When Equality Means Some Are Given More Than Others

Equality, Equity and Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized
by Herb Montgomery | January 17, 2020

hands together for equality


“Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this ‘more than’ is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.”


“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 6:22)

This passage in Luke’s gospel marks the beginning of what many refer to as Jesus’ sermon on the plain. When we compare Luke’s version of this sermon to Matthew’s sermon on the mount, what begins to take shape is that Jesus’ gospel was not good news for everyone. In Luke, Jesus uttered blessings on some and woes on others.

Those he spoke blessings to were the marginalized, exploited or oppressed of Jesus’ society. Those he spoke woes to were those in his society who were in positions of privilege and power.

The Poor,
The Hungry,
The Weepers,
The Hated, Excluded, and Insulted,

versus

The Rich,
The Well-Fed,
The Laughers,
The Spoken Well Of.

Some in Jesus’ own society believed that the rich, the well-fed, and those whose lives were filled with laughter had been blessed by God, while those who were poor, hungry, and mourning were being punished by God. In that worldview, they were sinners, not less fortunate and in need of compassion and justice, but rather as morally inferior.

Jesus turned that order of economics, politics, society and even religious exclusion on its head! He challenged people’s preconceived interpretations of God and what fidelity to God looked like. God was actually on the side of those whom society was pushing to the edges and undersides. God was with those who were poor, hungry, heartbroken, hated, excluded, and insulted, and the “kingdom” belonged to them.

But to those who were privileged in an unjust social and economic structure, Jesus spoke woes.

These woes pronounced future sorrow or distress. Jesus spoke to the people of loss, for equity and equality will always feel like threat, loss, or distress to those who have everything to lose within a more just society. They do not understand change as the good news of liberation but as something being taken away from them. Today, some have more than they could ever possibly need. For the wealthiest among us, being less wealthy won’t really affect their daily lives. But someone whose net worth is hundreds of millions of dollars may still feel losing a million of it so that others can eat is still a loss. Is supporting our interconnectedness worth more than our bottom line or net worth?

Jesus began standing in the shadow of the cross as soon as he began to teach this gospel of blessings and woes. Those he blessed were the opposite of those the elites blessed, and those he warned were the opposite of those the powerful thought deserved woes. Jesus called his listeners to look at their society and those within their society in the opposite way they had been taught to.

Nothing destroys one’s empathy for others more completely than seeing them as “less than.” Jesus challenged his listeners’ most cherished assumptions about others. This different lens would cause deep upheaval for people, economically, politically, socially, and even religiously. The vision for human society that Jesus was seeking to inspire would require a paradigm shift after paradigm shift. It would not be a time of blessing for some of them, and they would face deep questioning and change as things turned on their head.

I’m reminded of the words of the late Rev. Peter Gomes:

“It is interesting to note that those who most frequently call for fair play are those who are advantaged by the play as it currently is and that only when that position of privilege is endangered are they likely to benefit from the change required to “play by the rules.” What if the “rules” are inherently unfair or simply wrong, or a greater good is to be accomplished by changing them? When the gospel says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 42)

Equity threatens those who spend their energy striving to have more than others. But it is good news to those who work for a just, compassionate, safe world for everyone. A world becoming more equitable will bless some and be felt as a woe by others.

I want to add a word of clarification:

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus speaks these words:

“[God] causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

“[God] is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

In Jesus’ theology, God loves all equally and gives to all the things they need to thrive. We as humans have designed ways for more of these resources to get to some people to the detriment of others. So why in Jesus’ gospel are some blessed, while others receive woes? Why, unlike the rain and sunshine, is the blessing of kingdom pronounced upon certain ones while woes are the only thing promised to others?

A more current conversation of the differences between equity and equality can help us here. (Everyday Feminism had a good article on these differences back in 2014 at https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/equality-is-not-enough/)

picture of different people looking over a fenceEquality is often understood as everyone getting exactly the same. But because everyone has a different social, economic, or political starting point, simply giving everyone the same thing would not necessarily create the goal of everyone having enough to thrive. Some would still have more than they need, while others would not. When everyone is different, fairness and success also differ. The image to the right illustrates these points. Equity means making sure each person has enough to thrive, and that may look different for different people.

Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this “more than” is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.

In liberation theology, scholars refer to the deference given to those on the margins as a “preferential option for the oppressed.” It is a choice to center those who are pushed to the edges and undersides of our society, and to place these people and their communities on equal ground with others. The preferential option is required to bring about equality.

In our small group discussions at Renewed Heart Ministries, we often say that whenever we speak of oppression or marginalization, those who are the most affected or most vulnerable are those who get to share their experiences. To the degree that others are less affected by such personal and systemic injustices, they can listen in solidarity. When it comes to discussions on gender inequity, for example, men, especially cisgender men, take a posture of listening. When it comes to racial inequity, those who are White listen to those who are not White. In discussions on immigration justice here in the U.S., those who are documented citizens listen. In discussions of Indigenous people’s lives and equitable treatment, non-Indigenous people listen; and when we speak of LGBTQ justice, those who identify as straight, cisgender, or gender normative listen.

Those most negatively impacted by societal injustice receive the “blessing,” while others in our present society, it could be said, “have already received” theirs (see Luke 6:24).

Go back now and reread the entirety of Luke’s sermon on the plain by Jesus and see if you don’t begin to get a feel for what Jesus in this story is doing:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.’”
(Luke 6:20-26)

Equity doesn’t have to feel like inequality if we choose to see our differences and how these differences are treated. Equality doesn’t have to feel like oppression even if you are used to privilege. We are all in this together. What lessens one, lessens us all. We are connected to one another. As the adage goes, equality doesn’t mean less for you: it’s not pie. Whether we choose to view it that way or not, is another discussion.

HeartGroup Application

1. Thoughtfully read through Matthew 5.1-11 and Luke 6.17-26. Share with your group anything the engages your attention.

2. Discuss whom these words would be directed toward in our social context today.

3. Share at least one community you would like your group to focus on working alongside with for greater system equity in our larger society.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, choose love, compassion, take action.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

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

JESUS FROM THE EDGES

hand holding circle of light

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Herb Montgomery | August 10, 2018


“These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more . . . What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society?”


“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

In previous series, we have discussed how people in Jesus’ society used the labels of “righteous” or “sinner”  to politically, socially, economically, and religiously gain power and privilege for themselves or to marginalize and exploit those who were vulnerable. (You can review this in The Lost Coin and Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This week I want to build on this idea.

In that society, how well a person conformed to popular interpretations of the Torah determined where they fell on al spectrum between righteous/sinner or clean/unclean. The more righteous or “pure” one was deemed to be, the more their society centered them. They were more privileged. They had power. They were the elite. 

Two groups in the Sanhedrin that competed for power were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees interpreted the Torah more conservatively than the Pharisees. This made conforming to their interpretation much more difficult. In many cases, their definition of “righteous” was only viable for those who had the economic means to conform, i.e. those with money who could afford to live the way the Sadducees deemed pure. This ensured that the Sadducees remained in power under the guise of fidelity to the Torah. 

The second group, the Pharisees , was much more liberal in interpreting the Torah. This made them much more popular with the masses. Under the Pharisees’ teaching, it was easier to be righteous and avoid being labeled a sinner and thus marginalized. The Pharisees were the popular interpreters of the “teachings of Moses.” Being favored by the majority of the people gave them social power, yet they also preserved their position as the ones who set the standard of “clean” and “unclean.” 

This was a social, political, economic and religious system that produced winners and losers. In this context, an itinerant Jewish teacher from Galilee named Jesus emerged. He stood apart from both schools of interpretation and came preaching a gospel where the “kingdom” belonged to those left out of both the Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ determination of who was righteous. With this in mind, read carefully the following passages. 

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Luke 14:13—“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .”

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Today in the U.S., our system creates winners and losers, too. Politically, we also have two parties that compete for popular approval while gaining power in a system that still privileges the elites. Economically, our system produces enormous wealth disparity, with those who “have not” being the natural result of creating those who “have.” Socially and religiously, we have complex systems that create an us versus them worldview and label those who are in and those who are out. 

These societal structures all function based on the variables of race, gender, sexuality, gender identity and expression, current economic status, ability, age, education, ethnicity, religion, criminal record, and more. Our interconnectedness, our part-of-one-another is continually ignored. Rather than seeing every person’s differences as a testament to the rich variety we possess as a human family, we use these differences to “other” in ways that label some as “righteous” and others as “sinner.” Those of us whose differences place them in a minority category are still members of the human race, and still part of us.

What does it mean for a Jesus follower to take seriously Jesus’ solidarity with those relegated to the margins and/or undersides of his society? How can we live out that kind of solidarity in our context today? What does it mean to stand and work alongside those who are pushed to the edges of our society?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Christians developed a keen awareness of Jesus’ solidarity with those labeled as outsiders, oppressed, marginalized and/or exploited. This emergence was global. In South America, Latin Liberation theology was born. In North America, other liberation theologies, such as Black Liberation theology, Feminist theology, Amerindian theology, womanist theology, and queer theology arose. In the east, Asian theologies of liberation were born. Gustavo Gutierrez comments on the importance of this rising consciousness.

“Black, Hispanic, and Amerindian theologies in the United States, theologies arising in the complex contexts of Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, and the especially fruitful thinking of those who have adopted the feminist perspective—all these have meant that for the first time in many centuries theology is being done outside the customary European and North American centers. The result in the so-called First World has been a new kind of dialogue between traditional thinking and new thinking. In addition, outside the Christian sphere efforts are underway to develop liberation theologies from Jewish and Muslim perspectives.  We are thus in the presence of a complex phenomenon developing on every side and representing a great treasure for the Christian churches and for their dialogue with other religions. The clarification I mentioned earlier is thus not limited to the Latin American context but affects a process and a search that are being conducted on a very broad front today. These considerations should not make us forget, however, that we are not dealing here solely with an intellectual pursuit. Behind liberation theology are Christian communities, religious groups, and peoples, who are becoming increasingly conscious that the oppression and neglect from which they suffer are incompatible with their faith in Jesus Christ (or, speaking more generally, with their religious faith). These concrete, real-life movements are what give this theology its distinctive character; in liberation theology, faith and life are inseparable. This unity accounts for its prophetic vigor and its potentialities. (Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation [15th Anniversary Edition])

Womanist scholar and theologian Jacquelyn Grant comments, “Theology as developed in Europe and America is limited when it approaches the majority of human beings…  nns Liberation theologies including Christian feminists, charge that the experience out of which Christian theology has emerged is not universal experience but the experience of the dominant culture . . . liberationists therefore, propose that theology must emerge out of particular experiences of the oppressed people of God.” (in White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, pp. 1, 10)

Making space for these voices and attending to their insights is so very important. Here at Renewed Heart Ministries we believe that the teachings of Jesus —a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee—can still speak into and inform our work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation today. For that to be life giving, we must consider those teachings through the lens of the experiences of the people Jesus would have been addressing if he were walking among us today. As Ched Myers states in Binding the Strong Man, “The fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those at the center do not.” 

From the experiences of those now in a social location similar to the social location of those Jesus taught  we can see how those teachings help us in our work of making our world a safe, just, compassionate home for everyone. As someone who has been engaged in ministry for over twenty years, these perspectives, voices, stories of people fighting to reclaim their humanity in the context of their faith traditions have been the key to helping me rediscover and reclaim my own humanity as well. I resonate deeply with the words of Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson, “If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together.”  I don’t work alongside communities working for survival and liberation out of charity. It is beside them that I rediscover my own humanity, too.

If one is new to these perspectives, where does one start? One place to begin is by exposing yourself to the writings and works of those who belong to these communities. An easy way to do this is to follow our yearly reading course at RHM. We announce each month’s book at the beginning of each month. You can sign up to be notified of each month’s book by signing up for our weekly news and eSights emails here. The point is not so much where one begins as it is to simply begin. One resource will lead you to another, and over time, you’ll see the difference these voices make to you.

Jesus did not call those who the status quo places “first.” He instead stood alongside those his culture relegated to “last” place (see Matthew 20:8-16). He came not calling the insiders, but the people those in power had labeled as “sinners.” 

What does it look like for us to do the same in our time?

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call [those you call] righteous, but [those you call] sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

HeartGroup Application 

  1. Pick a book from our book list at RHM that you as a group can read and discus together. 
  2. Read a chapter a week and determine a time each week you can meeting to discuss together what you have read.
  3. Discuss how you can put what you’ve read each week into practice and do so.

I’m so glad you checked in with us, this week. Wherever you are today, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Solidarity with the Crucified Community

by Herb Montgomery | June 1, 2018

Pictures of an x on a tree among a forest of trees

Photo by David Paschke on Unsplash

 


“When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, you will no longer be needed.”


“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)

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In recent articles on pyramids, circles, and social structure, I mentioned that the term “sinner” was used in Jesus’ society to push people to the edges and lower sections of their community.

Ched Myers uses the debate between Pharisees and Saducees over whether grain was clean or impure to illustrate how this worked.

“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 poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues 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 that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

I’ve covered this in The Lost Coin and in the presentation Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized. People used the pejorative label of “sinner” to other another human being and to limit their voice in the community. The writers of the Jesus story go to great length to communicate that the ones the religious and political leaders of that time had labelled as “sinners” were the ones Jesus included and also centered as he called for a new social order that favored them. Here are just a few examples:

Matthew 9:13—“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

[Remember that Jesus is using the labels of “righteous” and “sinner” as they were used in his society, not as many Christians use them today. Those labelled “righteous” by those in power threatened their political and economic structures the least and benefitted from them. The label “sinner” was used to silence the voices of those who would have protested either their own exploitation or another’s.]

Matthew 11:19—“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Mark 2:15-16—“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Luke 5:30—“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Luke 19:7—“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”

The people Jesus ate with weren’t sinners ontologically; they were sinners politically, economically, and socially. In this context, therefore, it’s not accurate to respond, “Well, we are all sinners.” We must recognize how the label of sinner was used against some people. When particular human beings are being targeted and marginalized, it’s not enough to call for universal grace. Instead we ought to call for justice. A breach in relationship happens when one person marginalizes another and labels them sinner. A person may be a sinner, but they are labelled that way to religiously legitimate injustice committed against them. Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds us, “All injustice is a breach with God” (in A Theology of Liberation, p.139). It’s a breach with God because it is a breach with our fellow human beings.

In last month’s recommended reading book for RHM, Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Douglas reminds us:

“In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman “law and order.
 . . . That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons, the Jordans, the Renishas, the Jonathans, and all the other victims of the stand-your-ground-culture war. Jesus’ identification with the lynched/ crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the “crucified class” of his day. (p. 171)

Jesus did not stand in solidarity with the marginalized “crucified class” in secret. He did not do so diplomatically or with an eye toward political expediency. He did so openly, publicly, and transparently. We see this in the following story in Mark’s gospel:

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1-5)

Consider that phrase, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Jesus knew that what he was teaching and whom he was standing with was going to cost him. He could have met the man at the back of the synagogue, or pulled him into a private room where he could “behind the scenes” engage the work of this liberation. But no, Jesus met and healed him right there, in front of everyone, with intention. 

I read this story often when I’m tempted to value protecting my own privilege over the people who today need others to speak alongside them. When it’s safe to stand alongside those being marginalized, to amplify their voices, to hand them the mic, I will no longer be needed. To quote the 1980s synth-pop classic “Take On Me” by A-ha, “It’s not better to be safe than sorry.”

Does open solidarity with those being marginalized come with a cost? You bet it does. According to the story in Mark, the immediate push back for Jesus’ public witness to this man’s liberation was that the religious and political leaders “went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” And this is only in Mark’s third chapter. The leaders are threatened by Jesus’ public and transparent inclusion of those they excluded from the very beginning of Mark’s story.

All of this raises the question: who are we known to stand in solidarity with? The status quo? Or those beloved people who daily face oppression, exploitation, or marginalization within our status quo? 

“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)

HeartGroup Application

This past month, on the same day the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, over 60 nonviolent Palestinian protestors including children in Gaza were murdered by Israeli snipers. (Gaza begins to bury its dead after deadliest day in years)

Here are some things you and your HeartGroup can do:

1. Participate in protests in your area in response to what is taking place in Gaza. Voice your objection publicly. 

2. Use your social media platform to bring awareness to what is happening.

3. Contact your federal, state and local representatives. Write a letter, an email, or better yet, call their office.

4. Donate to charities.

You will need to do your own due diligence and research finding the right charity. Find a charity that has people with feet on the ground who can evidence that your gift will reach the people who need it. One charity that does meet these criteria is UNWRA.

6. Talk to your family and friends.

Talk to your family and friends to raise awareness and have them join you in the above actions.

7. Support peace-building initiatives.

Support Muslim and Jewish organizations that are working to bring peace while practicing a preferential option for the vulnerable. Standing against the violence in Gaza is about standing up against oppression, colonization, discrimination, and inequity.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love.

Keep living in resistance, survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


To support these podcasts and weekly eSight articles, go to www.renewedheartministries.com and click “donate.”

Directed Good News 

by Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

sign saying good news is coming

Photo Credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash


Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed.


 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

 

The late Peter Gomes wrote, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

Jesus declared that in the community he envisioned, those made last in current social structures would be first, and those presently made first, would be last. 

“When the gospel says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” despite the fact it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first. — Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News? p. 42 (emphasis added.)

Over and over within the gospel stories we see good news to some being not so good news for others. In Luke’s gospel, the pronouncement of blessing upon the poor was coupled with woe to those who were rich.

And this leads me to my point this week.

I believe that Jesus’ vision for human community is Good news for all, but not good news to all. 

Jesus’ gospel was directed to those at a certain social location.

“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…” (Luke 4:18)

The gospel is good news to the poor, to the oppressed, and to those who are victims of mass incarceration, for example. These are the people whom our system targets, exploits, or forces to the underside of our society where benefits the rest of us take for granted are kept beyond their reach. 

These were also the people who perceived Jesus’ teachings as good news. Though, if we followed Jesus’ values, they would set us on a path toward a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us all, those in whom those changes sparked fear did not perceive them as good news initially. It was good news for them, too, but they did not perceive it as good news to them.

A world where we embrace our interconnectedness and dependence on one another, where we learn to cooperate with each other rather than individualistically compete against others is a world that will be better for everyone. It’s a world where folks who daily face oppression reclaim their own humanity, and also those dehumanized by the act of being “oppressor” find in their removal from power a returning to their own humanity, too.

Good news to some, and good for all, but not good news to all. As Gomes says in his book:

“… Thus, in the name of fair-mindedness and egalitarianism, the gospel’s claim of a radical reordering, a redistribution, an exercise in almost Gilbertian topsy-turveydom, is an offense, a scandal, and hardly good news.” —in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, pp. 31, 42).

Today, many sectors of Christianity have abandoned changing systemic injustice here and now in our world. These Christians sing hymns that utter the words, “this world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through.” Their focus, for better or worse, is not this life, but one they believe will come after this one. For those who suffer, these beliefs work as an opiate and leave them passive. For those who benefit from their suffering, these beliefs work as guilt alleviation, “no-condemnation,” an unconditional love that enables them to sleep better at night and believe that the gospel has little to do with anything here and now.

This type of Christianity adapts Jesus’ teachings to offer the hope of post-mortem bliss to as many people as possible. It makes Jesus’ teachings good news to all, not merely good news for all. And this has produced a myriad of problems, including allowing us to seem to follow a radical Jew like Jesus while we remain mostly moderate or even oppress others.

This “respectable middle” has almost wholly eclipsed the teachings of Jesus. You can attend entire conferences on the gospel without ever hearing the poor mentioned once. Whatever can be said of this kind of gospel, it’s not the same gospel that the Jewish Jesus taught. For the Jesus of the scriptures, the poor and that which was good news to the poor were the centerpiece of his teachings. If Jesus were present today, I can’t imagine he could give a weekend of teachings on the gospel and never mention the poor once. Is the Jesus of this type of Christianity the same as the Jesus in the stories of Mark, Matthew, and Luke?

The bottom line is that the Gospel of Jesus should be good news to the poor, exploited, incarcerated, vulnerable, marginalized, and pushed aside. Someone once warned me, “Herb,” they said, “If it’s not good news, it’s not the gospel.” But social location matters. Jesus came teaching the good news, but those benefitting from the social system perceived Jesus’ teaching as a threat and began to “hate” him, to “exclude” and “insult” him, and to “reject” him as “evil.” They labeled him dangerous. 

So before we write something off as not the gospel because it doesn’t seem good news to us, we need to check our social location. Is it good news to those on the margins? If I don’t feel that it’s good news, is that because it’s bringing attention to an area where people are being hurt and to which I’d rather turn a blind eye? Who is perceiving the gospel as good news and who is feeling threatened by it? If you are in a position of privilege and you aren’t perceiving things as good news, you’re in the right story. And if you, in a specific area of your life, are marginalized or othered, and you don’t feel like what’s being said is good news to you, then chances are, then, it’s really not the gospel.

Recently, we at RHM participated in our local, annual Race Matters summit. (You can read all about it here.) In one of the keynote addresses, Arley Johnson remarked how in the 2040’s, White Americans will be in the minority. (See http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-op-0809-minority-majority-20170808-story.html and https://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/)

Stop and consider this for a moment? Is this good news to you? Do you feel threatened by it?

In a different meeting during the weekend, another speaker mentioned that the demographic shift could possibly explain why abortion is such a trigger issue among White conservatives worried about the decreasing White population. Now, political conservatism has been shown to increase when people are afraid. Also, consider that people genuinely concerned about lowering the number of abortions that take place could lower them by making birth control widely available. Making abortions illegal doesn’t lower their numbers, it only makes them more dangerous for vulnerable women. But if your concern is for the White population, then birth control is not a viable option. You’re wanting more births, not fewer unwanted pregnancies. This is not to mention that many who are pro-life are also pro-war, pro-guns, and pro-capitalism. The pro-life movement has historically been more concerned with controlling women’s sex lives than preventing unwanted pregnancies. 

So why is a demographic shift so threatening? Are White people afraid that people of color will act the way White people have? Similarly, many straight, cisgender folks, so clearly in the majority of our world’s population, are threatened by those who identify as LGBTQIA. Queer folks aren’t working to take over. Their goal is not world domination where everyone is forced to be like them. They simply want a world that is safe for them: they are in the minority. But since straight, cisgender folks have historically created closets for LGBTQIA people to hide in and pretend to live like straight, cisgender people, it only makes sense that we who have benefited from the system fear that the tables will be turned. If I have learned anything from my time within marginalized communities, it’s that no fear could be more unfounded. To date, the safest I have ever felt is when I am among my LGBTQ friends. They know firsthand what it’s like to be ill-treated and repressed, and they go to great lengths to ensure they are not treating others in the same way they have been treated.

In Matthew 21, however, Jesus tells a story about power being taken away from those at the center and given to those marginalized and excluded in Judaism. 

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of justice, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son,” he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ ‘So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ they replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’ . . . ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ . . . When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:31-45)

Here Jesus is referring to power being taken away from those at the center of their social structure and given back to the people, specifically the people those in power had pushed to the edges (tax collectors and others labeled as sinners.)

Would those on the margins or those disenfranchised do a better job than those who’d oppressed them? Only time could tell. If they failed to form a just society, eventually power would be wrested from them as well. But this leads me back to my point. 

Again: Jesus’ gospel was good news to those who were on the margins. If they were able to shape a safer, more compassionate, just society, this would, in the long run, be good for everyone. Nonetheless, the news that power was about to shift was not good news to those who at that time held the reins of power themselves. To them, it was a threat. It had to be removed. As it says, “they looked for a way to arrest him” for saying such things.

Jesus’ good news is directed. 

It’s good news for all.

It’s only good news to those presently held down by systemic injustice. 

“. . . good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Matthew 11:5)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group, create a list of ten sayings that could be directed good news, i.e. things that are good news to certain ones but not necessarily good news to someone else.

We began with one: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

2. Discuss how each one makes you feel. Are some of these sayings good news to you? Are there some that are threatening to you? Why? What is the correlation between your social location in each of the ten sayings and your feelings toward each of them?

3. What did this exercise help you understand? What’s the lesson in this for you? Share with your group what it is.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you may be, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 


To support these weekly podcasts and eSights and help us grow, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

A Preferential Option for the Vulnerable

by Herb Montgomery | March 30, 2018

City at night behind a fence

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash


“To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity.”


Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

This week I want to discuss what liberation theologians such as Gustav Gutierrez call Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” Let’s consider a broader preferential option that includes all who are vulnerable: people who are vulnerable economically and also people vulnerable because of their race, gender, orientation, ability, age, gender identity and expression, their level of education, or any other basis for oppression.

I remember standing on the lawn of Baltimore’s city hall with my daughter when she was in sixth grade, the weekend after Baltimore police murdered Freddie Grey. She stood holding a sign she had made while I looked up at snipers who lined the upper ledges of the building surrounding that lawn.

As we lined to the speakers addressing the crowd, I saw that much of what was being said was not registering with her, but for me it was resonating deeply. With the clarity that only comes from experiencing oppression for oneself, speakers repeatedly drew the connection between economic and racial oppression in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s not enough to solve poverty for some people and exclude others from that solution, especially if your economic solutions exclude some based on their race or ethnicity. We can’t afford to solve economic exploitation for some if those solutions come at the price of exploitating others whom we deem as different. It’s also not enough to simply teach a preferential option for some who are poor. We must enlarge our preferential option to include all who are targeted and made vulnerable by the status quo.

But before we do that, let’s unpack what is meant by this phrase preferential option for the poor.

The Poor 

Although there are many different types of poverty, the “poor” in this phrase first addresses people who experience material poverty. We must be careful not to romanticize the reality of poverty. For most of those who are materially poor around the world, poverty means death. As Gustav Gutiérrez says, “It is death, death before one’s time.” For theists who believe in a God who is life, or the giver of life, this death, and thus this poverty, is contrary to a God who is life.

Material poverty can take different forms and result from many different causes. At its core, though, material poverty is an expression of marginalization. Many people view those who are materially poor as insignificant, objectify them, and consider them non-persons. This marginalization calls us to consider the connection between marginalization based on poverty and other forms of marginalization such as those based on gender, race, sexual identity/orientation, etc. Addressing the complex nature of poverty can include charity for  mitigating harm while we work toward a just society, but it is vital that we don’t stop at charity and think our work is done. We must also identify and resist the structures that create poverty, and we need philosophical, social, and scientific tools to analyze what makes people poor systemically and institutionally.

Option 

The word “option” in our phrase does not mean that it is optional, something we could do without. It implies that we can make an intentional choice from a range of possibilities. It means making a commitment to stand in solidarity with and work alongside the poor. This does not mean we become the “savior” of the poor or do-gooders. The “option” is to recognize that we reclaim our own humanity as others reclaim theirs, and we begin to see our connectedness. We live into that connection. We begin to see, love, and engage others as ourselves.

Preferential

To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity. Jesus taught this with this famous phrase, “Last shall be first. And the first shall be last.” (Matthew 20:16) He demonstrated this in his favor toward poor, hungry, weeping, and hated people in Luke’s sermon on the plain and the woes he proclaimed against their exploiters. Think of imbalanced scales. To rectify an imbalance one has to apply greater weight to the side that’s up in the air to bring the scales back to center. Jesus’ enemies also repeatedly critiqued his table fellowship with those who were socially marginalized. Jesus modeled a bias or preference that chose the side of the poor.

Let’s look at several examples in Mark and Luke.

In Mark, Jesus also calls the wealthy to follow him in his preferential option for the poor:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21; cf. Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)

Jesus took the side of a poor widow over even the central structure of his society’s political and ideological life—the Temple:

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. (Mark 12:42-43; cf. Luke 21:2-3)

As Ched Myers explains, this widow was being “impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood. Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them” (in Binding the Strong Man, p. 321-322). Another author states, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” (A. Wright; The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context, p. 262).

In Matthew, Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is the sign of confirmation to be shared with the imprisoned John the Baptist:

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Matthew 11:5; cf. Luke 7.22)

In Luke, it sums up Jesus’ entire ministry:

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… (Luke 4:18)

Jesus calls the Pharisees to embrace this option to the degree that everything else about their morality would depend on it:

But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11:41)

In Mark, this teaching is given to a single wealthy person, but in Luke, Jesus’ call to sell excess possessions and redistribute wealth to the poor is a universal teaching for all of his followers:

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)

We see Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable in his teaching and story on who is to be invited to the banquet:

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,…

The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:13, 21)

In one of Jesus’ best known encounters, we meet a wealthy tax collector who embraces Jesus’ preferential option for the poor as his own ethic too:

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.” (Luke 19:8)

This preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable determined whom Jesus’ reign or kingdom of God belonged to:

Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

In Luke, Jesus refers to people who are materially poor, whereas in Matthew, the blessing is for the poor “in spirit.” One interpretation of this difference spiritualizes or privatizes what it means to be poor “in spirit.” It has arbitrarily been defined as an attitude of dependence or reliance on God as opposed to reliance on oneself. The fruit of this interpretation has been to divert attention away from the liberation of those who are materially poor. But Jesus isn’t holding up some spiritual poverty or dependence on God as a character quality to strive for in this passage, and that interpretation has too often been used to subvert Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with materially poor people. Jesus is speaking, just like in Luke, to those the present structure has left poor in spirit. Note that Luke describes John not as poor in spirit himself, but as strong in spirit.

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80, emphasis added.)

When Jesus describes those who are poor in spirit, he is describing those who are experiencing a poverty of the spirit or will to keep fighting against oppression. Their spirit has been broken. They are worn down. They have no more spirit with which to fight. Just this week, it was announced that the police who murdered Alton Sterling will not face any chargers. Repeated occurrences as this have a way of breaking ones will or spirit to keep trying. HealingJustice.org posted a quotation from @fancisca_porchas on social media this week and commented, “In the wake of no justice for #AltonSterling , this one goes out to @blklivesmatter & all allies. You don’t have to hold this political fight or all that pain alone. All of us are with you. Check on your people & show up for action this week, fam. The quotation read, “Organizers have to do so much spiritual work every day just to get up and fight the state, fight ferocious systems, and hold so much pain at scale.”  Jesus’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable envisioned a world where the poor in spirit were given the kingdom (Matthew 5:3) This does not mean spiritually poor.

Just two verses later in Matthew 5:5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In our present world structure the meek are not given the earth but rather walked on, walked over, and bullied. Jesus calls us to create another kind of world where even the meek, the most vulnerable among us, are taken care of and ensured a safe world to call their home as well. A preferential option for the meek is what Jesus means by “poor in spirit.” Today’s world belongs to those who have a fighting, competitive spirit, a drive to succeed. But some have had their spirit so broken, so pushed down, they simply don’t have any spirit left to try. Jesus calls us to a preferential option that creates a world where those who don’t have anything left to give are taken care of as well

The passage between these two texts in Matthew is the verse,  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Those who mourn are those whom the present structure so disenfranchises, disinherits, and marginalizes. Despite their present heartbreak and loss, this new world will bring reparative, restorative, and transformative comfort as they gain hope that another world is possible. Lastly, in verse 6 of Matthew 5 Jesus, speaking of this same demographic states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This word “righteousness” is not persona or private. It’s not a meritorious credit that admits them to the afterlife. The verse describes those who hunger for righteousness or justice here, now.

The Hebrew concept of righteousness included distributive justice, structural justice, systemic justice, and societal justice. Those who hunger for this world to be put right are those Jesus calls us to a preferential option for, to ensure that they will be filled!

All Who Are Vulnerable 

All those who desire to genuinely follow Jesus must create communities that center the most vulnerable people at the table. Not only are the vulnerable to be seated at the table but the table is also to practice a preferential option for them. Examples today might include those who are vulnerable on the basis of their race, identity as LGBTQ, or their gender as a woman. Applying Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable today means prioritizing these communities.

Jesus’ table is not one where where every person’s opinion is of equal worth and we simply agree to disagree and still get along. Such a table leaves the status quo untouched, doesn’t challenge the balance of power, and still leaves these communities vulnerable. Instead, Jesus’ table is a table where there is a preference for the vulnerable. As the saying goes, “The voice of the oppressed does not always call out for what is just, but we will not arrive at justice without listening to them.” This is what it means to practice a preferential option for the vulnerable: choosing the side of the most vulnerable.

Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work with them in solidarity for justice. Practicing the preferential option for the poor today might include advocating for LGBTQ rights; opposing racial red lining still being practiced today (red-lining stops people of color from accessing home ownership); or organizing with young people who are repeatedly victimized by gun violence.

The good news is we can do this. We can choose to create a world that practices a preferential option for the vulnerable. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a man who did just this.

When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46)

This is the same “sell everything” language as we read previously—“sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). It’s about selling out and going all-in toward a vision for a different kind of world, one that practices a preferential option for people who face oppression daily. It’s also about taking action and believing that another world is possible now. The man in Jesus’ teaching sold everything he had for the kingdom. And we can, too! In the words of someone I deeply respect, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” (Angela Davis; Southern Illinois University, February 13, 2014)

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor . . . “ (Mark 10:21)

HeartGroup Application

University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns defines the preferential option for poor and vulnerable as looking “at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and [working] in solidarity for justice.”

  1. This week, take time to read their page on the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Engage the discussion and reflection sections.

2. Discuss as a group what a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable could look like for your HeartGroup.

3. Choose a way to put your ideas into practice.

Wherever you are this week, thank you for checking in with us.

Remember, another world is possible!

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


To support these weekly podcasts and eSights and help us grow, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

The Kingdom of God within You

by Herb Montgomery

“Today, Jesus’s ‘Kingdom of God,’ a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.”

 

Featured Text:

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:23: “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.”

Luke 17:20-21: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Gospel of Thomas 3:1-3: “Jesus says, ‘If those who lead you say to you: “Look, the kingdom is in the sky!”
then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: “It is in the sea,” then the fishes will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 113: “His disciples said to him: ‘The kingdom – on what day will it come?’ ‘It will not come by watching (and waiting for) it. They will not say: “Look, here!“ or “Look, there!” Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.’”

The Privatized Individual Interpretation of this Saying

I want to begin this week by critiquing a popular privatized, internal, individualistic interpretation of this passage. One proponent of this individualistic interpretation is Eckhart Tolle. Here is a sample from his work, and then I’ll offer my response from a liberation perspective.

“Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: ‘Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17:21) With these words, Jesus gave voice to a teaching that is universal and timeless. Look into every great religious, spiritual, and wisdom tradition, and we find the same precept — that life’s ultimate truth, its ultimate treasure, lies within us. As Jesus made unambiguously clear, we can experience this inner treasure — and no experience could be more valuable. ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he declared, “and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33). From this interior plane of life, he is saying, we will gain all that is needful.” (https://www.tm.org/blog/enlightenment/kingdom-of-god-is-within-you/)

“What you see, hear, feel, touch, or think about is only one half of reality, so to speak. It is form. In the teaching of Jesus, it is simply called ‘the world,’ and the other dimension is ‘the kingdom of heaven or eternal life.’” (Eckhart Tolle; A New Earth)

“When you hear of inner space, you may start seeking it, and because you are seeking it as if you were looking for an object or for an experience, you cannot find it. This is the dilemma of all those who are seeking spiritual realization or enlightenment. Hence, Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’” (Ibid.)

“No inner baggage, no identifications. Not with things, nor with any mental concepts that have a sense of self in them. And what is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is. The simple but profound joy of Being that is there when you let go of identifications and so become ‘poor in spirit.’” (Ibid.)

“I think if [Jesus] lived nowadays, instead of ‘kingdom,’ he would have said, ‘dimension.’ And ‘heaven’ refers to a sense of vastness or spaciousness. So if we retranslate the words of Jesus into modern terms [it would be] ‘the dimension of spaciousness is within you.’ And then Jesus said — when they asked him, ‘Where is the kingdom of heaven and when is it going to come?’ — he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven does not come with signs to be perceived. You cannot say, ah, it’s over here or look, it’s over there, for I tell you the kingdom of heaven is within you.’” Eckhart Tolle (Lecture, February 12, 2013, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education)

Three Critiques from a Liberation Perspective

My first critique is to the idea that you can find this kingdom within yourself as an individual rather than within yourselves as in a community. This individualistic interpretation stands in contrast with the majority of Jesus’ teachings that taught a form of communalism. The “kingdom” in the gospels is a community of people who are committed to putting into action God’s distributively just vision for the world.

Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino critiques theologies in first world countries where “the Kingdom” can be reduced to “the purely personal dimension” (Jesus the Liberator, pp 110-121). The “you” that Jesus’ kingdom is “within” or in “the midst of” is not singular. It’s not singular! The “you” where Jesus locates the Kingdom is plural: “among you” as a collective—a community.

When Angela Davis speaks on community, she speaks of a community that includes not just those who are alive now but also those who have gone before us in our work, our ancestors in social change movements. This community also includes those who will who come after us, who stand on the shoulders of our work the way we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. She speaks of our need to contradict “the neoliberal individualism that persuades us that we are single solitary individuals in the world. We have lost so much as a result of capitalism and not just in terms of material goods. We’ve lost a sense of our connectedness to one another” (SPIRIT OF JUSTICE: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHELLE ALEXANDER AND ANGELA DAVIS, 1:11:30-1:12:30)

This communal interpretation should lift the hopes of someone coming in contact with Jesus’ kingdom as an individual who is part of a larger community, not alone.

My second critique is that this individualistic interpretation makes the kingdom abstract. It does not address systemic injustice, oppression, or violence in concrete ways. This might explain why this interpretation resonates largely with the elites. It allows them to supposedly find Jesus’ kingdom inside of them through personal disciplines without being called to confront their own complicity in injustice or the benefit they derive from their social location in the status quo.

My third critique is that one can read an entire volume expounding this interpretation of the kingdom as an internal level of consciousness and never encounter a mention of the poor. Not one! This is a huge red flag, a denial of the gospel Jesus taught. Jesus called his followers in the Kingdom to practice a preferential option for the poor, those this world makes last.

In Jesus’s “kingdom of God,” whomever the status quo places last becomes first. They are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs (see Luke 6:20). It is their experiences of life, facing marginalization, oppression, exploitation and/or discrimination, in which the community is centered and dedicated to the practice of bringing change in the larger society.

An Alternative

So how are we to understand Jesus’ response to the inquiring Pharisee, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst”?

This response has a social/historical context that the writings of Josephus explain. Josephus writes of incidents that occurred around the mid-1st Century when revolutionary prophets would lead large groups of people into a desert outside Jerusalem on the premise that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded one of these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and so sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian.” He’s mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” Josephus describes the event as follows:

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

Josephus wasn’t a neutral reporter. Josephus believed the future of the Jewish people depended on the elites collaborating with Rome. He was definitely biased in favor of Rome. You can see it in the difference between the “4,000 assassins” mentioned in Acts and the “30,000 dupes” mentioned in Josephus’ account. But the fact that he mentions the event is still important, even if his account possesses potentially exaggerated numbers. In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slayed or captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself. (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172) These were not irrational leaders, but hopeful militarist messiahs, liberation prophets who tried to lead movements of Jewish peasants in action that would be accompanied by YHWH’s power and deliverance.

Josephus gives other examples of the people seeking God’s deliverance and meeting death instead. Roman soldiers massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who followed another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This man had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Josephus also describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

When Jesus says “the Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” he is emphatically rejecting the specific way in which popular prophets led masses of Jewish people to their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers. The reference to such leaders becomes more specific when he warns, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these messiahs and their methods of liberation would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters by Rome.

Jesus instead offered a new vision for human society in the form of a community that practiced survival, nonviolent resistance, liberation, and reparation, with the hope of both personal and societal transformation. This kingdom was within their grasp. Where other approaches were revolutionary suicide, Jesus gave them a methodology that was within their ability to accomplish. When Jesus says “It’s within you,” he’s quoting Moses in Deuteronomy.

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart [‘within you’] so you may obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, emphasis added).

Preferential Option for the Last

Today, Jesus’s “Kingdom of God,” a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.

We can believe, validate, and center each of these experiences. And although we may separate them for the purpose of discussion and understanding, often all of these experiences can be experienced by the same people. For example, a person can be a trans woman of color, and daily bump into multiple ways in which society seeks to place them as last rather than first. To the degree that that person fights oppressions in our world, a community seeking to follow Jesus’s vision for human society according will center their voice at the shared table, making first those the present structures place as last, and making last those the present structure places as first (see Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30)

Lastly, as our sayings states, the community of the Kingdom can be manifesting itself among a group of people right in front of us, and we can still miss it like the inquiring Pharisee in the story. The more invested we are in the present structures that marginalize others, the greater the likelihood of our missing it altogether. What are some of the characteristics we should look for? Jesus’ kingdom of God was communal rather than individualistic. It addressed the private/personal and also located each person within a larger community. It endeavored to address the injustice, oppression, marginalization and violence faced by those the world of the first century placed as last. And it practiced the one praxis the community of God must possess in every generation to be genuine: a preferential option for the last.

It’s not too difficult for us. It’s within our grasp. It starts with the choice to listen to those who traverse this world as last, and believing in their experiences when they tell you.

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

HeartGroup Application

As a group:

  1. Think about the various expressions of injustice, oppression and violence certain people face in our society. What worries, if any, come to mind when you consider centering their voices in your own community?
  2. Worries tell us a lot about ourselves. They tell us about what we attach importance to and what we are focusing our energies on. What would it look like to attach importance to “the last” instead, to focus on them, to place them as first?
  3. Schedule a HeartGroup time when anyone who would like to share their story of how they have been made to feel “last” can do so with the group. When these stories are shared, follow up each story with a no-talk-back rule. Spend time listening, believing, and validating one another.

Then see where that leads.

Also, this week, if your reading this on Friday, call your Senators. Today they are voting an a tax bill that multiple nonpartisan sources including the CBO tell us will that this will leave poorer Americans worse off, the while top earners and corporations would benefit. Making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

If you want an easy way to do it, use ResistBot. Text “Resist” to 50409.

Here is a sample script if you need it. This was written by a Facebook friend of mine Emily Timbol.

“As your constituent I am asking and demanding that you vote NO on the Tax bill currently being debated on the Senate floor. In addition to adding $1.7 TRILLION to the deficit, it will be paid for primarily by $473 million in Medicare cuts, or over one trillion dollars in cuts to Medicaid, which is beyond unacceptable. This is a redistribution of wealth, only instead of wealth, since the people who depend on Medicare & Medicaid often are the poorest Americans, it’s making the rich richer at the expense of poor people’s lives.
Average, middle class Americans who make less than $75,000 will likely pay MORE in taxes, while the most benefit will go to corporations and individuals who make multi-millions. Any gains that “trickle down” to low level employees (if any actually manifest) will be outweighed by the losses they feel from an economy reeling from the effect of this tax cut after 2018. Furthermore, according to multiple polls released today by Quinnipiac, ABC News, and the Washington Post, only 1/3 or 25% of American voters support this wildly unpopular bill. Do the smart, right thing, that your constituents want, and vote NO.”

Thanks so much for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. And remember, the Kingdom of God is within your midst, it’s within your grasp. It’s not too difficult for you.

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.