You Will Judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel

A long table set for a meal

Photo by Francois Pistorius on Unsplash

by Herb Montgomery | February 8, 2018


“Our saying this week tells us that another world is possible . . . Our challenge is to shape a society that reflects a set of values that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for us all—a world where each of us has a seat at the table, regardless of our ability, age, race, gender, orientation, gender identity or expression; each of us seated at the table, each person having a say in the world we are creating, all with a preferential option for the most vulnerable among us.”


Featured Text:

“You who have followed me will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Q 22:28, 30)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 19:28: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’”

Luke 22:28-30: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

In the book of Judges, judges were liberating revolutionaries.

In this week’s saying, the “judging” indicates governance. The ancient Hebrew hope was not the same as the hope of many sectors of Christianity today. Many Christians today have their hearts fixed on one day becoming a disembodied soul in some distant realm of heavenly bliss. The ancient Hebrews were much more concerned with this life than with an afterlife. They hoped that someday Messiah would come and all oppression, all injustice, all violence, and the earth would be put right. Our saying this week reflects this earthly hope.

What also strikes me about this week’s saying is the use of the word “thrones.” Few other words would seem more out of harmony with the ethical teachings we have looked at in the gospels so far. But just two verses earlier we find these words:

Luke 22:25-26: “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.’”

I, like some of you, am not interested in thrones, in having another person on a throne over me or being on one myself over others. What I do resonate with are more egalitarian, democratic, nonhierarchical, voluntary, non coercive forms of organizing human communities. As I’ve often remarked in this series, one of Jesus’ most foundational solutions to the individualism we face in our society today is community. His community is not one where someone sits on a throne and others bow. It’s a community where we each take responsibility for taking care of each other.

As I contemplated this week’s saying a bit further, however, it hit me. Jesus doesn’t use the singular word “throne.” He uses the plural word “thrones.” Now the idea behind this saying could have been akin to the model in Deuteronomy where the Hebrew men were to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men [sic] from each of your tribes, and I [Moses] will set them over you.” So the men did just that. The men they chose were appointed to have authority over the people at large “as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials” (see Deuteronomy 1:13-15). The gospel of Matthew seems to agree with this model in that it mentions twelve specific thrones, sat on by twelve male disciples, over twelve Jewish tribes.

But in Luke we get a different image for this word “thrones,” one not limited to a hierarchal twelve. In Luke, these thrones are associated with eating and drinking and having a seat at Jesus’ table. This calls us to consider Jesus’ table fellowship in Luke’s gospel.

Luke 5:29-30: “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”

Luke 14:12-14: “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.’”

Luke 15:2: “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus shares a table with people who faced religious, political and economic exclusion every day and were pushed to the margins and undersides of their society. Jon Sobrino, referring to how religion is used to do the same today, writes:

“The name of God is used as religious justification for oppressing others, and this is what must be unmasked . . . It is not difficult, then, to understand Jesus’ anger at the way religious people manipulate his God. (And maybe here is the place to think about the manipulation of theology, its ideologizing role, in tolerating—not to mention encouraging—the oppression of others in the name of God.) . . . When piety is used to go against creatureliness, religion becomes an oppressive mechanism. The creator who comes in conflict with creatures is a false God and false gods make even the pious inhuman.” (Jesus the Liberator, p. 168-170)

Jesus welcomed to the table those who were being denied a place there. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first black woman in the U.S. Congress, often chided, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” She, being “unbought and unbossed,” was a force to be reckoned with in New York City as she advocated for the disenfranchised people in her district during her 14 years in Congress. We see that same solidarity with people who face various forms of oppression in the Jesus of the gospels.

Jesus associates with the marginalized, seats them at a table where they were welcomed to “eat and drink,” and also gives them thrones. Luke describes many thrones, an image that would make much more sense if we are called to care for each other. Each of us, in our own way, sits on a throne from which we set in motion the kind of world we will all experience together. Today we might use the word democracy. In Luke, we don’t find a king on a throne, but a people on many thrones, together determining a world where the meek are not walked over and where the poor are given the kingdom, the hungry are fed, and poverty is eliminated (see Acts 4:34).

This is a world described from the bottom up. Every person welcome at the table. Every person on a throne. Every person’s voice heard. Every person’s story valued. Every person experiencing worth.

Our society still associates the seat at the table with power today. One of the reasons people are excluded from the table in our society is to limit their say in the kind of world that those in power are shaping. Take the history of voting in the U.S. as an example. Originally only men who owned property were allowed to vote. Thomas Paine was one of the earliest voices stating that this was not right, and that the vote should also include those who did not own property, too. Eventually White women won the ability to vote. We still see efforts to exclude people of color from voting today.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that those whom we exclude today are those we will seek to exterminate tomorrow. Whatever world we create out of that exclusive table will invariably be unsafe, unjust, and heartless for those not allowed to sit at the table from the start. Consider the vote again. The U.S. out of all many-throned (democratic) nations has the lowest voter turnout. We don’t have a holiday so that working people can vote. And there are numerous other efforts made to “intrinsically” limit who gets a say. Noam Chomsky has repeatedly stated over the last few years that the poorest 70% of society is “literally disenfranchised.”

 “Their political representatives simply pay no attention to them, so it doesn’t matter what they think…This is a plutocracy, not a democracy . . . As you move up the [income] scale, you get a little bit more influence. When you get to the very top, [that’s where] policy’s made.”

This helps explain why most of the economic gains made over the past three decades have gone to the top 1%. The number of those who get a “throne” or seat at the table, a say in how things operate, is very limited. The top 1% are making the decisions.

Our saying this week tells us that another world is possible. Even anarchists, who are anti-hierarchy, believe that social society should have some form of voluntary organization. Our challenge is to shape a society that reflects a set of values that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for us all—a world where each of us has a seat at the table, regardless of our ability, age, race, gender, orientation, gender identity or expression; each of us seated at the table, each person having a say in the world we are creating, all with a preferential option for the most vulnerable among us. In this world, there are self-determining “thrones” for everyone.

“You who have followed me will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Q 22:28, 30)

HeartGroup Application

Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting of Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ. Each week, this historic community sends out a weekly email devotional and this past week’s devotional moved me deeply. It’s a reminder of the importance of community. It begins with the African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It continues, “One of the great tragedies of our time is that we live in an individualistic culture that teaches us that our ultimate value is not in what we give to the world, but in what we have and what we achieve. Our value must be derived from individual hard work, persistence, and determination! Then, along our path we find that this is a myth. We discover that we need others, and that ‘to go far,’ we must travel together . . . We all have the sacred responsibility to support one another. We all share the divine responsibility of ensuring that everyone in our community is growing, thriving, and prospering.”

I want to share with you Trinity UCC’s Prayer and weekly action with you as well, because I think that they have intrinsic value for you as well.

1. For the next seven days, I want you to take time each day to pray this very simple but profound prayer:

“Lord, help us to realize that our lives are dependent on each other. Help us to use the gifts You have given us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You. Amen.”

Also, I’d like you to journal how this prayer changes your own focus throughout the week.

2. Share with your HeartGroup how this prayer impacted your week.

3. Lastly, their weekly action:

“Find an organization that is engaged in work that you feel is important, and join them.”

Do this in your local community and share with your HeartGroup what you experience by doing so.

Another world is possible.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

The Parable of the Entrusted Money

 Picture of money

by Herb Montgomery | February 1, 2018


“In the story, this king’s passion was profit. The God Jesus described at the heart of the kingdom was passionate about people, not profit. Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was a community where people were valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Debts were cancelled, slaves were set free, prisons were abolished, and wealth was redistributed more justly: no one had too much while others didn’t have enough to even survive. Jesus’ vision was a vision for a human community of connectedness, cooperation, compassion, and distributive justice.”


Featured Text: 

 “A certain person, on taking a trip, called ten of his slaves and gave them ten minas and said to them: Do business until I come. After a long time‚ the master of those slaves comes and settles accounts with them. And the first came‚ saying: Master, your mina has produced ten more minas. And he said to him: Well done, good slave, you have been faithful over a pittance, I will set you over much. And the second‚ came saying: Master, your mina has earned five minas. He said to him: Well done, good slave, you have been faithful over a pittance, I will set you over much. And the other came saying: Master, I knew you, that you are a hard person, reaping where you did not sow and gathering from where you did not winnow; and scared, I went and hid your mina in the ground. Here, you have what belongs to you. He said to him: Wicked slave! You knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather from where I have not winnowed? Then you had to invest my money with the money changers! And at my coming I would have received what belongs to me plus interest. So take from him the mina and give to the one who has the ten minas. For to everyone who has will be given; but from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Q 19:12-13, 15-24, 26)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29: “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. . . .  After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’”

Luke 19:12-13, 15-24, 26: “He said: ‘A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. “Put this money to work,” he said, “until I come back.” . . . He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.” “Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” The second came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned five more.”  His master answered, “You take charge of five cities.” Then another servant came and said, “Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.” His master replied, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?” Then he said to those standing by, “Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.” . . . He replied, “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”’”

Gospel of Thomas 41: “Jesus says, ’Whoever has something in his hand, something more will be given to him. And whoever has nothing, even the little he has will be taken from him.’”

Sometimes I have trouble with the stories Jesus chose to use, and I don’t like the story in this week’s saying. Scholars tell us that Jesus chose the stories that would have been familiar to his audience. Our society today is two millennia removed from that world today and sometimes Jesus’s stories seem problematic to us. Before I explain that, let me share an experience I had recently that relates to this week’s saying.

I was listening to an interview of a college economics professor who was critiquing the contradiction at the heart of capitalism. At the core of capitalism is the drive to produce more capital or profit from a product or service. One of many ways owners can achieve this profit is keeping their expenses as low as possible. “Expenses” include the cost of labor, the wages owners pay their employees. The less workers are paid, the more profit one has left in the end.

But here is the contradiction: The wages being kept low are the same funds that most workers will need to buy the product or service they produce. So if wages are too low, no one can afford to buy and owners won’t make any profit at all.

So this contradiction morphs into a balancing act between too much profit for the 1% and not enough money for the masses to survive or not enough profit to keep the 1% happy and more surplus among the masses than the 1% feel they should have. It’s a tug-o-war between the wealthy’s desire to profit and the masses desire to survive with a good quality of life.

In our system here in the U.S., this balance is achieved through government regulations and taxes. Theoretically, as the masses gain too much surplus, those who have profit to lose call for less business regulation and less taxation of their corporations, or more profit. On the flip side, when corporations and the 1% are gaining too much profit, the masses begin to call for the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, to redistribute wealth or regulate earnings another way (raising minimum wage for example) so that the masses aren’t crushed by the drive to produce profit.

Wagers are kept low enough to produce profit AND people need higher wages to purchase products and services that also produce this profit. Capitalism never will escape this contradiction and the cycle of struggle between the workers and those who profit from their labor and thus this tug-of-war it produces. In the 1960-70s we saw capitalists feeling like society was moving too far toward favoring workers. And they went to work! They wanted more profit and with it the exclusion of people of color from public services. Since Nixon and Regan we’ve seen a steady move toward benefits for wall street and the 1% in our society and now we are experiencing reawakening toward concern for the working class, again.

And this cycle will repeat over and over and over. Many believe there has to be another alternative that produces a safe, more just, more compassionate society for everyone.

As I was listening, the interviewer asked the professor, “How does capitalism exploit workers or employees?” “It’s quite simple,” he responded. “Let’s say an employer agrees to pay a worker $20 an hour. For that employer to be willing to pay that $20 an hour, they have to believe that that person’s labor will actually be worth more than $20 an hour. Once all business expenses have been paid, there has to be a profit to it. The labor which costs $20 has to produce a value that will cover the expenses of the business plus a profit on top. Unless it is an employee owned business, the worker never receives the value of their labor but only a portion of it. This, by definition, is what those opposed to capitalism have called ‘the exploitation of the laborers.’ Workers never receive the full value of their labor.”

Problematic Stories

Again, Jesus sometimes uses stories familiar to his audience, stories that are horrendous when compared to today’s ethical standards.

One example is the story of the righteous rich man and Lazarus the poor sinner found in Luke’s gospel. Postmortem, the expected roles are reversed. The rich man ends up in eternal, flaming, torment while Lazarus resides in Abraham’s bosom. But let it register. Although the story truth is relevant, using the image of eternal torment in the flames of the afterlife is a horrible choice. Only a few sectors of evangelical Christianity even subscribe to belief in eternal torment today because of the pure inhumanity of it. Torment is not reconcilable with Jesus’ new vision for humanity, and so.many within Christianity today see this story as teaching an economic truth rather than literally explaining what happens in the afterlife.

Luke 16:22-24: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’”

Another terrible story is that of the manager who falsified customers’ bills behind the back of the business owner, making customers owe significantly less and hoping to gain favor with these costumers. I don’t see anyone recommending this story today as a way for managers to manage the businesses they work for. The story is problematic, but it was a familiar story to Jesus’ audience and therefore he used it to make a point about “the kingdom.”

Luke 16:3-6: “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’”

Another problem in stories Jesus told is the repeated references to slavery. Before the US Civil War, these references were used by Christians in the South to say that Jesus actually approved of slavery.

I would argue that elsewhere Jesus taught a gospel of debts being forgiven and slaves being set free. But that fact that Jesus used stories that on the surface seem to say that slavery was a part of his vision for human society is deeply problematic. One must look deeper at the story truths of these familiar stories to arrive a different conclusion.

I share all of this to illustrate that Jesus’ stories are at times problematic while the truths they teach can be timeless.  Our saying this week is one of those stories.

What is the horrendous backdrop of this story?

As I shared in the above interview with the professor, it’s the exploitation of labor through slavery. Here a master leaves money with ten slaves for them to labor to earn more profit for the master. I often hear from those who oppose social safety nets in society saying, “Those who don’t work shouldn’t eat.” This was a slogan not only in the New Testament, and some hyper capitalists today, but also of Lenin. Lenin saw wealthy capitalists who’d invested their money have others labor to earn the investors profits yet be tagged with those who “aren’t working.” This is the kind of master we find in this week’s story:

“You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow?”

Karl Marx critiqued taking out what someone does not put in and reaping where they have not sown:

“The directing motive, the end and aim of capitalist production, is to extract the greatest possible amount of surplus value, and consequently to exploit labor-power to the greatest possible extent.” (Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. I, Ch. 13, pg. 363)

If one uses this story to say that Jesus approved of capitalism’s exploitation of labor it would be almost irreconcilable with Jesus’ other teachings that teach a preferential option for the poor and exploited laborers.

So what was the point Jesus was trying to make?

As we will see in next week’s final saying, Sayings Gospel Q ends with the promise of Jesus’s followers receiving stewardship or governing roles over a liberated and restored “twelve tribes of Israel.” Those who demonstrated they understood and practiced what Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was all about would theoretically receive larger roles in that new humanity.

Is there any application in this saying for us today?

Maybe.

Just as each slave was left with funds that they were expected to use to create more, so too each of us today is called to take whatever we have and invest it in transforming our world into a safe, just, more compassionate home for everyone. But there are significant differences between the story and the world Jesus’ envisioned.

In the story, this king’s passion was profit. The God Jesus described at the heart of the kingdom was passionate about people, not profit. Jesus’ “kingdom of God” was a community where people were valued over profit, property, power, and privilege. Debts were cancelled, slaves were set free, prisons were abolished, and wealth was redistributed more justly: no one had too much while others didn’t have enough to even survive. Jesus’ vision was a vision for a human community of connectedness, cooperation, compassion, and distributive justice.

We are called to invest our lives (including our money) in the survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation of people’s lives. We invest our own lives in liberating human lives and reclaiming our own humanity by working with those who daily face some form of oppression and suffering. Jesus’ vision is of a world where the hungry are fed, those who weep now laugh, and the poor receive it all (see Luke 6:20-26) It’s a world whose coming into being is good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the exploited, and the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus’ “reign of God” was about people, not money. It was about life for every person, not the exploitation of the masses for the benefit of the few.

We’re called to use what we have been given to create a world of life.

“A certain person, on taking a trip, called ten of his slaves and gave them ten minas.” (Q 19:12-13, 15-24, 26)

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Remember, another world is possible.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

One Taken, One Left

by Herb Montgomery | January 25, 2018


“It’s about compassion. Either we see ourselves in others, or we don’t. And if we don’t learn to do so, we run the risk of destroying life as we know it for everyone including ourselves. We are connected. How we treat others will affect us as well—like it or not, we are part of one another.”


Featured Text:

“I tell you, there will be two in the field, one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.” Q 17:34-35

Companion Text:

Matthew 24:40-41: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”

Luke 17:34-35: “I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”

Gospel of Thomas 61:1: “Jesus said: “Two will rest on a bed. The one will die, the other will live.”

I remember this passage well from my early childhood. In pulpit after pulpit, preachers used it to explain to people that a secret rapture was coming, where people would simply disappear off the earth. Two pilots flying a plane? One would be taken and the other left. Two people walking down the sidewalk? One would be taken and the other left.

Not until years later did I see how grossly out of context this passage was being taken.

Indiscriminate Fate

First let’s start with the surface of this saying. In both examples, two people are doing the same activities. There is an indiscriminate nature to being taken and being left. There is no rhyme or reason and no obvious difference between them. Taken in the context of last week’s saying about the days of Noah, riches would not be enough to save the wealthy from this fate.

As we saw last week, both Matthew and Luke lift this saying of Jesus and place it in the context of the fulfillment of the re-humanizing liberation found in Daniel 7—the revealing of the “son of humanity.” Matthew and Luke use the Jewish stories of Noah and Lot. Yet in these stories, the taken aren’t “raptured” to a celestial heaven while others are “left” down here on earth. Those “taken” in the Noah and Lot stories are those who “die” in Thomas’s gospel, whose lives are “taken.” And those who are “left” in these passages are those who remain alive, or who are “left” alive. So it’s in fact a good thing to be “left behind!”

Dystopian Future

This saying warns those who benefit from violence toward the vulnerable and economic exploitation of the poor about a coming indiscriminate destruction—a reversal of economic injustice—that turns things upside down from their present structure. The hungry are fed and the well-fed go hungry. The poor are given the kingdom, and the rich are sent away empty. Those whom present injustice causes to weep laugh, and those who now laugh, weep (see Luke 6:20-26). It’s an indiscriminate destruction and sounds very dystopian.

Today, scientists are warning that if we do not correct our present course, indiscriminate destruction will be our ecological future. We are destroying sustainable life here on the one planet that is home for everyone. And even though in our saying this week, some survive destruction, the disaster in their immediate future indiscriminately affected everyone. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. affected both rich and poor. The poor were especially vulnerable, but destruction was indiscriminate nonetheless and affected everyone. This has striking parallels to our future. We all share the same air, water, and globe. We are all connected. We are in this together, and we’ll either survive together, or risk destruction for everyone.

Just this past week, after a season of devastating fires across the north and west US,  the east coast was pummeled with record lows and snow falls. We’re seeing evidence of our climate breaking down.

But this leads me to my third point this week. The future doesn’t have to be like this. Instead of a dystopian future where greed has ruined everything, we can choose a future rooted in compassion and justice.

A Compassionate Future 

Compassion was at the heart of Jesus’ new vision for human society and so his politics have rightly been named as a politics of compassion. In the book All We Leave Behind, Carol Off writes of the debate about refugees in Canada, but what she states could be said of any other social justice issue:

“The seething centre of the refugee debate is not really about policy; it’s about perception. Either you identify with others or you don’t. Either you see yourself in the eyes of others or you don’t.”

It’s about compassion. Either we see ourselves in others, or we don’t. And if we don’t learn to do so, we run the risk of destroying life as we know it for everyone including ourselves. We are connected. How we treat others will affect us as well—like it or not, we are part of one another. This is the point of one of Jesus’ most famous sayings, where he quotes the Torah:

“The second [greatest commandment] is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)

Those two words are important: “as yourself.” Either we will learn to see others “as ourselves” and live, or we’ll continue down the path of destructive, extreme, individualism that threatens us all. Individualism is an inadequate lens for life on this planet. Everything we do sets in motion a chain of cause and effect for everyone around us, including ourselves. None of us is an island, and we impact each other whether we desire to or not. It’s simply the way things are. We are individuals, yet we’re also woven together in a much larger fabric too!

And this is precisely why our future can be different than our present. We can choose a future of compassion and justice for one another. We can choose to be our siblings’ keeper. The future is not set in stone. It is open, filled with multiple possibilities based on the choices we make today.

Last week, the Daily Mail published an article exploring a new spatial theory of time: “According to the theory, if we were to ‘look down’ upon the universe, we would see time spread out in all directions, just as we see space at the moment.” In other words, time isn’t happening linearly, one thing after another, but rather past, present, and future exists simultaneously and all around us.

If this is true, perhaps time is not a single line, but a web of possible pasts, including the past that occurred, a web of possible presents, including the present that we have chosen, and a web of possibilities called the future. Each of these webs connects through various causes and effects.

This would mean that right now, we are standing alongside all those who will come after us as well as with all those who have come before us. Let’s honor the work of our most engaged ancestors who gave of themselves to make our world a safe, more just, more compassionate home for us all. And let’s also honor all those who will come after us by giving them more to work with than they would have if we did no thing.

Right now, the future looks like a dystopia, but it doesn’t have to be that. Our saying this week warns of a disastrous future only in the hopes that we will begin to make better choices.

“I tell you, there will be two in the field, one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.” Q 17:34-35

HeartGroup Application

This week I have something FUN for your group to try. It’s an exercise in cooperative action. I want you to take a marker and tie eight strings to it (Or less if you have less than 8 people in your group). Then I want you as a group to choose a word and write it out working together.

Does it make any difference how close you hold the string to the marker? Try holding the string further away from the marker and see how that works, too.

  1. What lessons did you learn about what it took to work together?
  2. How is working together different than working alone?
  3. Are there certain things we can only accomplish together? List them. What did you learn about working together that may apply to this list?

As I often say, Jesus’ solution to many of the problems in society was a vision for a new way of structuring human community. Community is not always easy. But when I consider the disastrous results of extreme, rugged individualism in our society here in the West, I believe community is worth the struggle.

Wherever you are this week, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

Another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

As in the Days of Noah

La Perla, San Juanby Herb Montgomery | January 11, 2018


“This wakefulness means possessing a continuing awareness of issues related to marginalized people and their struggle for justice. It requires an intersectional awareness of racial, gender, economic, LGBT, and other social forms of justice. Jesus-followers staying awake will characterize God as Jesus did: as being on the side of people who daily face oppression. We will live and work in solidarity with God and marginalized communities as we choose a world marked by re-humanizing liberation instead of dehumanizing oppression.”


Featured Text:

“As it took place in the days of Noah, so will it be in the day of the Son of Humanity. For as in those days they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark and the flood came and took them all, so will it also be on the day the Son of Humanity is revealed.” Q 17:26-30

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:37-39: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

Luke 17:26-30: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.”

The mic crackled, “It’s imperative that you stay together, today. Women especially, never allow yourself to be found alone. Today we’ll be working in La Perla.”

Last month I spent three days in the Caribbean with a team of people providing hurricane relief and getting Puerto Rican families back into their homes. One of those three days we worked in La Perla in San Juan. Tourists are typically advised to avoid La Perla, and “The Pearl” district in Old San Juan is referred to as the “slums.”

“La Perla is a historical shanty town astride the northern historic city wall of Old San Juan . . .  established in the late 19th century. Initially, the area was the site of a slaughterhouse because the law required them and homes of former slaves and homeless non-white servants – as well as cemeteries – to be established away from the main community center; in this case, outside the city walls. Sometime after, some of the farmers and workers started living around the slaughterhouse and shortly established their houses there. Only three access points exist, one through the ‘Santa Maria Magdalena Cemetery’, one on the east side and one through a walkway right in the center of the northern wall.”  (La Perla, San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2017, December 14. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:27, January 10, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=La_Perla,_San_Juan,_Puerto_Rico&oldid=815454674)

So far, hurricane relief has not been allowed to enter this area, primarily because capitalist investors want inhabitants to give up and move out so that they can take over the area and build high-rises and resorts there.

So La Perla is the area we chose to assist. We entered La Perla through the entrance in the center of the northern wall.

We split into three teams to reinstall three roofs, clean up flood damage and hurricane debris, and get three families back into their homes. It was an amazing experience. Tears were shed and hearts were full. I’ll share pictures of our work in next week’s news update.

Though I left with joy, what I also walked away from La Perla with is a sense of how utterly dehumanizing poverty really is.

Dehumanizing Oppression and Re-humanizing Liberation

Marcus Borg’s and John Dominic Crossan’s book The First Christmas shares a little background on the phrase in this week’s saying, “The Son of Humanity.” The phrase comes from the revolution literature of Daniel 7 where the prophet’s vision includes four fantastic creatures, each representing a historical empire:

“What is at stake in Daniel is this: the first four empires are inhuman beasts; only the fifth and final empire is truly human.” (Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic, The First Christmas, p. 68)

In Daniel 7, all the oppressive empires are represented as violent beasts. Yet there comes after them a final kingdom that is human.

Let that register for a moment. The last kingdom is human. Paulo Freire wrote,

“The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own ‘effort,’ with their ‘courage to take risks.’ If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the ‘generous gestures’ of the dominant class. Precisely because they are ‘ungrateful’ and ‘envious,’ the oppressed are regarded as potential enemies who must be watched. It could not be otherwise. If the humanization of the oppressed signifies subversion, so also does their freedom; hence the necessity for constant control. And the more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate ‘things.’ This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to ‘in-animate’ everything and everyone it encounters, in its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism.”

  – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition (p.59)

Freire’s point is simple: Oppression dehumanizes. As they called Jesus “the Son of Humanity,” the earliest community of Jesus followers saw in his teachings the re-humanizing liberation identified in Daniel 7. In Jesus they saw Daniel’s Son of Humanity ending the violent oppression of all other empires.

An Element of Surprise

The central point of this week’s saying is that this re-humanizing liberation would include an element of surprise or unexpectedness for oppressors. Most scholars agree that both Matthew and Luke’s gospels used Mark’s gospel as an outline for their own, editing and adding to Mark’s gospel. In Mark, our saying this week appears in a parallel passage about surprise:

Mark 13:35-37: “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

We’ll discuss what it means to “watch” in just a moment.

The Great Reversal of Economic Injustice

In both Matthew and Luke the surpise thaat catches those presently benefited by the way our world is a great reversal of economic injustice. The tables are turned upside down. For his Jewish readers, Matthew mentions those who were surprised in the Hebrew Noah story. Luke, addressing non-Jewish Christians, includes the stories of Noah and Lot. The inclusion of Lot makes sense when when one understands Sodom’s “great sin” and remembers that Luke, out of all the gospels, has the strongest economic justice theme. The Jewish prophetic tradition defines Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin as the economic exploitation of the poor:

Ezekiel 16:49: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

Both Noah’s and Lot’s narratives are stories where destruction comes unexpectedly. In the Noah story, the surprise falls on the violent. In Lot’s story it falls unexpectedly on rich, exploitative oppressors who lived at ease at the expense of the vulnerable. Luke emphasizes not just the violence surprised by God’s kingdom but also the economic elements of oppression. His gospel begins with Mary’s song:

Luke 1:52-53: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

This week’s saying is clear. Those who create and benefit from a world like the one in La Perla will not experience Jesus’ gospel as good news. The announcement of the kingdom proclaims a radical reversal of exploitative comfort (compare with Luke 6:24-26): their way of life is cast down while those presently scratching out an existence and fighting to survive injustice, like the residents of La Perla, are lifted up, liberated, and restored.

Conclusion

The language of “keeping watch” for the arrival of this re-humanizing liberation, whether it be in Daniel’s imagery, Jesus’ teachings, or the Jewish prophets’ pronouncements, drew from the experiences of night watchmen who could not fall asleep.

The message was, “Stay awake!”

In our world today, this wakefulness means possessing a continuing awareness of issues related to marginalized people and their struggle for justice. It requires an intersectional awareness of racial, gender, economic, LGBT, and other social forms of justice. Jesus-followers staying awake will characterize God as Jesus did: as being on the side of people who daily face oppression. We will live and work in solidarity with God and marginalized communities as we choose a world marked by re-humanizing liberation instead of dehumanizing oppression.

This week’s saying warns against being on auto-pilot and just going along within the present status quo.

Stay awake and keep working for change! I can’t think of a better way to begin this new year than with a call to do just that!

“As it took place in the days of Noah, so will it be in the day of the Son of Humanity. For as in those days they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark and the flood came and took them all, so will it also be on the day the Son of Humanity is revealed.” Q 17:26-30

HeartGroup Application

As 2018 begins, make three lists as a group, together!

  1. Take some time to take inventory of 2017 and list things that happened in 2017 that you are thankful for.
  2. Then list things you wish had been different about 2017. Discuss these together. How do the things on this list make you feel? What do they inspire you to do in 2018?
  3. List three things that you as a group would like to work on bringing into reality for 2018 and make a plan for doing so. You can use the previous two lists for inspiration. Then get to work making them happen! Together we can make a difference.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. I hope this new year is off to a positive start for each of you.

Keep looking up! Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation, and follow the example of Jesus in being a source of healing in our world today.

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Vultures Around a Corpse

An eagle sitting on a post in winter

by Herb Montgomery | January 5, 2018


“Jesus was not a Roman citizen, and so when he taught nonviolence, he was not teaching from the social location of the Roman oppressor, but from the perspective of an oppressed Jew. Jesus’ nonviolence sprang from the tension that exists for all who face oppression: the tension between liberation and survival.”


Featured Text:

“Wherever the corpse, there the vultures will gather.” Q 17:37

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:28: “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”

Luke 17:37: “‘Where, Lord?’ they asked. He replied, ‘Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.’

Happy new year!

As we begin this new year, we have only four more sayings from Q in our series on the sayings of Jesus. We have been engaging this collection of Jesus’ sayings (what scholars refer to as sayings gospel Q) now for two years. It’s been quite a journey we’ve been on and I’m deeply thankful to each of you who have been tracking with us each week all along the way.  I’m also really excited about where we are headed from here. Each week we’ll continue to publish podcasts and articles that give fresh perspectives on how we can apply Jesus’s sayings and teachings in our world today, working together to continue being a sources of healing, light, love, compassion and justice in our world.  If you’d like to go back and read this series from the very beginning you can do so by going to the first installment of this weekly series— The Sayings of Jesus

Let’s jump right in this week! Our saying this week is about gathering vultures.

Eagles and Vultures

Scholars have pointed out that the word translated in this week’s text as “vultures” can just as accurately be translated as “eagles.” “Eagles” would have been a locally appropriate term and Jesus’ audience would have recognized it: the banner of the oppressive empire subjugating them Rome’s bronze eagle.

Whether a vulture or an eagle, Rome’s symbol, like America’s today, was a bird of prey—a bronze eagle.

And before we get too far into this week, I want to say that I believe all oppressed communities have the right to choose for themselves what manner of resistance or means of liberation will best serve their aims. It is not the violent oppressors’ place to impose on the oppressed the restriction of nonviolent resistance. At the same time, as I shared last week, I teach and believe in nonviolence. That means I believe oppressed communities have the right to self-determination and I believe nonviolence is a force more powerful than violence. I hold this tension as someone who often benefits from others’ oppression and as someone who realizes nonviolence can be used to oppress too. Oppressors can use nonviolence to force the oppressed to stay passive and so use it as a conduit of more violence upon the vulnerable. This is why, as a teacher of nonviolence, I also believe strongly that oppressed communities have the right to determine their responses for themselves.

Jesus was not a Roman citizen, and so when he taught nonviolence, he was not teaching from the social location of the Roman oppressor, but from the perspective of an oppressed Jew. Jesus’ nonviolence sprang from the tension that exists for all who face oppression: the tension between liberation and survival. For Jesus, nonviolent resistance gave those who were oppressed and working toward liberation the best odds for surviving and experiencing liberation once they achieved it. To use violent forms of liberation was suicidal when one was subjugated by Rome.

Liberation and Survival

Last month in our reading course for 2017, we were reading Delores Williams’ book, Sisters in the Wilderness. In this classic volume of womanist theology, Williams captures this tension when she writes, “How do I shape a theology that is at once committed to black women’s issues and life struggles and simultaneously address the black community’s historic struggle to survive and develop a positive, productive quality of life in the face of death? … Womanist theology challenges all oppressive forces impeding black women’s struggle for survival and for the development of a positive, productive quality of life conducive to women’s and the family’s freedom and well-being” (Kindle location 195, 235).

She states unequivocally that, like Black liberation theology, womanist theology is also concerned with liberation. Yet there is a tension between liberation and survival. “Like black male liberation theology, womanist theology assumes the necessity of responsible freedom for all human beings. But womanist theology especially concerns itself with the faith, survival and freedom-struggle of African-American women” (Ibid., 239).

What good is liberation if to accomplish it, you cease to exist? This is a vital question for all communities that face various types of oppression. Some answer by pointing to future generations that will benefit from our sacrifice today. Other womanist theologians answer by retelling the Hebrew story of the slave woman Hagar. Hagar wrested herself free from the oppression of God’s chosen people, Abraham and Sarah, and she was liberated. Yet, as a runaway slave, she almost died in the wilderness. She had no resources for survival.

What does the God of the story tell Hagar?

“Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’” (Genesis 16:9)

Williams rightly critiques liberation theologies that do not hold a people’s survival in tension with their liberation. These theologies portray God as only liberator. In contrast, Williams writes, “God’s response to Hagar’s story in the Hebrew testament is not liberation. Rather, God participates in Hagar’s and her child’s survival on two occasions.”

It was not until the second liberation scene of the Genesis narratives that we see God helping Hagar to “make a way out of no way,” and so accomplishing both her survival and her liberation (see Genesis 21:9-21). “Thus it seemed to me that God’s response to Hagar’s (and her child’s) situation was survival and involvement in their development of an appropriate quality of life, that is, appropriate to their situation and their heritage.”

Jesus, Liberation, and Survival

As we have said repeatedly throughout this series (see Renouncing One’s Rights), Jesus’ teachings about nonviolent resistance was informed by the fact that for his followers to use violent resistance against Rome was to court certain failure, and not just failure, but also suicide. Over and over, Rome leveled to the ground any movement that even hinted at taking up arms against it. Some scholars believe that it was the combination of Jesus being linked to armed transgressors and his Temple protest that resulted in his crucifixion at the hands of Rome (see Luke 22:36-37).

Using violence against Rome was, according to the Jesus of the story, to place a higher priority on pursuing liberation without any regard for the survival and quality of life of those who were engaging that work. He saw using violence against his Jewish community’s oppressors as an all-or-nothing, consequences-be-damned approach. Jesus’s social vision for the human community was to be rooted in the nonviolent transformation of society. Yes, his way might end on a cross, a cross that his followers would also have to bear if they were threatened. But in his Romans/Jewish context, to use violence as the means of liberation under Rome meant committing to the certainty of being placed on a cross, the certainty of a violent death as the definite and inevitable outcome.

Both nonviolence and violence have a failure rate. And most often, when violent liberation efforts fail, their failure is exponentially more catastrophic than when nonviolent liberation efforts fail. Communities that face oppression must weigh the success and failure rates of both kinds of efforts and choose for themselves which they believe has the best odds. Those who teach nonviolence, like me, often believe that nonviolence is more powerful and produces a better outcome if it should also fail. Nonetheless, it is up to oppressed people to determine whether they believe that to be the case or not.

History is strewn with the stories of violent and nonviolent liberation movements. I believe that people power is always more powerful than tyranny and oppression by a few. It is also true that the people do not always have access to the same kinds of power that those at the top of the status quo do. Military power is just one example.The Jesus of the gospels, in his own societal context, believed in and taught nonviolent resistance as the best possible means of channeling people power. I believe there is much that we can learn from the Jesus story as we engage in the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

Again, it is up to the communities that face oppression to determine what methods they will use to liberate themselves. It must not be determined for them by their oppressors. Jesus stood within his own oppressed community and taught that nonviolence was the better way.

Ultimately, history tells us his Jewish society did not ultimately embrace nonviolence as the path toward liberation. The Jewish Roman War ended in devastation for Jerusalem, and the Barchokba Revolt, which followed a generation later, was even worse: a Roman genocide of the Jewish people.

To recap: Oppressed communities possess the right to self-determination. And nonviolence can be a path toward both liberation and survival.

“Violence is not an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs. It is not even the main problem, but only the presenting symptom of an unjust society. And peace is not the highest good; it is rather the outcome of a just social order . . . The issue, however, is not just which works better [violence or nonviolence], but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals-though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way; Facets; Kindle Locations 316-495)

These words were a warning to all who chose, specifically under Roman oppression, to use violence as means of changing the world:

“Wherever the corpse, there the vultures will gather.” Q 17:37

HeartGroup

  1. This week I’d like you to take some time together as a group and watch Erica Chenoweth’s twelve-minute TED talk.

2. How did this TED talk both challenge and inspire you? What questions did it raise for you? What is the top take-away you are walking away from this presentation with?

3. What are some ways you too can find balance between survival, quality of life, and liberation as we together engage the work found in Luke 4.18-19?

Lastly, as we kick off this new year, if you are blessed through our resources, please consider taking a moment and making a contribution to support our work. It takes hundreds of hours each month from the entire team here at RHM to develop our podcasts, articles, and presentations. If you find blessing, encouragement, and renewal here, partner with us in making sure our work can continue and grow in this coming new year.

Thank you! All of us here at Renewed Heart Ministries wish you a happy, joyous, and peaceful new year, as we together work toward making our world safer, more just, and more compassionate home for us all.

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

Happy new year!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Son of Humanity Like Lightning

by Herb Montgomery

“Any talk of nonviolence today must include an in-depth understanding of structural and systemic violence and oppression or nonviolence will end up being a violent form of nonviolence. It will place upon oppressed people an additional burden to remain nonviolent while the status quo preaches nonviolence to them and simultaneously ignores the violent system they live in. Nonviolence will do violence. It will be a violent nonviolence.”

 

Featured Text:

“If they say to you, ‘Look. He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; look, he is indoors, do not follow. For as the lightning streaks out from sunrise and flashes as far as sunset, so will be the Son of Humanity on his day.” Q 17:23-24

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:26-27: “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

Luke 17:23-24: “People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.”

Gospel of Thomas 3:1-2: “Jesus says: “If those who lead you say to you: ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky!’ Then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fishes will precede you.”

Our saying this week is connected to the last two statements about Jesus’ vision for a Jewish future without an exploitative Temple State. In Jesus’s day, the Temple State exploited the vulnerable and messiah movements promoted Temple reform. These movements that grew in Galilee and Judea depended on violent liberation efforts that Jesus believed were suicidal and, because of Rome’s violence, were ultimately catastrophic for those who engaged them.

As we read last week, the messiah figures of these movements implored the people to act first in faith and then YHWH would reveal a sign of confirmation. Josephus gives us examples of followers who did “go out” to the “wilderness” with these charismatic leaders expecting a sign but instead found annihilation at the hands of the Roman empire. We discussed some of these examples last week.

Before we launch into examples of these movements Jesus was warning his followers of following, I want to share a brief word about Jesus’s vision for a Jewish future without a Temple State. Long before Jesus there was a Jewish thread of “no sacrifice” in the tradition.

Hosea 6:6—“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Isaiah 1:11-12—“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?’”

Psalms 40:6—“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.”

Jeremiah 7:22—“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Jesus embraced this strand of the tradition in his own teachings:

Matthew 9:13—“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Matthew 12:7—“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”

After the devastating experience of the Jewish people in the 1st Century, some rabbis did embrace a future without sacrifice, the Temple, and violence. Karen Armstrong shares a beautiful passage about this in The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions:

“The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear: It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, ‘Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, “I desire love and not sacrifice.”’ Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with ‘one body and one soul.’ When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with ‘one voice and one melody.’ When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself‘ was ‘the great principle of the Torah.’ To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (pp. 454-455, emphasis added.)

Three examples of the kind of liberation efforts Jesus warned his followers about going into the wilderness to meet, and which ended in the most severe failures in the first century, were the Judas Rebellion, the Jewish-Roman War, and the Bar Kochba Revolt.

The Judas Rebellion took place during the reign of Augustus while Varus was the Roman Governor in Syria. You can read Josephus’s account in his Jewish Antiquities 17.288-295. As a result of it, 2,000 Jewish people were crucified in Jerusalem alone. In Galilee, Varus “turned over part of his army to his son and to one of his friends, and sent them out to fight against the Galileans who inhabit the region adjoining Ptolemais. His son attacked all who opposed him and routed them, and after capturing Sepphoris, he reduced its inhabitants to slavery and burnt the city” (17:288–89). Archeology tells a slightly different version of this event (no evidence of burning, for example) but confirms the devastation that resulted for the people nonetheless.

The next war was even worse: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE after the Roman-Jewish War under Nero (66-69 CE). The Roman legate in Syria at this time was Cestius Gallus. Not only was Jerusalem razed by Titus, one of Cestius’ columns also killed some 2,000 rebels in Galilee as well.

And lastly, the Bar Kochba revolt (the “Third Jewish Revolt”) was met with such violence by Rome that it marks the last attempt at liberation by the Jewish people. According to Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews perished in this war and many more died of hunger and disease. In addition, many Judean war captives were sold into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to an extent which some scholars describe as genocidal.

Jesus’ nonviolent liberation movement belonged to a different family of 1st Century resistance movements. Two examples of this resistance were the Standards (Ensigns) incident in 26 CE and the Temple episode over the statue of Gaius Caligula in 40 CE.

Josephus writes about both cases of nonviolent noncooperation. First is the Standards incident:

“As procurator [Greek: “hegemon”] of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and under cover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as standards. When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on — they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the City — and the angry City mob was joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights.

The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the mob on the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a pre-arranged signal to the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords. At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law. Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.” (War 2:175-203, emphasis added.)

Now let’s consider the incident with the statue of Caligula:

“Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jews came to Petronius at Ptolemais with petitions not to use force to make them transgress and violate their ancestral code. They said, ‘If you propose at all costs to set up the image, slay us first before you carry out these resolutions. For it is not possible for us to survive and to behold actions that are forbidden us by the decision both of our lawgiver and of our ancestors. … In order to preserve our ancestral code, we shall patiently endure what may be in store for us… for God will stand by us…

Petronius saw that they were determined and that it would be impossible to carry out Gaius’ order without great conflict and slaughter. He went to Tiberias to determine the situation of the Jews there. Again, many tens of thousands faced Petronius on his arrival. They besought him to not put up the statue. ‘Will you then go to war with Caesar, regardless of his resources and of your own weakness?’ he asked. ‘On no account would we fight,’ they said, ‘but we will die sooner than violate our laws.’ And falling on their faces and baring their throats, they declared that they were ready to be slain. They continued to make these supplications for forty days. Furthermore, they neglected their fields even though this was the time to sow the seed. For they showed a stubborn determination and readiness to die rather than to see the image erected.

Then members of the royal family and civic leaders appealed to Petronius to refrain from the plan and instead to write to Gaius telling how incurable was their opposition to receiving the statue and how they had left their fields to sit as a protest, and that they did not choose war, since they could not fight a war, but would be glad to die sooner than transgress their customs, and that since the land was unsown there would be no harvest and no tribute. They brought pressure to bear upon him in every way and employed every device to make their plea effective. Petronius was influenced by their plea, and saw the stubborn determination of the Jews, and thought it would be terrible to bring death on so many tens of thousands of people. He thought it best to risk sending a letter to Gaius. Perhaps he might even convince him to cancel the order. If not, he would undertake war against the Jews. And thus Petronius decided to recognize the cogency of the plea of the petitioners. (Antiquities 18:261-309, emphasis added.)

Philo also writes of the statue incident in his Legatio ad Gaium, “When the Jews at large got to know of the scheme, they staged mass demonstrations of protest before Petronius, who by then was in Phoenicia with an army.”

It was in nonviolent resistance movements such as these that Jesus saw the best chances at resistance and surviving such attempts. And this is the context of this week’s saying about not following after other more violent messiah movements.

Jesus again embraced a vision for human society without the Temple. Early Jesus followers associated Jesus’ movement with the image of the son of humanity in an earlier Jewish liberation text, Daniel 7. In that vision, violent predator beasts that symbolize Gentile world empires subjugating the Hebrew people are removed and replaced by the Hebrew hope in liberation. All violence, injustice, and oppression in the world would be put right. Over 80 times, the gospels refer to Jesus as Daniel’s “son of humanity”.

Mark 14:62—“‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (emphasis added)

What Jesus did was turn this image on its head: change came through nonviolence instead of the violent imagery in Daniel 7. Jesus’ vision for humanity was not like the other movements that went to the wilderness, wanting to be a source of light for the world but only adding more darkness to the darkness. Jesus’ vision for humanity was of a movement that would light up the darkness of oppression in our world as lightning lights up the night sky from the east to the west. His vision was that we would be a source of light in the darkness of domination, oppression, marginalization, and exploitation, not add more darkness to the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently stated, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” (Loving Your Enemies, 1957; in Strength to Love, 1963).

I do want to say a word of caution about nonviolence before we wrap up.

I subscribe to nonviolence. I teach it. Yet nonviolence is also used by the status quo to keep people subjugated. To be of value to the oppressed, nonviolence must be liberatory. If nonviolence is held as the highest value and liberation is secondary, then nonviolence can then be co-opted and used to keep oppressed peoples from ever achieving their liberation. Any talk of nonviolence today must include an in-depth understanding of structural and systemic violence and oppression or nonviolence will end up being a violent form of nonviolence. It will place upon oppressed people an additional burden to remain nonviolent while the status quo preaches nonviolence to them and simultaneously ignores the violent system they live in. Nonviolence will do violence. It will be a violent nonviolence.

Jesus’ nonviolence was also rooted not only in liberation, but also in survival. Jesus’s opposition to the use of violence in the liberation movements of his day was deeply informed by Rome’s heavy response making such movements not only futile but lethal. When deciding whether violence or nonviolence will be the means whereby we strive for liberation, we must consider both their success and failure rates. Both violence and nonviolence, at times, succeed. And both violence and nonviolence, at times, fail. But when violent liberation efforts fail, the results can be catastrophic, so much more than when nonviolent efforts fail. I will address this much further in next week’s saying about the circling vultures, but for now, whether we choose violent resistance or nonviolent resistance, we must consider nonviolence from the viewpoint of the oppressed rather than from the vantage point of the privileged and ask how nonviolence will affect the oppressed’s liberation work. Again, we’ll dive into this much more deeply next week.

I’ll close this week with a word from James Douglass on how this imagery of lightning lighting up the sky from east to west can be used today. In Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, James warns of another type of lightning that threatens to end our world as we know it—the threat of nuclear war.

“Lightning east to west can be adopted as the image of our end-time. We live in the final time [that] offers human the clearest choice in history: the kingdom or holocaust. Either end is lightning east to west: the nuclear holocaust of lightning fire or the kingdom of Reality, a lightning spirit . . . Whoever believes in Jesus’ way deeply enough, a way of life and death which is a way of seeking an objective love-force in history, will perform the same works as he did, and even greater works—which are absolutely necessary today for the continuation of human history . . . Every living person is capable, through a particular process, of creating the conditions for the expression of an objective love-force in history, a power of Reality beyond any of us which can raise humankind from the global death of our end-time.” (James Douglas, Lightning East to West: Jesus, Gandhi, and the Nuclear Age, p. 17-23)

The choice is ours: which type of lighting up the darkness will we choose?

Will we be a source of genuine light in our world’s darkness of oppression and exploitation, or will we choose a blinding light that actually results in greater darkness for us all? James Douglass offers hope: “How does one live at the [potential] end of the world? By beginning a new one.”

“If they say to you, ‘Look. He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; ‘look, he is indoors,’ do not follow. For as the lightning streaks out from sunrise and flashes as far as sunset, so will be the Son of Humanity on his day.” Q 17:23-24

HeartGroup Application

The holiday season is upon us. Whichever holidays you choose to celebrate at this time of year, this is a time where we can choose to replace the values of individualism, consumerism, and capitalism with community, mutual care, and sharing your extra with those who have less.

  1. As a group, take inventory of some things or services you have the ability to share with those who have less during this holiday season.
  1. Make a list of who you’d like your HeartGroup to share with during this holiday season.
  1. Now combine the two lists and put this season of caring and sharing in motion in the coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. Wherever you are, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. . It matters right now more than ever which values we choose to embrace and live out. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns

Happy Holidays to each of you.

I love you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Kingdom of God within You

by Herb Montgomery

“Today, Jesus’s ‘Kingdom of God,’ a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.”

 

Featured Text:

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 24:23: “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.”

Luke 17:20-21: “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Gospel of Thomas 3:1-3: “Jesus says, ‘If those who lead you say to you: “Look, the kingdom is in the sky!”
then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you: “It is in the sea,” then the fishes will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 113: “His disciples said to him: ‘The kingdom – on what day will it come?’ ‘It will not come by watching (and waiting for) it. They will not say: “Look, here!“ or “Look, there!” Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.’”

The Privatized Individual Interpretation of this Saying

I want to begin this week by critiquing a popular privatized, internal, individualistic interpretation of this passage. One proponent of this individualistic interpretation is Eckhart Tolle. Here is a sample from his work, and then I’ll offer my response from a liberation perspective.

“Jesus was once asked when the kingdom of God would come. The kingdom of God, Jesus replied, is not something people will be able to see and point to. Then came these striking words: ‘Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’ (Luke 17:21) With these words, Jesus gave voice to a teaching that is universal and timeless. Look into every great religious, spiritual, and wisdom tradition, and we find the same precept — that life’s ultimate truth, its ultimate treasure, lies within us. As Jesus made unambiguously clear, we can experience this inner treasure — and no experience could be more valuable. ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” he declared, “and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33). From this interior plane of life, he is saying, we will gain all that is needful.” (https://www.tm.org/blog/enlightenment/kingdom-of-god-is-within-you/)

“What you see, hear, feel, touch, or think about is only one half of reality, so to speak. It is form. In the teaching of Jesus, it is simply called ‘the world,’ and the other dimension is ‘the kingdom of heaven or eternal life.’” (Eckhart Tolle; A New Earth)

“When you hear of inner space, you may start seeking it, and because you are seeking it as if you were looking for an object or for an experience, you cannot find it. This is the dilemma of all those who are seeking spiritual realization or enlightenment. Hence, Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.’” (Ibid.)

“No inner baggage, no identifications. Not with things, nor with any mental concepts that have a sense of self in them. And what is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is. The simple but profound joy of Being that is there when you let go of identifications and so become ‘poor in spirit.’” (Ibid.)

“I think if [Jesus] lived nowadays, instead of ‘kingdom,’ he would have said, ‘dimension.’ And ‘heaven’ refers to a sense of vastness or spaciousness. So if we retranslate the words of Jesus into modern terms [it would be] ‘the dimension of spaciousness is within you.’ And then Jesus said — when they asked him, ‘Where is the kingdom of heaven and when is it going to come?’ — he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven does not come with signs to be perceived. You cannot say, ah, it’s over here or look, it’s over there, for I tell you the kingdom of heaven is within you.’” Eckhart Tolle (Lecture, February 12, 2013, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education)

Three Critiques from a Liberation Perspective

My first critique is to the idea that you can find this kingdom within yourself as an individual rather than within yourselves as in a community. This individualistic interpretation stands in contrast with the majority of Jesus’ teachings that taught a form of communalism. The “kingdom” in the gospels is a community of people who are committed to putting into action God’s distributively just vision for the world.

Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino critiques theologies in first world countries where “the Kingdom” can be reduced to “the purely personal dimension” (Jesus the Liberator, pp 110-121). The “you” that Jesus’ kingdom is “within” or in “the midst of” is not singular. It’s not singular! The “you” where Jesus locates the Kingdom is plural: “among you” as a collective—a community.

When Angela Davis speaks on community, she speaks of a community that includes not just those who are alive now but also those who have gone before us in our work, our ancestors in social change movements. This community also includes those who will who come after us, who stand on the shoulders of our work the way we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. She speaks of our need to contradict “the neoliberal individualism that persuades us that we are single solitary individuals in the world. We have lost so much as a result of capitalism and not just in terms of material goods. We’ve lost a sense of our connectedness to one another” (SPIRIT OF JUSTICE: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MICHELLE ALEXANDER AND ANGELA DAVIS, 1:11:30-1:12:30)

This communal interpretation should lift the hopes of someone coming in contact with Jesus’ kingdom as an individual who is part of a larger community, not alone.

My second critique is that this individualistic interpretation makes the kingdom abstract. It does not address systemic injustice, oppression, or violence in concrete ways. This might explain why this interpretation resonates largely with the elites. It allows them to supposedly find Jesus’ kingdom inside of them through personal disciplines without being called to confront their own complicity in injustice or the benefit they derive from their social location in the status quo.

My third critique is that one can read an entire volume expounding this interpretation of the kingdom as an internal level of consciousness and never encounter a mention of the poor. Not one! This is a huge red flag, a denial of the gospel Jesus taught. Jesus called his followers in the Kingdom to practice a preferential option for the poor, those this world makes last.

In Jesus’s “kingdom of God,” whomever the status quo places last becomes first. They are the ones to whom the kingdom belongs (see Luke 6:20). It is their experiences of life, facing marginalization, oppression, exploitation and/or discrimination, in which the community is centered and dedicated to the practice of bringing change in the larger society.

An Alternative

So how are we to understand Jesus’ response to the inquiring Pharisee, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst”?

This response has a social/historical context that the writings of Josephus explain. Josephus writes of incidents that occurred around the mid-1st Century when revolutionary prophets would lead large groups of people into a desert outside Jerusalem on the premise that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded one of these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and so sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the mob into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian.” He’s mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

Josephus wasn’t a neutral reporter. Josephus believed the future of the Jewish people depended on the elites collaborating with Rome. He was definitely biased in favor of Rome. You can see it in the difference between the “4,000 assassins” mentioned in Acts and the “30,000 dupes” mentioned in Josephus’ account. But the fact that he mentions the event is still important, even if his account possesses potentially exaggerated numbers. In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slayed or captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself. (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172) These were not irrational leaders, but hopeful militarist messiahs, liberation prophets who tried to lead movements of Jewish peasants in action that would be accompanied by YHWH’s power and deliverance.

Josephus gives other examples of the people seeking God’s deliverance and meeting death instead. Roman soldiers massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who followed another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This man had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Josephus also describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

When Jesus says “the Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” he is emphatically rejecting the specific way in which popular prophets led masses of Jewish people to their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers. The reference to such leaders becomes more specific when he warns, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these messiahs and their methods of liberation would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters by Rome.

Jesus instead offered a new vision for human society in the form of a community that practiced survival, nonviolent resistance, liberation, and reparation, with the hope of both personal and societal transformation. This kingdom was within their grasp. Where other approaches were revolutionary suicide, Jesus gave them a methodology that was within their ability to accomplish. When Jesus says “It’s within you,” he’s quoting Moses in Deuteronomy.

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart [‘within you’] so you may obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, emphasis added).

Preferential Option for the Last

Today, Jesus’s “Kingdom of God,” a community that centers and puts first those our present society places as last, is within our ability. We can choose to do life differently. When it comes to the subject of immigration, we can put migrants first. When it comes to indigenous people’s rights, we can put Native lives first. When we talk about poverty and creating a new world where poverty is no more, we can put the poor first and center their voices in the discussion. When we speak of what it’s like to be a woman in our society, we can put women first. When we consider racial inequalities, we can choose to put people of color first. And in a world still largely shaped by homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, we can center the discussion in the voices, stories and experiences of those within our community who are LGBTQ.

We can believe, validate, and center each of these experiences. And although we may separate them for the purpose of discussion and understanding, often all of these experiences can be experienced by the same people. For example, a person can be a trans woman of color, and daily bump into multiple ways in which society seeks to place them as last rather than first. To the degree that that person fights oppressions in our world, a community seeking to follow Jesus’s vision for human society according will center their voice at the shared table, making first those the present structures place as last, and making last those the present structure places as first (see Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30)

Lastly, as our sayings states, the community of the Kingdom can be manifesting itself among a group of people right in front of us, and we can still miss it like the inquiring Pharisee in the story. The more invested we are in the present structures that marginalize others, the greater the likelihood of our missing it altogether. What are some of the characteristics we should look for? Jesus’ kingdom of God was communal rather than individualistic. It addressed the private/personal and also located each person within a larger community. It endeavored to address the injustice, oppression, marginalization and violence faced by those the world of the first century placed as last. And it practiced the one praxis the community of God must possess in every generation to be genuine: a preferential option for the last.

It’s not too difficult for us. It’s within our grasp. It starts with the choice to listen to those who traverse this world as last, and believing in their experiences when they tell you.

“But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly. Nor will one say: Look, here! There! For look, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Q 17:20-21)

HeartGroup Application

As a group:

  1. Think about the various expressions of injustice, oppression and violence certain people face in our society. What worries, if any, come to mind when you consider centering their voices in your own community?
  2. Worries tell us a lot about ourselves. They tell us about what we attach importance to and what we are focusing our energies on. What would it look like to attach importance to “the last” instead, to focus on them, to place them as first?
  3. Schedule a HeartGroup time when anyone who would like to share their story of how they have been made to feel “last” can do so with the group. When these stories are shared, follow up each story with a no-talk-back rule. Spend time listening, believing, and validating one another.

Then see where that leads.

Also, this week, if your reading this on Friday, call your Senators. Today they are voting an a tax bill that multiple nonpartisan sources including the CBO tell us will that this will leave poorer Americans worse off, the while top earners and corporations would benefit. Making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

If you want an easy way to do it, use ResistBot. Text “Resist” to 50409.

Here is a sample script if you need it. This was written by a Facebook friend of mine Emily Timbol.

“As your constituent I am asking and demanding that you vote NO on the Tax bill currently being debated on the Senate floor. In addition to adding $1.7 TRILLION to the deficit, it will be paid for primarily by $473 million in Medicare cuts, or over one trillion dollars in cuts to Medicaid, which is beyond unacceptable. This is a redistribution of wealth, only instead of wealth, since the people who depend on Medicare & Medicaid often are the poorest Americans, it’s making the rich richer at the expense of poor people’s lives.
Average, middle class Americans who make less than $75,000 will likely pay MORE in taxes, while the most benefit will go to corporations and individuals who make multi-millions. Any gains that “trickle down” to low level employees (if any actually manifest) will be outweighed by the losses they feel from an economy reeling from the effect of this tax cut after 2018. Furthermore, according to multiple polls released today by Quinnipiac, ABC News, and the Washington Post, only 1/3 or 25% of American voters support this wildly unpopular bill. Do the smart, right thing, that your constituents want, and vote NO.”

Thanks so much for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, engaging the work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. And remember, the Kingdom of God is within your midst, it’s within your grasp. It’s not too difficult for you.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Picture of mustardby Herb Montgomery

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.”

Featured Text:

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Companion Texts:

Matthew 17:20: “He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”

Luke 17:6: “He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.’”

Gospel of Thomas 48: “Jesus says, ‘If two make peace with one another in one and the same house, then they will say to the mountain: “Move away,” and it will move away.’”

Mark 11:23: “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”

The Mountain of the Temple State

We have a lot to unpack in this week’s saying. Let’s begin with talking about the mountain or mulberry tree. In the book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers writes about Mark’s use of this week’s saying under the heading “Faith as Political Imagination.” William Telford also saw an economic and political backdrop on which to understand this week’s saying:

“In Jewish circles, the correlative mountain and tree uprooting images [were] found in legal, legendary, thaumaturgic and eschatological contexts and employed in connection with the Rabbi, the king, the hero, the thaumaturge or the Messianic follower. In a legal context, the term ‘uprooter of mountains’ was found to have a technical meaning. Applied to the king (and to Herod in particular), it could be employed as a double entendre, bolstering a legal argument for the exceptional nature of Herod’s pulling down of the Temple . . . The function of [Mark’s] redaction is therefore to announce, we believe, that the ‘moving of mountains’ expected in the last days was now taking place. Indeed, about to be removed was the mountain par excellence, the Temple Mount. The Temple, known to the Jewish people as the ‘mountain of the house’ or ‘this mountain’ was not to be elevated, as expected, but cast down!” (William Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, p. 118)

Jesus’ narrative contrasts with the narrative of the elites of his day and of future Zealots in Jewish-Roman war, which would take place three decades later. Both of these groups saw the Temple State as enduring. The elites believed that as long as the Empire remained strong and the Temple aristocracy cooperated with Rome’s demands, the Temple State centered in Jerusalem could endure. The Zealots, on the other hand, sought to reform the Temple State. They, along with the Jewish poor, revolted against economic exploitation and wrested control of the Temple State from the aristocrats. They then launched a three-and-a-half year war to liberate Jerusalem from Roman occupation and the poor from the exploitation of the controlling Jewish families of their time.

But both of these narratives involved a Temple State enduring in some form, and Jesus taught that the Temple State could be overturned. I cannot state this strongly enough: Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. He did not envision a Christian religion replacing Judaism; rather he envisioned a Jewish society without a Temple State. Why? Because in his day the Temple State was at the heart of the exploitation of the poor he had dedicated his life to working in solidarity with. The Jesus of the gospels envisioned a world where the presence of YHWH could be expressed through a community of resource-sharing and redistribution as opposed to a Temple at the heart of the systemic exploitation of the poor.

Consider the following passages:

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. (Mark 12:42, cf. Luke 21:2)

“Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:43-44)

Then immediately following this account of the economic abuse of this poor woman, we read:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2)

It was a vision of a different world.

The exploiting Temple State is the mountain the Jesus envisions being cast in the sea in the synoptics.

Thrown into the Sea

In Mark’s gospel, we first encounter the imagery of being thrown into the sea in the story of the exorcism at Gerasenes. Here the demoniac is a symbol of the Jewish people being occupied by the Roman Empire—the demons’ name is “Legion,” like the unit of Roman soldiers. When the demons plead not to be driven out of the land, Jesus permits them to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs who hurl themselves (and the empire they symbolize) into the sea.

“A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, hurled themselves down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned.” (Mark 5:11-13)

Now Jesus is using this same image for his listeners, calling them to imagine a world where the exploitative Temple State (Mark and Matthew’s Mountain and Luke’s Mulberry Tree), too, could be thrown into the sea.

The message was that the world can be remade, without exploitation.

This is the part of the message that received the greatest pushback. It threatened not only the aristocratic Temple elites who finally had Jesus executed, but also those who saw the Temple as the manifestation of YHWH’s presence among them as a chosen people. Throughout history, religious worship of a God has often been tied to the oppression of vulnerable people, and the liberation of the oppressed has often involved throwing out God too. It’s no wonder. It makes perfect sense.

Jesus was calling the people to imagine that a different God, too, was possible: they could imagine a world without a Temple without having to embrace a world without their God. God’s presence, instead of in an apartment in the Temple, would show up in the midst of their community, a community that Jesus called “the kingdom.” That terminology is problematic for those of us who live in republics today but simply it meant a community that endeavored to practice God’s vision for human society according to Jesus. This was a world rooted in distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough. This was a community where we took responsibility for taking care of one another. Our interconnectedness was understood, embraced, and experienced. We have been robbed of so much in our capitalist society today by individualism and competition. Jesus taught that a very different world was possible.

Today

Today in the U.S., we don’t have a religious state with a temple at its heart. Our society is a secular pluralist society with a large sector of citizens claiming the Christian religion. We do have folks who feel that to abandon the religion they were raised in, the religion of their oppressors, they must also abandon their faith in their God. I believe there’s much to learn from Jesus’s distinction between faith in God and faith in a religious institution.

Let me be frank. Faith traditions and institutions have used their sacred texts and religions to oppress women, to hold on to and practice racism, to legitimize classism, and to condone and even prescribe their own homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a letter was sent to all the pastors of a conference in the tradition I was raised in from their conference president, warning, “We do not receive into membership anyone who is in a practicing homosexual relationship.” Last weekend I had a very different experience hosting as guests in my home two very dear friends of mine, women who are married and raising two beautiful daughters. This couple still very much identifies as being a part of the same denomination that wrote that letter excluding them. They are raising their kids in the denomination and one of their families goes back generations in this tradition. But the denomination’s letter singles out people like my friends, who are already marginalized.

Shame! Shame on those of us who use our religion as a tool of oppression and dehumanization rather than liberation.

And for those who find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination both in the world outside their religion and also within their religious tradition as well, actions like the denomination’s bring them the extra struggle of having to parse their faith in a God whom they believes loves them and a religious tradition where they first encountered God but that rejects them.

I love how Jon Sobrino sums up Jesus’ message to those who find themselves in this place:

“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 82)

Jesus stood in solidarity with people the religious, socio-economic, and political powers of his day pushed to the margins. He called them to envision a different world without the oppressing Temple State. And he was crucified by the Temple State for doing so.

There’s an interesting detail in the story, though. At the moment Jesus died, each of the synoptic gospels includes this note:

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27.51)

“The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15.38)

“For the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23.45)

This curtain separated the innermost Holy Place in the temple from the rest of the structure.

The Holy Place was the room where YHWH’s very presence was believed to dwell.

But in the story when the curtain is torn in two, what is revealed?

What do the people see beyond the veil?

The room is empty.

The God of the poor, the God of the Oppressed, the God of those pushed to the edges of society, the God of the marginalized is not there. The room is empty. The God who stands with society’s vulnerable is actually present in the one suspended between heaven and earth, between two rebels, the one who lived his life in solidarity with them and died as a result of it. That God is not at the heart of the system exploiting or marginalizing them.

God is with them, the crucified community.

The resurrection undoes, overturns, and overcomes all that was accomplished by Jesus’ execution in the story. But before the resurrection, the first post-execution event is the rending of the temple’s veil.

It can be very painful to sever or tear the association of your religious institution with your God. But I believe that disillusionment must come. Deconstruction must be embraced. And as painful as it is, we must lean into that deconstruction and come out on the other side to reconstruct a beautiful revolution. And this is where we come full circle back to this week’s saying about faith.

Faith

Angela Davis describes activism as a matter of faith. She states, “We always have to act as if revolution were possible. We have to act as if it were possible to change the world. And if we do that work, the world is gonna change. Even if it doesn’t change the way we need it to change right now, it will change.” (Spirit of Justice with Michelle Alexander & Angela Davis)

In the Jesus stories, faith always makes the difference:

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)

“‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’” (Mark 10:52)

“According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Matthew 9:29)

“Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)

“Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’” (Mark 5:36)

“When Jesus saw their faith . . .” (Mark 2:5)

“Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’” (Matthew 8:13)

“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’” (Matthew 15:28)

“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5-6)

“Jesus said, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)

The text of Mark’s gospel suggests that it was written when people were struggling to continue believing—but believing in what?

It wasn’t the existence of God that they were struggling to believe. A person could opt out of the Jesus movement and still believe in the existence of God.

In Mark, faith is not defined in terms of accepting doctrinal truths of a religious organization or tradition.

It’s not even defined as confessing Jesus as the Christ or as Divine.

Jesus did not preach himself in the stories. Let me repeat that. Jesus did not preach himself. So what did Jesus preach? What did Jesus call his listeners to believe?

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15, emphasis added.)

Jesus called his listeners to believe the good news that the kingdom, the reign of God, or God’s vision for human society, had come. Belief was tied to embracing the kingdom, to “imagining another way of being another way of existing in the world” (Angela Davis, ibid). The good news of God calls us to imagine a new world and believe it’s possible. This kind of faith is what made all the difference in the stories of the gospels: the belief that things could actually be different, that we can choose a different world. It was a message of hope. And even if it doesn’t come to full fruition in our lifetimes, the kind of world we want to create cannot receive its finishing touches by future generations if we haven’t either laid the ground work for them or kept building today on the foundations of those that have come before us.

“It’s about how we show up in this world in the limited time we have.” — Michelle Alexander

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be uprooted and planted in the sea! And it would obey you.” Q 17:6

Heart Group Application

  1. This week I want you to work toward putting that kind of faith into action. As a group, make a list of all the things everyone enjoys doing in their free time.  Go around the room and have the group share the best qualities about each person present. What kind of skills are in the room? What kinds of things are the people in the room typically asked to help out with?
  2. Everyone has something special to contribute. With this list in hand, brainstorm ways your HeartGroup can volunteer in your community to help shape the world into what we believe our world can be. How can your group work as if revolution were possible?
  3. Pick an action and, as a group, do it.

Coming up on the 28th of this month is Giving Tuesday. This year, make a special year-end contribution to Renewed Heart Ministries to support our work on what is becoming one of the most important days for non-profits throughout the year.

On November 28 go to:

renewedheartministries.com/donate/ 

and help us meet our year-end goal!

Thank you in advance for partnering with us!

And thank you, each of you, for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation as we follow Jesus toward abundant life.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Forgiving a Sinning Brother or Sister Repeatedly

by Herb Montgomery | November 10, 2017

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

Featured Text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internal Divisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where our saying comes in this week.

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

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

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

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

Seven times

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

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

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

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

Unity at the price of silence

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

 

The Lost Coin

by Herb Montgomery | November 3, 2017

“Jesus willfully and intentionally transgressed the community boundaries of his day. We should too. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.”

Featured Text:

“Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose o ne coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

Companion Text:

Luke 15:8-10: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The term “sinner” is used in the gospels in a very particular sense. It’s not used in the universal “everyone’s a sinner” sense. We see this in Jesus’ socio-political context. Imagine a circle. Those at the center controlled and made the decisions for the circle while those pushed from the center toward the edges had less and less say the further away from the center they found themselves. What determined how close to the center someone operated was an idea that we  now have a difficult time understanding: this was the idea of purity. Those on the edges were pushed there by labelling them “sinners.” Those on the edges of the circle had no power, privilege, or voice. 

Cultural or ritual purity codes in any society are used to bring order to the chaos of our world. Ritual Purity codes are a way of organizing our communities.  What purity cultures are concerned about is found in Bruce Malina’s, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, describes 

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

This way of ordering societies was not just practiced back then. We practice examples of this today. We manage purity in society and smaller communities within society, too! We misuse a person’s gender, race, orientation, gender expression, and gender identity to draw boundary lines in society. Examples might be the transgression of a community defined boundary within some religious groups by having a woman pastor. Or in larger society, examples might be found in how a community responds to the marriage of people from two different races, two men holding hands in public, or how a man in drag is interpreted in certain communities as transgressing or overturning “boundaries,” not fitting the “space in which it is found,” “belonging elsewhere,” or causing “confusion in the arrangement” of a “generally accepted social map.” 

Today we may or may not use the ancient language of “purity” to name something as clean or unclean, but we still in many social settings push those who transgress community boundaries from the center of that community to its edges. We marginalize them because we perceive them as not belonging.

In Jesus’ culture this was done primarily with various interpretations of the Torah. Those whose lives aligned with the community’s interpretation of the Torah were more clean or pure than others; they belonged. Those whose lives did not align were marginalized (pushed to the edges) and labeled “sinners.” The community looked upon them as outsiders even though they were Jewish. Again, in this use of the term “sinner,” not everyone was a sinner. Only those who did not measure up to the community’s definition of “clean” or “pure.” 

First let’s consider the Torah’s rituals about cleansing, and then we’ll consider the various interpretations of the Torah competing for control in Jesus’ day. 

Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo helps us to understand how the Torah’s occupation with purity operated:

“Dirt is the by-product of a systemic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity. We can recognize in our own notions of dirt that we are using a kind of omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of ordered systems. It is a relative idea. Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on a dining room table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room . . . out of door things in doors . . . underclothing appearing where over-clothing should be, and so one. In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications.” (p. 35)

The Torah’s concept of “clean and unclean” (or think order versus chaos) was not just about individuals but also applied to the community, the body politic, and so created and maintained community boundaries and therefore community identity as well. 

Two contemporary examples of this would be here in the United States during the Jim Crow era. All of life was once segregated based on race. Race separation is still the norm in many parts of the country today, even in the absence of explicit state enforcement. 

Another example could be how elite sectors of society still use etiquette rules today as their own purity code that maintains class separation. 

Purity Cultures historically have also resulted in exceptionalism. The pure community begins to also believe they are the “chosen” or “exceptional” or “superior” ones. Evidence of this today lies in the United States’ patriotic ideologies of global capitalism. We also witnessed it this fall in Charlottesville with white supremacists chanting “blood and soil.” We may not organize our societies around an ancient purity code, but we do follow unspoken community boundaries and practices regarding what belongs and what does not. Mary Douglas also writes, “There are no special distinctions between primitives and moderns: we are all subject to the same rules” (p. 40). As she explains, we need to begin perceiving and naming this destructive way of ordering society and become “aware of the seeds of alienation it contains.” (p. 190) 

In Jesus’s time, the society’s purity codes functioned politically and economically as well as socially. An example was given by William Herzog in 1982 and quoted in Ched Myers’ book Binding the Strong Man:

“According to Leviticus 11:38 if water is poured upon seed it becomes unclean. The passage, however, does not distinguish between seed planted in the soil and seed detached from the soil . . . In years of poor harvests, a frequent occurrence owing to the poor soil, drought, warfare, locust plaques and poor methods of farming, this text was a source of dispute. Why? During such lean years, grain was imported from Egypt. But the Egyptians irrigated their fields (putting water on seed) so their grain was suspect, perhaps even unclean. The Sadducees judged that such grain was unclean and anyone consuming it also become unclean. They were quite willing to pay sky rocketing prices commanded by the scarce domestic grain because they could afford it . . . One senses economic advantage being sanctioned, since the Sadducees were often large landowners whose crops increased in value during such times. By contrast the Pharisees argued the the Pentateuchal ordinance applied only to seed detached from soil [before being planted]; therefore . . . one could be observant and still purchase Egyptian grain.”

You can see from this example that the Sadducees’ position was not only financially advantageous to them but it also kept them centered in their community as more pure than others. 

By contrast, the Pharisees’ position would have been more liberal and been more popular among the middle and working classes. 

The dispute would have been lost on the poor who had no money to buy either the cheaper Egyptian grain or the more expensive domestic grain of Sadducee land owners. (A similar example can be seen today in how political parties “hire” unpaid interns to work for them. This fills their ranks with young people who come from wealthy families and can afford not to work for wages just to survive. Over time, the worldview supported and promoted by these parties is going to tend toward the interests of the wealthy rather than those of the poor and working classes.)

Jesus, came teaching a preferential option for the poor; a partiality and solidarity with those on the margins.  These would have been those in society who did not resonate with either the teachings of the more liberal Pharisees or the more conservative interpretations of the Sadducee elites. They were marginalized by both of these. I share all of this background to help us understand how the term “sinner” would have been used in Jesus culture by both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and how Jesus willfully and intentionally violated these boundaries. Keep in mind, the more ritually pure you were, the more clean you were, the more included, centered and privileged you would be in Jesus’ larger culture. Those who were deemed unclean were labeled “sinners.” And it was these “sinners,” these outsiders, who were embracing Jesus’s teachings.  It was these “sinners,” these outsiders whom Jesus embraced and was living in solidarity with. These were the ones Jesus was always seen with and it was these outsiders who were often seen with Jesus.

Repent

In Luke, those labeled as “sinners,” included not just the poor but the wealthy tax collectors. They, too, had been marginalized, but for them, their marginalization was based on their collusion with Rome. In Luke, these were the sector of the wealthy that responded to Jesus teachings and changed the course they were on. Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Jesus called the rich into a community of shared resources with the poor. His community was a community of distributive justice. No one was to have too much while others had too little. He called the wealthy, who had more than they needed, to share with or give to those exploited by the economics of the temple and whose basic daily needs were unmet.  Jesus called the wealthy to sell their surplus land and give it to the poor from whom they had been stolen. Those who responded to Jesus weren’t those the Sadducees and Pharisees labeled as clean or pure. It was those who were wealthy “sinners,” i.e. the tax collectors, who began heeding Jesus’ call to repent. One example is the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus:

Luke 19:8-10: “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’”

Wealthy “sinners” like Zacchaeus gravitated toward Jesus’s call of wealth redistribution:

Luke 7:29: “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right.”

Luke 15:1: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” 

The question was raised why Jesus was sharing table fellowship with sinners and wealthy tax collectors, these “sinners,” these outsiders. These people were repenting of their participation in the systematic social, economic, and political exploitation of the poor, they were rejecting that system, and they were choosing to walk a radically different, more communal, path of taking responsibility of the care of those being exploited by the wealthy. 

There is a beautiful story truth here. Those who had been pushed to the margins and edges of society and labeled unclean were proving to be more righteous in relation to the poor and exploited than those around whom their society was centered. It’s even possible that the tax collectors sensed a connection between their own marginalization and the marginalization of the poor; that this shared experience of being excluded prepared them to respond compassionately to Jesus’ message and his call to inclusive, distributive justice. 

A Woman

Lastly this week, I love the fact that Jesus uses the story of a woman; a member of another marginalized group in his culture. Jesus lifts up the example of a woman to exemplify a more evolved kind of social righteousness then his male critics were living.  Just as a woman knows the value of rejoicing when that which was “lost” is “found,” Jesus says through this saying, so too you men should be rejoicing right now in the wealthy sinners’ change of direction. Instead, Jesus’ critics were well centered and wealthy themselves, and could not identify with either the marginalized wealthy or the marginalized poor. I think calling Jesus a feminist is anachronistic.  But given his space and time, his treatment of women and the equity of value he saw in them is noteworthy. He lived and taught within a deeply Roman and Jewish patriarchal world, but in holding up this women as an example who was exhibiting qualities that the men he was critiquing should have been more like, we also we catch glimpses of how his valuation of women was progressive for his culture.

What’s the take away this week?

Jesus transgressed the societal rules and boundaries of his day that pushed some people to the edges and excluded them. And we are called to, too! In this inclusion, he also taught a distributive justice for the needs of the poor. Justice is not giving people who have been marginalized or discriminated against simply an equal opportunity to compete in a system that still economically exploits a certain class.  Equity isn’t giving people equal opportunity to climb a ladder that’s leaning up against the wrong wall to begin with. Jesus’ vision for a compassionate society was one where BOTH exclusionary and marginalizing practices and economic exploitation are rejected in favor of including everyone at a shared table. His vision was heterogeneous: everyone’s voice mattered and everyone’s experience was valued. It was also communal: no one had too much while there were those who didn’t have enough.  It was a community of shared values, shared production, and shared consumption.

I’ll close this week with a passage from renowned liberation scholar and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition)

There’s a lot in this week’s saying:

Or what woman who has ten coins, if she were to lose one coin, would not light a lamp and sweep the house and hunt until she finds? And on finding she calls the friends and neighbors, saying: Rejoice with me, for I found the coin which I lost. Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels over one repenting sinner.” (Q 15:·8-10)

HeartGroup Application

I referenced the work of Mary Douglass in this week’s article above. Mary explains that the problem with communities rooted in ritual purity is not the ritual part. The solution is not that we should become anti-ritual. The problem is how the purity part functions to marginalize, discriminate against, and exclude. She goes on to say that we must create rituals in our communities that do the opposite. These would be rituals that organize community on something better than other-ing those who are different.These would be rituals that emphasize our interconnectedness where there is no more insider and outsider; rituals that shape us into being people who cooperate and share with one another rather than competing and striving against one another.  

The early Jesus community practices the ritual of a shared meal as the centerpiece of their gatherings together. Today it’s called communion by some and Eucharist by others, but the lessons of this ritual that shapes us into a community of both shared production and shared consumption can be (and has been) lost with all the theology that has come to surround this ritual meal. 

  1. This week I want you to plan a shared meal with your HeartGroup.
  2. During the meal, discuss together how this shared meal is an expression of shared production and shared consumption.
  3. Take some time as a group to dream how you could be a community where everyone’s voice is valued AND where everyone practices the principles of shared production and shared consumption in other areas of their life. 

Keep doing potluck meals together. They can become a ritual for you and your group that over time will shape us into people who practice this shared table philosophy in other areas of our life, too.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Thanks for supporting our work here at RHM. 

I’m just getting back from a month of being on the road, teaching at different events. And now we are entering our year-end season of donor support and this year we need your help. 

You can support our work by going to renewedheartministries.com/donate/

or by mailing your contribution to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

Keep living in love, engaging the work of Luke 4:18-19 one day at a time. 

We are making a difference!

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.