Is Your Theism An Opiate? 

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10.31-32, Emphasis added.)

The German philosopher and economist Karl Marx’s statement, “Religion is an opiate of the people,” Is often quoted. Does your flavor of Theism function as an opiate for you? Let me explain what this means.

One website estimates that 73% of theists, when faced with injustice in the world around them, do nothing. This is a shocking statistic on its face. And many of you may be part of the 27% it doesn’t apply to. Nonetheless, 73% is an incredibly high ratio.

If this is true, why should it be? It could very well be that many kinds of theism include a belief in the apocalyptic and the afterlife. We talked a few weeks ago about apocalypticism and how beliefs about the afterlife often accompany pessimistic views of the present: people tend to believe that things simply are the way they are in the present and cannot be fixed until the next life. As a result, theists from several religions may look at injustice in this world as an unfixable reality that we must simply accept until God puts it right in the hereafter.

That is the philosophical background we discussed recently. Yet there is another possible reason for theists who do not intervene in injustice, and I’d like to address it this week.

A Personal Relationship With A God That Is Love

The deep disregard for injustice that I’ve witnessed among theists seems to be rooted in a drug-like attachment to a private relationship with a Divine being, and they believe this Being is the very essence of Love. How can something so good yield something so damaging?

If you find great value, meaning, and purpose in a relationship with a Divine being that fits this description of ultimate love, by all means, please continue to do so. And also please hear me out. There is another aspect to this that we must also hold in tension to avoid being spiritually deformed.

Have you ever noticed how a couple that is newly in love can be completely oblivious to the world around them? Hold this illustration in your mind as we continue.

“God Loves You”

I find it curious that the idea of God’s love for us does not surface in three of the four, earliest canonical gospels that we have today. The gospel of John is loaded with this concept, but John’s gospel was not written until the end of the first century or beginning of the second. That means that for most of the Jesus’s movement’s first century, followers focused on the principles of Matthew, Mark and Luke—the teaching that calls us to love rather than to bask in being loved.

In these three early Gospels, Jesus spends his time teaching us how to love God, how to love our neighbor, the marginalized, the “sinner,” and how to love our enemies. There is not one example in these three gospels of Jesus sharing a teaching where the focal point of the teaching was trying to get us to embrace how much we are individually, privately loved by a Divine being.

It’s also curious that in the book of Acts, which is the story of the early Jesus movement growing and proclaiming the gospel, the early Apostles preached the good news without once discussing love. Search the entire book of Acts; the word “Love” can’t be found.

As New Testament historian N.T. Wright stated in the podcast Jesus and the Kingdom of God — Today and Tomorrow, “The good news is not a message about you, it’s a message about Jesus. Now, of course, because it’s a message about Jesus it is then a message about you. But if you say, ‘The Gospel is — God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life — this makes it incredibly me-centered. The gospel is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’ The crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the World. And under that great statement there is all the room for you to find new life in the present and in the future. There is all the room for you to find new work to do for the Kingdom, but that’s the Gospel — the message about Jesus.”

The message the early apostles proclaimed was the good news, and that good news was not the news that God loves you. Rather they proclaimed the message that the crucified Jesus was risen and is Lord* of this world.

Lastly, I find it curious that nowhere in the New Testament are we ever encouraged to or told how to have a private, personal relationship with God. The language of “personal relationship” that modern evangelicals are so familiar with simply isn’t there.

The Sermon on the Mount may be the most famous summary of the teachings of Jesus, and even it never encourages us to embrace a God who loves you privately. Rather it’s a list of things for the followers of Jesus to do, not to get to heaven, but to heal the hurt of the world around us. In these chapters, we find teachings about a God who loves THE WORLD. Our God loves the world and the people of the world, and therefore we are called to love them, too. (See Matthew 5.45-48.)

Yes, there are Christians that are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. And there’s another extreme in the cult of the “private Jesus.” We must guard against getting so lost in being loved in a private, internalized, individual love-fest with our own personal Divine being. The risk is of being so wrapped up in how much we feel God loves us personally that we become insulated against awareness of our culpability in the injustice, suffering, and oppression of this world and our responsibility to reduce it.

My own experience is some of the people who’ve given the loudest “amens” to my teachings on a God of love are also the very ones who’ve offered the loudest objections to my presentations on Jesus’s followers being agents of healing, restoration, and social justice.

We must be careful that the message of a God who loves does not simply become a pacifying drug for those privileged in our social/economic/political pyramid, something that absolves them of conviction about our responsibility to act. The message of God’s love must be more to us than something that helps the privileged—us!—to sleep better at night.

Yes, God is love, and, as Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Again, if you, have found great value, meaning, and purpose in having a relationship with a Divine being that to you is the very essence of love, by all means, please continue. But please don’t allow yourself to get so lost in the Divine, Loving embrace that you forget about those around you who your God loves just as much as God loves you yet may not be in as beneficial a position as you are in the present social order. A God who is love, also loves them, and this should cause us to be keenly aware of those whose suffering make our “blessings” possible.

A suffering world cannot find us credible when we speak of a God who is love and yet “pass by on the other side” when it comes to systemic violence. It matters little whether someone is lost in the hope of an afterlife or entranced by their own private spiritual experience if they are not making a difference in the world around them. Both forms can be subtle denials of the way that our Jewish teacher, Jesus, taught us through his life.

The Way of Jesus (and the prophets)

Did Jesus spend personal, private time, alone with God? Absolutely! Here are a few examples.

Mark 1:35—Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Mark 6:46—After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Matthew 14:23—After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.

Luke 5:16—But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Luke 6:12—One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.

Matthew 26:39—Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed . . .

Notice that Jesus’ time in private prayer empowered him to return to the public scene rather than retreat from it: he engaged the world as an agent of healing and did not perpetually isolate himself. Jesus, like the prophets before him, engaged in a contemplative practice that moved him to action, not withdrawal.

“The prophets have dirty hands (and mouths too sometimes), because you’ll find them wading without apology through the mess of life. Their target audience begins with the church and its religious leaders but extends to nations and heads of state and to corporations with their economic power brokers. They have unabashed social agendas and are not afraid of being perceived as political. Their concern is for the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the enslaved. The mature prophets call for both personal righteousness and social justice. They retreat inward in contemplation then explode onto the public scene as spokespersons for God’s heart and as advocates for the downtrodden.” —Brad Jersak, Can You Hear Me

Speak up and judge fairly;

defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31.9)

In our society, today, the “rights of the poor and needy” include those of all races, cultures, countries, genders, orientations, sexes, education levels, not merely economic status. And this makes it even more important that theists, especially the followers of Jesus, learn how to be agents of healing. Just as our Jesus was.

HeartGroup Application

This week I’m going to let you into something very private for me: my own personal contemplative practice.

I spend a set time every day contemplating the values and teachings taught in the Jesus story. Even if you only have 15 minutes, you’d be surprised what a difference 15 minutes can actually make.

My weekly schedule is:

Sunday: Restoration

Monday: Forgiveness

Tuesday: Reconciliation

Wednesday: Golden Rule / Interconnectedness

Thursday: Nonviolence

Friday: Justice

Saturday: Compassion

This list changes regularly, but this is what it is right now. You can make your own list of values from those in the Jesus story and dedicate some time each day to contemplate them.

  1. Try this yourself. Either create your own list or use mine for now. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and contemplate what each value means; what it looks like in daily life; what its application may be for your own journey; how you can embody this value. Just spend 15 minutes meditating and contemplating each value, daily, for a week.
  1. Journal what insights, changes, challenges, motivations, or benefits this exercise produces in you.
  1. Share your experience with your HeartGroup.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Love reigns,

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

* We hold the term Lord in tension with the non-kyriarchical teachings of Jesus. (Mark 9.33-35; Mark 10.42-44; John 15:15; John 13.12-15)

Ethical Teachings Versus Supernatural Claims


BY HERB MONTGOMERY

IMG_0065“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do as I teach? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.” (Luke 6:46-49)   

I’m just returning from Phoenix, Arizona, where I conducted a five-day religious re-education series for adults on the revolutionary teachings of Jesus.

A sampling of the teachings we looked at were:

  • Self-affirming, enemy-transforming nonviolence for the oppressed (Matthew 5.39-40)
  • A preferential option for the poor (Matthew 5.42; Luke 4.18-19; 6.30; 11.41)
  • Enemy love (Matthew 5.44; Luke 6.27-28)
  • Forgiveness (Mark 11.25; Matthew 6.14-15; Luke 6.37)
  • Restorative/transformative justice (Matthew 23.23; Luke 11.42; 18.7)
  • Redistribution of wealth (Mark 10.21; Matthew 6.19-34; Luke 12.33-34)
  • The Golden Rule (Matthew 7.12)
  • The modeling of a heterogenous shared table (Mark 2.16; Luke 14.12-14)

(You can listen to this series here.)

What I’ve noticed more and more over the last couple years as I’ve spoken about the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that the teachings he taught are somehow new thoughts and ideas for many of the Christians I meet. At least where I’ve traveled, Western, American, mostly white* Christians are unfamiliar with Jesus’s actual teachings, and at the same time have very strong ideas about what it means for them to be “Christian.” 

This phenomenon has a long history in the United States, at least as far back as the 1700s. A significant voice for 18th Century American patriotism was Thomas Paine’s. Paine was one of the founding fathers of the American revolution and also among the first to speak out against slavery and in favor of abolition. But what landed Paine in the most trouble was his book, The Age of Reason. In this book, Paine critiques institutional religion as an oppressive force and also questions the supernatural claims contemporary Christianity made about Jesus.

These supernatural claims have historically included:

  • The divinity of Jesus
  • The virgin birth
  • The miracles of Jesus
  • The substitutionary death of Jesus to satisfy the wrath of God
  • The resurrection

What struck me as odd as I wrote the above list is that many of my readers have been conditioned to place greater importance on mentally assenting to this list than on endeavoring to follow the first list of teachings I shared. We have learned to call the second list “faith” and the first list “behaviorism.” The Jesus of the gospels taught that first list himself. And mentally assenting to any item on the second list doesn’t necessarily change the world around us for the better whereas endeavoring to practice even one item on the list of Jesus’s teachings transforms each practitioner into an agent of healing in this world.

Historically, Freethinkers and secularists like Thomas Paine have agreed with and sought to apply the teachings, values, and ethics found in the Jesus story. They’ve seen in those teachings deep intrinsic worth, especially the Golden Rule, which could change our societies if we practiced it.

My concern this week is this: more and more, I see the harm we’re doing as Christians in the world today rather than being the sources of healing our Jesus story calls us to be.

If I had to choose between 1) someone who was highly certain about the supernatural claims of traditional Christianity yet was unfamiliar with or simply disregarded the actually ethical teachings of the Jesus story and 2) someone who questioned or even doubted those supernatural claims yet were dedicated to learning more deeply how to apply and follow Jesus’s  ethical teachings, I would choose the latter and consider them to be a Jesus follower. Again, it is the first list that the Jesus of the gospels taught himself.

We have enough highly certain humans already, in our Christian religion and beyond, and in so many ways the dogmatically certain who will not do as Jesus taught continue to make the world an unsafe and less compassionate place for many. This group is not in a moral position to critique the morality of those they are harming, though they often do. People who may doubt the church’s explanations and yet do as Jesus taught can at least assist with the moral development of humanity as they sit around the table, equals with us, sharing and listening to the stories of those whose life experience differs vastly from their own.

I expect to get a few emails this week from those who feel I have underestimated the traditional supernatural claims of Christianity. What I’m hoping for, nevertheless, is that a few of us will begin to ask why we feel more passionate about defending those claims while we experience comparatively little concern that so many Christians disregard the practical ethics that Jesus taught during his lifetime.  To be fair, many Christians, today, ARE waking up to the imbalance we are looking at, this week.  I’m pushing for more than acknowledgment, more than reformation, what is needed is a revolution.  Christianity is in desperate need of a revolutionary fusion that puts us back in touch with its original Revolutionary—Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, pick one of the values, ethics, or topics from our first list above and do some research on it. As you study it, contemplate the ways in which you could experiment with the teaching in your own life.
  2. Write down what you discover.
  3. Share and discuss your findings within your HeartGroup.

I’ll close this week with a book recommendation. If you would like to understand the long history mentioned in this week’s eSight, you can find a great overview in Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Holt Paperbacks; January 7, 2005) 

I believe it’s time to reassess what it means to follow the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Marcus Borg explains:

“Was Jesus a social revolutionary? In the ordinary sense in which we use the phrase ‘social revolutionary,’ yes. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he was passionate about economic justice and peace, and advocated active non-violent resistance to the domination system of his time. He was a voice of peasant social protest against the economic inequity and violence of the imperial domination system, mediated in the Jewish homeland by client rulers of the Roman Empire – in Galilee, Herod Antipas, and in Judea and Jerusalem, the temple authorities. He spoke of God’s kingdom on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer puts it: Your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. Heaven is not the problem – earth is.

But he was not a secular social revolutionary. He was God’s revolutionary. And God’s passion – what God is passionate about, according to Jesus – is for an earth in which swords are beaten into plowshares, in which nations do not make war against nations anymore, in which every family shall live under their own vine and fig tree (not just subsistence, but more than subsistence), and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4.1-4, with close parallel in Isaiah 2.1-4). This was the passion of Jesus, and for Christians, Jesus is the revelation of God’s passion.

Violent revolution? No. Non-violent revolution? Yes.

Of course, Jesus and the Bible are also personal as well as political. Of course. But we have not often seen the political meaning of Jesus and the Bible. It is there – and once one sees it, it is so obvious. Not to see it is the product of habituated patterns of thought, or of willful blindness.

Jesus was (and is) not about endorsing the rule of domination systems that privilege the wealthy and powerful. Jesus was (and is) about God’s passion for a very different kind of world.” — God’s Non-Violent Revolutionary by Marcus J. Borg

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

*This is not true of the non-white congregations I have come in contact with, though I am told of existing non-white congregations that are still very colonial in their thinking, as well.

Humanizing the Monsters 

by Herb Montgomery

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)

Tomorrow is Halloween so let’s talk about that first. Halloween has roots in the Western Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day or All Hallows. In the Eastern Orthodox community, Christians celebrate All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost during the spring, not the fall. But the West has observed it on November 1 since the 8th Century CE, which makes October 31 its eve and thus All Saints’ Day Eve, All Hallows Eve, or “Halloween” as pronounced by the Scots. Over time, Halloween became influenced by Gaelic and Welsh harvest festival traditions and folklore. It is important to keep Celtic Fall Festivals and the Christian roots of Halloween separate in our thinking. They are related; they are not the same.

In these festivals, humanity’s fascination with and fear of death is invoked. Whether we are memorializing the lives of “saints” who have died (in the spring or the fall), or Celtic fall festivals marking the transition from summer to winter, we’re tracing the transitions from light to darkness, plenty to paucity, life to death.

Humanity and Death

Death is at the heart of all our discussions about morality and ethics. That which leads to life is seen as good and right, and that which leads to death is seen as evil or wrong. Our entire moral compass as a race is dictated by how certain behaviors relate to life and death, the continuance of humanity or its end.

Historically, religion has held out hope for some type of existence beyond death (e.g. Egyptian religion, Christianity, Islam) or a more mystical resignation with death (e.g. Buddhism and Ancient Judaism).

The Jesus Story and the Resurrection

The resurrection is the most potent force in the early Jesus movement. The original followers believed they had witnessed Jesus, whom the status quo had executed, alive again, and it was his resurrection event that liberated them from the fear of death. Because of that event, they could stand up to domination systems and threats of execution if they stepped out of line, because death had become a conquered enemy.

Notice how the letter to the Hebrews, in true apocalyptic fashion, states this:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14, 15, emphasis added.)

These early Jesus followers could stand against the violence, injustice and oppression of earthly principalities and powers whom they viewed as conduits of cosmic evil Powers, because they no longer feared death and no longer feared what these earthly powers could do to them.

Through Jesus, death had been overthrown and so if his followers were executed by the domination systems as their Jesus had been, they believed they would also follow him in being resurrected at the time of universal restoration (see Acts 3.21; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, 1 Corinthians 15.22-23)

As a side note, I find it fascinating when humanists and secularists who do not believe in life after death but are resigned about death are still willing to lay down their lives unselfishly for those who may come after them. The gift of their life is genuinely selfless but is given purely for betterment of others. (Some researchers think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been such a humanist in his later years.)

Humanizing Monsters

Regardless of how we arrive at that point, from my own experience, being liberated from one’s fear of dying is a breathtakingly beautiful thing, especially when it has the potential to change how we relate to each other.

Morality rooted in our fear of dying influences the way in which we view one another: those who threaten our lives are viewed, too often, as evil. And those who significantly threaten our lives in ways that terrify us the most—those people we deem monsters.

The first step in ridding someone from society is to villainize them. If we can cease to see someone or a group as human and begin to see them as monsters, then we are well on our way to imagining an existence without them. These people must be seen to threaten the “good” —the life—of a society. And if they are, then fear drives out compassion, just as perfect love drives out all fear.

Tomorrow, millions of children will don masks and costumes, and go from door to door asking for cheap chocolate and industrially produced sweets. But underneath each mask is a child. I wonder if there is a deeper lesson in this.

Could the masks we see over the faces of those we fear simply hide children of a divine being, children just like you and I? Whether it’s fear of someone of a different culture or race than you, fear of someone from a different economic status than you, fear of a person with a different gender than you, or fear of someone whose orientation and sexuality is different than yours, our challenge is to pull back the mask that we have fixed upon them in our own hearts, and see that person as the genuine human being that they are. They are a child, just like you, of God, a sibling of yours within the divine/human family. It takes effort to humanize our monsters. Yet it’s only by doing so that we can fully to embody the value of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Our choices are fear or compassion, death or life.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take inventory of the people on this planet that you are afraid of. They can be specific people or simply types of people. I want you actually write down a list. I want you to name your fear this week.

2. Secondly I want you to do some research on your similarities with those you fear. This may be difficult for some, but it will be well worth it. Write down ten ways that those you are afraid of are like you: where do you not differ from them?

3. Journal the insights you gain from this exercise and share your results with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

We are all children of divinity. We are all siblings of the same divine/human family. Our hope lies in learning how to sit beside one another at the same family table once again. There are no monsters! There are only people, who feel, who love, who hurt, who, like us, are scared. Everyone has a story, and it’s time we give those we are afraid of an opportunity to share theirs.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

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

A Shared Meal and a Vision for the Future

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

breadandwine2While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples . . . Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. (Mark 14:22-23)

Ritual is defined as “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.” All known human societies include rituals, and these rituals have anthropological functions. They’re a set of activities, symbols, or events that help to shape those who participate in them and assist them in making sense of the world around them, giving order to the chaos, and providing meaning for each participant. In the early Jesus movement, the ritual of a shared meal was at the center of the group’s rituals.

You can find the origins of the shared meal ritual in Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first time the ritual is mentioned is in the first epistle to the Corinthians.

Included in Jesus’ early followers’ shared meal ritual were the symbols of broken bread and spilled wine. I do not believe the early Jesus followers saw this shared meal as an appeasement of an angry god, a way to satisfy some divine demand for retributive justice, or another human sacrifice demanded by the gods. Instead, this ritual was rooted in the Jesus story itself, and it helped them make sense of what had happened to Jesus. It gave order to what had happened. And it bound them together with meaning, purpose, and a vision for their future.

It did this, I believe, in multiple ways. Let’s discuss these one by one.

First, notice how the elements of the shared meal memorialized all of the faithful ones who had been broken and spilled out before them.

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels put Jesus’ rejection and execution, and the rejection of execution of his followers in the context of a long list of those who had been rejected and executed in Hebrew history:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?* Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (Matthew 23:29-36, emphasis added.)

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. (Luke 11:47-50, emphasis added.)

These passages, spoken by a Jew to Jews, later became the root of Christian anti-Semitism, so I want to be especially clear here. The early Jesus community does become increasingly anti-Semitic within the first century, and this trend is reflected in each telling of the Jesus story after Mark: it starts with Matthew and becomes more overt in John. However, I do not believe that Jesus’ rejection and execution are a uniquely Jewish trait. On the contrary, Jesus’ rejection and execution remind us of the strong tendency within all subordinated human cultures to reject nonviolent confrontation and resistance as a viable means of social change, and to seek more violent means in its place.

The Jesus of the Jesus story emerged within first century oppressed Judaism as a prophet of nonviolent social change. As Jesus’ vision for nonviolent social change was rejected, violent militaristic methods took hold that would contribute to the events that lead to the Jewish-Roman War of 66-69 C.E. and ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem by its Roman oppressors in 70 C.E.—the “this generation” he referred to. Who rejected Jesus’ method? Not the Jewish people as a whole, but the few, extremely influential, controlling class whose position of privilege in Jewish society at that time Jesus most threatened. These are very real human dynamics taking place within the Jesus story. They are not Jewish in particular. These realities have repeated themselves in all human cultures at various times and places throughout history: there is no excuse for an anti-Semitic interpretation.

I want you to notice that the writers of the gospels did not view Jesus’ execution and death as an isolated, solitary occurrence. Not only were Jesus’ followers to expect their own rejection and execution (see Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; 14:27), but the writers wanted them to see Jesus’ death as the latest in a long line of others whose lives had been broken and spilled out for critiquing the system as Jesus and his early followers did. The “blood of all the prophets from the beginning of the world” Included and preceded Jesus.

As well as being tied to prophetic history, in the Mark’s gospel the shared meal of the early Jesus community was also associated with the Jewish Passover meal of liberation from Egyptian oppression. The Passover ritual gave the Jewish people a way to explain what had happened repeatedly within their history, and it helped them build meaning, purpose, and a vision for the future.

That Jesus would use this Jewish ritual, reframing it for his own nonviolent liberation shows his ingenuity. Jesus came as prophet of social change, announcing liberation of the oppressed through self-affirming, nonviolent enemy transformation. Like the prophets of old, he would be executed by the domination systems he was critiquing. And he would call his followers to be willing to do the same.

The ritual of the shared meal, including broken bread and spilled out wine, therefore is quite appropriate. It was a memorial, first, of all those who had been broken and spilled out in the past by domination systems. It was a time to remember those who had gone before them. It reminded them that they were part of something larger than themselves, that their movement and their Jesus were part of a larger stream whose tributaries stretched back centuries before them.

Their shared meal memorial also centered Jesus, who stood in solidarity with all who have ever been broken and spilled out, and after his death, the ritual also kept his teachings at the center of the movement. It continually reminded them of the one who was broken and “spilled out for many” just as they were to be willing to be (Mark 14:24 cf. Mark 8:34).

This ritual not only helped these early followers to explain what had happened to Jesus, and not only gave them a historical context and meaning, it also helped them to cast a vision for future of human society. This shared meal was a protest, a demonstration that this new Jesus community was to form around a shared meal and shared table in significant contrast to the domination/subordination form of the wider society and of every human societies since. This was a vision of a way of relating that could liberate humanity from everything that hindered and oppressed it! We talked about Jesus the liberator in last week’s e-Sight (link).

This shared table was more than an economic symbol, though. Our new series, A Shared Table, explains that this ritual helped participants to more harmoniously live out the values of egalitarianism or equality, diversity, and basic, human inclusivity. In light of what we learn about the community of Jesus-followers in Acts 2 and 4, we see that it taught its participants to live in a society without domination, one based on the universal truth of the golden rule, sharing, justice, equity, and peacemaking.

The ritual begins within small communities, remembering the names and lives of all those who have gone before, celebrating a vision for what the world can be, and then getting up from the table and choosing to put it into practice. And through these small acts in small communities, the world is “turned upside down” (Acts 17).

HeartGroup Application

I want to encourage each HeartGroup to participate the ritual that Jesus shared with his disciples, the last supper. In the 1st Century, this ritual took the form of a shared meal that included “bread and wine.” The ritual both memorialized Jesus and those in the past whom he was standing in solidarity with, it gave meaning to the ways they too were being broken and spilled out for many, and it set before their imaginations what a world changed by the teachings of Jesus could look like.

This week:

  1. Schedule with your HeartGroup a special time when you can come together and participate in this ritual of a shared meal. Read some more historical background on the shared agape meal.

2. Take time during the meal to read the stories of Jesus’ last supper from each of the four New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Then share the broken bread and spilled wine with each other in whatever way feels comfortable and appropriate for you.

3. Remember and share stories about those in the past who have envisioned and moved humanity closer toward Jesus’ new world. Then spend some time sharing with one another aspects of Jesus’ new world that you are looking forward to. What steps can your HeartGroup take together to move closer toward that new world?

 

In the light of the resurrection event, the shared table ritual gave meaning and purpose to the early Jesus communities. I hope that it will do the same for each of you.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


*I have explained that the destruction of Jerusalem was a result of the people rejecting the way of nonviolence. See The Final Eight Prophecies of Jesus Part 1-9.

Jesus’ Vision for Community, Wealth Redistribution, and Closing the Inequality Gap 

By Herb Montgomery

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

First, I didn’t say the above statement! So don’t be upset with me. But it is in Mark’s version of the Jesus story, so I’d like to address it.

Most believe Mark’s gospel was written just before or just after the destruction of the Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish war. The events taking place in the Jesus community at this time help us understand re-emphasizing Jesus’ teachings on sharing our superfluous wealth with each other.

According to the book of Acts, the Jesus community practiced communal care: they took care of the needs of those within their community.

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2.44-45)

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

What is so amazing about both of these passages is the result: the early Jesus community eliminated poverty in their group. “There were no needy persons among them”—this is what a world influenced by the teachings of Jesus could look like.

One of the purposes of Mark’s gospel is to encourage Jesus’s followers to continue this care-taking. Here’s how he does it. Mark dedicates a large portion of the narrative to this topic.

First, we have the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, with twelve baskets of leftovers in chapter 6:34-44. Then, two chapters later, we have another feeding a multitude (Mark 8:1-10). This time it’s four thousand fed, and seven basketfuls left over.

Just one of these stories would be expected; it’s the repetition of the elements that should cause us to sit up and ask “Why.”

Mark answers this question in verses 14-21 of chapter 8:

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’

Let’s begin to unpack this exchange: “Are your hearts hardened?,” Jesus asks. In Hebrew folklore, the quintessential hardened heart was Pharaoh’s in Exodus. Within that story, Egypt symbolizes a world empire built on scarcity, accumulation, and storage that over time grew into a domination system rooted in greed, oppression, and ruthless brick-production. The story climaxes with a stand off between Moses the liberator and Pharaoh the oppressor; the story says Pharaoh’s heart was “hard,” meaning that he would not let the Israelites go.”

Jesus emerged within 1st Century Judaism as a liberator of the poor and oppressed. To the degree that Jesus’ disciples would not participate in this liberation, they, like the Pharaoh in the story, choose the way of a hardened heart. Jesus called for his followers to radically embrace one another to the degree that even the wealthy would embrace the poor and liquidate superfluous assets to eradicate need. Two chapters after the conversation in chapter 8, we see Jesus telling a rich questioner, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor” (Mark 10:18-25).

There are two obstacles to this level of radical sharing. One is feeling like you don’t have enough to share; the other is having enough today but being so afraid of not having enough in the future that you refuse to share now. The stories of the feedding of the multitudes address the first obstacle, whereas the rich man in Mark 10 represents the second.

In each of the “multitude” stories, there is not enough to go around. But in these stories, each person brings what they have and “miraculously” there is somehow enough with more to spare.

In Mark 8, in the boat, the disciples are bumping up against a “scarcity” mentality once again. There is only one loaf to be divided among them, and their temptation is to revert to the narrative of hoarding or “competing” for what there is. Jesus warns them to beware of the leaven of Herod and the wealthy Pharisees. The leaven Jesus is referring to here is that fear of future scarcity that leads to accumulation, hoarding, greed, and a hard heart that ignores the needs of others today. The hard heart makes you a mini “pharaoh,” one who refuses to liberate those around you from whatever prevents them from being fully human.

Jesus’ solution to the oppression of the poor is not charity, but community. I don’t think there is anything wrong with charity. Charity is vital! Charity takes care of hungry stomachs right now. Certainly following Jesus includes no less than sharing charitably with the needy, but it also includes more. Following Jesus means community, where each person, rich and poor alike, brings what they have to the shared table. Even though we may be tempted to think that we only have two loaves and a few fish to feed an entire community, when we come together, something magical happens. As each person contributes what they have, somehow every person’s needs are met.

A couple weekends ago, I encountered an organization in Glendale, CA, called Communitas. Communitas is a Latin noun referring to an unstructured community in which people are equal or to the very spirit of community. The philosophy is that we can choose to network together in a community where each one of us has something that someone else needs. Our needs put us in touch with one another. As we choose to take care of each other, each ability connecting with each need, we can eliminate need by applying the abilities we already possess. Even those who are “in need” have abilities and talents they can bring to the shared table. Communitas is an amazing organization that does more than offer bandaid solutions to poverty. It’s an organization subversively casts a vision of systemic change.

In Mark, Jesus’ solution to “need” or poverty is to close the inequality gap by inviting each person into community where every need is supplied by another person’s shared ability. Some of the wealthy responded well: think of those among the wealthy tax collectors who had chosen to follow Jesus. Others did not: think of those among the Pharisees who viewed Jesus’ teaching with contempt and dismissal.

Mark finishes his story in chapter 10 with these words:

“Children, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Notice that he does not say it was impossible. He did say it was hard. Jesus was simply being honest about the difficulty. In the words of Bob Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” But for those who felt as if they had much to lose, choosing the way of compassion and bringing what they possessed to the shared table was, at best, a challenge.

An aside: there actually wasn’t a camel gate in Jerusalem that camels had to get down on their knees to enter. This is a myth that began in the 16th Century to allow the wealthy to follow Jesus and still hold on to their wealth. The phrase “eye of the needle” is beautiful Hebrew hyperbole, and also appears in the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Baba Mezi’a 38b. Jesus is also using an Aramaic play on words. The Aramaic word gamla can be translated as “rope” as well as camel, because most ropes were made of camel hair. And so the phrase can be read as “getting a rope through the eye of a needle.” The pun holds as Mark’s gospel is translated from Greek into Latin: The Latin word for rope is kamilos, and the Latin word for camel is kamelos.

So what does the pun mean? For a rope to go through an eye of a needle, it must undergo a change: it must be pared down significantly. The rope must become thread. Jesus is saying that the way the wealthy are saved is through choosing to let go of their fear of the future, their trust in the safety of what they have accumulated, and to accept instead the way of compassion that values fellow humans more than wealth. Jesus calls the wealthy to place their wealth on the shared table alongside everything that others bring to the shared table. No hoarding allowed.

The emphasis is not about reducing individual wealth; it’s about making wealthy communities. Jesus is casting the vision of sharing communities that create shared wealth. In these communities, as it states in Acts, there will no longer be a needy person among us.

“A needle’s eye is not too narrow for two friends, but the world is not wide enough for two enemies.” — Solomon Ben Judah Ibn Gabirol (Spanish Jew and Collector of Jewish Aphorisms; Spain, c. 1021 – c.1069; see Geary’s Guide to the Worlds Great Aphorists)

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — attributed to Margaret Mead

HeartGroup Application

This week I have a special activity for each HeartGroup.

  1. Before you meet as a group make time to personally watch Richard Wilkonson’s 16 minute Ted talk How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. Write down any thoughts, questions, or insights you get as you watch.
  2. When you meet together for your HeartGroup this upcoming week, watch the short presentation again as a group and then spend some time sharing with each other your response.
  3. As a group, write down ways you could close the gaps that exist within your own HeartGroup. Then pick one of these ways to experiment with over the next few weeks. Schedule a time a month from now when you can, as a group, discuss what you have discovered through this exercise.

I’d love to hear what your group discovers. Shoot me an email and let me know what has happened.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Here’s to a safer, more compassionate world, through the means of a shared table, for us all.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Both David’s “son” and “Lord”

 BY HERB MONTGOMERY

While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.” ’
David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?” (Mark 12.35-37)

This week we are looking at a question Jesus asks in Mark’s gospel on the Tuesday of his final week. So far on that day, Jesus has responded to multiple attempts to discredit him in the eyes of the people after his nonviolent, anti-imperial entry on Sunday and his Temple demonstration against religious imperialism on Monday. For the first time in Mark’s narrative, Jesus moves away from reactive defense of his actions to a more proactive teaching.

As he teaches on King David and the Messiah, Jesus is quite clever. He asks, how can the Messiah be David’s son when David refers to this messiah as “Lord”?

The passage Jesus is referencing is Psalm 110:1, a psalm that reassures David of God’s aid defeating Israel’s enemies :

The LORD says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”

By the 1st Century, according to Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan in their wonderful volume The Last Week, this psalm had come to be understood as a messianic psalm.

By alluding to this psalm, Mark’s Jesus focuses on how David describes the “coming one” as David’s “Lord.”

Since returning from exile during the 7th Century BCE, the Hebrew people had held the restoration of “the house of David” as a nationalistic hope. The writers of the Jesus story are writing from within this tradition.

Mark wants his readers to see Jesus as superior to David. Jesus is seen by the early Jesus community as the fulfillment of their long held Davidic hope for the liberation of Israel from foreign oppression and the restoration of Israel as a self-determining, self-governing people. Mark’s Jesus was also to be different in some significant ways from the David of the Hebrews’ most cherished stories.

How did the early Jesus community perceive Jesus to be different/superior to David?

Jesus was anti-imperialist

Today, most scholars agree that Jesus’ teachings and demonstrations include anti-Roman-Imperialism principles. Jesus consistently critiqued the way some Jewish leaders and the temple aristocrats legitimized Rome’s domination system.

Yet the Jesus of the gospels isn’t only opposed to foreign domination systems in Israel. He also imagines a new human society not based on the domination of others at all. For Jesus, our hope as humans is not in our ability to devise more efficient ways of subordinating others, but in creating more effective ways of caring for one another:

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-35)

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10.42-44)

Jesus demonstrated that his Way was to lay down our desire to fashion human societies on the basis of domination and choose instead lovingly caring for the needs of one other.

Jesus was committed to nonviolence

Another way the early believers saw Jesus as different from David was in Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.

Follow Mark’s logic.

Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, and as such has the political/religious title of “son of God.” Mark’s first verse announces “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The title, son of God, had a twofold meaning in the 1st Century. It first pointed back to David who also had the title “son of God” (see Psalm 2:7), and it also poked at the Roman title for Caesar.  All three receive their titles after being anointed.

“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.10-11, cf. Psalm 2:7 as well as 2 Samuel 7:14)

Jesus is anointed with the Spirit just as Samuel anointed David with oil in the ancient story when David was chosen to be king (1 Samuel 16:13). Yet Mark’s anointing Spirit comes in the form of a dove. 

In Roman culture, the dove opposed Rome’s imperial symbol, the eagle. The culture also viewed certain birds descending on political figures as an omen.

Two examples:

“Claudius entered on his belated public career as Gaius’s colleague in a two-months’ consulship; and when he entered the Forum with the consular rods, an eagle swooped down and perched on his shoulder.” (Suetonius, Claud. 7)

“At Bononia, where the army of the Triumvirs Augustus, Antony, and Lepidus was stationed, an eagle perched on Augustus’s tent and defended itself vigorously against the converging attack of two ravens, bringing both of them down. This augury was noted and understood by the troops as portending a rupture between their three leaders, which later took place.” (Suetonius, Aug. 94)

Doves contrast with eagles much like lambs contrast with wolves/lions in other literature, in addition to the Christian gospels:

“By the brave and good, are the brave created: their sire’s virtues exist in horses and men, while the ferocious golden eagles don’t produce shy doves.” (Horace, Odes 4.4)

(For more on this line of thought see Jesus and the Dove: how a Roman audience may have read the Gospel of Mark by Neil Godfrey.)

So the contrast between the eagle descending on Roman leaders and the dove descending on Jesus is the same contrast we find in all the Jesus stories: the Roman cross signals victory for Rome, whereas the empty tomb is the early Christian icon of God overturning, undoing, and reversing all that the Roman cross accomplished.

So what about Jesus and David? If Jesus had only been a 1st Century David figure, the symbolism used for him should have been a fiercer bird of prey than the eagle. (The eagle is an appropriate symbol for a political power that wants to portray itself as undefeatable as eagles have no known natural predators.)

Yet the gospels represent Jesus with a dove. Jesus’ new world would not come through overpowering the present order through shows of force. No. Jesus’ new world would be much more subversive.

Jesus’ way is the way of the cross, not of a sword. It comes through offering the left cheek rather than striking back; through going the second mile, and throwing off the second garment.

This is why the dove has come to be a symbol of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. In the book of Revelation, a lamb defeats a dragon, contrary to most folk stories that picture the dragon feasting on helpless lambs. A great story I learned while I was in Poland (I gave a series of presentations in Czestochowa in the spring of 2003) is of lambs being used subversively to defeat the Wawel dragon.

Yet as I have offered before, Jesus’ nonviolence was not passive withdrawal from crisis or injustice. It was also not merely nonresistance, it was a Way of resistance. Jesus’ nonviolence was self-affirming in a world where the lives of the weak were already being denied by their oppressors. Jesus called his followers to imagine Jewish nonviolent direct action against Roman imperial domination.

David represented the violent defeat of Israel’s enemies—so much so that the Hebrew Bible describes his hands as too bloody to build the temple. Jesus represents the nonviolent end of Israel’s enemies because he transforms those enemies, even the Roman ones, into his friends. As the old proverb goes, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Jesus’ nonviolence is rooted in justice for the oppressed. It is the liberation of the oppressed and the transformation of the oppressor.

Violent revolutions like those David once led only place those on the bottom of our societies in a new position of power and create new hegemonies. Jesus’ movement, as shown above in Mark 9 and 10, is non-kyriarchical and is based on service, not domination.

HeartGroup Application

I rarely recommend a book for HeartGroups to read and discuss together. HeartGroups are shared tables where we all sit side by side, in equity, sharing with one another, and mutually submitted to one another. HeartGroups are not book clubs. Yet sometimes, reading a book together can lead us into the dynamics of Jesus’ shared table. This week I’m going to recommend a book for HeartGroups to read and discuss together.  and is a book that I have referred to in my talks over the last 18 months.

  1. Read a chapter of Jesus and Nonviolence each week on your own.
  2. Discuss the chapter that you read when your HeartGroup comes together.

Jesus’ new world is characterized by at least two values: service rather than dominance; and the non-violent self-affirmation of oppressed people alongside the subversion of domination systems and the transformation of those who oppress them.

Jesus showed us The Way. It’s up to us to choose to put his teachings into practice.

Till the only world the remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus and Naturalism

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

science“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life . . . instruct them in the practice of all I have [taught] you” (Matthew 28:17, 18-19, The Message, emphasis added).

Last week, we talked about one of the worldviews that informed the writers of the gospels. We learned about the traits of the ancient apocalyptic worldview and how it differs from the modern Christian focus on the end-times. This week, let’s talk about another worldview that influences how we read the gospels: naturalism. It is important to understand how the beliefs that we take for granted in our time mirror and differ from the worldview of the Jesus of the gospels and the disciples who wrote about him.

What is Naturalism?

Naturalism seeks to explain what happens in this world by natural causes (natural laws) rather than appealing to supernatural explanations. In its purest form, it assumes that this world is a closed system, which means that nothing that isn’t already a part of this world can be looked to as a cause to explain why something in this world is happening.

Not all naturalists are pure naturalists, however. Many people in the West would much rather look for a natural cause and cure for conditions like lupus than assume a person’s lupus is caused by a supernatural demon and they should see the exorcist. They’re not going to the doctor for prayer. They’re going to the doctor for medicine. Yet many of these same naturalists are also theists and still accept the possibility of supernatural intervention. They still believe in the healing Jesus.

Naturalism in its purest form leaves a person with three options when it comes to a Divine being.

  1. No God exists. (Atheism)
  2. God exists but is disconnected from and uninvolved in this world. (Deism)
  3. Nature is God (Pantheism)

The atheist, deist, and pantheist naturalists can also be referred to as metaphysical naturalists: they agree that the supernatural does not exist. But there are other naturalists, like the theists who seek natural medical explanations for illness, who are merely methodological naturalists: they prioritize natural causes, effects, and explanations for things that happen on this planet. Scientific research and discovery is possible whether one is a metaphysical naturalist or a methodological one. Many of my theist friends who are naturalists still maintain a belief in a personal God from whom these natural laws of cause and effect originated. And recent surveys of professional scientists have shown that more than half conduct their research and also believe in a higher power.

Strengths of Naturalism

Discovery of Actual Causation

Naturalism began with the ancient Greek philosophers’ attempts to explain this world without appealing to “the gods.” Naturalism as we know it today made its first significant inroads into Christianity during the 12th Century Renaissance thanks to Christian natural philosophers. It then picked up steam in the 16th Century where Christian scientists referred to the study of nature as the study of God’s secondary causes. Galileo promoted naturalism during this time, and the approach allowed early scientists to discover some of the basic laws of nature.

Prevention and Cure

If one can discover and predict the causes of things that promote human suffering, then one can discover ways to prevent and/or cure human suffering as well. Over the last several centuries, scientific naturalism has significantly lessened human suffering and increased quality of life for the beneficiaries of its discoveries.

Deliverance from Superstition

Using a scientific basis, Christian naturalist scientists like Galileo began noticing the observable and measurable forces that have repeatable results on things in the world. They found causes for the things that were happening around them rather than appealing to the existence of devils or angels behind every bush and event.

This is significant on a religious level. As people began to discover natural reasons for their suffering through science, they lost fear of provoking the anger of the church’s God and fear of varying from the teachings and explanations of church officials. The Black Death, for example, was not the result of God’s wrath; it was the result of germs. Lightning strikes were not the sign of an angry God; they were the product of observable changes in the atmosphere.

Connectedness

Naturalists believe that all of the natural world is connected in a network of causes and effects. This connectedness we share with one another can lead to concern and care for others besides just ourselves or those like us. Ultimately naturalism has empowered human compassion with tangible methods and means to make a difference in the lives of those hurting.

Responsibility and Accountability

Naturalism may have more benefits than what I’ve listed here, but another that is meaningful to me is the emphasis on human responsibility for the things that happen on this planet: the worldview encourages people to embrace accountability toward each another and not excuse themselves by blaming supernatural forces. A pastor friend of mine who is deeply concerned with climate change also lives in the fundamentalist Bible-belt. Each time a natural disaster occurs, he is fond of saying, “When bad things happen, God gets blamed for things God didn’t do. A devil gets blamed for things a devil didn’t do. And people continue to not take responsibility for the things we are setting in motion.”

Weakness of Naturalism

The naturalist worldview has some beautiful strengths and a few weaknesses as well.

Dependence on Rationalism

Science has no explanation for many of the things that happen on this planet. Although my metaphysical naturalist friends would be quick to say, “Science has no explanation, YET…”, time will tell whether everything on this planet can truly be explained by only appealing to nature without accounting for the supernatural. We can’t yet know.

Addiction to Explanations

While we can explain most things, we sometimes have a tendency to have to explain everything. Naturalism can produce an intolerance of mystery. I do agree that many mysteries need solving and some things that become more beautiful as they are explained. I also believe some things become less beautiful once their mystery is removed and they become explainable. Life must not only be explainable, it must also possess enough beauty and mystery that it’s still worth living.

Meaninglessness, Absence of Compassion, Lack of Ethics

There are a number of popular Christian critiques of the naturalistic world view. First, some Christians say that naturalism produces a meaningless existence. I have found this to be untrue: instead life takes on new and different meanings. Second, some Christians say the naturalistic world view robs humanity of any compassion because it doesn’t root service to humans in service to God. I have also found this to be untrue.  Human compassion results from our discovery of our connectedness. Naturalists and supernaturalists differ in the explanation of why we are connected.  Yet they agree with each other that we are all connected.  In many naturalists, that discovery has deepened their compassion and empowered them with the tools to make a difference in others’ lives. Finally, some Christians warn that if the naturalistic world view is embraced it will produce a world devoid of ethics. I have yet to meet an amoral naturalist. Their ethics may have a different basis than an apocalypticist’s, but it is unfair to say naturalism ultimately removes our ethics.

 

Jesus Followers and Naturalism

Although the writers of the early Jesus story were not naturalists, the Jesus we find in the story offered a wisdom teaching that I believe can be relevant even for contemporary naturalists today.

Notice what is said in our feature text this week, Matthew 28:17-19. Jesus invited his disciples to produce other Jesus followers. A Jesus follower is not someone who has embraced the worldview of the 1st Century people who first heard Jesus speak. What it meant to be a Jesus follower then was to be “trained” in a “way of life,” in the “practice” of the ethics and values of the 1st Century, Jewish, revolutionary Jesus.  Many in that era embraced a Jewish Apocalyptic world view, yet they were not followers of Jesus. That worldview and discipleship were not the same thing. The question we must wrestle with today is whether someone must embrace a 1st Century Jewish apocalyptic worldview to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. And I don’t believe they do.

The Jesus of the Jesus story offered alternative wisdom to the social norms of his own day. He valued every human being as a being of inestimable worth, and so he contrasted with the way the culture used purity codes to marginalize some of the people. He taught within his context, and his teachings had a political dimension. Jesus opposed arranging human society according to domination systems. He challenged the Roman domination system and its religious legitimization in the Jewish temple at that time, especially among the priesthood and some of the Jewish leaders. (We can gain much from paying attention to the religious legitimization of political domination in our own time and culture. For more on this aspect of Jesus’ teachings, please see Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem)

In addition, Jesus taught nonviolent noncooperation and nonviolent confrontation in response to unjust domination systems. This nonviolence can be tested, observed, and seen to have tangible and repeatable results in the lives of those such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jesus’ teachings had an economic dimension that called to account systems that produce poverty. He offered a preferential option for the poor in our societies, and his stories, like the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, called his audience to look at themselves and others in a different way.

Jesus made original contributions for his own place and time within Jewish culture. He was offering a transformative and restorative justice for all based on a universal and non-discriminatory love for all.

As we said last week, since the 4th Century, Christianity has transitioned away from Earth and begun focusing on how people might enter a post-mortem heaven. This focus was not the focus of the early Jesus’ community. Jesus offered the people teachings on matters directly related to this world, not another. And although the Jesus in the story spoke of supernatural entities, his teachings primarily offer a set of values and ethics that we can test to discern whether they help us find The Way to a safer more compassionate world for us all. As he taught, we can “know by their fruit” whether they have value.

A naturalistic worldview is common in our time. It may remodel our cosmology, and it may adjust our understanding of history, yet I do not believe it requires us to remove our sense of a Heart at the center of the Universe or relegate the 1st Century Jesus to irrelevance.

Science and Jesus can be good neighbors to each other! Again, there is not one Jesus follower I know today who subscribes to a purely apocalyptic or a purely naturalist worldview. We subscribe to a hybrid of both, and I believe there is room in the human family for us all. As we learn to listen to each other, even with our differences, we will together find our way to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate world. (Those of you who are further down the naturalist spectrum than me and are curious to see ways that other naturalists embrace Jesus: check out these four articles—Christian naturalism is possible: Naturalistic Christianity 101, Christian Naturalism, A Christian Naturalism: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman, and Christianity Without Religion.)

I’ll close this week with a statement by Arthur G Broadhurst, a Christian naturalist:

“Once we get beyond the mythological language [in the gospels], it is clear that the disciples had a life-transforming experience that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking… and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings… [Being] a Christian does not require a simultaneous belief in gods or theological propositions, in magic or superstition… Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, bandaging the wounded, holding the hand of a child, standing with the oppressed against the oppressor. It means humility rather than arrogance and pride. It means becoming fully human.”

HeartGroup Application

This week we are learning to listen to those who may see things differently than we do. HeartGroups are intended to help us experience what Jesus modeled at his own shared table.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once wrote, “Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding.”

The beauty of Jesus’ shared table is that it enables us to begin integrating various and diverse perspectives into a meaningful and consistent whole, each of us discovering our own blind spots as we chose to listen to another. Jesus is calling us to choose love for one another over the fear of one another.

  1. This week, take Matthew chapters 5-7 and list the teachings of Jesus there that you find meaningful and maybe even challenging for you personally.
  2. List the teachings you have questions about or don’t readily understand.
  3. Present both lists to your HeartGroup and then invite anyone who is willing to share from their own perspectives what the teachings in your second list may mean.

I’ve witnessed some amazingly beautiful moments emerge from members of a diverse group following these three simple steps. The purpose is not for everyone to see everything the same. These are moments for us to practice listening: difference is inevitable but division is optional.

Till the only world that remains is Jesus’ safe and compassionate world where Love reigns.

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

An End of the World Savior versus Present Liberator

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [read cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (Mark 1:27-28)

This week we are looking at how some sectors of Christianity focus on the end of the world, to the exclusion of redeeming the present.

Historically, Christians have taken an interest in alleviating human suffering, and have been involved in human rights movements from abolition and temperance to disaster relief and, more recently, Black Lives Matter. Yet some sectors of Christianity are much more concerned with saving people from some end-time-calamity in their future life, than they are with people’s present life, and even those sectors that do alleviate present suffering typically focus on individual change rather than structural change.

The traditional Christian effort in regards to poverty is just one example. The effort usually takes the form of charity such as giving people food for today, yet not addressing the systemic causes that created their hunger to begin with. I’m not saying that charity is wrong. It’s vital. It simply is not enough. More recently, some Christians have begun offering financial education and seminars aimed at enabling and empowering the poor to succeed within the present economic system. But these seminars don’t ever look at the financial system itself and ask whether this system is, in fact, just.

Both the service and education approaches inadvertently place the blame for poverty on the victims themselves, i.e. “It’s your fault you’re poor.” Sometimes a person’s individual choices do cause them to suffer. And sometimes there is a much bigger picture that limits the choices that person can make. Either way, it is victim-blaming to focus on delivering folks from personal sin and leave untouched the sinful social structures that cause their suffering and oppress them. Sin moves both individually and socially, and grace also moves both individually and socially.

Far too many sectors of Christianity don’t even go this far, and focus solely on saving people from affliction at the end of time, without regard to what afflicts them in this right now, today. That is directly opposed to the approach of the gospels’ Jesus.

  • We never see Jesus walking around trying to get people to say a sinner’s prayer so as to either go to heaven when they die or be raptured from global catastrophe in the end of time. (This is not to be confused with Jesus’ call to nonviolence endeavoring to offer Jerusalem a different fate than being destroyed by Rome.)
  • We do see Jesus liberating those he came in contact with from those concrete things that oppressed them in present time.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to allow for laziness in matter of social justice, now.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to preserves the present position of those benefiting at the expense of others from the current status quo.
  • An End-of-the-World focus tends, too often, to leave those presently poor, mourning, and hungry un-blessed by the gospel of Jesus. ( See Luke 6.20-26)

To see Jesus as Present Liberator, not merely End-of-the-World Savior, let’s look at Mark’s stories of the demoniacs. First, a few words about the apocalyptic worldview of the early Gospel authors.

Apocalyptic Worldview

Writers of the early gospel stories subscribed to an apocalyptic worldview, which means that they saw this world as the battleground for the cosmic forces of good and evil.

The apocalyptic world view possessed four tenets: dualism, pessimism, judgment and imminence.[1]

Dualism

Within the Apocalyptic world view the world is dualistic, meaning it has two parts: this world that we see and the cosmic world that we do not see. The cosmic world is composed of good cosmic powers and evil cosmic powers, each power works through earthly participants, and the cosmic forces of evil are the enemies of a good God. For first century apocalyptic Jews, these evil cosmic powers were sin, death, demons, and Beelzebub (or the satan). According to this view, the historical earthly participants with these cosmic powers were Babylon, the Persians, Greece, and Rome: all of these historical earthly powers were oppressors of the weak

Within this worldview, the cosmic evil forces are presently in control of the earth (see 1 John 5:19) Accordingly, those who choose the side of good will suffer and those who choose the side of evil will prosper.

Pessimism

Those who subscribed to this worldview believed in the eventual overthrow of these evil forces, yet also believed there was nothing we can do in the meantime. There were variations on this belief, though. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees believed they could hasten the eventual overthrow of evil through obedience to the purity laws of the Torah. Their pessimism produced the view that there are two ages: the present age where the forces of evil are in control, and the age to come when these powers would be defeated, Earth would be liberated, and those on the side of good would be vindicated. For now, according to this belief, all we should expect is that the world would get worse and worse until the very end when the suffering of the good would be traded for vindication.

Judgment and Vindication 

The apocalyptic worldview also included the belief that the age to come will arrive with a cataclysmic breakthrough that would usher in utopia. That breakthrough was understood to be the inauguration of God’s Kingdom as spoken of by the prophets here on Earth. It would be accompanied by the bodily resurrection of those who had died previously, and then everyone, those living and those resurrected, would face either a punishment or a reward. (See Daniel 12.2)

Imminence of the End

Those who held to an apocalyptic worldview believed that the age to come, and all of the events associated with it, was just around the corner.

Positives and Negatives

This worldview had positives and negatives. The positives were that it took evil seriously. There are evils that are bigger than any of us individually. And it provided hope that there was a cosmic force for good that would eventually put things in this earth to right. The negative was that it tended to produce a moral complacency in the face of injustice, violence, and oppression here and now. In other words, there really is nothing we can do to change human suffering around us until the age to come, so the best we can do is try and survive.

The Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

Today, our culture mostly subscribes to a naturalistic world view, which means that many people see this world as the result of observable, measurable forces that have repeatable impacts on the things and people in the world. This view is not dualistic, but assumes that everything that happens on this planet can be explained by natural causes and effects.

The early canonical gospel authors were not naturalists. They drew from the worldview of their time, the apocalyptic worldview. This is important to understand because it explains much of what we read in the gospel stories they wrote. They believed that in Jesus’ life and teachings, which climaxed in his execution and resurrection, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened!  I do not believe that someone has to hold the apocalyptic world view to find benefit in the Jesus story, today.  Someone can hold a naturalistic world view and still gain much from the ethical teachings of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that will help create a safer more compassionate world for us all.

Most Christians today subscribe purely to neither an apocalyptic nor a naturalist world view, but a hybrid of both which is influenced by the narratives of their religious tradition. On a spectrum of apocalypticism at one end and naturalism at the other, the more fundamentalist a Christian is, the more they will hover near the apocalyptic end of the spectrum; the more progressive a Christian is, the more they will hover near the naturalist end. Both will likely draw at least some elements from the other worldview as well. I’ll be contrasting the naturalistic world view with the apocalyptic world view in next week’s eSight.

What I would like to contrast this week is the apocalypticism of the early church with the apocalypticism of many fundamentalist Christians today.  There is a stark difference between the two.

The Christian apocalyptic world view of today typically holds to some level of dualism (cosmic forces of good and evil working through earthly powers and systems.) It, too, looks toward a future judgment/vindication that is referred to by many who hold this world view as “the end of the world.”  The view also holds that this “end” is imminent.  It is just around the corner.  We do not have much time left.  Lastly, this view also tends toward a pessimistic passivity.  Things are just going to get worse and worse.  There’s nothing we can do until the end, and Jesus comes the second time to set things right.  Things will not any get better till the end of the world arrives.

This contemporary form of the apocalyptic world view, though, is a subtle denial of Jesus.

The authors of the Jesus story did subscribe to an apocalyptic world view as well.  Yet there was a difference.  The difference between their apocalypticism and contemporary apocalypticism is that they believed that in Jesus, the apocalyptic event they had been looking for in the future had finally arrived. It had happened! They were no longer focused on some future event.  The authors of the Jesus story in the New Testament were looking at the present through the lens of the life, teachings, execution, and resurrection of their Jesus.

Christians who hold a contemporary apocalyptic world view today are still looking toward the future event for world change.  Many of those are remaining passive until those events take place.  The writers of the Jesus story believed that in Jesus, the future apocalyptic event, in the form a mustard seed, had arrived and they were actively working to participate in Jesus’ liberation from suffering here and now!  

They were no longer waiting on the future, the Kingdom had come!

They were no longer entrenched in passive pessimism, but active participation in Jesus’ work of liberation now! (see the book of Acts)

Holding to an apocalyptic world view, the gospel writers believed Jesus was their long awaited Messiah who had ushered in the Age to Come. (It had come in the form of leaven placed in dough.)  Jesus was their liberator from all things that oppressed them, both cosmic evils and those force’s earthly collaborators, specifically Rome.  These writers saw Jesus as their Liberator from all things that oppressed them then!

Mark’s stories of Jesus performing demoniac liberation are classic example of earthly acts of liberation from cosmic forces of evil. For those modern readers who subscribe to a more naturalistic world view, the demon stories of Mark (found in Mark 1:32, 34, 39; 3:15, 22; 5:18; 6:13; 7:26, 29-30; 9:38) are intellectually and philosophically troubling to say the least. But when we read them as part of an apocalyptic world view and their view of Jesus as arrival of the fulfillment of that worldview, we see the importance of the demoniac stories to the early Jesus followers.  (As well as the stories of raising people from the dead, forgiving peoples sins, and healing those who were sick).  Jesus, to them, was not a post mortem savior, nor a someone who told them to keep looking toward the future.  Jesus was to them a present liberator from all things that concretely oppressed them now!

These followers saw Jesus as the Earth’s liberator from the cosmic forces of evil. As such, it was important that Jesus demonstrated power over theses cosmic demonic forces.

“The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits [i.e. cosmic forces of evil] and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:27-28)

Apocalyptic Liberation (the Kingdom) Has Come!

Whether someone subscribes to a more naturalistic worldview or a more apocalyptic world view, the Jesus story can still be relevant. Regardless of how one explains human suffering, whether it be through natural causes or cosmic evil forces, Jesus is the liberator from things that cause oppression, violence, and injustice now!

The gospel is not as much about an afterlife, as it is about freeing people from anything that oppresses them here and now. To follow Jesus means to participate in Jesus’ work of liberating people from things that concretely oppress them in this world.

Whether it be sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism, consumerism, authoritarianism, classism, capitalism, heterosexism, binarism, or whatever, the focal point of the Jesus of the Jesus stories is liberation from all things that concretely oppress people. He started his public ministry with this litany:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind [prison blindness],
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [liberation from oppressors].” (Luke 4.18)

This is the liberation that Jesus referred to in his announcement of the coming near of the kingdom of God. The very material term “kingdom” is rooted in Jesus’ Judaism. Unlike the kyriarchical kingdoms of that age, however, Jesus’ kingdom would be based on sibling relationships and friendships. We see this demonstrated as Jesus, whom the disciples called “Lord,” stooped to wash the feet of those same disciples. A more contemporary term for Jesus’ new social order might be “kinship” rather than an imperial “kingdom” (see Matthew 23:8)

In short, the gospel is the good news of liberation now, not an announcement of good to come one day. The gospel is not a end-of-time fire insurance policy over which Christians must now argue over the amount of the premium to be paid. The gospel is the good news that the seeds of liberation from things that concretely oppress now are to be found in the teachings of this nonviolent, Jewish revolutionary—Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

As we gather together around Jesus’ shared table, the teachings of Jesus call us to live out the values of his gospel in our community, first within our HeartGroups and then within the larger communities outside of our HeartGroups.

A couple of weeks ago I asked you to list what those within your group needed to be liberated from and to practice ways you could come along side each group member in living out the values of the Jesus story.

1. This week, take inventory of how you are doing.

2. Acknowledge areas where you need to make some adjustments. List areas you could be doing more in, things that didn’t work, and things that you choose to do but did not yet follow through with.

3. Adjust you what you have been doing to better meet the needs of those in your HeartGroup. Don’t be afraid of adjusting again whenever you feel that what you used to do is no longer working.

Again, the teachings of Jesus contain the seeds of liberation, now, not later.

Like mustard seeds, they will grow if we choose to water them.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep coming to the shared table. Keep endeavoring to follow the teachings of Jesus. Keep living in love—until the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

Many voices, one new world.

I love each you dearly.

I’ll see you next week when we take of look at the strengths and weaknesses of the naturalistic world view for a Jesus follower.

 


1.  These four tenets are adapted from Bart Ehrman’s The Underlying Tenets of Apocalypticism in his book God’s Problem, pages 214-219 (Kindle Edition)

 

Is Transformative Justice Enough?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“Those who are well have no need of a physician.” (Mark 2.17)

This week, we continue exploring the passage that we looked at last week. Last week we said that the inclusive table of Jesus made room for “tax collectors” and “sinners,” and indicted the religious leaders who looked down on both. There is something else taking place in this passage as well.

Jesus perceived himself as a liberating physician who came not to condemn but to heal. His focus was transformation, not punishment. Tax collectors and sinners were being transformed (see Luke 19.1-9), and yet some of the people, for whatever reason, wanted to see these tax collectors and sinners suffer some chastisement for violating the Torah’s purity laws or for being unfaithful to the political interests of the Jewish people and collaborating with Rome.

I also want to be clear. The tax collectors and sinners were not changing in the ways the scribes and Pharisees wanted them to change, but they were changing. They were abandoning their participation in the systemic oppression of the poor and embracing Jesus’s teachings on the redistribution of their riches to those they had previously robbed.

There are two things to consider.

First: the tax collectors’ and sinners’ changes didn’t match the changes the scribes and Pharisees prescribed. Those who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus will be changed, but those changes may not look anything like the changes that religious onlookers expect.

This is not an “Anything goes if you turn to Jesus” approach. This is the reality that the changes that happen when we decide to follow the teachings of Jesus rarely reflect the values of religions that support and empower the status quo. The tax collectors and sinners who ate with Jesus were embracing Jesus’s bias toward the poor, but not necessarily the purity laws that the scribes and Pharisees passionately defended. And we have no indication that they were being indoctrinated into the mainstream definition of the Romans as the enemy.

Today the same is true. When someone turns to Jesus’s teachings, they may not change in all the ways others may think they need to. Change does occur. But the Jesus story offers transformation and a change in values as well. It is this values change that threatens the onlookers.

Just recently, I was accused of preaching a gospel that doesn’t produce change in the lives of those who embrace it: “Herb is preaching a gospel that tells people they can be saved in their sins.” Nothing could be further than the truth. What this claim misses is that radical change is in fact occurring, just not the changes some critics prescribe. Jesus’s gospel liberates us from both personal and systemic sin, and yet what you define as sin and what Jesus defined as sin may be radically different. We can miss ways people are changing right before our eyes because we don’t have Jesus’ tailor made plan of change for those people. Some status quo-supporting religions define as sin things that aren’t sin but are simply things that the status quo wants to suppress to maintain their societal  position. The personal and systemic transformation that Jesus’s teachings call for is transformation that will ultimately turn the status quo on its head.

Second: Jesus is much more concerned with transformation than with chastisement.

The stories of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah told of the ancient judges who guided the Hebrews before the days of the kings. These Judges were the people’s liberators, not their punishers.

In the books of the Old Testament prophets, justice is primarily restorative and transformative. They do speak of charity, but charity only helps with the immediate needs of those at the bottom of our societies. When justice works personal and systemic transformation, it works at the root of the system itself, and it produces no more societal tops or bottoms. It produces equity.

It may always be important to pull people out of the water who are drowning. But at some point, as Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us, somebody has to ask the question, “Who keep throwing these people in the water?”

When people benefit from the status quo, their gospel tends to define justice as punishment or retribution. These definitions work to preserve the status quo and the benefits that some can draw from it.

By contrast, Jesus’s teachings focus on justice transforming the status quo rather than a justice defined punishing those who violate the rules that preserve the status quo. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus taught a justice that invites transformation and not mere penal chastisement.

Hear Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ BUT I say to you, Do not retaliate against an evildoer…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44, emphasis added.)

The cheek defiance and enemy love that Jesus taught affirmed those being violated, and it also sought creative ways to transform those violating them. (See the presentation entitled The Way of Enemy Love here.) Jesus’s enemy love was not in the least bit passive. It was nonviolent, and it lovingly confronted for the sake of transforming those at the helm of a harmful status quo.

The question I want to ask today is, “Is transformation enough?”

This question is for those who have already been hurt. Is it enough for those who have wronged you to be radically transformed, or do you need them to suffer something punitive as well? Can transformation take the place of retribution? Or is retribution necessary even when transformation has taken place? In my studies over the last five years, I’ve learned that there are two qualities of punishment (For more this see the presentation Do I Have To Believe in Hell? here.): One kind of punishment is transformative, and disciplines for the purpose of awakening and changing those who have hurt others. A second type of punishment is not concerned with transformation, but only seeks to satisfy the claim in the heart of the one who was hurt that says the guilty party needs to suffer.

If the Heart of the Universe is anything like the heart we see in the story and teachings of Jesus, it is primarily concerned with transformation, not penal, retributive punishment. And this insight should challenge all of us.

“An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind”.—frequently attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

 

HeartGroup Application

When I consider the intrinsic value of the shared table, the transformation of those who share the table is, for me, its greatest quality.

As I share here, another indispensable quality of the shared table is the room it makes for those around the table who are unlike us. As we listen to each voice around the table share their stories and experiences, we are challenged to see the world through a different lens than our own and we start out on the beautiful journey of integrating these diverse experiences into a meaningful and coherent whole. We’re each called to choose and work hard at creating a safer more compassionate world for us all.

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and list the similarities and the differences that exist among your group.
  2. Discuss together the differences you feel are missing within your group, what those differences would create if they were present, and active ways you could enlarge your group to include and embrace those differences.
  3. Select one of those ways to put into practice during the week.

Our differences have the potential to scare us, because when we come together, all of us walk away from the table different than when we arrived. But this is just the point of coming together—transformation. When we come to a table such as the one Jesus has set, if we will only listen to each other, every one of us gets up a different person.

It truly is a beautiful journey!

Many voices, one new world.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

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

 Jesus—Liberator of the Oppressed, Physician of the Sick

IMG_0283BY HERB MONTGOMERY

As Jesus was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:14-17

I want to begin this week by thanking you for your patience over the last couple weeks. We’ve been moving our oldest daughter into college. She is our first-born child, and we’ve felt a mixture of bittersweet emotions: business, grief, excitement, joy and sorrow. I was not prepared for what I’ve been feeling about her leaving home. Please pray for me and for us as family.

We started by reading from Mark’s gospel, chapter 2. Let’s take a look at Jesus and the dinner he attended at Levi’s house.

In Mark’s gospel, salvation is defined as Jesus’ liberation from all that oppresses. Mark’s Jesus is not preoccupied with getting people through life in moral condition so their post-mortem, disembodied soul is eligible for the pearly gates. Mark’s Jesus is busy liberating those he encounters from whatever oppresses them today, right now.

Mark’s gospel also draws from the apocalyptic, dualistic world view that connects everything here on earth with a fight between good cosmic forces and evil cosmic forces. In other words, if someone is being oppressed, their oppressors are the puppets of cosmic evil. Jesus envisioned himself as a conduit of cosmic good, here to liberate those oppressed on earth. This is why Mark jumps into supernatural acts of liberation this early in the Jesus story.

Mark shows us that Jesus possessed a preferential option for the poor. Jesus wasn’t working for the equal opportunity of all to compete in a system of winners and losers. He aimed instead at a radical restructuring of human communities where there are no more winners and losers. Jesus pointed us toward communities of mutual aid, where we each strove to take care of one another rather than competing against each other. In Mark 10, Jesus tells the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” He envisioned community not rooted in win/lose survival, but win/win cooperation.

In the second chapter of Mark, we see the wealthy tax collectors and “sinners” responding to Jesus’ call to wealth redistribution and the wealthy Pharisees not responding well. We begin here to see in Mark’s gospel a Jesus who prioritizes liberating the oppressed over religiously defined purity and fidelity to religious ritual.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes his mission clear:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to those with prison-blindness,
to let the oppressed go free.”
Jesus, Luke 4:18

The Pharisees in Mark are upset that Jesus is eating with “tax-collectors and sinners.”  Jewish tax-collectors were viewed as unfaithful to the national interests of their own people and collaborators with the oppressive political and economic power of Rome. A sinner in the gospels was someone perceived to be living contrary to the Pharisees’ and teachers’ interpretation of the Torah.

Notice that those who were thought to be guilty of nationally infidelity and/or religiously disobedient were responding to Jesus’ economic teachings, yet the Pharisees, who valued national faithfulness and strict obedience to the Torah’s ritual and purity laws, were not.

Mark offers another clue to understanding what’s happening in Mark 2. In the next two stories in his gospel, Mark focuses on the Pharisees and the rituals of fasting and the Sabbath. Asked about the Sabbath, Jesus responds, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food” (Mark 2:25). The Torah declared it was not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat the bread of the Presence. But when it came to feeding the hungry and strict adhering to the ritual laws, Jesus chose to labor for the oppressed and to prioritize feeding the hungry over the Torah rule. The people were a weightier matter than the law.

Jesus’ teaching matches something that Judaism refers to as pikuach nefesh, the principle that the preservation of human life overrides other religious considerations. The Pharisees in our story this week subscribed to a different way of interpreting the Torah; their principle was that ritual and purity laws may not be violated, even when a life is in danger. (You can see this principle at work in Mark 3 as well. Some members of every religion still argue for this approach to religious obedience today.)

Mark’s Jesus prioritizes the lives of those who are being economically oppressed.

Following Jesus is not about greater patriotism to nationalistic interests, nor is it primarily about religious observances. Following Jesus means defining salvation not as getting to heaven but as liberating humanity today from all things that oppress and using the principles Jesus taught himself.

Those who participate in this liberation work are, by definition, following Jesus in his work. Those who don’t may be very religious, yet are not following him in the way he walked while here on earth.

Our story ends with Jesus responding, “Those that are well don’t need a physician. I came to call not the righteous, but the sinners.”

I believe Jesus was using the religious leaders’ own paradigm here. They felt they were “righteous,” and called those Jesus embraced “sinners.” Yet Jesus took on the role of a liberating physician, and those labeled “sinners” and “sick” were responding to him. They were the ones seeing the sickness of the system they’d participated in. They were the ones choosing to move in a different direction. Jesus hadn’t come to affirm or reward those who were “righteous.” He had come to heal the sick, to liberate the oppressed.

Jesus suggests to the religious leaders that even if they were more politically “righteous” than the tax collectors and more ritually “righteous” than those they referred to as “sinners,” they were just as much economic “sinners” as the wealthy tax-collectors, and just as much in need of liberation as the people they condemned. As long as they refused to consider this reality, they could have no part in and no understanding of Jesus’ work for the poor and oppressed.

This week, don’t ask yourself how successful you are in the merely religious aspects of your life. Ask yourself what you and those around you need to be liberated from so you can be fully human. Ask what you are doing in your own sphere to live out Jesus’ liberation.

Just recently, someone responded to one of my critiques of social political and economic abuses.  “What are you, Herb,” they asked me. “A minister or a politician?” My response is that I’m neither. I am simply a human being endeavoring to obediently follow Jesus. And it is that obedience that dictates that I must concern myself with more than the afterlife. I must also concern myself with whatever people need liberation from today in order to be what the great Heart at the center of the universe brought them into existence to be.

To the degree that we’re living out Jesus’ ministry of liberation from all things that oppress, to that same degree we’re working alongside Jesus. Unless we live out the wisdom of the Jesus story, we may still possess some assurance that helps us sleep at night, but we’re not following Jesus’ way.

If our Jesus today is not first and foremost a liberator of the oppressed as he declared in Luke 4:18, then we must at least ask whether our Jesus is the same one the gospels describe.

HeartGroup Application

The Jesus story calls us to fundamentally rethink theology from the standpoint of the poor and oppressed, to envision a God who is on the side of the poor and the oppressed of our world. The Jesus story calls us away from being preoccupied with getting people through life in good religious or moral condition so that when they die they can be admitted into heaven. Hope of a post-mortem Heaven, dear as it may be, cannot be our cause for excluding or ignoring the basic conditions anyone lives in today. The Jesus story calls us to ask, “What do we need to be fully liberated from in order to be fully human?”—and that liberation is physical, economic, political, religious, and social.

What do we and those around us need to be fully liberated from?

This week:

  1. Sit down with your HeartGroup and take inventory: what in your everyday lives do each of you need to be liberated from? List the issues, experiences, or needs.
  1. Brainstorm ways the group can come together along side of those needs, and live out the liberation values of the Jesus story. Write them down.
  1. Pick three things you have written down in number 2, and coordinate the carrying out of the actions previously discussed.

Charity addresses our immediate needs, but justice gets at the root of what is causing the oppression. Again, the Jesus story defines salvation as liberation from all things that oppress. Within the teachings of Jesus are the seeds of how we can embody Jesus’ work of healing in this world (see John 3:17). His teachings are where a Jesus follower begins to discover how we live out this gospel in our community and incarnate the values of this story which we hold dear.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns. 

Here’s to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate home for us all. I wish each of you much love, peace and liberation this week.

I love each one of you and I’ll see you next week.