The Social Location of Your Christianity Matters

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The Social Location of Your Christianity Matters

cross on church

Herb Montgomery | October 23, 2020

—”This devolution of the Jesus of the story justifies why many today are repulsed or revolted when anything Christian is brought up or the name Jesus is evoked. But in the story, it was the elite and privileged who felt this disgust and loathing. Today, it’s those on the margins of society, those who have also been hurt by Christianity or disenfranchised and harmed by Christians . . . Their intense dislike of all things Christian simply expresses a much deeper internal revolt against injustice and the religion of those who perpetuate it.”

My heart is heavy this week as I listen to some of the other Christian voices here in Appalachia. I wonder sometimes if we are reading the same Jesus story, and I know that we are, at minimum, interpreting the story differently.

I read the Jesus story as a story of Jesus being a conduit of hope for the disenfranchised and oppressed in the gospels. This Jesus’ teachings and actions threatened the privileged and therefore had to be stopped. The Jesus story doesn’t center on a cross. It focuses on the life that overcame a cross; life-giving that reversed and ultimately triumphed over the crushing death-dealing in the story.

The resurrection event in the Jesus story is the Divine response to Jesus’ unjust crucifixion on a Roman cross and a system of injustice that culminated in such acts against those deemed social or political threats. The resurrection event speaks of a Jesus in solidarity with oppressed people rather than with the oppression and oppressors who benefit from oppressing.

As western Christianity’s social location changed over the centuries, many of these themes in the Jesus story became ignored or reinterpreted. Under the Roman emperor, the same empire that had crucified Jesus also changed the church’s social focus and understanding of the “gospel.” The stories about Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) have political implications and those implications became problematic as Christianity transitioned from a community of the oppressed, as James Cone used to say, to a community of oppressors. Seemingly overnight, the Jesus of the gospels became the Jesus of the oppressors. This devolution of the Jesus of the story justifies why many today are repulsed or revolted when anything Christian is brought up or the name Jesus is evoked. But in the story, it was the elite and privileged who felt this disgust and loathing. Today, it’s those on the margins of society, those who have also been hurt by Christianity or disenfranchised and harmed by Christians. The Hebrew narrative of a God who stands in solidarity with those who suffer at the hands of others was so strong in the Jesus stories and has been subverted.

Today, many of my non-religious friends who oppose Christianity are rooted in a deep concern about matters of justice. Their intense dislike of all things Christian simply expresses a much deeper internal revolt against injustice and the religion of those who perpetuate it. I acknowledge this. I also recognize that the European-American Jesus who stands with the superpowers of this planet does not exist in the biblical stories or in life. The Jesus we find in the Jesus of the stories was radically inclusive, seeking to mitigate the harm being perpetuated toward the vulnerable and excluded in his society. He stood in solidarity with those on the bottom of our systems of oppression, flipping tables and challenging systemic and economic injustice with those for whom injustice meant an early death.

This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the “Christian” god of the conquering West is not the God we find in the Jesus story. The god that many of us white Christians have worshipped all our lives doesn’t exist. The God of the Jesus story stood in solidarity with the Abels, not the Cains, and with the Hebrews, Jews, and the 1st Century followers of Jesus persecuted by systems they lived under.

Today this must call us to re-evaluate our standing in relation to the lives of Indigenous Americans, Black and Brown people, Women, poor people, queer people, and anyone whom our society relates to as “less than.” I believe the gospel stories about Jesus can still speak to these communities of how another world is possible, here, now: a world where the first are last and the last are first. It’s not a world that makes room at the top of a pyramid of oppression for people who were once oppressed themselves. It’s not a world where the oppressed become the new and inevitable oppressors, as Saul Alinsky imagined they would. The world of the gospels is a world where the relationships of oppressor and oppressed are no more. We’ll have outgrown survival instincts that may have once kept us alive but are now impeding our survival as a human community.

The themes of the gospel of Jesus are a universal love and care about the injustice that beloveds are facing today. This kind of gospel is not about post-mortem bliss but about a world, in this time, that we can shape into a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone. It’s not a gospel of mercy, grace, and forgiveness that releases us from a Divine, punitive retribution, but of a mercy, grace, and forgiveness of debt that gives birth to distributive, restorative, transformative, and reparative justice. Death is overcome by life and not avoided with greater death-dealing. We choose the path of life-giving politics for our societies, and guilt gives way to reparations and reparations, to reconciliation. It’s a world where we reap what we sow and what we’ve sown is compassion, love, justice, and inclusion. This is a world that is a “blessing” to those the present arrangement oppresses, and it will be a “blessing” to those who stand in solidarity with and give a voice to those who have been oppressed (cf. Matthew 5-10, and Luke 6). Lastly, this is a world where the means we have used to build are the “oak within the acorn.” They have shaped the kind of world we have ended up in the end: the means determined our end.

This week I’m challenged once again to believe this kind of world is actually possible. What hurts my heart as someone raised within Christianity is to see how many, many Christians are allowing themselves to be misinformed enough to oppose the world found in the oldest interpretations of the Jesus story. This month, the recommended book at Renewed Heart Ministries is Miguel A. De La Torre’s Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity. While I read this short, timely, and poignant book, I was struck by a statement that captures the kind of opposition I’m referring to:

“While justifying their choice with pro-life rhetoric, [pro-life Christians] bloody their hands through their allegiance to death-dealing policies that disproportionately impact the poor, the undocumented, and the queer. Pro-life Christians in the United States who today want to build walls to drive brown bodies into the desert to die are the ideological descendants of pro-life Pilgrims and slave masters whose invasion, genocide, enslavement, and rape epitomize the legacy of white Christianity.” (Kindle location 239)

Every day we have the opportunity to choose what kind of world we want to live in. When we make these choices collectively, our choices create change. None of us can change the world all by ourselves, but together we can accomplish great and beautiful things.

In the US, we have an opportunity in just a couple of weeks to work toward change collectively. I cannot tell you who to vote for. What I can do is encourage you not to hold illusions about what the act of voting is in this county. I can encourage you not to try voting for a candidate and think they will heal all of our country’s ills without failure. There are no heroes. In the words of Alice Walker, we are the ones we have been waiting for. Whoever wins, we will have to hold them accountable. We don’t vote for ideal candidates, then. Instead, this year, vote for those you believe will cause the least amount of harm, misery, and oppression for the world’s marginalized, disenfranchised and underprivileged. Vote to mitigate harm while we continue to work every day toward a world where the vulnerable are no longer harmed.

To paraphrase what Vincent Harding used to say, we are citizens of a country that doesn’t exist yet. But I believe we can take steps that move us closer to the realization of our highest values and ideals.

Another world is possible.

Over the next few weeks, let’s move closer to it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. What are some practices in other countries, that you see support for in the Jesus story, that you wish we also practiced here in the United States? Share with your group, along with how you see the Jesus story supporting these practices.

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 Cautionary Tale for Society

Herb Montgomery | October 16, 2020


“Seeing the man set free from his internalized oppression, the society around him refuses to get free of the same ‘demons.’ . . . When people get free of collective violence toward a marginalized sector of our society, (whether in themselves toward themselves, or within themselves toward others) they are following the social truth within this gospel story.”


In Mark’s gospel we read a story that many people find difficult:

“[Jesus and his disciples] went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills, he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of Him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” (Mark 5:1-9)

The original audience of Mark’s gospel would have recognized the symbols and codes in this story. We are removed by time and context, and so it’s harder to follow.

I believe this story is a symbolic portrait of Roman imperialism. Ched Myers notes in his commentary on Mark’s gospel that this story is a story of “symbolic confrontation” and has specific political meaning. The name of the man, Legion, was the name of a division of Roman soldiers.

“The conclusion is irresistible that we are here encountering imagery meant to call to mind the Roman military occupation of Palestine,” Myers writes in Binding the Strong Man (p. 191). This occupation was destroying the spirit, independence, and will of the people Rome colonized, and this story depicts what we refer to today as a person’s internalized oppression.

As soon as Jesus arrives in this story, he is met with immediate resistance. This ancient exorcism story is full of symbolic action: oppression by foreign rule appears as occupation by a foreign “spirit.” The man Jesus meets, whom no one could bind, cut himself with stones. Self-cutting in this context is a form of auto-lapidation. Lapidating is the act of pelting or killing someone with stones until they die, and the gospels typically attribute this activity to a crowd stoning someone (Matthew 21:35; 23:37; Luke 20:6; John 8:7, 59, 10:31–33, 1:8) Why would this man do this to himself?

In the gospels, it is always the many, the majority, the privileged crowd that engages in this form of capital punishment, but this man has internalized this kind of violence toward himself. So this is a story where societal oppression leads someone to believe their oppressors’ valuation of themselves, and that leads to self-hatred and self-destruction.

Social violence becomes collective as members choose someone they can come together against. They find unity in agreeing on who they are against. Victims of this violence can adopt their society’s estimation of themselves. In our context this can take many forms:

Non-White people internalize White supremacy to survive,

Women internalize the patriarchy, going along to get along,

The poor and/or working-class people champion the cause of exploitative capitalists,

LGBTQ people internalize the repulsion and bigotry of cis-heterosexist, heteronormative society.

Jesus arrives in the story as someone outside of this man’s community coming to set him free from his own self-hatred.

The story doesn’t end with this man’s isolated experience, though.

“[Legion] begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.” (Mark 5:10-17; Emphasis added)

In this Hellenized, mostly Greek region (Gentile with very few Jews), pigs were a farming commodity. Here the author zooms in to focus on the economic dimension of Jesus’ politics. If the larger community embraces this man’s liberation from internalized oppression, what will this mean for them? If they honestly estimate the Roman occupation, that will change everything, including their economic structure. Economic change is emotionally unsettling even when it’s more distributively just: it’s challenging what some people need for survival on one hand, and what others have hoarded for security and anxiety management on the other hand.

Jesus began by restoring the man, but the story quickly redirects us to the man’s surrounding society. His liberation of the man from internalized oppression threatens the unity and peace that the privileged of society had found in Roman occupation. Jesus turns their way of life, their stability, on its head and forces them to see the man as a fellow human being, like themselves. Jesus un-objectifies the man, de-dehumanizes him, un-degrades him. Jesus lifts this man up and returns him to a place of belonging in the humanity in the sight of a society that had found unity and coherence by purging him to the tombs. Jesus challenges the entire arrangement of this society.

The story doesn’t end well. The people choose economic and political security over the liberation Jesus pointed to. They cry, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds us.” Jesus and his liberation is not welcome with them.

Just this week I had a discussion with a neighbor of mine who was expressing their views about the upcoming election. He admitted that the present administration had economically benefited him and his business. At last, though, he said that even that economic benefit was not enough for him. He felt he also had to consider the thousands upon thousands whom the administration had harmed. He was choosing harm-mitigation and planned to vote for change come November. My neighbor made the opposite decision to the privileged in Mark’s story.

Seeing the man set free from his internalized oppression, the society around him refuses to get free of the same “demons.” Until then, this man had become infected with the bigotry of his own society toward himself.  He had allowed how his society defined him to become the way he defined himself as well. When people get free of collective violence toward a marginalized sector of our society, (whether in themselves toward themselves, or within themselves toward others) they are following the social truth within this gospel story.

This is my story, too. I am a member of the kind of scapegoating society this man lived in. But I have also seen the humanity of the ones I once marginalized, and it has turned my world upside down. I wish I could claim some credit for this transformation, but I did not go looking for it. Once it was laid at my doorstep, though, I did have to make a choice.

Today, I simply want to bring others with me. Has it brought me some economic uncertainty? You bet. The ministry I direct has gone through huge economic shifts as our support base has changed. I hope it will continue to recover. Too often, economic reasons drive us to reject positive changes and this story is a cautionary tale for just such moments.

What would happen if we saw those people we have placed on society’s altars as having just as much value, worth, and right to be included as we have? Though we are living with a very different worldview today than those for whom this story was written, our society, political, economic, and even religious bigotries are no different than those in this gospel story.

This story calls us today to once again see those whom we have labeled as different or other as human, bearing the image of the Divine just as we do. Jesus calls us to embrace the reality that they are our siblings, we are part of the same human family, and they deserve a place at the table, too.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. Share an experience with your group of how you broke free from your own internalized dehumanization from how other’s viewed you, or where you chose to reject your own dehumanization of others.

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 Non-Normative Jesus

fall tree
Herb Montgomery | October 9, 2020


“In Matthew and the other gospels, Jesus stands in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calling for the radical inclusion of those once excluded by their sacred text. Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry.”


In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says to his disciples:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:10-12)

This is a statement where Jesus stands with the more inclusive, progressive Jewish community interpreting their sacred texts. Others, like Rabbi Hillel, had interpreted the Torah in more progressive ways. In this passage we see Jesus doing something very similar.

Let’s go back to the Torah to see how Jewishly progressive Jesus was being. In Deuteronomy we read:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:1)

The “assembly of the Lord” was when Israel assembled for religious ceremonies. Eunuchs, men who had been castrated or were otherwise unable to reproduce, were considered non-normative within this society. Within this patriarchal culture, carrying on a man’s name through male offspring was the only way to ensure that his name and nation would endure forever. Passing that name down through generations was the ancient Hebrews’ idea of eternal life.

When it came to reproduction, many cultures during this period considered a woman little more than an incubation chamber for the baby being passed down from the male. This kind of patriarchal thinking still persists in Christian purity culture today.

During this period, people didn’t have the faintest scientific idea about the zygote being the combination of the female ovum and the male sperm. It was believed that the male seed contained everything needed for a human to be produced. All that was required was the fertile soil (the woman) for the seed to plant in and to grow. It’s no wonder that many women were sometimes treated no better than dirt!

Being a eunuch within a patriarchal society, whether by birth or not, made a man “non-normative.” “Normative” simply means that which the social majority has constructed as normal, or standard. It’s literally a social construct. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Historically, “queer” has often been used in an offensive and negative sense as a slur toward someone who is non-normative, especially in matters of sexuality or gender. But in academia, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or not of the majority. And today many people have reclaimed the term “queer” for themselves as a source of value and pride.

Similarly, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness is non-normative. Left-handed people like my elder daughter might be labeled queer, then. Eunuchs in Hebrew society during the time of Moses were considered non-normative and therefore were not admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Maybe my left-handed daughter would have been excluded from the assembly as well!

Notice what Leviticus has to say about societal normativity:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles […] that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:16-24)

All of this changes by the time we get to the book of Isaiah where we read the opposite:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument, and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)

Here is the question I want you to consider. How can God give the eunuchs “an everlasting name” when, within a Hebrew context, that can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?

Let’s go back to our passage in Matthew:

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can. (Matthew 19:10-12)

Who is Jesus referring to when he says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”? He wasn’t referring to self-mutilation here. Instead, Jesus is referring to young Hebrew males who chose to abandon the patriarchal expectations of their society—taking a wife, having children, and propagating the nation of Israel through male offspring—to embrace a life of celibacy instead.

Who is Jesus referring to? He might have been referring to himself, including himself in the eunuchs’ community and saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” Through him, the eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Deuteronomy and Leviticus had excluded them, Isaiah had included them, and now Jesus’ was living in solidarity with them.

Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s heterocentric cultures. The cultural pressure for a single person to marry and have children is often immense. But according to Jesus, whether a person is a eunuch by birth, is made so by others, or has simply chosen to live a life of celibacy for the Kingdom’s sake, they have been made not merely acceptable, but holy, special, unique. They have been given a place at Jesus’ table.

For those who are not celibate, Jesus includes you too. No one is left out. Jesus says that choosing a life of celibacy, while non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, he was celibate, too. For those who chose celibacy for “the kingdom,” this choice was to be voluntary. Whether someone is heterosexual, gay, lesbian or bisexual, a choice to be celibate should be one’s own choice, voluntarily. Paul goes so far as to say that celibacy is a spiritual gift (see 1 Corinthians 7:9).

In Matthew and the other gospels, Jesus stands in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calling for the radical inclusion of those once excluded by their sacred text. Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry. He announces that the favor of God is now available for the Greeks (Luke 4:25-29). Jesus calls for the inclusion of the Romans (Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus calls for the inclusion of the poor, the blind, and the lame (Luke 14:13-14; cf. Luke 6:20, 24). Jesus calls for the inclusion of women (Luke 10:39-41). Jesus calls all who are benefiting from society’s arrangements to make room for those who are being oppressed. It was the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom that led his early circumcised followers to begin including the uncircumcised among them as well (Acts 10:47, Acts 8).

What I want you to ponder this week is what it must have meant for the non-normative eunuchs of Jesus’ day to be embraced by him and be called his new community. Just imagine it: even though there were passages in their sacred text that both excluded and later included them in the “assembly of God,” they were not merely accepted by Jesus but he had actually chosen to live as one of them. This non-normative Jesus chose to live as a eunuch, as an adult Hebrew male and rabbi who refused to marry and have children. Jesus chose to stand in solidarity with a group considered non-normative in his day.

It is no accident that the first individual baptism story in the Book of Acts is that of an Ethiopian eunuch, a person who early Hebrew law would have excluded from religious assemblies. The author of the book of Acts is intentionally communicating when they begin Acts’ many baptism narratives with this special baptism.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:38)

Societies today, ours included, can still be divided into the normative/majority and the non-normative/minority. There may always be a majority and a minority, but we don’t have to “other” fellow members of our human family because of our differences. When those considered socially constructed as “normative” fail to recognize those considered “non-normative” as their siblings, just as much belonging to the richly diverse human family, and every bit as deserving of a place at Jesus’ table, something monstrously un-Jesus-like is being perpetuated, something very different from Jesus’ example. When the majority weds itself to exclusivity, it excludes the non-normative and produces an oppressed minority. Preserving normativity then becomes a moral concern for purity and, in the name of “standing up for what is right,” the non-normative minority will always be objectified, dehumanized, and degraded. This is exactly the opposite of what we see the non-normative Jesus doing with the eunuchs of his day.

Brock and Parker remind us how this ties into our justice work today:

The work of justice requires paying attention to how difference is used to justify oppression. It employs astute awareness of how oppressive systems grant privilege and seek to protect it at all costs. It engages those who have privilege in challenging systems from which they benefit, not just helping those “less fortunate.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p.396)

What does it mean for Jesus’ followers to embrace those othered in religious and secular society and therefore oppressed, today?

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. The gospels stand in a prophetic lineage of radical inclusion of those once excluded by their sacred text. In what other ways do you see the theme of inclusion in the Jesus of the gospel stories? 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

What a Just Future Requires

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Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed right now more than ever.

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wedding table

Herb Montgomery | September 18, 2020


“Although everyone was invited to the event in the parable of Matthew 22, the event itself required certain attire. And a just future requires a certain something too: the inclusive, just, equitable passion for making our world safe for everyone, the desire to make sure we all thrive together.”


In Matthew’s gospel, we read this story,

“Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are invited, but few are chosen.’” (Matthew 22:1-14)

The stories in Matthew’s gospel were intended to teach their audience something about the just future, the vision for a just human community, that this gospel bases on the teachings of Jesus.

This story progresses in a specific order.

First, the king invites guests to his son’s wedding. These guests would have been those whose social standing warranted such an invitation. Their invitation would not have been universal but for those who belonged to a society shaped by exceptionalism and privilege. I also cannot overlook the patriarchal character of this story about a “king” feasting for his “son” and a social structure that includes slaves and a master. Despite what’s problematic in this story, is there some kernel of truth in it that may speak to us in our contemporary context and justice work?

Let’s see.

When those first invited refuse their invitation, the king’s invitation becomes much more inclusive. Everyone is now invited.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready . . . Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’”

Everyone? Does everyone get invited? Yes, and Jesus makes sure to add, “the bad as well as the good.” This invitation is generously and extravagantly inclusive.

But the story does not remain so.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.”

I used to interpret this parable differently than I do today. I used to see this parable as “Olly Olly oxen free,” a story where everyone gets let in, penalty-free. But when we read this parable from the perspective of those oppressed, subjugated, or pushed to the margins of society, certain things begin to stand out.

First, this is a mixed group from a lower class of society than would normally be invited as guests at a royal wedding, and that class includes divisions as well. In a classist society, the lower class is not a monolith.

Michelle Alexander explains this when she describes the history of Bacon’s rebellion in YEAR. It failed because social elites created racial divisions among the lower classes to prevent them from threatening the economic structure that privileged those at the top.

“Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the plantation system, the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty . . . The events in Jamestown [the failed Bacon’s rebellion] were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance . . . Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 24-25.)

Throughout U.S. history, the elites have repeatedly fanned the flames of racially charged bigotry to divide the lower class. During Reconstruction, after the Civil War, they did it again, and that led to the era of Jim Crow.

“Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people. By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to a racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Politicians competed with each other by proposing and passing ever more stringent, oppressive, and downright ridiculous legislation (such as laws specifically prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess together). The public symbols and constant reminders of black subjugation were supported by whites across the political spectrum, though the plight of poor whites remained largely unchanged. For them, the racial bribe was primarily psychological.” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 34-35.)

Right now in the U.S., we are witnessing a new set of racial bribes being offered to the lower class White population in exchange for November election results.

In Matthew’s story, the king invited everyone, but his own social location stopped him from recognizing that not everyone invited would have had the means to procure the proper attire. I no longer blame the guest who wasn’t properly dressed: maybe he didn’t have anything to wear other than what he had on his back. Nonetheless, the king still threw him out, and the story only gives one explanation: many are invited, only a few are chosen.

What could this mean for us?

Everyone is invited to a future that is just, but not everyone will be chosen to be a part of it. Wedding hosts require certain attire, and a future that is just, equitable, and safe also has requirements. It requires no one exclude others based on their class or sex, gender identity or race, sexual orientation, or gender expression. Everyone is invited to take a seat at the table, yet not everyone is welcome at the table.

If someone refuses to let go of their bigotry, to reject their prejudice and fear of someone else simply because they are different, their death-grip on death-dealing values naturally excludes them from a future that is life-giving for everyone. And, unlike the parable where some could perhaps not afford the attire that the event required, any of us can choose let go of our phobias and bigotry. We have the power to reject the divisive programming we have been taught and to embrace the interconnected reality we are already living in.

I’m thinking, this week, of those who see in the US government a savior for their white privilege yet deny justice to those excluded and even killed under the dog-whistle of “law and order.” And that leads me to our final point.

The parable states that our story ends with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Gnashing of teeth is not torture as the hell-fire preachers teach. It’s anger (see Luke 13:28; Job 16:9; Psalms 35:16; Psalms 37:12; Psalms 112:10; Lamentations 2:16; Acts 7:54, cf. Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:42; Matthew 13:50; Matthew 22:13; Matthew 24:51; Matthew 25:30).

It’s anger that someone you thought should be excluded is actually included. And it’s anger that for all your smug assurance that your own place at the table was secure, you find yourself outside in the dark looking in through the window at those you feel are inferior to you. They’re enjoying the feast and you are not. The gnashing of teeth in the story is the inability to accept the king’s invitation to you on one hand because you can’t accept another’s invitation on the other. Someone you feel should be excluded was not merely invited, but is enjoying the party instead of you.

Although everyone was invited to the event in the parable of Matthew 22, the event itself required certain attire. And a just future requires a certain something too: the inclusive, just, equitable passion for making our world safe for everyone, the desire to make sure we all thrive together.

If any are left out of that just future, it will be because they could not stomach the lack of distinction between themselves and their fellow guests that characterizes themselves as somehow superior. It won’t be because they’ve failed to accept an invitation for themselves.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. A safe, just, inclusive, compassionate future is possible. And it will require something from each of us. What requirements stand out to you from your own experience of inequity. Discuss your experiences 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 all?

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



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Zacchaeus and Christian Support of Destructive Administrations

“What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them?”

Luke’s gospel brings us the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus who walks away from his support of and participation in a systemically unjust and exploitative system to become a Jesus follower. In response to Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

The picture we get from the synoptic gospels is of a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor traveling through his society’s margins, teaching and calling his audiences to a distributively just society where those on the edges are included. Jesus appears in the stories as one who, like prophets such as John the Baptist before him, was a voice on the margins, “crying in the wilderness. ” Jesus’ vision was of the kind of society that the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas refers to as God’s just future.

Do Jesus’ ethical teachings still offer anything relevant to us in the 21st century, as we work to reverse systemic injustice? I’m convinced they do.

Luke’s story indicates that Zacchaeus was Jewish but also complicit in the injustice of the larger Roman empire. Like many Christians today who continue to unconditionally support the present administration in the U.S. despite harms to decency, democracy, minoritized people, and our planet, Zacchaeus participated in Rome’s economic exploitation of the vulnerable people around him.

Yet Zacchaeus finally wakes up. Luke doesn’t tell us what caused him to. He only tells us that Jesus declares his intention to go to Zacchaeus home, and the crowd objects, rightly accusing the unjust Zacchaeus of being “a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stands up and declares, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

This was a deep reversal for Zacchaeus. He not only walks away from his support of Roman administration but he also offers reparations to those his previous actions harmed.

Jesus then responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

For my Christian friends, Jesus does not define salvation as a legal transaction in heaven that assures Zacchaeus of post-mortem bliss. Nor does Jesus define Zacchaeus’ salvation as a pardon or letting him off the hook. Jesus instead defines salvation as the healing of Zacchaeus’ most inward being, healing that manifests in Zacchaeus’ rejection of an unjust system and his decision to work to undo the injustice of that system.

When, as Christians, we view salvation as remote forgiveness, as convincing God to let us off the hook, or as obtaining a celestial ticket to heaven, we are actually defining salvation differently than Jesus did.

For Jesus, salvation was not about getting a person from a state of being unforgiving to a state of being forgiven. It wasn’t about getting someone out of a post-mortem hell and into a postmortem heaven. Salvation for Jesus in Luke was about change for those in Zacchaeus’ social location.

I want to be careful here. The change was not so that a person could be saved. The change itself was the salvation. When we define Jesus’ vision of salvation as getting free of heavenly legal charges rather than the healing, liberation, and reparations he taught during his life, even salvation labeled as “by grace” is just another form of legal-ism. In this story we see something different: someone was complicit with an unjust system’s harm of others and that someone made a radical change in the direction in his life and became a follower of Jesus, the Jewish prophet of the poor.

The second thing Jesus declares when Zacchaeus changes is “This man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus had been living outside of the distributive, economic teachings of the Torah, yet Jesus declares that he is a “son of Abraham, too.”

Luke contrasts the tax collector Zacchaeus with the wealthy religious teachers who had made fun of Jesus’ economic teachings two chapters previously.

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

What this story communicates to me is that rejecting systemic injustice is not optional for those who desire to follow Jesus. People may bear the name of Christian, but if they support corrupt administrations who do harm in exchange for political favor or for the sake of winning a decades-long culture war, they are out of harmony with the teachings of Jesus.

I’d like to believe Zacchaeus understood this. Political, economic, religious, or even social advantage does not justify participating in or supporting a corrupt system that does harm.

What is needed for empowered, privileged Christians who support a corrupt administration today to follow Zacchaeus’ example? What is needed for Christians to take more seriously Jesus’ commands to stand with the vulnerable and those on the margins rather than the systems that harm them? What is needed for Christians to be more than simply believers in Jesus of the story, but followers of him as well?

Remember, the picture we get of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is of an itinerant teacher gathering those who will join him in a distributively just way of organizing and doing life as a community called “the kingdom of God.” The “kingdom of God” is not a place in the heavens or a place some go when they die. The “kingdom of God” is a vision of a just future in which people prioritize the least of these. History will judge us most critically by how we take care of “the least of these” among us.

Jesus’ vision of a distributively just future was about how we do life in the here and now. He called his listeners to go against what the status quo had taught them and to organize society instead, in ways that are life-giving for all.

Today, the Jesus story still invites us to choose a world shaped by distributive justice. To follow Jesus and live the Jesus way is not about saying a sinner’s prayer or attending a service once a week and then going back to the way things have always been done. To follow Jesus means adopting a life-giving way of living.

But the “kingdom of God,” God’s just future, received pushback then, and it will also receive as much from today’s elites. The cross was the elite of society’s violent “no” to Jesus’ vision of God’s just future. The resurrection undid all the violence of Jesus’ death, causing the hope of a just future to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. I believe that hope can live on in those who bear Jesus’ name today. Much will have to change in certain sectors of Christianity for that to happen, but I believe nonetheless that it’s possible.

I believe following Jesus is about learning to follow Jesus’ practice of love, inclusion, just distribution, and mutual aid, nonviolence, and compassion toward others. His practice was reparative and transformative and has the power to change our lives personally and systemically. If politics is society deciding who gets what, when, and how, and if we consider Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the politics of the Jesus story are:

  • Eradicate poverty by centering society on the poor.
  • Comfort those whom the present system causes to sorrow.
  • Create a system that takes care of those who are meek.
  • Give equity to those who hunger for things to be put right.
  • Stand with the merciful, those who refuse to acquit the guilty for bribes, the peacemakers working for distributive justice, and those the privileged and the powerful persecute, slander, and exclude for demanding change. (cf. Matthew 5:3-10)

Jesus’ vision of a just future is for the here and now.

The arc of history can bend toward justice if we bend it that way.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

We have choices to make.

Who will be our Zacchaeuses today?

HeartGroup Application

1. What parallels and contrasts do you see with Zacchaeus’ story and U.S. Christians today who fail to disavow the U.S.’s present destructive administration? If you need an example, ponder the children still in cages along the U.S. southern border. Discuss as a group.

2. Five years into the reign of the German Reich, in 1938 Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached:

“Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. ‘You cannot serve two masters’ (Matthew 6:24) . . . But with this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak [or vulnerable] and poor . . .”

(Confirmation, Kieckow, April 9, 1938, quoted in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 203)

What does this Bonhoeffer’s dichotomy mean for you today? Discuss as a group.

3. Create a list of how you can collectively say “no” to injustice as a follower of Jesus in our present context. Pick something from your list and begin putting it into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

The Refusal of the Older Brother

Herb Montgomery | February 7, 2019

man sitting alone on hill


“If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.”


The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” (Luke 15:28)

This story in Luke’s gospel may be the most famous one Jesus ever told: the story of the prodigal son and the older brother. Jesus told this story for a reason.

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

In response, Jesus tells three stories, the last of which is the story of the older brother we are considering here.

“But while he [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ THE OLDER BROTHER BECAME ANGRY AND REFUSED TO GO IN. SO HIS FATHER WENT OUT AND PLEADED WITH HIM. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son OF YOURS who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:20-32, emphasis added.)

The context of this story is economic. “Prodigal” is not a synonym for “sinner.” It means someone who spends money and resources recklessly with no thought of the future.

People labeled others sinners in Jesus’ community when they lived outside of certain interpretations of what it meant to be faithful to the teachings of the day. The label “sinner” has always been tied to the social purpose of marginalizing and/or subjugating certain folks while privileging others. I’m not saying that there are no such things as intrinsically destructive choices. I am saying that designating someone as a “sinner” is bound up with social, political, and economic exclusion because it is based on the interpretations of those centered in society.

And in this story, Jesus is including those whom the elite of his day taught should be excluded.

I was once a fundamentalist. I used to believe that the only reason anyone would not be “saved” in the end was that they had rejected God’s love for them. But the longer I ponder the story of the prodigal and his brother, the more I see how mistaken I was.

The context of this story shows that if any are left in “outer darkness” (see Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) if any are left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future, it will not be because they could not believe God’s love for them. Rather, like the older brother in this story, it will be that they cannot accept the inclusion of someone else that they feel should be excluded. It’s labeling someone else as other and seeking to exclude them from the table that causes us to be intrinsically out of harmony with Jesus’ vision for God’s just future—a world of safety, compassion, inclusion, justice, and love—a future we can shape.

Again, the elite class of the Jesus story didn’t reject Jesus’ vision of God’s just future because God’s love for them was too good to believe, but rather because God’s love for those they thought should be excluded was too inclusive for them to embrace.

One last example.

“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. ALL THE PEOPLE SAW THIS AND BEGAN TO MUTTER, ‘HE HAS GONE TO BE THE GUEST OF A SINNER.’” (Luke 19:5-7, emphasis added.)

This is the famous story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who climbed into a tree to see Jesus pass by (see Luke 19:1-2). As a person who is also of a shorter stature, I know that if you are short, you step up onto the curb to see a parade, and the taller people stand behind you. This works unless some people do not want you there and shut you out from a good view.

But Zacchaeus, being resourceful, knew the procession route, ran ahead and climbed a tree.

When this parade begins, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the economic injustice of the economic, political, and religious elite at the heart of that society. But Jesus stops along the way to include this tax-collector who he perceives is changing his mind about Jesus’ economic teachings on the poor. Imagine the people objecting to Jesus, “But Jesus, this man is a sinner!”

Zacchaeus interrupts them all:

“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” (Luke 19:8)

Just a few days earlier, some of the Pharisees had responded to Jesus’ call to give their possessions to the poor by “sneering” at him (see Luke 16:13,14). I can imagine Jesus with tears of joy in his eyes at this chief tax collector responding so differently. “Today,” he says to Zacchaeus, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Not everyone acknowledged that salvation had come.

Those left outside in Jesus’ story about the prodigal and older brother are not those whom the elites had labeled as “sinners” to be excluded. No, the ones outside the party are the ones who cannot handle Jesus modeling a just future where those they feel should be excluded are included instead.

What is the Jesus story whispering to us here?

Those left out of Jesus’ vision of God’s just future won’t be those who couldn’t believe in God’s love for themselves. They’ll be those who could not embrace God’s love for someone else—someone whom they thought should not be included. If you believe God loves someone, justice for them isn’t far behind. Love for those on the margins is the seed out of which the reality of God’s inclusive, just future sprouts.

If in the gospels, God’s just future looks like Jesus, and Jesus looks like the one we find in the Jesus stories, then this should give those who believe in and practice exclusionary forms of Christianity quite a bit to ponder. Some sectors of Christianity today still practice inequality for women. Some sectors of Christianity still practice the bigotry of colonialist, European, and American White supremacy. Sectors of Christianity still practice the same economic classism our society does. Large sectors of Christianity passionately exclude our LGBTQIA siblings. But to the degree that Christianity has practiced and led others in the practice of systemic and private distributive and inclusive justice, it has thrived. To the degree that it has failed to practice justice, it has done much harm to people and to itself.

The question Jesus followers today must ask is this: when we see Jesus’ inclusion being practiced, do we celebrate like those who “went in” in Jesus’ story, or do we mimic the “older brother,” refuse to “go in,” or even threaten schism to protect our practices and sense of superiority?

HeartGroup Application

  1. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion and mutual participation in your faith communities? As a group, make a list.
  2. What movements do you see at work to bring about more inclusion, representation, and equity in our larger society? As a group, make a list.
  3. Brainstorm with your group how you can collectively participate with the work you see being done in both areas. Pick something from what you’ve come up with and put it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see next week

Biblical Inclusion Versus Biblical Exclusion

by Herb Montgomery | November 8, 2019

white printed paper

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash


“What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?”


Very early in Luke’s gospel, we read:

“He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’” (Luke 4:16-19)

Of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that the author of Luke could have chosen to summarize his portrayal of Jesus, it’s telling that this gospel points to Isaiah 61. For Luke, Jesus proclaims good news, announcing liberation, reparations, and recovery. He promotes distributive, transformative and reparative justice, especially for the marginalized.

The story continues:

“Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they asked.
Jesus said to them, ‘Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,’ he continued, ‘prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.’
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:20-30)

This story summarizes what Luke will share in this gospel. Jesus’ inclusion of those whom others exclude will ultimately lead to his rejection and attempted execution. Luke will have Jesus overcome that opposition not through escape but through the discovery of an “empty tomb.”

Luke’s connection of Jesus to Hebrew prophets like Elijah and Elisha is also telling. In each of the canonical gospels, Jesus is not part of the system in his society that is perpetuating injustice against vulnerable people. He does not emerge as one of the wealthy, powerfully positioned elite, seeking to reform society from the inside, nor is he fully abandoning society like the Essenes or even John the Baptist.

Jesus stands in solidarity with those to whom harm is being done, rolls up his sleeves, gets involved, and engages his society. He doesn’t come in the tradition of kings or priests. In Luke, Jesus comes in the traditions of the prophets of the poor. He is from the twice-marginal region of Galilee: marginal in relation to both Rome and Jerusalem. The fact that he appears in Galilee and Judea as a prophet of the poor and marginalized instead of as a member of the elite in his society speaks volumes to us. What is our relation, as followers of Jesus, to the marginalized of our day? To what degree are we marginalized in our own lives? Are we standing in solidarity with others who are marginalized or are we participating in their continued marginalization?

The story we began with in Luke mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. This is important because our sacred texts have two categories of passages: passages of exclusion and passages of inclusion. I’ll give examples of both.

First, here is an example of an exclusionary passage:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:3–8)

In Isaiah, we find the exact opposite: an example of an inclusive passage.

“For my house will be called a house of prayer for ALL NATIONS” (Isaiah 56:7).

Immediately after the Jewish people return from exile, Nehemiah inspires a fascinating, conscientious, and meticulous return to a more exclusionary practice of their faith. To give Nehemiah the benefit of the doubt, I see in him a sincere desire to preserve Jewish culture. Yet his fidelity becomes “zeal without knowledge.” I see it as xenophobic, ethnically nationalistic. Change is always scary, and Nehemiah was likely preoccupied with doing whatever it took to make sure events like the Babylonian captivity would never happen again. But fear often clouds clear judgment.

Nehemiah deliberately rejects the inclusion found in Isaiah and returns to the opposite trajectory of exclusion.

It’s not by whim that Luke’s Jesus begins by quoting Isaiah rather than Nehemiah. Jesus embraces Isaiah’s inclusion. He mentions the widow in Zarephath and Naaman, who would previously have been excluded, receiving the prophets’ favor in the days of Elijah and Elisha.

Jesus looked at people excluded by one set of passages in the sacred texts as those marginalized and in need of distributive and inclusive justice. We find this pattern over and over again in the Jesus story. In John 8 a woman is caught in adultery. One set of texts demanded her exclusion and execution. Yet another set spoke of God no longer requiring sacrificing and scapegoating, but rather requiring mercy, inclusion, and justice (see Hosea 6:6; cf. Matthew 12:7).

Jesus did not follow the exclusionary passages in John 8’s story but chose instead much more inclusive passages. This pattern applies to the woman at the well in John 4 and the woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8. In all these stories Jesus takes the same trajectory away from exclusion. Whatever the reasons that these exclusionary passages are present in our scriptures, Jesus perceived the more life-giving passages to be those of inclusion instead.

Did this lead some to accuse Jesus as being a lawbreaker? Of course. Yet I believe he was prioritizing the inclusive sections of his sacred text over the exclusionary ones.

Today, too, Christians have a choice. Certainly one can find texts to exclude whichever sector of society one is afraid of. The Bible has been used against women, Black people, Indigenous people, the LGBTQ community, and more. Yet, as Jesus followers, we have to do more than ask whether our exclusion is biblical. We also have to ask whether we’re practicing the same inclusion and affirmation that Jesus practiced.

This juxtaposition between the two types of passage within the same sacred text may be disconcerting. But I want to clarify: following Jesus does not mean disregarding or disrespecting the sacred text. It means prioritizing our sacred texts in the life-giving ways as Jesus also did.

If you are wrestling to get your head around this, I encourage you to read the book of James. The new followers of Jesus were being accused of doing away with the old interpretations of the scriptures and living lawless lives. James points out that though they were violating parts of their sacred texts, they were not “lawless” but were prioritizing other values in those texts. James refers to Abraham’s attempted murder and Hagar’s false testimony because their actions were strictly condemned (Exodus 20:13, 16), yet these two were heroes because they prioritized a different set of values!

Will this approach bother those who interpret the scriptures in exclusive ways? Of course. When Jesus first introduced it in Luke’s story, people wanted to throw him off a cliff.

What does this all mean to us today?

Are there people in your life whom compassion calls you to include and affirm despite how you interpret other texts in your scriptures?

What should you do?

Choose compassion.

Choose justice.

You don’t need permission to show compassion. The fruit of compassion is its own justification: “Wisdom is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

But who knows? One day, you might find different ways to interpret those passages. Even if you don’t, remember the words of both Jesus and the Hebrew prophet Hosea:

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative, and distributive justice.

Another world is possible if we choose it. 

Don’t forget to take advantage of RHM’s Shared Table Fundraiser during the months of November and December, and remember all donations during these two months are also being matched dollar for dollar so you can make your support go twice as far!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Checking Your Privilege

Herb Montgomery | July 19, 2019

hand holding glasses
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

“We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down . . . Another world is possible. But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.”


In Luke’s gospel we read a story of Jesus rebuking his disciples:

“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)

Let’s get a little background on who the Samaritans were. To the best of our knowledge, this 1st Century group had Hebrew roots and focused on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. The traced their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh of the northern tribes of Israel. When Israel returned from captivity and attempted to rebuild the temple, Jewish people in Jerusalem refused to allow Samaritans to join them in rebuilding the temple. This was a time when Jewish people feared their identity was at risk of being lost. During periods like this, hard lines are often drawn between insiders and outsiders. Jewish rejection of Samaritans thus led to open animosity, resentment, and even hostile violence between the communities. Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which Jewish people destroyed in 130 BCE. The Samaritans built a second temple at Shechem. 

Bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans continued to escalate, and the gospel stories were written during this period. It was dangerous for Jewish travelers to travel through Samaria. According to Josephus, “Now there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following. It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans. And at this time there lay in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea: which was situated in the limits of Samaria, and the great plain; where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 6)

Reparation and reconciliation efforts between adherents of Samaritanism and Judaism throughout the centuries have been attempted. (For an excellent summary of the Samaritans and the challenges in understanding who they were in the 1st Century, see “Samaritans” in Craig A. Evans, et al. Dictionary of New Testament Background, InterVarsity Press, 2005, and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, WB Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2019.)

Given this history, I find fascinating the story of Jesus rebuking his disciples’ violent attitude toward the Samaritans. 

I live in a predominantly White area of West Virginia. I was born and raised here, and though we moved away when I became an adult, we moved back to take care of my mother who since passed away. I remember a time when a dear friend of mine who is Black visited us. As we walked through the grocery store together, she blurted out, “Two.” 

“Two?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s how many non-White people I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Europeans first settled in my little town in the mid 1700s, and we just elected our first Black mayor. We still have a long way to go in my area of this state in the work of racial justice.

From time to time I hear people attempting to define justice efforts as “reverse racism” and getting upset whenever White privilege is even brought up. Crystal and I were standing with other parents at my daughter’s high school and talking about privilege and racial injustice. One of the dads blurted out, “I’m never gonna apologize for being born White!” I shook my head. Crystal tried to help him understand. He didn’t get it and I don’t think he really wanted to.

In the story we began with, Jesus doesn’t take a defensive stance when the Samaritans refuse him lodging. In fact, he rebukes his disciples for their desire to retaliate against what they deemed as inhospitality. For crying out loud! Did the disciples actually think the Samaritans should offer thirteen Jewish men lodging given all that Jewish men had done to them? 

I want to imagine that Jesus understood. That he didn’t fault the Samaritans. That he knew the Samaritans had a right to set the healthy boundaries they needed. I find it interesting that he didn’t lecture the Samaritans on their need to show him, a Jewish man, some enemy-love. I want to believe that Jesus understood the Samaritans’ right to self-determine whom they would and wouldn’t offer lodging to. Social location matters, and I want to believe that Jesus is not just rebuking his own disciples for being offended but also taking the side of the Samaritans. 

I’ve worked with multiple organizations in my town that are engaged in racial justice work here, and I continually have to choose to check my privilege. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I screw up and have to make things right. I’ve learned that what is okay for someone in one social location to do is not always okay for those in other social locations and vice versa. At a Christian conference event a couple years ago, a very popular, Christian preacher and author shut me out of the conversation and challenged my call to build egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles. Later that week, a friend who is queer and Latinx told me that another White straight male, an invited speaker, needed to bow out of a panel they were on to allow room for other voices and other perspectives. My beliefs about egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles were challenged again, but differently. Some would see these as the same thing, but, no, social location matters. It is perfectly right for people whose social location is less privileged and whose voices are typically excluded to demand a seat at the table instead. This is very different from someone whose social location is privileged demanding their voice be the only one heard.

If these thoughts are new to you, a great discussion of the principles of racial justice is Teaching Tolerance’s White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy. Answering the question, “What are the common mistakes white activists make when trying to be allies to people of color?” Yvette Robles, a Chicana and Community Relations Manager in Los Angeles, responds, “Not acknowledging that they have power and privilege by the mere fact that they are white. That is not to say that other parts of their identity can’t lead them to feel powerless, for example, being white and gay, or being white and working class. Another mistake I see is when white activists try to emulate a different culture by changing how they act, their speech or style of dress. It’s one thing to appreciate someone else’s culture; it’s quite another to adopt it.” 

Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, adds, “The most common mistakes white activists make are setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.” 

Sejal Patel, a South Asian American woman and community organizer in South Asian immigrant communities answers the same question: “White anti-racists make a mistake when they shut out the poor and uneducated and keep in those ‘in the know’ to decide what’s good for people of color. No movement can work where there is divisiveness. Also, if people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society — say for a weekend or a month — they shouldn’t have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this. White activists need to understand that society is their space and place every single day, and they shouldn’t feel threatened or left out.”

I interpret Jesus in this story as acknowledging the degree of Jewish power and privilege he held in contrast with the Samaritans in his society. He respected their space. Jesus wasn’t offended by them protecting their space. In fact he rebukes his fellow Jewish male disciples for taking offense and becoming defensive (offensive).

The disciples could have found biblical examples to use to justify their retaliation of “calling fire down from heaven.” They could have used Elijah’s words in 2 Kings 1:10: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” They could have appealed to other stories like the tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where even “the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens.” (Genesis 19:24)

Jesus could have become defensive and chosen to use any of these stories against those who received Jewish violence, and he didn’t.

So what can people of privilege learn from this story?

Check your defensiveness.

I just finished reading the late James H. Cone’s posthumously published book, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of A Black Theologian. In one portion, Cone recounts how many of his white listeners responded when he spoke out on loving his own blackness and embracing Black Power: 

“When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.” (James H. Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 592)

We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down. 

Straight people can choose to listen to LGBTQ people rather than be defensive. 

White people can choose to listen to people of color rather than be defensive.

Cis men can choose to listen to women, cis and trans, rather than be defensive. 

Cis folk can choose to listen to trans folk rather than be defensive.

Non-disabled folk can choose to listen to disabled folk rather than be defensive. 

Wealthy people can choose to listen to the poor and working classes rather than be defensive. 

Wisdom is not the sole property of those who are most widely read or who have gained the most academic accomplishments.

Another world is possible. 

But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.

“When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:54-55)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Can you name a time when listening to someone else’s experience made a significant change in your own understanding?
  2. Share with the group what it was that actually changed.
  3. How can we make a practice out of learning to listen to others? Be creative.
  4. Choose something from this discussion and put it into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. I’m so glad you are here. 

Today, choose love, compassion, taking action and seeking justice. 

Together we can choose to take steps toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, just home for us all. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Challenging Exclusion

Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2019

Picture of board game pieces with one being excluded.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.


“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

In the worldview of the gospel authors and their intended audience, healing was normal. Whereas most healing stories in that era tended to bolster the way society was organized, the healing stories in the gospels challenged, subverted, and even threatened the status quo.

One such resistance/healing story is found very early in the gospel of Mark:

“A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:1-12)

Message of Inclusion

The first thing we bump into in this story is a lack of room. The crowd could have made room for the paralyzed man to get through. They could have practiced a preferential option for the one with the disability. Yet they didn’t. They were each focused on making sure there was a place for themselves, even if it came at the expense of someone else. 

I used to fly a lot. Those two options—a preferential option for others or making a place for oneself—always played out during the boarding practice. Before airlines started overselling flights, there was enough room for everyone. The plane was going to leave at the same time for everyone and seats were even already assigned. Yet you could see passengers who only thought of themselves from a concourse away. 

Saving ourselves at others’ expense has a long evolutionary history for humans. Yet I contend that our salvation as a race lies not in what works for some at the expense of others but in what makes our world safe, just, and compassionate for all. We will survive together or we will perish together. What once worked for the survival of some, will not ensure the survival of us all in the context of global climate break down. 

I also want to address the gospel author’s use of a person with a disability. In the culture of the gospel writers, there were religious teachings that explained disabilities as the result of sin, either one’s own or one’s parents (see John 9:1-2). This teaching added a basis for further exclusion in a world that already left those with disabilities on the margins. But in Mark’s story, Jesus rejects that teaching and declares that this paralytic has been forgiven. Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program: do this and your sins will be forgiven. Jesus declares that this man already was forgiven. 

His teaching challenged those who believed that those with disabilities were being punished for some sin. It challenged them to view this man as their equal regardless of his ability. Jesus here juxtaposes disability and the culture’s definition of right standing, and calls people  to rethink.

Similarly, one could challenge non-affirming Christians’ definition of what’s normative in relation to the LGBTQ community. Last week, Renewed Heart Ministries posted a meme for Pride Month juxtaposing LGBTQ identity and LGBTQ people’s being in the image of God. This deeply challenges Christian cis-heterosexism.

Again, though, Jesus does not offer the man a plan or program to follow. Jesus declared that this man already was forgiven, and so challenges many Christian stories that teach a God who must be moved by some action on our part first.

Holistic Liberation

Just like in any work of affirmation or liberation, there will always be pushback by those who feel threatened by such inclusivity and equity. The objection in Mark’s story is “only God can forgive sins.” Jesus doesn’t respond by stating that he is divine. The gospel writers instead identify Jesus with a “a human being” or the “son of man.” This language is from the Maccabean era Jewish resistance literature.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man.” (Daniel 7.13, NIV, emphasis added.) 

“As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being . . .” (Daniel 7.13, CEB, emphasis added.)

The “human being” in Daniel 7 was a symbol of liberation from oppressive empires and putting the world to right. 

Forgiveness in Mark’s story is also a human act. It’s not something left only to a god or cosmic being that leaves us off the hook. Forgiveness as something we should practice as humans was part of Jesus’s message. Yet I don’t believe Jesus taught reconciliation without reparation and liberation. Jesus message of forgiveness was primarily aimed at wealthy, elite creditors and called them to “forgive” the debts of their poor debtors. Jesus’ message of forgiveness included a deep economic implication. It was a call for debt forgiveness, the Jewish Jubilee. (See A Prayer for Debts Cancelled)

Jesus’ gospel included material liberation. And not only was the man with the disability told he had already been forgiven, but the story also includes him being liberated from his inability to walk. Honestly, I don’t like this story as I read it from our vantage point today. It can be too easily coopted to make people with disabilities feel less than those without. I’m thankful that the story author challenged the crowd’s bias against this man before he removes the group’s actual reason for marginalizing him. Otherwise the marginalized would be simply kept marginalized.

If the gospel writer had written the story differently, the solution to marginalized women would be to make women men.

The solution to marginalized Black, brown and other people of color would be to  make them White. 

The solution to marginalized LGBTQ people would be make them straight and/or cisgender. (Conversion therapy is harmful and is outlawed in 18 states, Maine and Colorado being the latest to ban such practices.)

Rather than using various disabilities as metaphors for social evils (as the gospels do), we can do better and name specific social evils instead.

Being gay is not a social evil.

Being a woman is not a social evil.

Being non-white is not a social evil.

Being a migrant is not a social evil.

Being disabled is not a social evil.

How the social system treats these folks is a social evil.

Poverty is a social evil.

Keeping people uneducated is a social evil. 

Keeping people indebted is a social evil.

Keeping people without adequate access to health care is a social evil.

And that is what I believe Mark’s story is trying to teach. In holistic liberation, everyone receives what they need. When we apply this to people with disabilities, we arrive at the lesson of removing the barriers that keep people with disabilities excluded. We are to remove the barriers that keep people with disabilities from accessing what they need to thrive.

Actual social evils are what we as followers of Jesus must work against today. This story doesn’t stop at forgiveness. We can’t afford to either. It’s not enough to simply offer a gospel that only offers divine forgiveness of sins. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include people forgiving people. It must include a redistribution of power and resources so that everyone has what they need not simply to survive but also to thrive. It must include reparations alongside reconciliation. It must include access and inclusion where the vulnerable have been excluded. A gospel that is faithful to the Jesus story must include material, holistic liberation.

This story calls us to work toward an inclusive, just, safe society for everyone.

“Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.” (Mark 2:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some of the ways you either experience or witness others experiencing discrimination and exclusion, either in your faith community or our larger society today?
  2. Make a list of practices your HeartGroup can engage that express inclusion, justice, and create a safe space for those mentioned in number 1.
  3. Pick something from the list and put it into action this week.

Thanks for checking in with us. I’m so glad you’re here. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love. Choose compassion, justice and action. Till the only world that remains is a world where love and justice reigns.  

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


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Contact us here and just write “HeartGroup” in the “details” box and we’ll get you started!

When Doing the Right Thing Is Illegal

Herb Montgomery | June 14, 2019

Picture of a wall with writing that says, "No one is illegal."
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

“What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear.”


“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

In this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus contrasts that which is lawful and that which is life-saving, and calls our values and priorities into question. Among the values and principles we hold dear and seek to live out in our daily lives, which values hold our highest priority? Let’s look at the story in its entirety:

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:1-6)

Each of the gospels interprets the Sabbath work-prohibition and includes acts of healing in the category of labor that was forbidden during Sabbath.

“He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11-12)

“Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’” (Luke 13:14)

“Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath . . . Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’” (John 9:14-16)

This interpretation of what it meant to be faithful to the Sabbath prohibitions was an interpretation by those who did not need healing, those in power and positions of privilege. It was an interpretation by those most prone to underestimate the damage of their interpretation because it did not affect them negatively. 

We must also remember, as we read these stories in our context today, that people in the 1st Century didn’t look at healings the same way most people do today. Healing wasn’t considered exceptional as it is in our post-enlightenment scientific age. Healing was normative. 

The point of these stories was not that Jesus healed, but about who was being healed and when. Jesus continually healed and restored those who were being socially marginalized. He stood with those being pushed to the edges of his society by the elite. 

Every story of healing in the gospels questions the legitimacy of the status quo, and subverts the myths on which the status quo was based. These are stories of resistance, survival, and liberation as well as stories of healing.

Ched Myers in his book “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship correctly states: 

“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression.” (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14)

Law and Order

And this brings us to the point of the passage we are considering this week. What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear—standing alongside the vulnerable over and against harm being done or being committed to the status quo above all else.

This is nothing new. White clergy in the South used the legality argument to try to silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement. King responded, 

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” (Read Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

Today we can still feel the tension between what is legal and what is compassionate, just, or right. Consider the example of Scott Warren and others volunteering for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths. No More Deaths provides food and water along migrant trails in Arizona. Right now, Warren is on trial for offering humanitarian aid to migrants in some of the most lethal terrains of their migration. Humanitarian aid is deemed a crime, legally, but the No More Deaths organization is arguing back “that humanitarian aid is never a crime” (see CNN). NPR also reported on these actions last week: “Extending ‘Zero Tolerance’ To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border.” I can hear the echo of Jesus’ question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

Faith Communities and Noncompliance

Within faith communities, there are also times when people have to choose between complying with what their institution’s policies allow versus doing what is right. I think of many leaders in the faith tradition I grew up in having to face compliance committees set up to enforce policies prohibiting the ordination of women, excluding LGBTQ members, and silencing scholars who hold scientific views about Earth’s geological record.

In the United Methodist tradition, there are leaders standing against policy, or what is legal, to do what is right. Just last week I read how two US conferences are ordaining and commissioning LGBTQ clergy despite their institution’s ban. (Read the entire story at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/two-us-conferences-ordain-commission-lgbtq-clergy.)

Taking both their noncompliance and their commitment to doing what is right very seriously, Bishop Sally Dyck, resident bishop of the Chicago Area, stated, “My prayer is that the church will grow in grace so as to fully give its blessing to every child of God who is called to ministry.”

Those being ordained and commissioned are experiencing firsthand the tension between standing for what one believes is right over and against the legality of continued institutional evils. The Revs. Elizabeth Evans who was commissioned as a provisional deacon rightly stated that she doesn’t believe the church can “transform the world” while upholding the same unjust structures as the world does.

It is difficult to make these types of choices. I know this firsthand, too. 

In the gospels, Jesus sided with the vulnerable and marginalized over and against the institutions of his day when they practiced injustice.

He disregarded legality in favor of doing what was right until it escalated to a Roman cross—the punishment for “violating the rule of Roman law and order.” (See Kelly Brown Douglass, Stand Your Ground Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

Jesus’ noncompliance in the gospels challenges us with this question:

Which side of the story would our actions have placed us on?

“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful . . . to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some examples of when you had to choose between doing what’s right and doing what was compliant? Discuss these experiences among your group.
  2. What examples of this same tension have you experienced or witnessed within either your former faith community or your present faith community? Discuss.
  3. What examples do you presently see in our larger society where people are having to choose between what is right and what is legal? Discuss.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.