A Gospel for the Earth

by Herb Montgomery | May 8, 2020

sprout


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


In Luke’s gospel we read:

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

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

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

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gospel for the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Settle Matters Quickly

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

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

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

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

Luke’s Jesus laments:

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests

Earth from space

by Herb Montgomery

Karen Baker-Fletcher writes: “If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.” 

Featured Texts:

“A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, ‘Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.’” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 22:2-3: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”

Matthew 22:5: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.”

Matthew 22:7: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Luke 14:16-19: “Jesus replied: ‘A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.”’”

Luke 14:21: “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 14:23: “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’”

Gospel of Thomas 64: “Jesus says: ‘A person had guests. And when he had prepared the dinner, he sent his servant, so that he might invite the guests. He came to the first and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said: “I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go and give instructions to them. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came to another and said to him: “My master has invited you.” He said to him: “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I will not have time.” He went to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: ‘My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me from the dinner.” He came up to another and said to him: “My master invites you.” He said to him: “I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.” The servant went away. He said to his master: “Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused.” The master said to his servant: “Go out on the roads. Bring back whomever you find, so that they might have dinner.” Dealers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.’”

As we have stated before, even though Luke sums up Jesus’ gospel in Luke 4:18 with the phrase “to set the oppressed free,” this week’s saying again presents one of the challenges with elevating Jesus and his teachings for our society today: the normalization of slavery.

Jesus never spoke one word against slavery, in fact, as we see this week, he uses the institution in his own stories. This has been used by Christians in the U.S. to justify Christians holding tight to slavery, especially in the South. (See Mark Noll’s, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis)

It is interesting to note what appears to be an attempt at the softening of “slave” to “servant” from the “Q” texts to the more modern translations of the gospels, including Thomas. Regardless of how one explains Jesus’ references to slavery and servanthood, the reality remains the same: an enslavement culture is at the heart of some of Jesus’ strongest parables about a new social order, and we must be honest about how problematic this has been and continues to be.

Also, Matthew and Luke use this week’s saying differently. We’ll begin with Luke, and then look at how Matthew frames it.

Inclusivity

One of Luke’s burdens, which we see in Acts, is to explain how a community that began as a Jewish poor people’s movement came to be so populated by Gentiles. Luke places this week’s saying in the context of the “banquet in the Kingdom of God.” We discussed popular views of this banquet in 1st Century Galilee and Judea a couple of week’s ago.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus challenged the more exclusive interpretation of the eschatological banquet where purity standards in that culture prevented some from being allowed to sit at the table. Jesus had just stated, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-13).

Someone offended by what they interpreted as reckless inclusion and abandonment of the cultural purity taboos of the day responded by objecting, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” For those who held the more exclusive interpretation of this feast/banquet, those who would be specifically excluded from that feast would be the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” While some would have the least honorable seats at the table, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” would not be invited at all as some believed their state was the result of their transgression. Jesus then responds by telling a story that includes this week’s saying.

Jesus’ story is of a householder who simply wants his “house to be full.” He doesn’t lower the purity standards; he completely ignores them. He invites, welcomes, and effectively affirms all those who would have been excluded under the more selective interpretation. The motive of the householder is what Luke places in the forefront. A full house is priority number one. Everyone is invited and if someone is not there, the onus is on those invited, not rumors of exclusiveness on the part of the householder. He simply wants a full house.

Connectedness and Equality

Matthew’s story includes two elements we’ll look at in turn: the king’s rage as well as the guest’s refusal to be identified with everyone else at the banquet. We’ll discuss the second item first.

Matthew’s story ends:

“‘So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 22:9-13)

This parable makes no sense to me if attire for the banquet was not included in the invitation. How can a host invite “all the people they could find” so that the hall could be “filled with guests” and then get upset that someone in there was not wearing the proper attire, if such attire was not also provided? Did the host really think that everyone they found on the streets, even the poor and barely-scratching-by artisans, would have fine clothing for a wedding banquet of the wealthy?

I’ll freely admits that this is taking an interpretive liberty, but let’s assume for a moment that attire was provided as an option for those who needed such, so that no matter how poor you were, you had no excuse not to attend. If that’s the case, that gives us an entirely different ending. Who is the parable being told to in Matthew? This cluster of parables is aimed at “the chief priests and Pharisees” (Matthew 21.45) and the political place of privilege they held. In the story, someone refuses to wear clothing appropriate for the event. Whether this is a wealthy person refusing to be associated with the poor, or the poor refusing to be seen along side the exploitative rich, it’s a show of arrogance or separateness. It’s possibly an expression of one’s exceptionalism in protest to the inclusion of those he feels are “Other” or beneath him. For him to don the same attire as everyone else would be to intimate that there was no difference, at least at this banquet, between himself and those he feels should not be present. He is better than the others around him here and he will not be included on their same level. For him this is a rejection of the reality that we are all interconnected, we are part of one another. We are not as separate from one another as we often think.  We share each other’s fate. In fact, we are each other’s fate. It could be because of the guest’s desire to be seen as separate, or as reluctantly participating with everyone else, that the host so angrily responds to his lack of attire.

The context is the eschatological banquet that some people in Galilee and Judea believed symbolized the distinction between this age of violence, injustice, and oppression and the coming age where all injustice, violence, and oppression would be put right. But this new age in Jesus’ world view is egalitarian: everyone receives what is distributively just. No one has too much and no one has too little, we all, together have enough. So garments could have been justly distributed, making everyone equal. But if a person has spent their life working to be “first,” few things could be worse than to be faced with a world of equity and equality and being thrown into the same group with everyone else. They believe they are better, chosen, extraordinary, or exceptional. They are not like everyone else and they refuse to embrace our connectedness. But whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already in this together.

Those who choose the path of exclusion are themselves eventually excluded from a world that’s being put right through inclusive egalitarianism. As we discussed previously, exclusionary thinking is a self-fulfilling ethic. Again, when you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from attending the same “banquet” with you, it’s going to make you so angry! This is the gnashing of teeth Jesus and Luke describe (cf. Acts 7:54) So if any end up in outer darkness, it will not be because they could not accept their own invitation. It will be because they could not accept the inclusion and equal affirmation of those they feel should be excluded.

Now about the king’s rage.

Matthew includes the historic treatment of Hebrew social prophets. As I shared last year, in the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly for those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable, and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they cast an imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right. These prophets were often rejected and executed by those in power.

Matthew’s Jesus story locates both John the Baptist and Jesus in this tradition of prophets silenced by execution. I would note that in this tradition, Jesus’ execution is not unique and not hard to explain. Execution as the response of those in power to those who critique and speak truth to power is nothing new or strange. Nor is it peculiar to one culture. It happens all the time in every culture. It was not too long in our own culture that Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated in five years.

And it’s this treatment of the Hebrew prophets (including John and Jesus) that I believe Matthew is using to explain to his community and perhaps even make sense to himself (like Jeremiah of old) how such a catastrophe could have befallen Jerusalem in his lifetime. People explain tragedy differently. People try to make sense of our suffering differently. Matthew’s gospel assumes that if the outcry against social injustice would have been heeded, the Jewish poor-peoples revolt, the Jewish-Roman war, and the razing of Jerusalem itself, could have possibly been avoided.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Matthew 22:4-7)

What I would be quick to point out is Matthew’s use of the plural “them.” Matthew was a Jewish Jesus follower trying to make sense of his entire world ending as he had known it. But even then, unlike many Christian supersessionists, he did not isolate Jesus’ rejection as the sole reason for the events of 70 C.E. Matthew wasn’t a Christian blaming “the Jews” for their “rejection” of Jesus as the Messiah. Matthew included the rejection of Jesus and John in a long list of many “servants,” from Amos, Jeremiah, Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, all the way back. In other words, Jesus’ rejection was not unique to Matthew but part of a much longer trajectory. Ched Myers in what Walter Wink states is “quite simply the most important commentary on a book of scriptures since Barth’s Romans,” reminds us of the “prophetic script”:

“The ‘true prophets’ are not identified by ‘proof’ of miraculous signs, but by their stand on the side of the poor, pressing a ‘covenantal suit’ against the exploitative ‘shepherds’ of Israel. From Elijah to Jeremiah the result is always the same: opposition from the ruling class and a threat to the prophet’s life.”

Matthew’s use of this week’s saying seems to be indicating that, once again, in the life of Jesus, the prophetic script has been fulfilled in human society.

Today

Today we have to ask which voices are we refusing to listen to? Which voices are we not heeding? Who are we in our stubbornness ignoring; what could, by ignoring, like in 70 C.E. for Jerusalem, wipe out everything for everyone? There are many voices that come to mind for me, but at the top of my list are those seeking to raise our consciousness of the connection between corporatism and the climate changes that threaten humanity’s continued existence. Karen Baker-Fletcher, womanist theologian and co-author of My Sister, My Brother; Womanist and Xodus God Talk, writes:

“If Jesus is on the side of the least of these, as Matthew 25 suggests and womanist liberation theologians emphasize, then this includes the earth. It too is hungry for nourishment. It too is increasingly impoverished.”

A couple weeks ago, I caught an insightful interview of Naomi Klein on what she feels many on both sides of the political debate about climate change are refusing to acknowledge as we look to our planet’s future. Again, we have a choice of whether to refuse or embrace our connectedness. Whether we acknowledge the truth of our reality or not, we are already, all of us, in this together. We as a whole will survive or we will all, together, face the results.

There is much to be gleaned in this week’s saying. Whose voices are you reminded to pay attention to this week?

A certain person prepared a large dinner and invited many. And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. One declined because of his farm. Another declined because of his business. And the slave, on coming, said these things to his master. Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave, “Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.” (Q 14:16-21, 23)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Before your group meets this next week, write down three things that speak to you in either Luke’s or Matthew’s use of our saying.
  2. Why do these things resonate with you and what do they mean to you?
  3. When you do come together, take some time to go around the room and share with each other what this week’s saying is saying to you, and what the implications could be for your HeartGroup as a whole.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Where this finds you, keep engaging in the work of love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation on our way toward thriving. We are in this together.

Also don’t forget to check out the new 500:25:1 project we are launching this August. Go to http://bit.ly/RHM500251 where you can find out more about why we’re launching new weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.