Liberation for the Oppressed

blue skies

Herb Montgomery | January 21, 2022


There are so many contemporary parallels to draw between the way Luke’s gospel characterizes the life and mission of Jesus and the justice needs present in our world today. Since his era, oppression, domination and subjugation have only evolved. What does it mean for Jesus followers to live lives characterized by liberation for the oppressed, equity for the disenfranchised, inclusion of the marginalized, and diverse egalitarianism rather than by disparities of property, power, and privilege?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

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

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21)

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story, Jesus’ ministry begins in and around Galilee. All of us today who feel passionately about the inclusion of those being marginalized or who are concerned with how communities and larger societies experience change can learn from this story.

Galilee was a marginalized region in a marginalized territory. The Jewish people were also a marginalized community within the Roman empire. With the Temple-state being centered in Judea, in Jerusalem, and seated in the temple there, Galilee’s more Hellenized Jewish communities were doubly marginalized.

The canonical gospel authors all locate Jesus primary ministry in that region. This choice not only reveals a passion for those being marginalized in any system, but also points us to how change happens. Change happens from the grassroots or bottom up and from the margins or edges of our societies inward. Change doesn’t usually come from the elite, powerful, or privileged who benefit from how society is structured now. Their experience is vastly different from those on the edges of society. Change usally comes from those for whom the present system is not working.

In this week’s narrative, the author of Luke conflates two passages from the Hebrew scriptures: one from Isaiah 61 and the other from Isaiah 58.

Isaiah 61:1-2

  The spirit of the Most High GOD is upon me,

because the Most High has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

  to proclaim the year of the Most High’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

Isaiah 58:6

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that the author of Luke could have chosen to summarize or characterize Jesus life and mission, these two passages are saturated with the theme of liberation for the oppressed. Notice the differences between the story here in Luke and Mark’s version. What does Luke adding to Mark’s telling?

He [Jesus] left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. (Mark 6:1-6, cf Luke 4:20-30)

Luke adds to Mark’s version details of the themes of Jesus’ life and work. The reign of God as defined by this Jewish prophet of the poor would be just that: good news for the poor. It would announce liberation for the captives, the imprisoned, including slaves. It would proclaim sight to prisoners with prison blindness (Prison blindness was what was referred to at the time as being in a Roman cell/hole in the ground that was so dark one could not see what was around them.) It would announce liberation for the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Most High’s favor—language used to announce the year of jubilee when slaves were liberated and all debts were wiped out.

These verses make me reflect on the prison industrial complex in our society. Jesus proclaimed release for the slaves yet White Christians claimed to worship Jesus all through the years slavery remains a brutal cornerstone of the U.S. economy to this day. I also think of discussions about wiping out the heavy burden of student debt. Globally, national debt has a new form of colonization’s control and domination. There are so many contemporary parallels to draw between the way Luke’s gospel characterizes the life and mission of Jesus and the justice needs present in our world today. Since his era, oppression, domination and subjugation have only evolved.

What does it mean for Jesus followers to live lives characterized by liberation for the oppressed, equity for the disenfranchised, inclusion of the marginalized, and diverse egalitarianism rather than by disparities of property, power, and privilege? There are so many of us today who benefit from the violence of our present system. Are we allowing passages like this one in Luke to confront us?

Luke’s story continues with an account that foreshadows the early Jesus movement’s expansion in the book of Acts. The movement went through growing pains as it began to include those who had historically been excluded: Gentiles, eunuchs, women, and others. Their experience can teach us too: in our time, for whom is the Spirit making “no distinction between us and them” (see Acts 11:12; 15:9)?

There’s one more thing to note this week. The author of Luke uses an edited version of the Isaiah 61 passage that omits the phrase “the day of vengeance of our God.” Why?

There is a kind of liberation that dehumanizes oppressors while seeking to set the oppressed free. It doesn’t replace a tiered society with a shared table; it replaces the current system with a differently tiered society. Those once subjugated are now at the top, and those who were once the oppressors become oppressed. Communities under this kind of liberation are simply flipped. They aren’t transformed, they’re just rearranged. “God’s favor” for some is simultaneously “the day of God’s vengeance” for others.

Luke doesn’t promote that dualistic approach to liberation. Jesus’ followers rightly perceived that Jesus was about a different kind of liberation. At Jesus’ shared table, the powerful would be pulled down from their thrones, and the oppressed would be lifted up and liberated, but liberation and equality for some would include an invitation to oppressors to experience radical personal change as the system itself changed. Jesus’ liberation was a year of the Most High’s favor for all, and that favor looked different for people in different social locations and in the different areas of their lives.

Very rarely can people be defined in neat categories. We are all oppressed and oppressor simultaneously depending on which parts of our identities and positions in the present system we are contemplating. Our identities are complex and so our privileges and patterns of disenfranchisement are therefore intersectional and complex, as well.

What this means for me is that I need to embrace the kind of world that would be safe, compassionate, just home for everyone, and I need to rejoice in the changes that will transform me so that I want that world. I hope that we can choose a different world and work for it here, now. Change comes from the Galilean regions of our lives. We can each choose to be confronted, challenged, and changed in those areas where we might otherwise oppose a more justly shared world, and in those areas where we have a deep need for that world.

My choice for 2022 is, as a Jesus follower, to continue growing, continue changing myself, and to continue being committed to working for social change, as well.

How are you choosing in 2022?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What personal changes are you leaning into this new year? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

Declaring War Against Poverty

Picture of a pottery bowl

November is A Shared Table 2021 month!  Find out more here.


(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast, click here.)


by Herb Montgomery | November 12, 2021

“Seen through this lens and given Jesus’ love for the poor of his own society, Jesus’s criticism of the state was a criticism of a system that had both created poverty and then further exploited those forced to live in that poverty . . . In the gospels we get a picture of Jesus who, focused on sustainable (eternal) life, would have criticized any system that created luxury for a few at the expense of the many.”

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them: Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, I am he,and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” (Mark 13:1-8)

By the time this week’s reading was written, the Jesus movement was living in the wake of destructions including the Jewish-Roman war (66-70 C.E.) that culminated in Rome’s razing Jerusalem and the Jewish temple to the ground. These followers of Jesus are trying to make sense of all these events.

Mark’s gospel therefore paints Jesus as critical of Jerusalem and the temple as the capital seat of the Temple State to the point of foretelling their destruction. Each gospel’s version of the Jesus story describes Jesus as critical of Jerusalem and the temple, and Mark even includes Jesus’ criticism as one of the charges brought against him in his final trials:

“Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: ‘We heard him say, I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ Yet even then their testimony did not agree.” (Mark 14:57-59)

I want us to wrestle with why Jesus, a faithful Jewish male in early 1st century Judaism, would have been critical of the temple or Jerusalem? Think of the term “Jerusalem” here in much the same way as many say “D.C.” or “Washington” when speaking of the system of government centered there.

Christians have long interpreted the events fo 70 C.E. as God punishing the Jews for rejecting Jesus, and that’s been deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. I want to offer an alternative interpretation.

The Temple was the heart of Judaism during the time of Jesus, but let’s look at this week’s passage in more than its religious context. As the seat of the Jewish Temple State, the Temple was also the heart of the banking system and the food industry (both meat and grain), and the seat of political power for Judea under Rome.

Jesus’ criticisms should not be interpreted as anti-Jewish or anti-Judaism. Jesus was a faithful Jewish man debating within his own society, and his voice was one of many at the time arguing about what it meant to be a faithful Jewish follower of the Torah given the Torah’s teachings on the poor and eliminating poverty. Seen through this lens and given Jesus’ love for the poor of his own society, Jesus’s criticism of the state was a criticism of a system that had both created poverty and then further exploited those forced to live in that poverty.

Those living after the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 C.E. would have recognized the events described in this week’s passage. As we’ve discussed, the Jewish-Roman War began an initial uprising of the poor against rich Temple elites who served as conduits of the Roman Empire. The poor people’s revolt began with their overrunning the Temple and burning all the debt records held against the poor, and each stage of the takeover escalated. Once the Jewish rebels gained control and Rome was brought in, a war broke out between the rebels and Rome while the Jewish elites futilely endeavored to maintain allegiance to Rome as violent uprising erupted all around them.

Josephus corroborates Mark’s descriptions of this era. In The War of the Jews, he describes “a great number of false prophets” who with “signs and wonders” promised “deliverance” or liberation. But in the end, their movements only resulted in masses of the “miserable people” who followed them being slaughtered by Rome (Book 6.285-309). Josephus also writes of the famine in Jerusalem that resulted when the grain storehouses “which would have been sufficient for a siege of many years” were burned by various “treacherous faction in the city” (5.21-26).Finally, he describes the burning the Temple itself (6.249-266).

Many more than Jesus called the people to address the plight of the poor and to end a system that financially benefited wealthy families at the poor’s expense. The rich got richer and the poor only got poorer.

So Mark’s gospel called its audience to see the overthrowing of such economically exploitative systems not as “the end,” but as the “beginnings of birth pains” for a new world.

This makes me think of how so many living at this stage of the pandemic now long for a return to normal. I don’t want to go back to that normal, a world that disproportionally harmed certain sectors of society while giving others privilege, power, and property. I don’t want a post-pandemic world that looks like the pre-pandemic world. We can do better. And we have an opportunity to do just that now. With all the talk of “building back better,” we must continue to ask “better for whom?” Over the last year, the billionaire class has only become more wealthy despite almost 5 million lives lost globally and over 742,000 within the U.S.

So Jesus’ critique of the Temple and Jerusalem was not about being against Judaism, but rather his opposition to an economic, political, and social system that creates and worsens poverty. I wonder what Marks Jesus would say of the United States today if he were on earth?

Jesus’s path pointed us toward life, life to the full (John 10:10), specially for the poor (Luke 6:22)—life and life more abundantly for all. In the gospels we get a picture of Jesus who, focused on sustainable (eternal) life, would have criticized any system that created luxury for a few at the expense of the many. Following Jesus’ path means following him in rejecting any system that manufactures scarcity to create wealth at the expense of vulnerable people.

I’m reminded of the words of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez:

The poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44)

Gutierrez’ words resonate with Mark’s picture of Jesus. What would a different social order look like to you? Can you imagine a world without poverty? What would we need to have in place to eliminate poverty? Jesus’ gospel spoke of a God of life who loved all and desired “life to the full” for all the objects of that love.

Are these just words? Do we who follow this Jesus really believe that a world like that is possible? Can poverty really be overcome? The child tax credit that has already lifted 40% of children out of poverty here in the U.S., and the US just approved billions of increased dollars for the U.S. military budget. I wonder what would happen if we apportioned that same money toward a war against global poverty instead?

It’s convenient for Christians to interpret Jesus’ criticism of the Temple as being about Judaism rather than being about addressing poverty. After all, poverty is a matter of human responsibility. We create it. We can change it. If we choose to interpret Jesus’ words as the latter, then we, too, are called to address poverty. That is the life-giving interpretation; the other bears the fruit of poverty being inevitable or unchangeable and therefore the fruit of death and harm.

I’ll close this week with the words of Nelson Mandela from a speech he gave in 2005 at the Make Poverty History rally in London’s Trafalgar Square:

Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Over the last couple weeks, we’ve been discussing what life-giving sharing looks like? Are there societies that in your opinion are managing wealth disparity well.  What is it about those societies that you like? What are things in those societies that you feel still need addressed? What parts would you like to see reproduced here in the U.S.? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

A Widow, Taxes, and Giving More Than What is Life-Giving to Give

Picture of a pottery bowl

November is A Shared Table 2021 month!  Find out more here.


Herb Montgomery | November 5, 2021


“This story does not praise the piety of the poor within a system that takes economic advantage of their piety. It condemns any system that conditions and then exploits people to give more than what is life-giving for them to give.”


(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast, click here.)

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

As he taught, Jesus said, Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widowshouses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 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. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12.38-44, emphasis added.)

I interpret this week’s critique as aimed at the political economy of Jesus’ society, not its religions. Some of those who were deeply religious made the lives of poor people more difficult and exploited their situation. I reject any interpretation that would place Judaism itself in a poor light, because Jesus’ concern for the widow in this story is in perfect harmony with deeply held Jewish values.

Deuteronomy, for example, imagines a society where poverty is eliminated:

“There need be no poor people among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4)

And the Hebrew scriptures repeatedly single out and express concern for the kind of people centered in our story this week: widows.

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17)

“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

“Learn to do right; seek justice.

Defend the oppressed.

Take up the cause of the fatherless;

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)

See also Isaiah 1:23 and 10:2; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:10; and Malachi 3:5.

Common interpretations of our story this week fall short. Typically they exalt the poor widow’s religious piety, her willingness to give her all rather than critique a system that would take her all. These interpretations often communicate the idea that God values the gifts of the poor more than the contributions of the affluent, and they praise the sacrificial nature of the worship of poor people.  I find these interpretations deeply harmful and oppressive to the poor.

Social location always matters. How we interpret any sacred text depends on what questions we bring to it, and those questions are determined by how we experience life. We don’t all experience life the same way. Therefore, those in different social locations bring to their sacred texts a different set of questions and get a different set of answers as they read. To get life-giving answers, we must first ask life-giving questions, and the common interpretations of this week’s story are not life-giving. They are the interpretations of those with privilege and status.

This week, I want to offer a different reading of this story, a reading grounded in Mark’s Jesus repeatedly stating that the reign of God means a great reversal: those who are presently valued as last are centered and made first and those presently privileged as first are made last.

First, Jesus accuses the pious, elite class of his society of devouring widow’s houses. Then, in the very next story, Mark offers an example. Far from praising the widow for giving all, Mark’s story condemns all systems, whether religious, political, economic, or social, that condition her to give her all and gleefully take it from her.

“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, CBQ, 44, p 256.; Quoted in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 321)

So just as Jesus warned, the widow in this story is being “devoured,” i.e., being robbed of her very means of existence.

I think of taxation systems that devour the resources of poor people today. Regressive tax systems place a greater weight of sharing space in society on the poor. Progressive taxation is rooted in the concern that the wealthy pay their fair share of the cost of sharing space in society.

Earlier this year here in WV, some legislators pushed to remove West Virginia’s income tax. It would have been a regressive move that would have further transferred society’s tax burden away from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. For now, this harmful push has failed. I want my taxes to be used for the common good, to help those in need, and I favor tax systems that do so progressively not regressively. In this week’s story, Mark’s Jesus condemns a flat, regressive tax structure that “devours the houses” of those already struggling to live through poverty.

I also don’t subscribe to an interpretation of this story that makes light of the gifts of the wealthy and places an inequitable burden on the poor. Those who see in their wealth as a call to share their superfluous “plenty” with those who have less or whose daily needs are not being met are following the principle we read elsewhere in the Christian scriptures: “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14).

I think, too, of the multitude of nonprofits in the world doing good with individuals and working for systemic change .They exist solely from contributions given by people with the means to support that work. These gifts are the lifeblood of those organizations. As we work toward a day when these kinds of organizations may not be needed, we must also acknowledge how vitally necessary their work is in the meantime.

We should reject any interpretation of this week’s story that either diminishes the wealthy as they follow the ethical call of the gospel to give their wealth away or praises systems that burden those barely surviving. These interpretations contradict the overarching economic themes found in the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. The same Jesus that called the rich man to give his possessions to the poor also condemns any system that devours widows’ houses under the guise of something praiseworthy such as national fidelity, cultural pride, and/or religious piety. The widow’s motive in the above story could be any of these.

Ultimately, Jesus’ desire in the stories is that people would have life and have it more abundantly—“to the full” (John 10:10). This isn’t abundance in a prosperity gospel or capitalist sense but in the sense of a human community where every person in the community is thriving. Whether we call it eternal life, abundant life, or just a sustainable life, this is a community where no one has too little while others have too much. It’s an imaginative vision of a world where every person is connected to and committed to others, where every person’s needs are being met, and where no one is becoming wealthy off the exploitation of another. No matter how glorious exploitative systems of luxury may look on the outside, they are not sustainable. As Mark says of the eventual end of these systems, Not one stone here will be left on another” (Mark 13:2).

This story does not praise the piety of the poor within a system that takes economic advantage of their piety. It condemns any system that conditions and then exploits people to give more than what is life-giving for them to give.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What does a life-giving sharing the cost of shared public space, giving to causes and organizations, or sharing with those who have less than they need look like for you? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Begin each day being inspired toward love, compassion, action, and justice.

Go to renewedheartministries.com and click “sign up.”

Free Sign-Up at:

https://renewedheartministries.com/Contact-forms?form=EmailSignUp

Damage Mitigation Versus Changing the System

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Herb Montgomery | October 22, 2021


“It’s not enough to remove the basis for people being treated as less-than. We must also challenge the very systems the create less-thans and greater-thans. Jesus didn’t just give Bartimaeus his sight. He continued on the road to challenge a system that made a blind man a beggar to begin with.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark,

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, Call him.” So they called to the blind man, Cheer up! On your feet! Hes calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mark 10:46-52)

At the very beginning of our reflection this week, I want to say: I understand the original cultural context of this story, and I still find it deeply ableist. Gospel stories like this one have repeatedly been the seed of society perceiving people with disabilities or different abilities as either less-than or associated with evil. In stories like the one we read this week, blindness is associated with being sinful and at least is a condition that one must be saved from.

Consider the lyrics to one of Christianity’s most famous hymns, Amazing Grace:

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind but now I see.”

(Italics added for emphasis)

The writer, John Newton, associates being blind with being wretched and lost. For him, being able to see is synonymous with being saved and found.

So to all my blind friends, I’m deeply sorry. To my friends who do not have disabilities but are tempted to imagine I am making too much of this connection, consider how you would feel if you had a disability that your society repeatedly attached a moral value to . How would it feel having your disability associated with being sinful, lost, and wretched?

The story’s immediate solution doesn’t resonate with me much either. This man, Bartimaeus, is trying to survive within a system that marginalizes him because of his blindness. He is nether privileged nor benefitted by the system, and he is left to scrape out his own survival.

Jesus is about to go to Jerusalem and overturn the tables of the Temple State to protest a system that leaves so many impoverished and marginalized, but on his way there, his solution is to make Bartimaeus “not blind.”

This is comparable to not changing a patriarchal system but instead making all women men, or not changing a White supremacist system but reclassifying people of color, including Black people , indigenous communities, and immigrants as White. It’s comparable to not challenging a cisheterosexist system, but transforming LGBTQ folx into straight, cisgender, and/or gender conforming. This kind of conversion therapy would really be a kind of genocide.

I don’t believe the solution to a system that treats blind people as inferior is to remove everyone’s blindness. Rather the solution is to challenge and change the system so that blind people are not marginalized or excluded.

My critique may create more questions than it answers. Nonetheless, I believe these are the questions Jesus followers today need to wrestle with. Can we follow the values we have found to be life-giving in the Jesus story while acknowledging many of the ableist ways the Jesus story is told in our sacred text?

I believe we can. We can do better.

Some of the most progressive, historical Jesus scholars see in this story a reflection of actual deeds the historical Jesus did. Jericho, where this story happens, was the last stop before the Temple State’s capital, Jerusalem, and there’s an economic thread to this story as well. As I said earlier, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to flip the tables of an economic, social, political and religious system that privileges a few at the expense of many.

Jesus meets Bartimaeus at what would have been a popular location for Jericho’s beggars to gather. With the holiday coming up, many people would making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate. The holiday would have put them in the spirit of giving, and their tithes and offerings would have given them the means to give to so many of the begging people.

Bartimaeus’ name in this narrative also holds meaning. It could mean either “son of him who is honored or highly prized” or “son of the unclean or uncleanness.” In this story, he is both.

This story offers a repeated theme within the gospels: the crowd obstructs Bartimaeus’ attempts to get at Jesus and Bartimaeus’ increased efforts in response. I think of women pastors who belong to religious traditions that oppose women’s ordination, and how much harder they must work to follow their calling. I think of how hard people of color have to work to survive within historically White churches. And I think of the deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia present in most of Christianity still today, and how my LGBTQ friends who love and follow Jesus must work to stay in their faith traditions, even on the edges. Then and now, the crowd closest to Jesus is often the biggest obstacle to those on the margins of society who desire an audience with him.

I also love how our story has the poor beggar Bartimaeus “throwing his cloak aside” when he is finally able to get up and go to Jesus. This cloak, which would have been his only one, was also his most prized trade tool. He would have spread out his cloak to collect coins from those passing by: it was his own meager means to get his small livelihood, and he just tosses it aside. Consider the rich man in the last chapter who was called to make reparations and couldn’t let go of anything.

Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he had asked of James and John:

What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51 cf. Mark 10:36)

The disciples wanted Jesus to grant them positions of privilege and honor in their own erroneous definitions of what the reign of God would look like. They assumed the reign of God would still mean privilege some at the expense of others.

But Bartimaeus is not asking to be made greater than others. He’s asking to be placed on the same level ground with others in an ableist society that economically, socially, religiously, and politically evaluates him as “last.” He just wants to see. So many disenfranchised and underprivileged people just want to be able to live and thrive on the same level ground as those who are privileged in our present system. For my LGBTQ friends, LGBTQ Pride month doesn’t mean they desire to be better than others: pride for them is the opposite of shame, not the opposite of humility. It is to celebrate being of equal worth to everyone else in a world that continually strives to make you feel inferior.

Bartimaeus just wants to see, and experience all that his sight would enable him to have in his society.

I’m glad the story doesn’t end with Jesus just giving him the ability to see. That wouldn’t go far enough. Fortunately the story doesn’t end with “Immediately he received his sight.” It ends with “Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.”

What road was it that Bartimaeus joined Jesus on?

The road to Jerusalem.

That road ended in a temple courtyard with the tables of money changers being overturned. It ended in actions that so threatened the system that they landed Jesus on a Roman cross with other political rebels within the week.

What’s my takeaway from this story?

On our way to creating another world, we are to engage in damage mitigation. While we are working toward a world that a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone, we are to work to mitigate damage that our present world is doing by not being just, or safe, or compassionate for everyone. And yet, damage mitigation isn’t enough.

It’s not enough to remove the basis for people being treated as less-than. We must also challenge the very systems the create less-thans and greater-thans. Jesus didn’t just give Bartimaeus his sight. He continued on the road to challenge a system that made a blind man a beggar to begin with.

And we must do the same.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Damage mitigation, while necessary, doesn’t challenge nor change systems of harm.  What are the differences between charity and justice? Why are both necessary? Why does the church seem to excel at charity, but often fail at justice? What are both the risks and rewards of working for a more just world?

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



logo

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

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

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

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

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

Getting Free from Fear and Facing the Future Together

black and white picture of the road ahead to illustrate lookin toward the future

 

Herb Montgomery | October 8, 2021

 


Christians have always come up with ways around stories like these in the gospels, but imagine with me this week, a community didn’t try to get around them. What if we allowed ourselves to be confronted by stories like these?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. Good teacher,” he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” Teacher,” he declared, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 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.” At this the mans face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Then Peter spoke up, We have left everything to follow you!” Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31)

Our passage this week includes a criticism on wealth and there’s a long history of those benefiting from systems that create or maintain wealth disparity and inequity trying to soften it. It will be helpful this week to hold in mind the reality that the early Jesus movement consisted almost primarily of poor peasants. In addition, multiple narratives in our sacred text indicate that wealth redistribution was a central characteristic of early Jesus communities. Consider these from the book of Acts:

“They devoted themselves to the apostlesteaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, italics added)

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And Gods grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostlesfeet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35, italics added.)

The Torah regulated debt in ways intended to eliminate poverty in the community. I see these narratives in Acts as having the same spirit of war against poverty, with the authors realizing that poverty is a human-made reality and not something that must always exist.

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORDS time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-4, italics added.)

Whatever humans create can also be changed by human choices. Poverty is not a universal “way-it-has-to-be.” It presents a critique against the systems that create it, and the greater the wealth disparities within economic systems, the stronger the critique for those who have the heart to listen and understand.

The book of Acts includes another narrative that illustrates the wealth-redistributing nature of the early Jesus community.

“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wifes full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostlesfeet. Then Peter said, Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didnt it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasnt the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.” (Acts 5:1-6)

Whoever included this story in the early narratives of Acts wanted the movement’s ethics of wealth redistribution, resource sharing, and war on poverty to be taken seriously—deadly seriously!

In our narrative in Mark, Jesus recites the phrase “You shall not defraud,” and Ched Myers makes a strong case that this phrase is intended to teach the listener something:

“This is our first indication that much more is being discussed in this story than the personal failures of this one man: judgement is being passed upon the wealthy class.” (p. 273)

We read this story too individualistically in our culture today. The story is not about eliminating wealthy individuals or individual net worth, but rather eliminating an entire wealthy class. It’s a critique of the system that creates such wealth disparity, not a hate narrative against wealthy individuals.

Consider that the story even mentions that “Jesus looked at [the man] and loved him.” Rather than expressing hate against the rich, I want to try and understand them. Societal, systemic change begins with understanding.

I do believe that massive amounts of wealth (billionaire status especially) does something negative to the soul of its possessors when they are an exception in their society—when so many around them have so much less. It must be damaging to have to tranquilize one’s conscience in these cases.

Wealth exercises a stronghold on its possessor, one rooted in fear. Our society is a system of manufactured scarcity: a reality has been created where there is not enough for everyone. This leads to anxiety and a fear of going without, and this fear drives endless efforts of accumulation, too often at someone else’s expense. That drive to accumulate in turn leads to holding more than we need for fear that at some time in the future we may go without. Eventually, wealth-hoarding must be protected against  others who have much less, typically through violence. This whole system is violent.

Within such a system of manufactured scarcity, too many people solve the scarcity problem, but only for themselves: to hell with everyone else. Jesus offered an alternative in his own society that I believe we should consider today. He called people to form communities where members pooled resources and all worked to ensure everyone in the community was taken care of. From his very first call to disciples to leave their fishing nets and follow him, Jesus called people away from individualistic solutions to scarcity—whether that scarcity was natural or manipulated—toward communal solutions.

Yet it’s not easy to get free of the fear of going without that drives the hoarding of wealth. In our story, Jesus talks about camels having an easier time getting through the eyes of needles. The camel/needle illustration has a long history of being softened. Greek scribes or copyists exchanged the word camel (kamelon in the Greek) for the word rope, implying that the task wasn’t impossible if one trimmed a rope just a bit. They and the communities that followed them also created the fiction that the “needle” Jesus referenced was a narrow gate or pass in Jerusalem that was hard, but not impossible, for camels to go through. This was completely untrue, but softened the illustration.

Jesus’ point is that just as a camel can’t go through the eye of a needle, so the wealthy cannot enter the reign of God because a society under the reign of God has no wealthy class. That class has been eliminated. This is why the gospels repeatedly say one cannot serve both God and money.

But our goal isn’t universal poverty either. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14)

Jesus offered a community structured so that there was enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greeds. Our passage in Mark bears this out. Those who had the courage to divest from individualist wealth in favor of a genuine commonwealth would risk persecution from those benefiting from the inequities of the status quo, but they would also receive “100 times as much in this present age.” They would not receive that individually as prosperity gospel preachers teach, but communally. Under this model, no matter what the future brought, we wouldn’t face it alone. We would have each other and we could face whatever the future holds with our combined resources.

This is a community where those the present system makes last are first and those the present system makes first are last, because there is no more first or last. We are all simply humans deserving of human dignity, survival, and thriving. Jesus’ vision for human community offered a path for thriving.

But the economic teachings of the gospels are so little understood by most Christians today. Consider Christian attitudes to the Occupy Movement years ago, Christian responses to AOC’s dress with the slogan “tax the rich” a couple of weeks ago, or Christian responses to the present movement opposing an economy of billionaires. For wealthy North American Christians who prize their individual wealth and liberties over what is best for society and our collective thriving, this week’s reading offers so much to consider. Christians have always come up with ways around stories like these in the gospels, but imagine with me this week, a community didn’t try to get around them. What if we allowed ourselves to be confronted by stories like these? What would it look like if we set our security and hope, not on wealth accumulation, but on creating the kind of communities that made wealth obsolete?

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17)

 

HeartGroup Application

 

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

2. What could a community that makes wealth obsolete look like? Would this community have to be religious, or could it be secular, as well? What safeguards would have to be in place for both? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 



 

 

logo

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

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

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

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

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.

We continue being a voice for change because of you.

 


The Bread of Life

logo

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

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

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

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

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We continue to be a voice for change because of you.


Herb Montgomery | August 6, 2021

Our reading this week comes from the gospel of John,

Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty . . . At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, I came down from heaven?” “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:35, 41-51)

Our passage this week starts a chain of “I am” statements that are unique to the gospel of John. There are six more in this version of the Jesus story, seven in total. In John 8:12, Jesus states, “I am the light of the world.” In John 8:58, he says, “I existed before there was an Abraham.” In John 10:11, he says, “I am the good shepherd,” and in John 11:25, he says “I am the resurrection and the life.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and I am the truth, and I am life,” and lastly, in John 15:1, he says, “I am the authentic vine.”

Robert Funk explains that John’s Greco-Roman audience would have recognized this series as an “established formula in speech attributed to one of the gods” (p. 419, The Five Gospels). For John’s Jewish audience, these sayings could have echoed Yahweh’s words to Moses: “ I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Both associations would have highly honored the Jewish Jesus by whom many who encountered him had their lives changed forever.

But also note two things. John’s language about “the Jews” has proven deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. We must be careful in how we read, understand, and use this passage, and we must not use it to harm Jewish people.

Another problematic phrase is, “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” This seems to contradict the synoptic Jesus who accused those in control of the status quo of having established a monopoly on knowing God: “Damn you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have blocked those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52) There is much to ponder here.

Can we reclaim this passage in our lectionary reading for this week?

I think the synoptic gospels can help us.

The synoptic gospels don’t emphasize Jesus as a person (as John does) but emphasize Jesus’ teachings, specifically his teachings on nonviolent resistance, mutual aid, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution, debt forgiveness, and more. Jesus’ teaching in these gospels has very concrete political and economic implications for communities. No wonder many of those with much political and economic power, then and now, have chosen to interpret Jesus as providing a path to heaven rather than an affront to unjust social structures in the here and now.

But ponder for a moment how our understanding changes if we interpret these teachings as “the bread of life.” Coupling John’s Jesus who is the bread of life with the synoptics’ definition of Jesus in terms of his teachings would lead us to state:

Nonviolent resistance is the bread of life.

Mutual aid is the bread of life.

Resource sharing is the bread of life.

Wealth redistribution is the bread of life.

Debt forgiveness is the bread of life.

And in a time of massive wealth inequality, when the richest are competing on getting to the edge of earth and space while most of the world still does not have even their daily needs of food, shelter, and care met, we wonder if these statements could be true.

Consider the political and economic forces obstructing the changes we need to make right now to effectively address climate change alone. What does it mean to have the bread of life today?

If eating this kind of “bread” would lead to life and refusing these things would lead to death, that would make much more sense to me if we defined the bread of life as the ethical, social and political teachings of the Jesus story.

It is much larger than this, too. As a Jesus follower, I have encountered these teachings in my own journey with Jesus. Others exposed to Jesus through harmful expressions of Christianity have encountered these values from other sources. I can say that they, too, are partaking in the bread of life, even if they aren’t associated with “Jesus.”

What is bread that is only temporary and what is bread that leads to life everlasting? What are sustainable, renewable, long-term ways of supporting life? Could these practices from Jesus be a way for us to interpret Jesus’ words in John’s gospel?

Lastly, we once again bump into the myth of redemptive self-sacrifice in this week’s passage:

“This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

It’s good to deny greed for power and resources from the powerful and privileged. I see those kinds of denials as a way for the powerful to reclaim their humanity or “self” rather than sacrifice it. Likewise, I do not interpret Jesus as prescribing self-sacrifice for those who are marginalized, victimized, or disenfranchised. In a system where so many people’s full humanity or “self’ is already being sacrificed, I do not believe the message for them is one of greater, voluntary sacrifice of themselves, but rather, as we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brings a call for them to reclaim their full humanity in their struggle for justice. (See Imagery of a Good Shepherd and A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Parts 1-10))

Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker correctly warn of the damage that unhealthy interpretations of John’s gospel can produce:

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. If the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves. Any sense that we have a right to care for our own needs is in conflict with being a faithful follower of Jesus. Our suffering for others will save the world.” (God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

If you would like understand this analysis more deeply, I recommend reading their critique in its entirety.

So what does the bread of life look like for us today?

Rightly understanding our history including our society’s racism is the bread of life.

A living wage is the bread of life.

Open, free, and fair elections where voting rights and voting access is protected is the bread of life.

Affordable and accessible health care for all is the bread of life.

Getting vaccinated when we can be is the bread of life.

Common sense preliminary background check on all gun purchases is the bread of life.

Funding those trained in mental health to respond to crisis situations in our communities, ending police militarization, and investing in non-policing forms of public safety and community support is the bread of life.

Clean, renewable energy is the bread of life, especially for those monetarily profiting from the fossil fuel industry now. What does it profit you if you gain all the money in the world but have no planet to live on?

What is the bread of life that results in concrete, life everlasting for humanity rather than temporary gain? What does that mean to you?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What do you interpret to be the bread of life in our context today? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Enough for Everyone

logo

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

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

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

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

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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


steeple

Herb Montgomery | July 23, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


A Community of Dependence and Connectedness

diverse hands forming network

Herb Montgomery | July 2, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is born when we share.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Peace, Be Still.

 

calm sea scape

Herb Montgomery | June 18, 2021


I need a Jesus that can challenge the great windstorm and the waves of deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in the Christian church that threatens to capsize the lives of LGBTQ young people — not just the winds and waves of a Galilean lake. These young people wonder if anyone cares that they are perishing. They need a Jesus to speak to their Christian families and, in the face of bigotry, speak in the name of inclusion, affirmation, celebration, and love, saying, ‘Peace be still.’”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The story of Jesus calming the storm is the first nature miracle in the gospel of Mark. Until this point, the author of this gospel has been structuring narratives that subverted Jesus’ society. Jesus is an exorcist or healer in stories that subtly call into question the social power structures and who they benefited and marginalized.

But with this story, the author introduces a new side of Jesus. Now Jesus is also seen as having authority in relation to nature itself.

The first “sea” (lake) crossing in Mark’s gospel is part of a pattern in Mark of pairing important narratives. The second sea crossing is in Mark 6:45-53. The two feedings of the multitudes are another example.

Most scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was intended for both Jewish and non-Jewish Jesus followers. In the early church, making the Christian tent large enough to bring together both Jewish followers of Jesus (in Galilee and Judea) and Gentile followers of Jesus (from Paul’s travels and ministry) was a top priority. So in this first sea crossing, the author of Mark is invoking narratives that would have been meaningful to both groups of Jesus followers. By calling the lake “sea” this gospel recalls Hebrew narratives about Yahweh and the sea,” such as the ark of Noah, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the reference to storms in the Psalms:

“By his power he stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab [mythical sea monster, symbol for Egypt].” (Job 26:12)

“He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. (Psalms 107.29)

“He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry; he led them through the deep as through a desert.” (Psalms 106:9)

For Hellenistic Jesus followers, Jesus’ ability to command the wind and the sea would have been one of the few acts in the gospel of Mark comparable to the stories of Hellenistic miracle workers. Having the ability to command wind and sea associated a person with the powers attributed to Zeus (wind) and Poseidon (sea).

There may be another apologetic association being made in this story as well. Many scholars throughout the centuries have noticed in this story parallels with stories told about a contemporary of Jesus, Apollonius of Tyanna. Placing Jesus on the level of Apollonius and other wonder-workers in that world highly honored Jesus. Because of classism, for those who favored the miracle narratives of Apollonius, Jesus was the imposter, a miracle worker for the uneducated, the poor, and those on the margins of society. (Mark’s Christology had not yet evolved to the levels we see in the much later gospel of John.)

Also noteworthy are parallels between this story and the stories told during the Flavian dynasty of Roman emperors’ miraculous powers over nature. The Flavian era was the time period most scholars believe the gospel of Mark was written. Jesus commands the winds and waves of the body of water referred to as Lake Tiberius (after Tiberius Caesar Augustus). All four canonical gospels compare Jesus with Roman imperialism and contrast the Pax Romana with the peace resulting from Jesus’ teachings on including the marginalized, community resource-sharing, and redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.

As we’ve found in the gospels, if Jesus is to be a superior choice to other options in the world of the gospel writers and their audiences, the authors must first portray Jesus on equal ground with others competing for followers in that time.

But what does this story say to us today? How can the Jesus story inform our work of justice, love and compassion in our various contexts and social settings?

I don’t think that we now have to portray Jesus as superior to everything else around us to follow the teachings of that Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee. Superiority, supremacy, exceptionalism, and/or a “chosen” status’ have only proved to divide us within the human family. These ways of telling our stories have been harmful at best and lethal at worst. I believe it’s enough to consider the values, ethics, and teachings within the Jesus story and determine whether the fruit of those teachings still have anything of intrinsic value to offer us and can inform our work of making our world a safe, compassionate just home form everyone. If they can, then following the Jesus of the gospel stories in our context of the 21st century will be life-giving, too.

These are the questions we should be wrestling with as Jesus followers two thousand years removed from these stories’ beginnings. And I believe there is a lot within the Jesus stories that is still worth listening to. The golden rule, certain themes found in the Sermon on the Mount, the value of love above all else—these alone are worthy of our practice.

I don’t believe Jesus still needs to “command the wind and the waves” in our postmodern, post-enlightenment world to still be worthy of being following. In fact, the supernatural story elements that were persuasive in the 1st Century are too often now obstacles in our 21st Century.

I don’t need a Jesus who supernaturally commands our natural forces. I need a Jesus who can speak into our racial struggle for justice today. I need a Jesus who speaks into our economic crisis alongside the poor and in the face of those made richer in this pandemic. I need a Jesus who can speak into our ecological crisis and humanity’s threatened existence on our planet. I need a Jesus who can speak into women’s struggle for an equitable society where misogyny in all its ugliness still threats to capsize their thriving. I need a Jesus that can challenge the great windstorm and the waves of deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in the Christian church that threatens to capsize the lives of LGBTQ young people — not just the winds and waves of a Galilean lake. These young people wonder if anyone cares that they are perishing. They need a Jesus to speak to their Christian families and, in the face of bigotry, speak in the name of inclusion, affirmation, celebration, and love, saying, “Peace be still.”

What storms of injustice in your world, in your society, in your community, in your family do you need someone to add their voice to, alongside yours, and speak peace, love, compassion, “peace, be still?” We don’t need a peace that is only a passive lull in our struggle for equality. We need a peace that is the fruit of an established justice; a peace where we can do more than just survive, but find what we need to thrive. It’s not a stilling of the voice of those crying out for justice that we need; we need a stilling of the forces that threaten those lives daily.

The Jesus who speaks that peace is the Jesus I need and I would guess you do, too.

As Jesus followers in our contexts today, the peace in these gospel stories that can speak most loudly to us and our present, concrete, material need in our natural world and bring genuine peace rooted in established justice?

The Jesus that speaks that peace is the kind of Jesus I want sleeping in the bow of our society’s boat today.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Where would you like to see a societal peace that is rooted in distributive justice end the tempest of injustice and exclusion that threatens to capsize people’s thriving, today? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


The Politics of Jesus

Herb Montgomery | March 26, 2021


The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, offer consistent political comparisons between Jesus’ vision for human society (God’s just future) and the status quo of the society Jesus found himself in instead . . . certainly we can do the same with economic, political, and social policies in our time. And if we see progressive social movements resonate with the values we find in the Jesus story, then certainly all of us who claim that story as the heart of our faith tradition could check ourselves. We could choose to be last in line to oppose those progressive visions for American society rather than being among the loudest opponents of distributively just change.


Our reading this week is from Luke’s telling of the Jesus story:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)

The first thing that stands out to me about Luke’s telling of the Jesus story is how it differs from Matthew’s. The message from Heaven comes to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. Joseph is the recipient in Matthew’s version, but in Luke, it’s Mary. Luke has already patterned one pregnancy so far after the pregnancy stories of other matriarchs in Hebrew folklore: for Luke, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, is a contemporary Sarah (Genesis 17-18) or Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2).

But Mary’s conception is quite different. Mary is not past child-bearing age like Elizabeth and the other women of the Jewish stories. Her story is not a miracle after the birthing time of life has passed. Mary is young, independent of men, and quite capable of bearing children. She is at the beginning of her life journey. Her conception will be a miracle of quite a different nature.

This point must not be lost: Whereas miraculous conception does exist in Jewish tradition, Divine conception does not. Divine conception is a Roman cultural tradition, and Luke’s story will repeat the point that the Jesus of this story should be compared and contrasted with Caesar and Roman social values.

Not one conception in Jewish history fits Luke’s description of how Mary conceived Jesus. But in Rome, the story of a virgin conceiving and giving birth to the son of God had a political context.

The most well-known Roman story of divine conception was of Caesar Augustus. In The Lives of Caesars, Suetonius cites Discourses of the Gods by Asclepias:

When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent [Apollo] glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. (94:4)

Many scholars believe the divine Caesar Augustus’s conception story was patterned after Alexander the Great’s conception legend as well as that of the Roman general Scipio Africans, imperial conqueror of the Carthagians. In these Greco-Roman stories of divine conceptions, male gods impregnating human women to bear great leaders or conquerors were quite common.

So it appears that Luke’s divine conception of Jesus, with the spirit of God coming upon Mary (Luke 1:35), laid the foundation for concluding Jesus was superior to Caesar. That world did not think conception by human-divine interaction was impossible, and so Luke’s telling of the Jesus story had to begin on equal footing with Caesar’s. Consider the story of Jesus’ birth through these political lenses, not modern scientific ones. Luke contrasts the politics of Jesus with the politics of Rome. Both Jesus and Caesar were referred to as the son of God, both were referred to as the savior of the world, and both were also titled as Lord. Luke’s listeners would have to decide which peace was genuine, lasting and life-giving: the Pax Romana from Caesar, his armies, and his threats, or the peace found in following the teachings of Jesus. Roman peace came through military conquering and the imposed terror of threat toward anyone who disrupted Rome’s peace. Jesus’ peace came through a distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough and everyone sat under their own vine or fig tree (Micah 4:4).

We’re now nearing the season of Easter. Let’s not forget that Jesus was crucified by Rome not because he was starting a new religion, but because his political teachings on justice for the oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised threatened to upset the status quo underlying the Pax Romana. His audience was growing and Rome had to silence his voice.

The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, offer consistent political comparisons between Jesus’ vision for human society (God’s just future) and the status quo of the society Jesus found himself in instead. This makes me wonder how our own contemporary society’s political goals would fare if we compared and contrasted the values of the American dream with the values we find in the Jesus story.

How does imprisoning children on the southern border or anywhere else in the country compare with Jesus’ vision of world where no one is illegal?

How does forgiving student loan debt compare with Jesus’ vision for world where all debts are cancelled?

How does universal healthcare or health care as a human right compare with Jesus’ life of healing those on the margins of his society?

How does eliminating poverty or closing the vast wealth gap between classes and races compare with Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom that belongs to the poor?

How do reparations for America’s heritage of slavery and genocide compare with Jesus’ call for those with ill-gotten wealth to sell everything and give the proceeds to those they exploited?

How do police reform or abolition compare to a Jesus story where the central figure was the victim of state brutality himself?

Do the values of the Jesus story offer us something better today than the status quo the privileged and elite still desperately hold on to?

I don’t mean that our society should become Christian. Christianity has proven unsafe when it comes to protecting vulnerable human populations from harm: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and many others have been harmed and their stories have yet to be listened to in many sectors of Christianity today. Even the sacred text of Christianity has been too vulnerable to abuse by those with power, prejudice and bigotry. The recent murders in the Atlanta spas are yet another sad example. (Sadly White and/or colonial Christianity is the only form of the faith most of the world has been touched by.) Whatever one’s interpretation of Christianity’s sacred texts, the voices of those who have been harmed are still needed to ensure our interpretations are genuinely life-affirming and life-giving.

If Luke could compare Roman economic, political, and social policy with Jesus’s teachings, then certainly we can do so with economic, political, and social policies in our time. And if we see progressive social movements resonate with the values we find in the Jesus story, then certainly all of us who claim that story as the heart of our faith tradition could check ourselves. We could choose to be last in line to oppose those progressive visions for American society rather than being among the loudest opponents of distributively just change.

There are exceptions to this pattern. It burdens me that they are merely exceptions. Support for progressive movements that resonate with Jesus’ distributively just economic, political and social values could be the rule for Jesus followers today, if we would choose it. And conscious choices are exactly what it will take.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What comparisons and contrasts can you make with Jesus teachings and current discussions in your own society regarding how we resources and power is distributed? Share with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week