Calling Good Evil (Part 2 of 5)

by Herb Montgomery | February 15, 2019

“My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.”

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

As I shared last week, I’ve refrained from debating the passages we’ll be considering this week. I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t want to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet, as I said, I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about this does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent: not silent in my affirmation, but silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So I’ve promised to amplify two voices on this topic: the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a writer and speaker in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to, and James Brownson, a Bible scholar and parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

My purpose in sharing their work with you is so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you how you respond. 

With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality,is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey of learning about affirming theology.

What follows is a brief explanation of how I interpret each passage typically used to address LGBTQ people. These are not exhaustive defenses of each passage, but brief summaries—an introduction to get you started. For a more detailed discussion of each passage, I recommend the two resources above. 

Let’s begin.

Genesis 19

This passage is an ancient story of a city’s xenophobic refusal to show hospitality to strangers. This refusal came out of the townspeople’s desire to protect their affluence from the threat of having to share with others. The city, Sodom, was located in a coveted, agriculturally fertile region. Much like the U.S., which has recently separated migrant children from their parents on its southwest borders, Sodom developed an effective strategy of terrorizing potential migrants to keep foreigners away.

In the story, Lot was different. He saw two foreigners in his town and invited them to his home for the evening to keep them safe, hoping to send them secretly on their way at the first light of dawn. What happened that night was terrifying and an intentional message to all foreigners to stay away!

“The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.’ ‘No,’ they answered, ‘we will spend the night in the square.’ But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’” (Genesis 19:1-5)

Typically, Christians use this story to marginalize those with same sex attraction/orientation or in same sex loving relationships. I believe these interpretations miss the mark in a most destructive way for those who identify as LGBTQ. 

In this story and culture, rape was a way to inflict the worst possible humiliation on another, and was rooted in ingrained, patriarchal gender roles. (See Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East) The laser beam of convicting truth in these ancient tales should not be focused on members of the LGBTQ community but rather on people who use sexual violence (or any form of terror) against others and on the kinds of xenophobic actions the United States is committing at its borders and against immigrants across the country. 

Hospitality toward strangers was and still is a deeply held Jewish value (see Deuteronomy 26:12; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Jewish followers of Jesus carry on this tradition of hospitality toward strangers in the New Testament scriptures as well. This passage from the book of Hebrews almost echoes the story of Sodom:

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

The story of Sodom is not about the LGBTQ community or LGBTQ people’s loving relationships. Instead it has everything to do with people who were extravagantly affluent and did not wish to share. 

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16.49-50)

The story of Sodom has nothing to do with sexual orientation.or loving same-sex relationships. It’s rather about the evil of responding to strangers with violence, in this case sexual violence, especially when their lives depend on your welcome and hospitality. And it is a warning against xenophobia and the terror tactics xenophobes employ. (For additional background, read Judges 19:11-30; see also Rape as a “weapon of war” against men, Male rape survivors fight stigma in Uganda, and Male Rape and Human Rights). 

Leviticus 18

Leviticus 18:22 reads, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” 

Christian affirming theologies interpret this passage in many different ways. The way that speaks most deeply to me and my sense of justice is related to our previous story in Sodom, which does not address same-sex sex between women but only what men to do other men. 

Again, this passage is not informed by what we understand today as sexual orientation. It’s informed by the sexual violence that men inflict on other men to diminish them (see again Judges 19:11-30, Genesis 19:1-5, and the above sources referenced). As I just explained, a man raping another man intended to inflict the worst possible humiliation on him. In that culture, women were wrongly considered less than men and so one way to dehumanize a man was to lower him to the same status as a woman. 

So in this culture the law prohibited diminishing men by treating them as if they were women. Both men and women were raped in times of war and conquest, and still are today. But it is shocking to see how lightly many portions of our sacred text considered the rape of women. We seem to see much more concern with protecting men from being raped by other men than with protecting women from rape or raping women being “detestable.”

Again, this was an androcentric culture of deeply rooted patriarchy. Today, we still see misogyny and toxic masculinity at the heart of many men’s reaction to same sex relationships between men. Many men today seem to more easily tolerate same sex relationships between women than those between men. Some even treat same-sex sex between women as a sexual fetish. 

I remember sitting in a restaurant speaking with a friend of mine whose son had just come out to him as gay. My friend was beside himself. He stated how deeply repulsed he was by same-sex intimacy between men. He said he didn’t even want to be in the same room with “them,” and now his own son was “one of them” too! 

I looked at him and risked an accusation. I was banking on our relationship allowing me to get away with it. I looked him in the eye and said, “You just don’t like the idea of men looking at you the way you typically look at women.” 

The light came on in his eyes and the coin dropped in the slot. His misogyny and objectification of women was deeply tied to his inability to accept same sex relationships among men, including his own son’s.

I’m happy to say that conversation was a turning point for my friend. Today, he fully embraces and celebrates his son, and his relationships with women have become a million times more healthy. He is an outspoken ally of LGBTQ folks. He’s come a long way. 

What a contemporary reading of Leviticus should warn men about today is the intrinsic harm of believing women are somehow less than men. I’m convinced that if someone truly believed women were equal with men, then seeing men who don’t align with our culture’s toxic definitions of what it means to be a “man” would not threaten those of us who identify as male. And yet, even in saying all of this, it says a lot when “masculinity” is still defined as “not femininity.” When that’s the case, the rape of men is a problem because it treats men like women. The deeper violation is that sexual violence is a problem on its own terms and one that harms people of all genders. To fail to see this is still as androcentric as the culture out of which Leviticus was written.

We’ll look at four New Testament passages next week. Then we’ll close with a look at Genesis 1. 

For now, remember:

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16-20)

HeartGroup Application

I grew up in a faith tradition that looked at the Bible as having only one right interpretation and many wrong interpretations. I was wrongly taught that one could objectively find this one right interpretations if one practiced the proper hermeneutics. 

I no longer subscribe to this way of looking at sacred texts. Our biases are inescapable. We all have blind spots. Even in our attempts to be objective, we rarely recognize our own biases and blind spots. Fish don’t know they are wet. When we look at the text as having only one right interpretation, the result is that we seek to find that right interpretation, regardless of whether that fruit is harmful for life giving.  We want to be right rather than being righteous.  The goal, I believe, should rather be to allow the text to speak to us in our contexts today with the most life giving, life affirming, life celebrating interpretations our present level of knowledge will enable.

Sacred texts of all religions, including the Bible, can have a myriad of interpretations and applications. The goal is to embrace life giving interpretations and move away from interpretations that do harm to oneself and others. Asking whether an interpretation is right or not, I believe is the wrong question.  We must ask if our interpretations are righteous. What fruit do they produce? Is the fruit harmful or life embracing, life giving?  Does it liberate or oppress? Do our interpretations fuel injustice or do they empower us to move away from injustice toward the work of shaping of a just, compassionate, and safe society for everyone?

The choice, including in our interpretations, is an ancient one—life or death. (Deuteronomy 30:15-2) How can you know if you’re on the right track? Consider if your interpretations are bringing life or doing harm. “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16) If your interpretation of a passage is doing harm, don’t hold on to out of a prioritized value of being right or because it is an interpretations that most resonates with your own biases, perceived or otherwise. Prioritize people first. People matter. Loosen your grip on harmful interpretations regardless of how long you’ve held on to them, and be open to embracing other interpretations that are righteous, that prioritize people’s well being, that are just, and that give life.

This week:

1. Come up with a list of three (if you can) interpretations of Bible passages that you believe are harmful. 

2. Discuss with your HeartGroup the harm you have witnessed from these interpretations.

3. Discuss with your group alternative interpretations and/or begin seeking out new interpretations with the goal of interpreting your sacred texts in more life giving ways.

Thanks for journeying with us so far. I’m deeply grateful that you’re here.  We’ll keep exploring next week. This week, wherever you are right now, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Calling Good Evil (Part 1 of 5)

Herb Montgomery | February 8, 2019

“And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic.”

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

In the last month, I’ve spent the last two weekends in the company of LGBTQ Christian communities. Every time I spend time with communities like these, I am deeply moved by their compassion, insight, and wisdom. The people I’ve met have always failed to match the mischaracterizations that homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic Christian communities assign to them. I walk away from each experience with a deeper understanding of my own faith and what it means for me to follow Jesus today our work of love, compassion, action, and justice.

During these visits I bumped into a high school friend who I haven’t seen since graduation. He told me of his sister, a deeply Christian lesbian woman, who recently married the love of her life, a pastor. On the morning of her wedding, her mother sent her a very ugly email. This mother, who had refused to attend the wedding, wrote this message to her daughter: “What you’re doing today makes me want to go jump off a bridge.”

When I heard this story I sat aghast. What is it about anti-LGBTQ Christianity that causes parents to so deeply reject and shame their own children? I have yet to understand this. 

For many Christian parents, discovering their child is attracted to those of the same sex or identifies with a different gender than the one on their birth certificate begins their journey of discovering that everything their faith tradition has taught them of the LGBTQ community has been deeply misinformed at best and intentionally maligning at worst. They discover they were wrong. 

But far more parents in these same faith traditions don’t make this journey. Far more often, parents reject their own children in order to be faithful to their anti-LGBTQ faith. Religion can be a powerful force of good in the world. It can also be a powerful force of the worst kinds of evil.

This week I want us to consider a story from the gospels of Mark and Matthew where Jesus was also mischaracterized and maligned. Jesus has strong words here for those who malign that which is holy, just, and good and call it evil.

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matthew 12:24-37; see also Mark 3:23-29)

In this story, Jesus teaches the principle of knowing a tree by its fruit. His community had ways to interpret their sacred texts that could gave them ample basis to reject him. But there were also other ways to interpret those same sacred texts that would have freed them to embrace him and his life-giving teachings. 

How do we know if our interpretations of our sacred text, in any religion, are moving in the right direction? Jesus tells us in this story: What is the fruit of your interpretation? If the tree is good, its fruit will be good. If the tree is bad, its fruit will be as well. 

While I was in Arizona last month, a sincere questioner asked me how I interpret the Bible’s passages that contemporary homophobic and biphobic Christians use to scare people away from affirming LGBTQ people. For a long time, I’ve refrained from debating these passages. A dear friend of mine calls such debates “text hockey.” I’ve also not wanted to be another straight, cisgender male getting air-time to speak on passages that LGBTQ people have been speaking and writing on for decades now. I didn’t what to take up space when I believe others’ voices need to be heard right now. 

And yet I’m torn when I watch the toll it takes on my LGBTQ friends to repeatedly explain these passages. Speaking about them does not have the same emotional cost for me as it does for them. Perhaps I have been a little too silent. I haven’t been silent in my affirmation. But I may have been too silent on some of the ways I arrive at affirmation. 

So this week and next, I want to amplify two voices on this topic. First is the excellent work of Matthew Vines, a voice in the LGBTQ community that Jesus followers should be listening to. The second is James Brownson, a parent of a child in the LGBTQ community. 

I want to share their work with you so that each of us can do our own homework, putting in the energy to read, study, and grapple before we ask someone in the Christian LGBTQ community to answer questions they have already answered multiple times and in multiple ways. These discussions are not academic for them. They are personally invested and many are tired of continually arguing about their existence. They already exist and have callings to pursue. It’s up to you to how you respond. With that said, I want to offer some help to those who are sincerely searching, doing their homework, and wanting direction.

Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian is very readable. It’s not written for scholars but for average people. Brownson’s book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is a definitive work on affirming Christian theology. It played a significant role in my own journey learning about affirming theology.

As Vines reminds us, “Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forebears or for the authority of Scripture. They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered” (p. 24). He also writes, “The telescope didn’t lead Christians to reject Scripture. It simply led them to clarify their understanding of Scripture” (ibid. p. 38). 

Certainly there are multiple ways texts can be interpreted. We must reach for the most life-giving choices when possible. What are the fruit of the interpretations we choose? We must be honest about the fruit that is born from homophobic and biphobic theologies. We must also be honest about the life-giving fruit of our Christian LGBTQ siblings’ affirming theology. The life-giving fruit of their affirming theology is something we cannot afford to ignore.

Jesus said that it’s one thing to mistake an evil thing good, and quite another to label something that’s holy, just, and good evil. Jesus called the latter unpardonable. 

So next week, we’ll begin in the book of Genesis and progress through the texts Christians typically use to harm our LGBTQ friends, relatives, and neighbors. Each text will be well worth our time to explore. I’m so glad you’re here with us on this journey.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33)

HeartGroup Application

In your HeartGroups this week, discuss the meaning of these two words—intrinsic and imposed

  1. Have you ever experienced imposed rules within a community (religious or secular) prohibiting actions that you knew had no negative intrinsic result? 
  2. Have you ever experienced a lack of concern, acceptance or even encouragement of attitudes and actions that you knew to intrinsically bring harm or bear destructive fruit?
  3. Discuss both of these experiences within your group this week. What are the differences between actions to which are added imposed results such as imposed penalties or affirmation, and actions that have their own intrinsically harmful or beneficial results? Is there a place for imposed rules and consequences when properly associated with actual intrinsically destructive choices? Can imposed rules be abused? Can they be misapplied in ways that label things as bad or harmful that can are actually good or at least neutral?  What can your group learn from this discussion? How can your group become a healthier community that bears life-giving fruit, itself? How can your HeartGroup community impact your larger community in life-giving ways as well?

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

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

“Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Featured Text:

“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. And if seven times a day he sins against you, also seven times shall you forgive him.” (Q 17:3-4)

Let’s jump right in this week with Matthew’s use of this week’s saying.

Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”

Matthew 18:21: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’”

This week’s saying is an in-house teaching: it’s about how Jesus followers were to relate to each other. As Deissmann reminds us, “By its very nature Primitive Christianity stood contrasted with the upper class not first as Christianity, but as a movement of the proletarian lower class” (New Light on the New Testament From the Records of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1907, p. 7). And within this lower class movement, survival was a central concern: “Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 29). In this early community of Jesus followers, being divided from within was just as much a threat as being divided from forces that opposed the movement from without. As we look at this week’s saying, however, it’s not about forgiving “oppressors” or “enemies” outside of the community. It’s about how to navigate wrongs committed within the community itself. There are different sayings of Jesus that relate to the subject of enemy love. Our saying this week rather focuses on the community of the oppressed: “if your brother or sister sins against you” (emphasis added).

In the community of the early movement, there were those who used to be former oppressors who had chosen to stand in solidarity with this movement, repenting of their former lives and now choosing Jesus’s preferential option for the poor. Speaking of the internal struggle between predominantly white feminism and the struggle for liberation by women of color, Jacquelyn Grant shares, “From a Black women’s vantage point then, the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of reconciliation, which proves empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation” (Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191) This week’s saying isn’t empty rhetoric. It values liberation before reconciliation within the early community of Jesus followers. Let’s unpack it a bit.

Internal Divisions

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25 cf. Luke 11:17). The context in Mark is that Jesus was speaking of the house of one’s oppressors, but it’s a universal truth that applies to any community working for social change as well. Last week, comments by Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church illustrated once again how internal differences can divide communities engaging the world of survival, resistance and liberation. He reminded me how necessary intersectional resistance is if we are going to make a difference. Those outside of our communities can divide us over our varied identities if we are not careful. “This division creates a kind of fragmented fellowship among progressives with advocates dispersed across a range of issues; income/wealth inequality, workers’ rights, mass incarceration, anti-poverty, education, environmental justice, LGBT rights, anti-violence work, healthcare, voting rights, the list goes on. This dynamic weakens our ability to create a unified front in combating the forces that oppose social and economic justice; forces which are much more unified and better financed than we are” (“The New Abolitionism” – Monetary Reform And The Future Of Social Justice)

We have to work to not allow our differences to divide us. This requires intention. Internal divisions can result from a variety of causes: intention, carelessness, ignorance, and more.

As an example, when I was first introduced to Christian LGBTQ communities, I remember being called on the carpet multiple times by two dear friends in particular. They were committed to the principle of putting liberation first, as a precursor to reconciliation or unity. They were committed to not letting me keep my blind spots or get away with my unintentional but still very real and damaging participation in their oppression.

At the time I believed respectability was required of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people if they were going to make progress in the minds and hearts of straight people. I offered the example of how seeing Christian LGBTQ folks and how that had contradicted every stereo type the kind of Christianity I was raised in had peddled to me of the LGBTQ community.

This respectability, though, was being defined by straight people, specifically certain Christian, straight people, but not required of us, and my friends were quick to call me out on it. Were the only folks of the LGBTQ community worthy of being “counted as human and therefore who get to live in a world that supports their flourishing” the Christian ones? My friends were part of a community that loved me too much to let me get away with treating them differently. It was a community of accountability. And this accountability was vital if our community was to be safe for oppressed people.

We recently covered this when we discussed Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Jesus’ community practices genuine love that does not allow people to get away with abuse and that prioritizes those to whom abuse would do the greatest damage. This starkly contrasts with the Christian communities I had been accustomed to. I was used to communities of “grace.” I know grace can have different meanings, and too often it means, “We don’t judge people other around here.” It produces an unhealthy environment where anything goes, and forgiveness is prioritized over accountability. Christian communities like that are dangerous for vulnerable people. They are communities where a preferential option for oppressors is practiced, consciously or unconsciously. They use the rhetoric of love but these communities are not loving because they don’t protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is where our saying comes in this week.

“So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4, emphasis added.)

Jesus’s community practices rebuke and repentance when community members sin against each other. This is a community that seeks to set up healthy boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It not only “went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12), but also required repentance within the community. Repentance is more than saying one is sorry; it is more than apologizing. Repentance also requires someone to change their mind and behavior regarding someone or something. Repentance is a change in how someone thinks about and acts toward someone or something.

And this change in how one thinks about someone or something requires listening, openness, belief, and choice. Examples include White people changing in relation to people of color, men changing in relation to women, straight folks changing in relation to LGB folks, cisgender folks changing in relation to trans folks, and the wealthy changing in relation to the poor. In order to allow one’s thinking to be changed (to allow repentance), you have to be willing to listen to the experiences of those whose lives are unlike your own. You have to be open to believing another person’s experience, and also choose to prioritize that person’s experience in your future choices.

There is a lot of talk today about what is being called “Third Way Spaces,” communities where people simply agree to disagree. Instead of defining community around one of two opposing positions, the community seeks to maintain a unity and cohesiveness without requiring any group to repent or change its mind. These types of communities are fine if we are disagreeing on the “best” flavor of ice cream. But they can be dangerous if the disagreement is over whether a person should exist or not. In matters such as orientation, gender, racial, or economic equality, for example, repentance is the necessary foundation of forgiveness and unity. “Safe spaces” are not spaces where everyone’s opinion is equally valued. Safe spaces are spaces where there is a preferential option practiced for the most vulnerable in the room. Safe spaces are spaces where the voices and experiences of the vulnerable are not only believed and validated, but they are also centered. As Jesus taught, the first shall be last and the last, first (Matthew 20:16).

Seven times

Let’s talk about the part in both Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this saying where it is required to forgive even “seven times.” Understand that if someone makes the same so-called “mistake” seven times, that’s probably indicative that repentance, a change in how someone thinks about something or someone, has not really happened. In Mark’s gospel, we get a hint of what this could mean:

“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons” (Mark 16:9).

Not the same demon seven time. Seven different demons. These were seven different instances, not the same instance being repeated seven times over and over again. As long as a person is willing to grow, they may have multiple issues they’re going to have to put the work into to deal with. As long as they are willing to do the necessary work intrinsic to repentance, then they can remain in the community. I think of those who were patient with me, who took note of my dedication to growing, my willingness to think differently and do the necessary work on my own, too, in challenging how I thought about things. These friends didn’t give up on me while I was still willing and working to change. I don’t want to be misunderstood. If others don’t bring to your relationship a prevenient willingness and investment in changing, it’s not your job to convince them to. They have to come to this in their own way. Our job is to create communities where reconciliation is built on the preceding foundation of liberation and that possess healthy boundaries of active repentance.

Ignorance is inevitable: our experiences are not all the same. But division is optional. Each of us can choose repentance. And if repentance is genuinely present, forgiveness can be chosen as well.

Unity at the price of silence

What I hope we are seeing this week is that in the early Jesus community, unity was not the highest value. Justice was. Liberation was. Thriving, especially for the vulnerable, was. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail places justice above unity and peace. This letter was Dr. King’s response to several criticisms made by his fellow clergymen who claimed to be allies and “brothers,” but published a letter entitled “A Call for Unity” and asked King to stop his work. King’s letter was the “rebuke” that called them to the kind of “repentance” required by our saying this week.

In my own faith tradition, presently there are those who are calling for ministerial ordination to include women. (I know. It’s 2017 and we’re still having to debate this.) Those opposed to ordaining women are calling for unity. But unity requires a change in how someone thinks about something or someone. There can be no unity while the official position and policy expresses that women are somehow “less than” men. There can be no unity where injustice toward others is not challenged and rejected. There is no genuine unity where injustice is practiced within the community.

I think of the recent interview of Angela Davis by Michelle Alexander hosted by Union Seminary and Riverside Church. In the question and answer session at the end, the dynamic of repentance being prioritized above unity in the relationship between White allies and people of color is discussed. It’s well worth your time to watch the entire interview if you have not already.

Choosing to think and live differently is not always easy, but it is possible. We can choose to center our community in the experiences of the vulnerable. Choosing to forgive is not easy either. Both repentance and forgiveness take work, and it’s worth it. Division only ends up empowering our oppressors.

If your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them, and if they repent forgive them. And if seven times a day they sin against you, also seven times shall you forgive them. Q 17:3-4

HeartGroup Application

  1. Those who feel comfortable sharing, share with the group a time when you found it deeply challenging to listen to another person’s experience, but chose to listen anyway. How did it end up changing the way you thought about something?
  2. Share with the group a time when someone who hurt you chose to change, and how that change impacted your ability to forgive them. Share the result of that forgiveness.
  3. Commit as a group to set up healthy boundaries where we hold each other accountable. Become a group that creates a safe space for the vulnerable among you. Practice Jesus’s preferential option for the vulnerable. Be willing to change.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, love that holds people accountable in our work of survival, resistance, and liberation on our path toward thriving.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

No Serif of the Law to Fall

Aged picture of the Hebrew Bibleby Herb Montgomery

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

Featured Text:

“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the law to fall.” (Q 16:17)

Companion Text:

Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Luke 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

This week we see Jesus’s Jewishness. We see a Jesus who holds the Torah in high regard. For him, the Torah is eternal. The Jesus of this week’s saying is not teaching a new religion or trying to replace a current one. This Jewish Jesus is offering an interpretation of the Torah that includes a preferential option for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.

Jesus’s interpretation contrasted with the elites in Jerusalem, and also differed from the populist Pharisees’ interpretation. The Pharisees opened the privilege of adhering to the Torah’s purity codes to a wider social group, but still left themselves in the position to control who was centered and who was pushed the margins. Jesus didn’t withdrawal from society and politics like the Essenes, nor did he champion raising the sword in revolt like other Judean Messiah figures during the first half of the 1st Century. His interpretation stood out from all of these.

Jesus’s interpretation of the Torah centered those on the edges of his society and invited them to be seated too alongside others at a shared table. Some have labeled him as radical; others as simply compassionate and just in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. For our purposes this week, we can say that, at minimum, it was still Jewish and the Torah was still central. His teachings appealed to the poor and outcast because he was interpreting the Torah, not because he offered something novel to replace the Torah.

Luke’s use of this week’s saying reassured those who were suffering violence because they followed Jesus’s interpretation and social vision. You can read about that here.

Matthew’s use of this saying is quite different from Luke’s. Luke’s gospel explained how what began as a Jewish movement of the lower class became so populated by Gentiles from the middle and upper classes. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, corrects many of the mistakes Mark’s gospel makes about Jewish culture, which leads many scholars to believe Mark’s gospel was primarily for lower class Gentile followers of Jesus. Matthew’s version of the saying is about completion and assures the community that Jesus had not come to supersede the Torah. Two words in the saying that help us understand this are “fulfill” and “accomplished.” Let’s look at both.

The Greek word translated as fulfill is pleroo. Pleroo means to fill to the full like a 1st Century fishing net full of fish, or to level up a hollow place in the ground by filling it with dirt. It means to fill to the very top, to the brim. It’s as if Jesus is saying that contemporary interpretations of the Torah were leaving gaps and weren’t full. Some parts of the Torah made provisions for the poor, that Pharisaical teachings negated. These were hollow places in their caretaking, hollow places that Jesus claimed to be filling up. With Jesus, those being kept on the margins, even by the Pharisees’ interpretations, were to be welcomed, affirmed and included. They were valuable. They, too, were the children of Abraham (cf. Luke 19:9).

The second word is translated as accomplished is ginomai. Ginomai carries with it the idea of becoming: something comes into existence or onto the stage; something appears in public. I hear Jesus saying that his interpretation is not a destruction of the Torah, but simply an interpretation coming onto the stage that sought to re-prioritize the poor and socially vulnerable.

This is a rich teaching for us today.

Not all of the vulnerable sectors of 1st Century Jewish society were addressed by the Torah’s provisions, or even by the teachings of Jesus. I believe we must build on Jesus’s work and include those who today should also be affirmed and valued.

Who are vulnerable among us today? Is it the estimated 2,150 to 10,790 transgender military personnel now being targeted and scapegoated in the U.S.? Is it the DACA Dreamers whom some believe legislators will try to use to bargain for border wall funding? Is it people of color who continue to be the victims of implicit bias and systemic racism in this country? Surely the vulnerable includes Native people still fighting to preserve their right to clean drinking water despite the U.S. and state-protected oil industry. It includes women disproportionally targeted by diminishing access to women’s health services.

What does it mean to stand up for the vulnerable even while being accused of “destroying the Torah?” For Christians today, advocating for the vulnerable is sometimes met with the accusation that we are ignoring, throwing out, or contradicting the Bible. White Christians in antebellum America placed before Christian abolitionists the false choice of holding onto their abolitionism or holding onto the scriptures. Sternly those Christians told abolitionists that they could not continue to hold both. My own faith tradition still struggles to recognize women have equal status as men. Those institutions who are for ordaining women ministers are being given the same ultimatum: “the scriptures or the ordination of women,” it is said, “you can’t hold on to both.” I also know something about this. Over the last two years, I have had cancellation after cancellation from those concerned by my and RHM’s affirmation, welcome, and inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings. These Christians have claimed that we have “abandoned the clear teachings of the Bible.”

But those standing alongside the vulnerable in our society today could follow Jesus’s teaching here and say to those holding on to old and destructive interpretations of sacred texts, “Do not think we are abolishing our sacred text. We aren’t throwing out the scriptures; we are simply interpreting the text in a way that fills up the glaring gaps in interpretations that are destroying vulnerable people. We aren’t destroying the scriptures; we are replacing interpretations that destroy people with interpretations that give life and liberate.”

For those who feel like they must choose between people’s well being and fidelity to a sacred text, that’s not the choice at all. You may have to let go of destructive interpretations of your sacred text. You may have to let go of the way you have viewed your sacred text. But you can still be an affirming Christian and hold your sacred text in a way that understands that text that affirms people. Choose people. Value people. When you do, you’ll see you aren’t destroying your text, but interpreting it in a way that, like Jesus and the Torah, includes those who are presently being harmed.

Interpretations are not eternal. They change with time. As we see the harmful fruit of present interpretations, we can make those interpretations give way to new ones, in the hope that new interpretations will bear the fruit of life. And if we see that our new interpretations also do harm, we will challenge them too. The goal is to continue to seek life-giving interpretations for all, work with people’s well-being and thriving in our hearts, and transform our world into a safe, just, compassionate home for us all. Anything less is not faithful to Jesus or the Spirit of our various sacred texts. Every time you’re tempted to mistake your interpretation for the sacred text itself, remember that interpretations are temporary. It’s okay for them to change, as long as what they change to is life-giving for all.

It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one iota or one serif of the Torah to fall. (Q 16:17)

HeartGroup Application

In the context of working alongside the vulnerable and advocating for their rights, a verse that Jesus would have grown up hearing read in the synagogues is:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8

I would add today that many of those who can speak up for themselves are speaking up, so add your voice to theirs. The work of reclaiming of your own humanity is bound up with theirs. Speak up in tangible, concrete ways.

I shared this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King some weeks ago:

“The other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.” (Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963)

This week, I want to emphasis that social location matters. Some people can’t afford to wait for an inside-out approach, for a future kingdom or new social order. Some people are dying now.

As I’ve shared, change happens from the outside in, not from the center, but from the edges or margins inward. The same is true for people. It took people outside of me to change me. Spiritual disciplines and community rituals also shape people over time. The gospels portray a Jesus who gave his listeners a list of practices that would change the way they saw, thought, and felt about themselves and the others with whom they shared their world.

Sam Wells, in the introduction of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man, draws a line in the sand:

“We seem to have picked up the idea that holiness is a trance-like sense of peace and well-being in relation to those all around, an experience of floating on a magic carpet of tranquility. Wherever that picture of holiness came from, it certainly wasn’t Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is constantly having heated debates with everyone who held Israel in check. The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’”

How do we, in the short term, make life uncomfortable for those who can change things until they do? One way to do that is by connecting with your elected officials.

1. This week, find out the name and phone number of the following and write them down:

Your Federal House Representative
Your Federal Senators
Your State Governor
Your State House Representatives
Your State Senate Members
County Officials
City Mayor and Council members

2. Check out the following two websites. https://www.indivisibleguide.com and https://5calls.org

On these sites, you’ll find helpful instructions for how to connect with your officials in memorable and effective ways to create the changes you’d like to see.

3. If this is new to you, start out by making one phone call a week. Then graduate to two or three.

If you can put something right yourself, then by all means, take action and do so. If you do not have the power to change much larger systems that perpetuate injustice, take stock of your relationship with those in power and make their life pretty uncomfortable until they make those changes. Stand in solidarity with those on the edges and undersides of society. Reclaim your own humanity by working alongside those engaging the work of reclaiming theirs.

Where you are, keep living in love. Keep engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation and transformation. Change is possible. The moral arc of the universe can bend toward justice is we choose to bend it that way.

Thank you, also, to each of you who are supporting our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries. We have multiple events coming up this fall. If you’d like to support our work you can do so at by going to:

https://renewedheartministries.com/donate/

Please consider becoming one of our monthly donors. Together we are making a difference. If you prefer, you can also mail you support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Thank you in advance for your partnership in the world of making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for us all.

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

Hating One’s Family

by Herb Montgomery

“We don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.”

Featured Text:

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” —Q 14:26

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:37: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Gospel of Thomas 55: “Jesus says: ‘Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot become a disciple of mine. And whoever does not hate his brothers and his sisters (and) will not take up his cross as I do, will not be worthy of me.’”

Gospel of Thomas 101:1-2: “Whoever does not hate his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine. And whoever does not love his father and his mother as I do will not be able to be a disciple of mine.”

Of all the sayings of Jesus that I dislike and could be most easily misunderstood, misused, or abused, this week’s saying tops my list. I don’t like it at all. I’ve seen too many young people, especially LGBTQ young people, thrown out of their homes and cut off or shunned by their family on the basis of this week’s saying to have fond feelings about it. Whatever the saying, one must always judge its ethic on its fruit. What is the fruit of practicing one’s interpretation of the saying—life or death? If the fruit of your interpretation is death, I say change your interpretation!

What could Jesus have been thinking as he gave this teaching and made hate a core part of what it meant to follow him?

First, let’s understand that the socio-economic context of this saying is very different than our context today. We in the modern West belong to very individualistic societies. Socially and economically, we are individualists, not communalists. For middle-to-upper class people, there are retirement programs, insurance policies, and other programs and vehicles for one to take care of oneself rather than need a world where people take care of people.

These economic structures are designed to work as each individual seeks their own self-interest. Those at the top of society have structured the world to benefit them, and every act of those at the bottom of society does benefit those at the top. People desperate enough to become dependent on the system will work their lives away to survive, and their survival makes those at the top who benefit from their labor very wealthy.

In the 1st Century, Judea and Galilee was more communal. People in that region practiced a redistributive and reciprocal economy. Redistributive economies are economies where third parties (kings or aristocracies) collect the surplus from producers and then distribute that surplus to others who are not producers. This third party typically redistributes by directing and controlling labor, taxing people, or having officials make decisions rather than the people themselves. An example is an economy where rural producers feed urban dwellers. Redistribution can be done justly or unjustly: the book of Acts characterizes the early church as a redistribute economy based on voluntary giving, whereas the gospels characterize the Temple as a redistributive economy based on taxation and market selling.

Reciprocal economies are different. These types of economies are where those who belong to families or even communities freely give goods or services to each other. Yet as these gifts are given, community members keep an eye on the general ebb and flow of giving to make sure there is balance or fairness. People eventually become characterized as givers or takers. Those who give much are entitled to receive back, while those who are known to be takers are eventually starved out.

Families, in Jesus’ Jewish culture, especially in rural Galilee, practiced a more reciprocal economy. Jerusalem, through taxation, practiced a more redistributive economy. So when the gospels portray Jesus as saying, “The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple,” this saying involved the economic aspects of these relationships.

If following Jesus caused a person to lose economic support from their parents or their children, Jesus asks his followers to prioritize his vision for society: everyone is taken care of based on their needs, not based on their family’s, clan’s or tribe’s reciprocal system.

So perhaps Jesus’ saying was much more about communal economics than individual relationships with one’s family or tribe. Ched Myers explains the connection:

“It is important to recognize that in antiquity, much more so than today, the social fabric of the rural extend family was bound to the workplace. Thus the break demanded by Jesus is not only with economic but social security as well.” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 132)

But what if that interpretation isn’t the whole story? What if Jesus actually was telling us to hate our parents or children for not lining up with what we deem is morally appropriate? Should we hate our moms, dads, or kids because Jesus told us to?

Religiously fueled hatred or cold-hearted rejection of one’s own family has a long history in our sacred text. In Deuteronomy we find this command against daughters believed to not be virgins:

“If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 22:20)

This passage reflects the authors’ unjust patriarchal economy that relegated women to the level of property. Yet we must also be clear. It would be wrong for me as a father to read Deuteronomy’s injunction and seek to apply it to my children. There is no way around it. Our interpretations of our sacred texts must be held subject to love, compassion, and their fruit in our lives. As a friend of mine, Alicia Johnston, recently shared with me, “All teachings must be harmonized with love and compassion. Teachings that are inherently damaging, unhealthy, or unloving, cannot make people’s lives better. They, inherently, are not gospel.”

As we covered in Children against Parents, Matthew’s context is telling because it’s not the Jesus follower who is rejecting their family, but the family that is rejecting the Jesus follower. It makes much more sense to interpret this week’s saying as Jesus calling his followers to prioritize participating in his revolution over the rejection of family members. Matthew borrows from the Hebrew scriptures:

“For a son dishonors his father,

a daughter rises up against her mother,

a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—

a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.” (Micah 7.6)

The social location of the intended audience for this week’s saying really does make a difference. Is this saying telling parents to reject their children (or vice versa) who do not align with their definition of right and wrong? Or does this saying tell children who are being rejected by their parents (or vice versa) to remain committed to following Jesus’ revolution even in the face of such rejection?

Again, we don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister, and we should stand up anyway.

Standing with and speaking out alongside the vulnerable often creates conflict, and often it’s conflict within one’s own family. (I know something of this myself.) I don’t believe that this suffering is good and I don’t believe that we must pass through fire and sword to get to a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone.

I do believe that when those threatened by a just world do raise their swords or threaten us with a cross, we should stand up anyway, even if those opposing us are relatives. We are not to patiently submit. Rather, we are to take hold of life and, following Jesus, resist.

This is the only interpretation of this week’s saying that makes sense to me. More hate will not heal the world. Prioritizing a just, safe, and compassionate world over systems of domination and privilege, even if those at the helm of such systems are one’s own family, makes much more sense. I still would not have used the word “hate” as these translators did. But then again, I’m reading this saying two millennia and cultures away from its original time and place.

What can we glean from this week’s saying?

Reclaim your own humanity and stand alongside others who are reclaiming theirs. As we have stated so often, we are each other’s fate.

I choose to see this week’s saying as a matter, not of hate, but of priority. The difference may be subtle, but we don’t need more hate. We need compassion, justice, and equity. We don’t need more silence, even if those pressuring us to be silent are our family members. We don’t need more “submissive patience.” Take a strong position for yourself, for compassion and justice, even if that stand puts you at odds with those you still hold dear. I know it’s not easy.

“The one who‚ does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple; and the one who does not hate son and daughter cannot be my disciple.” (Q 14:26)

HeartGroup Application

On August 16, 1967, at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, GA, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the address, ”Where Do We Go From Here?” In this address he made the now famous declaration:

“Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that. And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”

In the excellent piece God So Loved the World?, Parker and Brown remind us, “It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? ….If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed.”

Next week we will discuss Jesus’ saying to take up our crosses. In Christianity, European and North American theologies have mostly interpreted this saying as calling us to passive acceptance of suffering. We’ll be discussing different ways that some oppressed communities have interpreted this saying.

In light of this week, and in preparation for next,

  1. What does it mean for you to insist on compassion and justice even when those closest to you would rather you remain silent?
  2. Share with your group an experience where you had to prioritize justice and compassion over the pressure you felt from people you cared about deeply.
  3. How can your group support each other when one of your group is experiencing pushback as a result of standing up for compassion and justice?

In a world that benefits some at the expense of others, it’s not always easy to hold up the vision of a world where justice, violence and oppression are put right. It’s even more difficult when doing so is compounded by rejection from those you care for. In moments like these, we need each other.

Wherever this finds you this week, right where you are, choose love, not hate. Choose a life of compassion and justice. Remember, you’re not alone. We are in this together, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

 

For all of you who are in or near the Asheville, N.C. area, registration for our free event this August 4-5 is now open! Find out more about this event at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville.

Space is limited. We are using Eventbrite to make it super easy for you to register and reserve your place. Our Eventbrite page is:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-sayings-of-jesus-the-intersection-of-faith-and-social-justice-tickets-36048274359

The location is:

First Congregational United Church of Christ
20 Oak Street
Asheville, NC 28802

The session dates and times are:

Session 1: Friday evening, August 4 at 7 p.m.

Session 2: Saturday afternoon, August 5 at 2 p.m.

Session 3: Saturday evening, August 5 at 7 p.m.

 

Light refreshments will be served, and there will be discussion time at the end of each session.

500:24:1 LogoWe are so excited to be moving forward with our first 500:25:1 event. We’ll keep you posted on where we’ll be teaching next!

Remember we are taking requests for weekends all across the nation. You can request a weekend in your area at http://bit.ly/RHMSeminar Find out more about these events at http://bit.ly/RHM500251 and learn how you, too, can participate in making these events happen.

To fund our new events, go to http://bit.ly/RHM500Support.

Remember, if you are in the Asheville area, make sure you register at http://bit.ly/SayingsOfJesusAsheville. Space will be filling up quickly.

I love each of you dearly.

Thanks for checking in with us.

I’ll see you next week.

The Exalted Humbled and the Humble Exalted

Person with green hair at Pride event

by Herb Montgomery

 

“There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than, and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin!”

 

Featured Text:

“Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.” (Q 14:11)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purity Circles

This week we once again face one of Jesus’ sayings that we must be careful not to apply to everyone. Jesus specifically pointed the saying at those who had lifted themselves up to be above their peers.

In Matthew’s story of Jesus, this saying is in the context of Matthew’s critique of the scribes and the Pharisees. A little background will help us understand.

In The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, Bruce Malina tells us how the purity cultures of the ancient world like the Hebrew tradition gave their members a sense of order from the chaos of the material world around us.

Specifically about the general cultural map of social time and space, about arrangements wishing the space thus defined, and especially about the boundaries separating the inside from the outside. The unclean or impure is something that does not fit the space in which it is found, that belongs elsewhere, that causes confusion in the arrangement of the generally accepted social map because it overruns boundaries.” (p. 125)

Notions of ritual cleanness or uncleanness were connected to a sense of belonging: in certain communities, well-defined boundaries marked insiders from outsiders. Within such cultures there was also a spectrum of cleanness. The greater your ability to remain clean, the purer you were. The opposite was also true. These notions of purity were not simply religious; they were but also social, economic, and political.

Think of a circle for a moment. If the circle represented the community, the purer you were, the closer you were to the center of the circle. The more unclean you were, the more you were pushed to the edges or margins. And guess who made the decisions for the group as a whole? You guessed it: those at the center. Those closer to the center had greater political, economic, and societal control. They maintained the status quo, a status quo that benefitted and privileged those at the center over those on the edges.

William Herzog once commented on the political struggle for the center in 1st Century Jewish society. His thoughts shed insight on why Matthew would have included this week’s saying.

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. [Think if you’ve ever had seeds ruined by rain water while they were still in their envelopes.] The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plagues and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so that their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also became unclean. They were quite willing to pay skyrocketing prices commanded by scarce domestic grain because they could afford it. . . . One senses economic advance being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often the large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued that the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from the soil; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.” (in Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 76)

The Pharisees were the religious teachers of the masses, while the Sadducees were the elites who desired above all else to maintain their control on society. The Pharisees appeared to want to make purity more accessible to the masses, so in that context, they were considered the “liberals” while the Sadducees were the “conservatives.” Yet they were not really concerned with empowering the masses, but with placing power in their own hands, a power that the masses would legitimize. They did not dismantle the system; they only sought to co-opt it and hold the socio-political power and a populous base over the Sadducee elites in Jerusalem.

On the contrary, Jesus wanted to, proverbially, “burn the whole system down.” He repeatedly transgressed purity boundaries, bringing in those who had been pushed down and to the margins of his culture. He didn’t do this because he was anti-Jewish or anti-Torah. I believe he did this because he saw the purity model of societal order as deeply damaging to those of his Jewish siblings who were forced by those at the center to live on society’s fringes and edges.

In our saying this week, we see a Jesus who challenged and subverted the model of organizing society as a purity circle with insiders and outsiders. Jesus challenged this way of organizing society not just with his words, but also with his table, body, and temple/synagogue practices in the gospels.

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Tax Collector Versus Pharisee 

Matthew describes a horizontal model, a circle, Luke uses a vertical image: a pyramid. The circle has a center and margins, but a pyramid has a few at the top who wield control or power over the masses below them. The lower one goes in a social pyramid, the greater the number of people and the less those people have any say about the world in which they live.

Luke places our saying this week in the context of a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these groups were closer to the top of Jesus’ social, economic, and political pyramid. Both were typically well-to-do financially. But where one of these groups responded positively to Jesus’s teachings, the other did not. As we have already discussed, Sayings Gospel Q 7:23-30 includes the statement, “For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” Luke adds this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In Luke’s telling of the story, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” and his economic vision (Luke 16:14). By contrast, the hated tax-collector responded, “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).

The tax-collectors were the last ones expected to respond to Jesus’ economic teachings of mutual aid and wealth redistribution. Yet they came to Jesus’s shared table, while others did not, and Jesus welcomed them (see Luke 15:1-2).

In Luke, the Pharisees continued to compete with the temple elite for the exalted position of political control over the masses while the tax-collectors humbled themselves and embraced a world where there is enough for everyone. I’m sure there were exceptions; stories are often told with generalizations. What remains is the truth that when we seek to exalt ourselves over others, it leads to disastrous results for everyone.

How Not To Use This Passage

There is a difference between someone at the center or top of a group having their self-exaltation challenged, and those on the periphery and bottom working to lift themselves up to a equitable shared position. Let me explain.

I just finished reading Carol Anderson’s book White Rage. Over and over it recounted the history of how whiteness and structural racism have functioned in American society to impede social progress upward or toward the center for people of color. Sayings like ours this week have been aimed at people of color to try and silence or shame their efforts at equality.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is a difference between those who would exalt themselves over others and those who simply are seeking to lift themselves up to level ground. One group seeks to maintain an unjust status quo, and the other simply works toward equality. Our saying this week is not about those lifting themselves up toward equality. It’s about those who continually impede their work, who have exalted themselves over others, who are called to humility, equity and solidarity with those lower or on the periphery.

This month I also was blessed to be able to participate with SDA Kinship International in D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community. It is also a month when I see a lot of Evangelical Christians critiquing the idea of “pride” itself. “Pride is a sin!” they say. And they quote our saying this week, “Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted.”

But social location matters. There is a vast difference between the kind of pride that exalts self over others as if you were the normal or ideal and others were somehow less than (think heterosexism) and the kind of pride that rejects the social shame others have tried to impose on you for being different. Pride that simply lifts oneself to a place of equality with others is not a sin! And our saying this week isn’t critiquing that kind of pride.

If a person is already being shamed and humiliated, they don’t need to humble themselves further. They are already experiencing humiliation from those who endeavor to marginalize them and their voices. Those who really need to humble themselves in that situation are those who think that just because someone is different they are broken or less than.

There was a time when those who were left-handed were considered less than, too. We don’t know why some are born one way and others are born another, but these differences do exist. Jesus subverted systems that push people to the margins or undersides of society, and that should challenge any Christian who believes cisgender heterosexuals are the ideal and all other people should stay on the margins of society. It is for them that this saying was given. They are the ones our saying this week is speaking to.

I’ve been reading Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. I’m enjoying it immensely. It has been quite affirming and confirming for me personally, and I recommend the book highly if you have not read it. In the introduction, which I quoted from earlier, Ched shows how social pyramids and circles functioned in Jesus’ day and how they call those of us who want to follow Jesus to challenge similar models today.

These two statements resonated deeply inside me this week:

“White North American Christians, especially those of us from the privileged strata of society, must come to terms with the fact that our reading site for the Gospel of Mark is empire, locus imperium . . . The ‘irreducible meaning’ of empire is the geopolitical control of the peripheries by the center . . . the fact remains that those on the peripheries will have ‘eyes to see’ many things that those of us at the center do not.”

And

“The ancient Mediterranean world was dominated by the rule of imperial Rome [center]. However, whereas I read from the center, Mark wrote from the Palestinian periphery. His primary audience [was] those whose daily lives bore the exploitative weight of colonialism, whereas mine [is] those who are in a position of enjoy the privileges of the colonizer. In this sense, Third World liberation theologians, who today also write from the perspective of the collided periphery have the advantage of a certain ‘affinity of site’ in their reading of the Gospels.”

Whether we use the vertical model of a pyramid where the few at the top control everyone beneath them, or the horizontal model of a circle where those closer to the center have control of the body, our saying this week offers a critique and warning to all who push others from a position of input and influence to the margins, edges, or periphery:

Everyone exalting oneself will be humbled, and the one humbling oneself will be exalted. (Q 14:11)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus sought to change the way communities were organized. Where there were pyramids with people on top and closed circles with people outside, Jesus sought to form a shared table.

So this week I want you to do something a little different. Each of you, take time to listen to a presentation I gave in the fall of 2015 in southern California entitled, A Shared Table.

Then after listening,

  1. Discuss your responses together as a group.
  2. Brainstorm how your group can become more of a shared table experience rather than in a pyramid or closed circle. Write these strategies out.
  3. Pick something from what you’ve written and put it into practice this week.

Something that may be helpful to you in your brainstorming is our newly updated HeartGroups page.

Together we can make choices that continue to transform our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone. The teachings of Jesus don’t call us to escape from a hostile world. Radical discipleship, radical Jesus-following, calls us to engage the world so that it becomes a less hostile place. In the words of Sam Wells, “The one thing everyone seems to agree on today is that there’s plenty wrong with the world. There are only two responses to this—either go and put it right yourself, or, if you can’t, make life pretty uncomfortable for those who can until they do. When we take stock of our relationship with the powerful, we ask ourselves, ‘Does the shape of my life reflect my longing to see God set people free, and do I challenge those who keep others in slavery?’” (in Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers)

Remember, we are in this together. We are each other’s fate.

Also remember to check out our new 500:25:1 project at http://bit.ly/RHM500251. There you can find out more about why we’re launching weekend events around the country, how you can help to make these events happen, and, best of all, how you can have us come and teach in your area.

Thanks for checking in with us this week!

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, transformation and thriving! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Replaced by People from East and West

A table with varied people eating

by Herb Montgomery

“When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!”

Featured Text:

“And many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

Companion Text:

Matthew 8:11-12: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 13:28-29: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

The Sayings Gospel Q scholars titled this week’s saying “Replaced by People from East and West.” If I’d organized the sayings, I wouldn’t have used the term “replaced.” As we’ll see this week, it’s not original to the text and it has a long anti-Semitic history rooted in supersessionism.

By contrast, Jesus’ saying is well centered in the Jewish prophetic tradition of Isaiah:

“And the almighty Yahweh will prepare for all the nations on this mountain a banquet of rich foods, a banquet of preserved wines, of spread out rich foods, and preserved refined wines. And on this mountain he will swallow up the covering that is over all peoples, even the covering woven on all the nations. He will swallow up death forever. And the Lord Yahweh will wipe clean the tears from upon all faces. And the shame of his people he will remove from upon all the earth. For Yahweh has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

In the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, the messianic feast is not prepared exclusively for the Hebrew people but includes “all the nations.” The apocalyptic Essenes of Jesus’ society were looking for this banquet in their “end of the age.” They expected it to mark the transition between the present age and the “age to come” (see The Rule of the Congregation 1QSa or The Community Rule 1QS.) And they understood this banquet both literally and metaphorically as definitive of the quality of the messianic age when all violence, injustice, and oppression was to be put right in the earth.

Matthew’s gospel tellingly tacks this saying on to the end of the story about the centurion and his slave (Matthew 8.5-10). For the Matthew’s community, the centurion story could have been seen as an evidence of how “all the nations” were to be included in Isaiah’s feast. If this is true, this would explain much about the inclusivity that this community hoped for.

Replacement versus Exclusion

The Q community did not understand including Gentiles in their feast as an anti-Jewish move. And they did not see “all the nations” being included only to replace the Jewish festival attendants. In this saying, some are being excluded. Yet, there is a vast difference between a party for everyone that some will be shut out of and a party meant exclusively for some and whose original audience would be replaced by others.

Why does this distinction matter?

The Pharisees included two schools of thought. One, the School of Shammai, drew strict lines between Jews and Gentiles, in a effort to preserve their Jewish identity. They also drew strict lines between those who practiced Torah according to the School’s interpretations and fellow Jewish people they labeled as “sinners.”

I t is understandable that a people removed from their original land and held captive in foreign territories or scattered abroad, would re-gather to seek liberation. It’s important to protect others’ heritage and identity as a people when they’re being erased by their oppressors and their oppressors’ heritage and culture.

Just like the indigenous people here on this continent, or the Africans uprooted, enslaved, and removed to colonial lands, the Jewish people were struggling desperately to preserve their own identities and uniquenesses among a people not like themselves and who dominated them. The Jewish people living in the empires that subjugated them were being dehumanized, and in that context, I can understand and applaud the School of Shammai for focusing on their people’s Jewish peculiarity.

How we preserve our identity and heritage matters, though. Subjugators typically preserve and parade their identity through exceptionalism. In the United States, for example, American exceptionalism and the Doctrine of Discovery was the soil out of which grew the destructive weed of Manifest Destiny. These dehumanizing philosophies made genocide possible for the Native peoples across this continent and those who, through slavery, were violently brought here.

Exceptionalism

Exceptionalism can also be a way for oppressed and subjugated peoples to survive: feeling superior to those dominating you can be a way to resist. This form of survival and resistance can also be unhealthy. Those under Roman domination in Jesus’ society who began to look forward to a feast eventually imagined that feast not for “all the nations” but for their own vindication. In that vision, the messianic feast would be an event where oppressors would be excluded or even punished. In Ezekiel, at the messianic banquet feast, YHWH turns the Hebrew people’s enemies into food for predators of both sky and the land.

“As for you, son of man, this is what the sovereign Lord says: Tell every kind of bird and every wild beast: ‘Assemble and come! Gather from all around to my slaughter which I am going to make for you, a great slaughter on the mountains of Israel! You will eat flesh and drink blood. You will eat the flesh of warriors and drink the blood of the princes of the earth – the rams, lambs, goats, and bulls, all of them fattened animals of Bashan. You will eat fat until you are full, and drink blood until you are drunk, at my slaughter which I have made for you. You will fill up at my table with horses and charioteers, with warriors and all the soldiers,’ declares the sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 39:17-19)

In our saying this week Jesus seems to be addressing those in his time who were looking for a retributive feast, one more like Ezekiel’s than like Isaiah’s inclusive, distributive, and restorative feast. Those looking forward to a time of retribution, who were so sure they were superior to others around them, would be found not at the places of honor around the festive table, but excluded and shut out from the feast entirely. They would be found “gnashing their teeth.”

This proverbial phrase is key. The gnashing of teeth referred to a level of anger that caused a person to clinch their jaw and grind their teeth (e.g. Acts 7:54).

In other words, Jesus is saying, those of you who are looking for a retributive feast where you are included to the exclusion of those you have deemed unworthy, like this Roman centurion, there will be so many from east to west included in my messianic feast that you’re not going to be able to emotionally cope. When you see who is welcomed and affirmed, when you see how wrong you were about those you thought should be forbidden from sitting at the table with you, it’s going to make you so angry!

In the new world that is coming, he continues, if any are left in “outer darkness,” it won’t be those you believe don’t measure up to your standards of respectability or virtue. It will be you! You cannot accept the welcome, affirmation, and inclusion of those you feel should be excluded. You will be excluded because you cannot accept those who are being accepted.

This was the same point of Luke’s parable of the older brother (Luke 15:1-2; 25-32) and Matthew’s wedding banquet parable where a guest did not want to be dressed the same as those he felt superior to (Matthew 22:8-11).

Conclusion

I’m happy to be able to say that before the end of the first century, the Rabbis choose the School of Hillel’s earlier and more inclusive interpretations of the Torah (see BET HILLEL AND BET SHAMMAI).

One takeaway from this week’s saying is that there are better ways to protect identities and heritages than exclusion. Our differences should be preserved and celebrated, acknowledged, and mutually valued. As each of us finds our place at the table, as we honor each person’s voice in relationships of egalitarianism rather than domination and subjugation, we can learn to listen to one another. And we then can integrate the many experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole: not a new homogenized mass, but a mosaic filled with beauty, diversity, and variations.

Lastly, this week we learn that exclusion is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. To hope for a world where certain ones are no longer there is to create a world where you yourself are no longer welcome. You get the world you always wanted. The only catch is that you’ll be the only one alone, in the “outer darkness,” in a world where exclusion is excluded. Exclusion won’t be included in a world that is characterized by inclusion, distributive justice, and peace.

Does inclusion still provoke anger? You bet. Over the last four years, Renewed Heart Ministries has become a more open, welcoming, affirming, and inclusive ministry, including for those who identify as LGBTQ. And do I have stories to tell. The common thread through all of them is anger from those who are upset that we’ve made this shift.

While I’m saddened by the loss of those who have rejected and now exclude RHM and me, I do take a small portion of comfort in the fact that at least we are in the right story. Solidarity breeds crosses. But the story of Jesus tells me that crosses can also be followed by resurrections.

When you practice inclusion of those whom others have inaccurately deemed as deserving exclusion, will some people get upset and angry with you? Absolutely. But be of courage: this is simply your story becoming more aligned with the Jesus story itself, for:

Many shall come from Sunrise and Sunset and recline with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God [and] there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Q 13:29, 28)

HeartGroup Application

Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jew. Recently I was introduced to the work of Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun, a San Francisco Bay area Jewish Renewal Synagogue for Spiritual and Social Transformation. The Jewish Jesus lived life at the intersection of faith and social justice in the 1st Century. In the spirit of tikkun olam, Rabbi Lerner is working today to develop intersections between Jewish faith and social transformation.

Last week, Rabbi Lerner published a meditative piece of writing he titled Ten Commitments. He states, “Many of us find the notion of ‘commandments’ oppressive and hierarchical. Yet we know that a community cannot be built on the principle of only doing what feels right at the moment–it requires a sense of responsibility to each other. So, we encourage our community to take on the following ten commitments, based roughly on a rereading of the Torah’s ten commandments (and incorporating the framework and many specific ideas articulated by Rami Shapiro in his book Minyan).”

HeartGroups are also communities engaged in the work of healing our world. The Jesus we desire to follow grew up hearing teachings on these same ten commandments.

So this week, as a group:

1. As a group, read through Rabbi Lerner’s “Ten Commitments”:

http://www.beyttikkun.org/article.php/what_we_think_ten_commitments

2. Share which commitments spoke most loudly to you and why.

3. For each person in the group, pick one commitment to spend some time contemplating and meditating on this week. Come back the following week ready to share your experiences practicing it.

I’ll let you in on the one I’m practicing: I love the inclusivity and respect of #3 in Lerner’s list.

Which one speaks most loudly to you?

Thank you for checking in this week.

Keep living in love. And may the teaching of this 1st Century prophet of the poor continue to inform your work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation. Till the only world that remains, is a world where only love reigns.

As we say each week, thank you to each of you who are supporting this ministry. We could not exist without you.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done to make these resources as free as possible. To keep them free, we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

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Lewisburg, WV 24901

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All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed 

Lone standing tree at sunset

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“What is the kingdom of God like, and with what am I to compare it? It is like a seed of mustard, which a person took and threw into his garden. And it grew and developed into a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches.” (Q 13:18-19)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 13:31-32: “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’”

Luke 13:18-19: “Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.’”

Gospel of Thomas 20: “The disciples said to Jesus: ‘Tell us whom the kingdom of heaven is like!’ He said to them: ‘It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on cultivated soil, it produces a large branch and becomes shelter for the birds of the sky.’”

Daniel 4:20-22: “The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the wild animals, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds, Your Majesty, you are that tree!”

Mistaken Classification

In the 1st Century, mustard seeds were considered an invasive, noxious weed. If a gardener did not uproot it from their garden, they’d soon not have a garden left to tend. Then, as now, weeds should be rooted out lest they take over, crowding out crops that are intentionally planted there.

Yet mustard seeds don’t actually grow into trees. The image of a weed growing into a tree that benefits those around it means that we’ve classified as a weed something that is actually a fruit bearing tree.

Let me say it again for clarity. Mustard plants don’t grow into trees. If what we have labeled as “mustard” grows into a tree, it’s not mustard weed. We’ve made a mistake. It’s something entirely different from mustard.

This week’s saying likens Jesus new community of nonviolence, mutual aid, and resource redistribution to a tree that is originally seen as a weed. In other words, the way 1st Century farmers viewed the mustard plant was the way people viewed Jesus’s teachings and the community of Jesus-followers centered in those teachings. Their existence was to be rooted out. They were as welcome as the weed.

But then Jesus’s saying takes a hard right turn. What the people think is a noxious mustard weed doesn’t produce the same results as mustard. It doesn’t take over the garden like a weed and leave nothing for anyone. No, it becomes a tree, a source of shelter and food for all in its vicinity! It’s originally viewed as a weed, but it does not bear the same fruit as a weed.

The image Jesus uses for his community, the tree mistaken for a weed, is from a story in the Hebrew apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom was likened to a fruit tree that provided food, a resting place, and shelter to all. Our saying takes this imagery as a message: “You’re working so hard to keep me out of your garden as if I’m a mustard weed, and are trying to uproot me completely, but you have misjudged me. My fruit is not harmful, but life and peace and good for all.”

This week’s saying isn’t saying all weeds should be welcomed in the garden, that we shouldn’t weed, or that all weeds are good now. It’s asking us to check our assumptions about what we have classified as weeds. What if we’ve made a mistake? What if you’ve judged something to be a harmful weed, but that judgment is quite incorrect?

Jesus’s society was beginning to view his teachings on nonviolent resistance and wealth redistribution as a weed that must be removed. And so his saying called them to see their judgment as a mistake. What Jesus was teaching could lead to peace and liberation rooted in an expression of distributive justice for all. What the people viewed as a weed to be rooted out was actually a tree of life.

Today

I get letters from time to time asking me to explain how on earth I can be a Jesus follower and affirm the LGBTQ community. These writers typically use misinformed language such as “lifestyle” when they are actually referring to same-sex intimacy. They are often also profoundly certain about how clear the Bible’s teachings are, and they compare my LGBTQ friends with “adulterers,” “fornicators,” “alcoholics,” “drug abusers,” and “child-molesters.” And they want me to explain to them how I could affirm LGBTQ people in their allegedly “sinful behaviors.”

One of my lesbian friends is a more devoted Christian than I am. She has been with her wife for over twenty years, and I admire their commitment to each other.  She is a teetotaler: no tea or coffee, much less drugs and alcohol. To even place my friends in the same category with abusers is offensive.

As I consider the misclassification of the mustard seed in this week’s saying and the misclassification of Jesus’s kingless kingdom in the 1st Century, I can’t help but think of the misclassification of my LGBTQ friends today.

Let me be clear. This week’s saying is not calling its audience to embrace weeds but to question their classification of a tree as a weed. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful. Rather it should help us recognize that the LGBTQ community does not deserve to be on that “harmful” list in the first place.

There are two lists in the New Testament that my letter writers often mention:

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (emphasis added.)

1 Timothy 1:9-11(ESV): Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (emphasis added.)

The question I want us to consider is whether the modern phrase “men who practice homosexuality” is the most accurate translation of the ancient Greek word arsenokoitai. It isn’t. In English, the category “homosexuality” wasn’t even used till 1886. And the word wasn’t inserted into any English translations of the Bible for another 60 years after that (1946). There were several English language Bibles before 1946. Yet none of them used the word “homosexuality” or euphemisms for it. The Greek used when the New Testament was written included multiple terms for same-sex sexual activities, and those terms never appear in the New Testament. Instead we find the extremely rare and quite specific term arsenokoitai.

Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network writes:

“The most likely explanation is that Paul is referring to a practice that was fairly common in the Greek culture of his day — married men who had sex with male youths on the side. The extramarital relationships of men with boys in ancient Greece are infamous even today. Archaeological and literary evidence prove that these relationships were common for centuries in Greece, though they were frowned upon by many even while they were publicly practiced. This would make a perfect target for Paul’s vice lists, and it would explain why, in both lists, he mentions the sin of the arsenokoitai separately after he mentions adultery — because technically, by Greek thought, having a boy on the side wasn’t adultery.” (https://www.gaychristian.net/justins_view.php)

What many scholars today agree on is that these two passages are referring to the then-common practice of pederasty, not to what we now know as homosexuality. Using the term homosexuality is not accurate.

Consider how the passages would read if we were more careful with our translations:

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice pederasty [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (emphasis added)

1 Timothy 1:9-11(ESV): “Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice pederasty [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

For more on the other passages in the Christian scriptures typically used in this debate, read Justin’s View from GCN.

Our saying this week isn’t a call to let one’s garden be overrun by weeds, and, yes, the vices in Paul’s lists are weeds. This week’s saying challenges the misclassification of Jesus’s movement as a weed that must rooted out. We could learn a lot about what it’s like to be misclassified by listening to LGBTQ people and others whom the Christian community has misclassified and tried to root out.

We have misclassified as a weed something that produces good fruit and doesn’t look like a weed at all. In fact, it’s our misclassifying the LGBTQ community on this list that’s producing noxious weed-like results. It’s at the root of the disproportionate homelessness and suicide rates among Christian LGBTQ youth rejected by their religious families and churches. The fruit of our recent translations and misclassification of LGBTQ people is not life, but quite literally death.

Here are just a few of the lessons I have learned as I’ve listened to the LGBTQ community:

  • An apology that simply calls straight Christians to a more loving and respectful form of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia is not an apology.
  • The language of reconciliation devoid of liberation is empty rhetoric.
  • Saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.
  • Kindness and respect are not synonyms of reparation for harm done in the past.
  • Allowing even “respectful” disagreement over whether another person should exist is not “creating safe space.”

This last one is vital. The debate over LGBTQ people is really a disagreement over whether LGBTQ people should exist, live openly, and form families in our communities. The lists in Paul’s writings are lists of behaviors that can be changed. Sexual orientation is much more like a person’s skin color than their actions. It’s not something to be changed; it’s who people are. Reparative therapy, however, is an attempt to weed out a certain type of person—an LGBTQ person—from existence. Ultimately, it’s a form of genocide.

Learning to listen to those who are not like you as they share the harm that has been done to them through misclassification offers you the opportunity to make a choice between compassion or fear. I remember a statement that Justin Lee once made during a presentation. He likened straight, cisgender people’s emotional response to LGBTQ folks to the emotional response one might make to the statement, “Aliens have landed.” It all depends on whether you grew up watching the movie E.T. or War of the Worlds. Differences can be scary, but they don’t have to be. Remember, although we have differences, there is much we have in common, too. Those who are different from you are also someone’s child. They are someone’s sibling. They are someone’s best friend. Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.

Have you ever been misjudged or misclassified?  The mustard seed that was considered a noxious weed actually grew into a tree, providing “shelter” and “nesting places in its branches for the birds.”

Dr. Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary says it best:

“Even when people call your truth a lie, tell it anyway. Tell it anyway.” (Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

What is the kingdom of God like, and with what am I to compare it? It is like a seed of mustard [considered to be a noxious weed], which a person took and threw into his garden. And it grew and developed into a tree, and the birds of the sky nested in its branches.” (Q 13:18-19)

HeartGroup Application

This week I need your help. We are updating our HeartGroups page on the Renewed Heart Ministries website and we want to be able to share testimonials from those of you who’ve experienced what HeartGroups have to offer.

Please share how HeartGroups have been a benefit to you, either as a group or individually, by going to the Contact Us page and typing in your testimony.

I want to again thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. People like you enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Settling out of Court

Court room scales

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

While you go along with your opponent on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny. Q 12:58-59

Companion Texts:

Matthew 5:25-26: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Luke 12:58-59: “Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”

The Intended Audience

The social location of the first audience of this week’s saying impacts its meaning. As I shared last month, I believe the audience Jesus was speaking to in this discourse was in the more affluent segment of his society. Matthew compiles this saying with the collection of Jesus’ sayings that today we call the Sermon on the Mount. If all we had was Matthew’s compilation, we could wrongly conclude that this week’s saying was intended for a universal audience. Fortunately, Luke is more specific and tells us the social location of the audience Jesus aimed this week’s saying at.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’” (Luke 12:13,14)

Arguments over inheritances aren’t common among the poor or lower middle classes. These are problems that exist among the affluent. Jesus did not see himself as called to mediate between competing factions of the affluent. Instead he had emerged among his Jewish poor peers as prophet of the oppressed and liberator of the poor (Luke 4).

“And he told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.’” (Luke 12:16, emphasis added)

Jesus then tells this affluent audience the parable of a rich man, someone like themselves. To that man he says,

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12:33)

Jesus sums up this parable with the call for you, the affluent, to sell your possessions and give them to the poor. Jesus’ audience here is not the poor. He isn’t calling the poor to share their resources as a means to survive. He’s instead  speaking to the affluent and calling for radical wealth redistribution. Just as in God’s world the sun and rain belong to all alike, so too we must abandon the systems we’ve created where some have much more than they could ever use and others’ needs are going without being met.

As we’ve read thorough this cluster of sayings in the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed Jesus call his society’s affluent to wealth redistribution. We’ve described him trying to avert the political and economic crisis he saw on the horizon, and this week’s saying continues that appeal to his affluent listeners:

“While you go along with your opponent [the poor] on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny.” (Q 12:58-59)

It could have been highly offensive to threaten someone from the upper sectors of first century Jewish social class with being thrown into debtors prison. But as is often the case in the gospels, Jesus is not speaking literally but in parable form.

What we know from history now is that the poor did finally revolt. The exploited poor of Jesus’ day did violently rise up against the elites in Jerusalem, and they went on to take up arms and revolt against Rome itself as well. As I stated in The Faithful or Unfaithful Slave, the Roman backlash was merciless and the entire “household” of the nation was laid waste. If Jesus saw this coming, I can understand his trying to warn them. The uprising of the poor would end up implicating even the wealthy elites (“your opponent would hand you over to the judge”). And they did end up losing everything down to “the last penny.” Jerusalem was left a barren waste, everything lost, for everyone.

Social Location Matters

The social location of this week’s intended audience of this week’s saying matters. Let me briefly share three examples.

The message of self-denial is heard very differently by those at the bottom and edges of society than from those whom society is shaped to benefit. While those at the top need to hear a message that involves self-denial, those at the bottom of society are already experiencing oppressors deny them their selves.

The message those at the bottom of society need is one of self-affirmation not self-denial. Their need is imaginative ways to affirm their self in a world where their self is already being denied by those pushing them to the underside or edges of their world. They need a message that affirms their standing up for themselves, not a message that denies their selves. Such would only leave them passive and the systemic injustice unchallenged and thus unchanged. Telling the self-denied to deny their self even further makes for quite a convenient gospel for White oppressors.

The same is equally true of a gospel defined only as self-sacrifice. I believe in restoring people’s true selves, not sacrificing them. Consider for a moment how the Gospel and Jesus have been reduced to a message of self-sacrifice. When we define being like Jesus to be simply self-sacrifice, we do untold damage to victims of abuse. Consider domestic violence for a moment. A survivor of domestic violence has been told at some point that they are worthy, they are valuable, that they are worth standing up for and saying no to their oppressor. Too often well meaning Christians have, through a message of “Christlike” self-sacrifice, left spouses abandoned in violent situations only to endure in the hopes of saving their victimizer. This has often had very lethal results.

Elizabeth Bettenhausen writes:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.”  (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. xii; edited by Joanne Carlson Brown & Carole R. Bohn)

Brown and Parker in their essay, “For God So Loved the World?” write:

“The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive . . . The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Ibid., p. 20.)

Social location matters. Listening to how certain theologies impact those on the undersides or edges of our society matters. These are perspectives and concerns that must be heard.

Lastly is the subject of self-care for those whom society either wants to extinguish from existence (Chechnya wants to eliminate gay community by end of May, reports suggest) or for those in society who still deny they even exist (Examples would be those who deny that being transgender exists).

(In 2012 the APA gave a shot of hope to the transgender community by revising its material stating that being transgender was no long a mental disorder.) Self-care is vitally important for communities of color (for both men and especially women) when these are communities find themselves within larger communities where the “justice system” of the status quo daily threatens their existence.

As Audre Lorde stated, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, its self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

In an organizational way, alongside those who are thankful for Renewed Heart Ministers, there are also those folks who wish Renewed Heart Ministries also did not exist or could be silenced or shut out, as well. Existence matters, both personally and organizationally as we move toward transforming our world into a safe place for all of us.

In his saying, though, Jesus was not telling the oppressed, marginalized, or the subjugated that they need to make peace with their oppressors before it’s too late. He was not preaching reconciliation without concrete changes in an exploitative society. As Jacqueline Grant rightly states, “the language of partnership is merely a rewording of the language of ‘reconciliation,’ which proves to be empty rhetoric unless it is preceded by liberation.” (White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, p. 191)

Jesus was not preaching passive reconciliation and forgiveness of those at the helm of an unjust system. On the contrary, Jesus invited those at the top, whom the oppressed were calling to change, to stop fighting those changes and instead make reparations.

Paying the Last Penny

As I shared two weeks ago, what loomed on the people’s horizon was not that the poor were finally able to take back what had been taken from them. No, poor and the rich alike were annihilated by Rome in 70 C.E. Threats of impending doom didn’t motivate those who belonged to the dominating sectors of the society to change. And it doesn’t seem to be doing so today either.

What I can attest, is that compassion, seeing my interconnectedness with others, stopping to listen to what the experience of this life is like for those on the undersides and edges of our world today does motivate me to lean into the social teachings of Jesus and actively engage in relationship with others. Just like in 70 C.E. We are all in this together. The choices we are making today will affect us all to varying degrees. We all inescapably share our world with each other. We are each other’s neighbor. And thus we must learn to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We are not as disconnected from our neighbors as we are taught to believe. What does it mean to come to terms with those who are being oppressed and marginalized in our society before we are placed in a scenario where we all pay the last penny?

It means we have the choice whether or not to share this space in a way that makes sure everyone is taken care of. To make sure there is enough for everyone. Where no one has too much and no one has too little.

The call to distributive justice mimics Jesus’ sunshine and indiscriminate rain, and later invites the decision to ensure each one possesses “their daily bread.”

The choice is stark.

Enough for everyone, or nothing for anyone.

We are in this together. We are each other’s keeper.

“While you go along with your opponent on the way, make an effort to get loose from him, lest the opponent hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the assistant, and the assistant throw you into prison. I say to you: You will not get out of there until you pay the last penny. (Q 12:58-59)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to

1. Sit down together and watch a short 2011 Ted Talk by Richard Wilkinson.

How Economic Inequality Harms Societies.

There is an intrinsic relationship of cause and effect between inequality and societal harm. Whether the inequality is rooted in disparities based on gender, class, race, orientation, gender identity, age, ability—whatever—history bears out the fruit of inequality is not security in facing the future but greater vulnerability and risk for us all.

2. In the book of Acts we find the claim that in the beginning of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem:

“That there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4.34)

“Those who had more than they needed shared with those who had needs not being met.

Discuss together some of the things that impacted you in Wilkinson’s Ted talk.

3. List how you, as a HeartGroup, can work toward supporting one another and closing the inequality gap among even yourselves. In Paul’s letter to his church in Corinth he wrote, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” (2 Corinthians 8.13, 14, emphasis added.)

Pick just one thing off that list and put it into practice this week.

Gandhi titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. That’s what we are doing here. We are experimenting with the teachings of Jesus and seeing which applications of his principles work and which only complicate our societal problems. If we don’t seek, we’ll never find. Experimenting with truth starts here.

I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Children against Parents 

girl spray painting a graffiti heart on wall

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Fire have I come to hurl on the earth, and how I wish it had already blazed up! Do you think that I have come to hurl peace on earth? I did not come to hurl peace, but a sword! For I have come to divide son against father, and daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Q 12:49‚ 51, 53) 

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:34-38: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

‘a man against his father,a daughter against her mother,a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 12:49-53: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Gospel of Thomas 10: “Jesus says: ‘I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes.’”

Gospel of Thomas 16: “Jesus says: ‘Perhaps people think that I have come to cast peace upon the earth. But they do not know that I have come to cast dissension upon the earth: fire, sword, war. For there will be five in one house: there will be three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father. And they will stand as solitary ones.’”

Micah 7:6: “For a son dishonors his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies are the members of his own household.”

Two Types of Peace Making

There are two types of peace-making. One type uses force of arms. It amounts to being the biggest bully on the hill: if you’re big, strong, and bad enough, no one will mess with you and they’ll do what you say. The other type uses distributive justice. It makes sure everyone is taken care of and everyone has enough so that there can be peace.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan mention these two types of peace in their joint volume, The First Christmas:

“Empire promises peace through violent force. Eschaton promises peace through nonviolent justice. Each requires programs and processes, strategies and tactics, wisdom and patience. If you consider that peace through victory has been a highly successful vision across recorded history, why would you abandon it now? But whether you think it has been successful or not, you should at least know there has always been present an alternative option— peace through justice.” (p. 75)

Later they insightfully contrast the two:

“The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.” (p. 166)

Nonviolence Isn’t Peaceful

The road to peace isn’t peaceful, however. Even if, like Gandhi, one defines Jesus’ activism as nonviolent resistance, our saying this week indicates that Jesus wasn’t about “keeping the peace” with a lack of conflict.

The Jesus of the gospels came to “bring fire and sword.” But how we understand this saying makes all the difference.

Too often, Christians have misinterpreted these words, chosen to be the ones wielding the sword against others, and literally set heretics, witches, Muslims, and Jews on fire. Let’s look this saying more closely.

In response to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” by participating in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King stated:

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” (In Let the Trumpet Sound : A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr by Stephen B. Oates)

As we move toward distributive justice, nonviolent resistance to systems of disparity should disrupt. It should confront, it should disturb, it should prevent the unjust system from continuing on as normal. Unless nonviolence is disruptive, its goal is not achieved. On August 3(4), 1857, Frederick Douglass gave an address on West India Emancipation in Canandaigua, New York:

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress . . . Men might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.” (Source)

And although Douglass did not subscribe to the theories of nonviolence as King did, he was right: Whether it be by disruptive violence or disruptive nonviolence, the point is that there has to be disruption to the status quo. Even nonviolence can be disruptive when it isn’t a co-opted nonviolence that passively demonstrates without changing a thing.

Don’t miss that the sword mentioned in this week’s saying is one being raised by the unjust system against Jesus and his followers. It isn’t a sword that Jesus and his followers raise against others. It’s a fire of disruption and a part of resistance that the those benefited by the status quo seek to extinguish. Jesus words about taking up the cross are still ahead of us in this series. They must be understood in a way that does not promote the myth of redemptive suffering.

And before we arrive at that discussion, we must note that Jesus’ followers are not the ones with the swords in their hands in this passage. They’re the ones whom those with swords in their hands threaten with crosses. They’re for standing up to what was unjust. They’re being threatened with death for standing up and taking hold of life.

Remember, Jesus didn’t die so you could go to heaven. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo. And even if he did so nonviolently, he stood up to injustice while standing alongside the poor and exploited and marginalized (consider the temple incident).

Social Location Matters

This saying is also at the center of why many parents feel religiously compelled to reject their children and grandchildren for being perceived as out of harmony with their own faith. Painful examples are the disproportionate rates of LGBT homeless young people who are turned out of their religiously fundamentalist homes: their parents’ Christianity is a version that would cause them to reject their own children.

What we must see this week is that in the stories about Jesus’ followers, they’re the ones being rejected, not the ones rejecting. They are the ones Jesus encourages to stand up and resist even if their own family rejects them.

This saying is on the side of the youth being kicked out. It’s on the side of the women who stand up to domestic violence. It’s on the side of slaves that stand up against their enslavement. It’s on the side of straight siblings who choose to stand in solidarity with their LGBT siblings over against the fear of experiencing their parents’ rejection too. It’s on the side of the counselors and clergy that stand with survivors of relational violence and tell them not to just passively accept abuse but to leave, even when doing so will bring rejection from those who subscribe to biblical patriarchy.

This week’s saying is on the side of the abolitionists who were accused of having to throw out their Christian faith to stand against White Christian slavery. It’s on the side of people of color and their white allies who stand firm and say “Black Lives Matter” in the face of rejection from their white peers, Christian and non-Christian alike. It’s on the side of those who find themselves opposing both Democrats and Republicans in saying that bombs won’t grant self-determination for those here or in any country where they’re victims of the global economy.

Yes, when you stand up for the vulnerable, there will be push back. Stand up anyway.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated mid-mass, and who stood in solidarity with the poor beyond U.S. backed military repression in El Salvador said:

Christ asks us not to fear persecution, because — believe me, brothers and sisters — whoever has cast his or her lot with the poor will have to endure the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor is: to disappear, to be tortured, to be a prisoner, to be found dead.” (Quoted by James Brockman in The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero, Orbis Books, 1982)

Using the Jewish text of Micah, our saying this week goes on to say, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. (Matthew 10:21)

Jesus message is stand up anyway.

Standing against injustice will produce a sword in the hand of those who are threatened by a more egalitarian world. Standing up will produce a fire storm of criticism: Colin Kaepernick followed all the rules the privileged say defines a legitimate protest and has still been delegitimized and slandered.

Stand up anyway.

If those who are rejecting you for standing with the vulnerable are your own family, biological or religious, stand against injustice, fear, ignorance, violence, and oppression anyway.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who, after his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York, returned to Germany to stand with the vulnerable and against Nazism. He wrote, “There remains an experience of incomparable value… to see the great events of world history from below; from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

One’s social location matters. Reading this week’s saying from the location of those on the undersides and edges of our society makes a difference.

We don’t have to reject members of our own family. Rather, this week’s saying tells us that when we do take a stand for justice, we may be rejected by mother, father, daughter, son, brother, or sister. And it’s encouraging us to stand up anyway.

Standing with and speaking out alongside the vulnerable will create conflict. But from that soil can grow a distributive justice that produces the fruit of peace. I don’t believe that we must pass through fire and sword to get to a world that is safe, just, and compassionate for everyone. But when those threatened by the new world do raise their swords and standing up creates a fire storm, stand up anyway.

Joan Carlson Brown & Rebecca Parker remind us, “It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not am I willing to suffer? but do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (in Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p.18)

“Fire have I come to hurl on the earth, and how I wish it had already blazed up! Do you‚ think that I have come to hurl peace on earth? I did not come to hurl peace, but a sword! For I have come to divide son against father, and daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Q 12:49‚ 51, 53)

HeartGroup Application

Gustavo Gutierrez writes in his book We Drink From Our Own Wells:

“The faith and courage of the members of our communities in the face of threats, misunderstandings, and persecution for justice’ sake are sustained and strengthened by the support each individual gives the others, by the support each community gives the others, by our very struggle and activity, by meditation on the word of God, and by the recollection of the witness given by those who have struggled for justice.”

As a group:

  1. List what types of push back you fear you will experience for taking stands against injustice, oppression, and violence?
  2. Discuss how your group can support members if these fears become reality? Make an actual list.
  3. Create an action plan: people to call or reach out to, ways to respond, things to set in motion that each of you can put into practice this week to support each other if and when pushback occurs. And now, having each other’s back, stand up anyway.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Where you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation on our way to thriving!

Again, I want to thank all of you who support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries. It’s people like you who enable us to exist and to be a positive resource in our world in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

If you are new to Renewed Heart Ministries, we are a not-for-profit group informed by the sayings and teachings of the historical Jewish Jesus of Nazareth and passionate about centering our values and ethics in the experiences of those on the undersides and margins of our societies. You can find out more about us here.

Everything we do at Renewed Heart Ministries is done with the purpose of making these resources as free as possible. To do so we need the help of people like you.

If you’d like to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries, you can make a one-time gift or become a monthly contributor by going to renewedheartministries.com and clicking on the Donate tab at the top right of our home page.

Or you can mail your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

Make sure you also sign up for our free resources on the website: we have a monthly newsletter and much, much more.

All of your support helps. Anything we receive beyond our annual budget we pass on to other not-for-profits making systemic and personal differences in the lives of those less privileged in the status quo.

For those of you already supporting our work, again, thank you.

I’m so glad you’re on this journey with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.