saying this week is the economic and political stress in Galilee and Judea in the early first century. The poor were being exploited. Movements that used nationalistic sentiments resented the rule of the Roman empire. As in most cases throughout history, those who have less to lose are the ones who are willing to take the greatest risks. These nationalistic movements would have resonated deeply with the exploited poor, and its members would have resonated most deeply with a “Make Jerusalem Great Again” kind of message. What were the results?

Three decades later the poor rose up and forced the political and economic elites from the Temple. They burned the debt ledgers, erasing all debts, forcing a “Jubilee” of cancelled debts. They then took up arms to engage in a liberation movement to free themselves from Roman taxation and rule. This Jewish-Roman war lasted from 66-69 C.E. Then, in the following year, the tense situation between the Jewish people and Rome escalated again, ending in a backlash from Rome that wiped out Jerusalem for everyone, rich, poor, elite, and the socially marginalized alike. The liberation methods chosen by the excluded and pushed down would profoundly backfire for everyone.

Roughly thirty years earlier, an itinerant, Jewish prophet of the poor endeavored to cast a societal vision of an alternative path. It was a leap for both ends of the socio-economic-political spectrum. He called the wealthy elites to see our interconnectedness with others and he called us to liquidate our vast possessions and redistribute their wealth to “the poor.” This was not a call to an isolated individual as some belief. Rather, this was Jesus message to audience at large in Luke 12:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33; see also https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/03-24-2017)

In the later book of Acts, the first act by all wealthy Jesus followers, to one degree or another, was to share:

“With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:40-45, emphasis added.)

In the book of Acts, this was an indispensable act in what it meant to follow Jesus. This would help us make sense of why Jesus was unpopular with the majority of economic elites of his day.

And if you think that’s a naive hope, Jesus’ message to the desperate poor was equally a long shot. It was one of resistance, but of nonviolent resistance. A call to see our interconnectedness with one another. A call to liberation, and justice, yes. Yet this resistance was to be expressed through self-affirming, injustice confronting, militant nonviolence. He called the exploited down a path that would, yes, remove the power to hurt others from those in control of the present society, but would not remove those ones from humanity itself. It was a call for them to also “love” their enemies. This was a tension expressed well by the words of Barbara Demming in Revolution and Equilibrium:

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched—maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not—but always outstretched. With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ Active nonviolence is a process that holds these two realities—of noncooperation with violence but open to the humanity of the violator—in tension. It is like saying to our opponent: On the one hand (symbolized by a hand firmly stretched out and signaling, ‘Stop!’) ‘I will not cooperate with your violence or injustice; I will resist it with every fiber of my being’. And, on the other hand (symbolized by the hand with its palm turned open and stretched toward the other), ‘I am open to you as a human being.’” (p. 16)

Even if those on the undersides and edges of society embraced nonviolent resistance, the Jesus called them to learn to see the humanity of their oppressors, to seek distributive justice rather than revenge. Answering the call to not cast out oppressors from the human race but to leave open the possibility for oppresses to choose to listen, change, and embrace changing along with the changes in the larger society is difficult. Nonetheless, enemy love was also a part of Jesus’ message. To enemies, Jesus said, “Stop being enemies” To the exploited, Jesus said, “Leave open the possibility that exploiters may also change.”

Both sides met Jesus’ vision for society with a level of resistance, depending on their social location.

Today, our society’s economic exploitation and classism is compounded by the interlocking network of the societal sins of racism, sexism, heterosexism, with nationalism and militarism thrown into the mix. Today’s struggle for a society characterized by distributive justice is complex.

But solving the economic exploitation of the poor won’t necessarily reverse our other societal sins. Examples are economic solutions in the past that intentionally left out people of color. A short NPR interview illustrates this well: Historian Says Don’t ‘Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos.

Nevertheless, some movements today address economic disparities between the 1% and the rest of society and acknowledge race. We can work together toward distributive justice for all!

We must engage socio-political and religious-cultural solutions in holistic ways that recognize, name, and address the above interlocking systems of oppression including our racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism. This, to me, is what it means to follow the Jesus of Luke 4:18-19 whose life and ministry was spent alongside the poor, alongside women, and in solidarity with outcast people:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In our saying this week, Jesus was chiding his listeners’ ability to tell the weather but not see the social, political, and economic catastrophe that lay ahead of them. Today I have to pause and wonder the same.

We are witnessing a political movement that, like in first century Judea, plays on the economic hardships and the nationalism of a certain sector of American society. Tensions are escalating at home and abroad, and have the potential to produce a backlash that could wipe out everything for everyone; rich, poor, elite, and the socially marginalized alike. The liberation methods we choose matter. Genuine liberation cannot be accomplished on the backs of other marginalized and exploited people. As Fannie Lou Hamer reminds us, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Again, we are witnessing today a number of people who have placed their hope in a solution that is deeply problematic for a majority of others. I cannot help but ask what’s on our horizon. How will things escalate over the next four years?

Racial tensions are escalating. Sexist tensions are escalating. Homophobic and transphobic tensions are escalating. Ecological tensions are escalating. Global nuclear tensions are quickly escalating. Are we heading swiftly toward our own Gehenna which wipes out everything for everyone alike?

We are in this together. We may not all be the same, but we are all connected. We may be different, but we are all part of the same varied human family. When we fail to recognize our interconnectedness to one another, when we try to solve society’s problems for ourselves, while we turn our backs on or even worsen the societal problems of our neighbor, we are headed down a path which historically leaves nothing for all of us.

But he said to them, “When evening has come, you say: Good weather! For the sky is flame red.” And at dawn: “Today it’s wintry! For the lowering sky is flame red.” The face of the sky you know to interpret, but the time you are not able to? (Q 12:·54-56)

HeartGroup Application

I mentioned a list of tensions that are presently escalating in Western societies. Jesus commissioned us to be sources of healing despite them. Here is that list again:

  • Racial tensions
  • Sexist tensions
  • Homophobic and transphobic tensions
  • Ecological tensions
  • Global nuclear tensions
  1. Which tensions would you add to this list?
  2. Where do you see these tensions escalating in our world today? List examples.
  3. In what ways, in your own sphere of influence, can you work to bring reparation, healing, and justice-rooted peace, to these escalating tensions in your own community? Make another list.

Now pick something from that last list and put it into practice this week. What we choose, what we do, affects those around us. We are bound up with one another. We are each other’s keeper.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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