When Doing the Right Thing Is Illegal

Herb Montgomery | June 14, 2019

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law and Order

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

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

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

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

Faith Communities and Noncompliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Catching Big Fish

Herb Montgomery | June 7, 2019

Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

“The fishing metaphor was a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change.”


“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

Last week I was reminded of the hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing. Although this hymn has been around for quite some time in a minority of hymnals, Pete Seeger popularized it in the folk music of the 60’s. Seeger incorporated an additional verse from Doris Penn (from whom he’d learned the song) and modified the lyrics to have broader reach, much like we today can speak of “the reign of love” where the gospel writers used “kingdom. I want to share with you Seeger’s version as we begin this week. 

“My life flows on in endless song

Above earth’s lamentation.

I hear the real, thought far off hymn

That hails the new creation

Above the tumult and the strife,

I hear the music ringing;

It sounds an echo in my soul

How can I keep from singing?

What through the tempest loudly roars,

I hear the truth, it live’th.

What through the darkness round me close,

Songs in the night it give’th.

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since love is lord of Heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile

Our thoughts to them are winging.

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?”

(For a live version of Seeger’s rendition, see Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing? – Live, 1982)

These lyrics inspire me to keep believing change is possible: another world is possible. Faith communities characterized by a different set of values than what I was raised with are possible. Societies that are just, safe, and compassionate are possible. 

And this leads me to our text about fishing this week. I briefly shared in Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories how the Hebrew prophets’ original use of the “fishing” metaphor in the gospels was more political than religious. During the Christian Revival era in the 1950-60s here in the United States, “fishing” language was popularized and transformed to mean bringing people into the Christian faith. 

But Jesus’ audience, especially the working, fishing people of Galilee and Judea, would have had a different association with this metaphor. Consider again how this metaphor is used by the Hebrew prophets:

“I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16) 

“The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2) 

“Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f)

This language of catching the big fish was used as a symbol of disrupting and overturning unjust power structures both within Israel and within gentile empires. As Doris Penn wrote, “How can I keep from singing? When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, And hear their death-knell ringing.” I love how Myers sums up the Jewish background of this fishing metaphor: Jesus might have been using this language with the fisher folk in our text. 

“Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10)

The fishing metaphor is a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change. This impacts those who endeavor to follow Jesus today in relation to Christianity’s complicity in unjust power structures. As Guitierrez writes, “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 69) Christianity has often been used to legitimize unjust established orders like patriarchy, white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. 

In each of the synoptic gospels, what finally got Jesus executed was his overturning tables, challenging the established order of economic and political injustice being bolstered by religion. That’s still happening in Christianity today.

What I also find intriguing about the Jesus stories is that although this is a story of overturning unjust structures of power and privilege, it is also a story about alternative ways of doing so. This is a story of alternative “fishing” methods, if you will. From Jesus’ teachings on reparations, nonviolence, and wealth distribution among the poor to the stories’ ending with a resurrection after a violent death, the stories about Jesus are stories where resurrection is the means of overthrowing the crucifying power of evil and injustice. 

As I’ve said so many times before, the Jesus story does not say that the cross was Jesus’ saving work. If anything, the cross was an attempted interruption of Jesus’ saving work and was overcome through the resurrection. The resurrection reversed everything accomplished by Jesus’ execution, and it did so as an alternative, life-giving method of overcoming the evil and unjust use of the violence of a cross. 

Speaking of unjust structures of power and privilege being overturned in this story, Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglass in her book Stand Your Ground, Black Bodies and the Justice of God reminds us:

“[God’s power] is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death negating, life-affirming force.” (pp. 182-183)

The Jesus story does not overturn injustice, hierarchies and exclusion by adding death to death. 

Douglass goes on to quote Audre Lorde:

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider, p. 12)

We need more than temporary solutions. We must not underestimate how much damage mitigation temporary solutions can accomplish as we work for more lasting change. Ultimately, we must work to end structures that kill marginalized people. Methods that may have worked to keep us alive at one stage of our human evolution, enabling some to survive at the expense of others, must give way to life-giving methods whose goal is the inclusion, survival and thriving of all. 

We can evolve further.

The challenges in our text this week are: 

The gospel, the good news, is about the potential for change in the status quo. 

This should cause us to question and let go of the status quo if we benefit from it, rather than continuing to give the established order continued religious legitimization.

The gospels also challenge some of the means and ways that unjust established orders are changed and overthrown. 

And lastly: a change in the status quo must not end in adding death to death. It must overcome death. It must be an overthrowing, a reversal, a rejection of death that results in life and respect for the sanctity of life of all. It must be a refusal to let go of life and life for all.

As I shared last week, if the language of “gospel,” “Jesus,” “God,” “heaven,” or other Christian terms are associated in your experience with abuse, call them love instead. Seeger had to change the lyrics of the hymn we began with this week from “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” to “Since love is lord of Heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” and that’s okay. (More blood has been shed in the name of “Christ” than almost any other name in human history. I would have changed the word “lord,” too.) 

What we are talking about is the reign of love as our established social order. And if the word “love” is also associated with abuse in your experience, we are still working toward a world that is just, safe, equitable and compassionate for you and for us all. 

“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18 (Personal translation)

HeartGroup Application

This week in your HeartGroups, engage this exercise together. 

1. Name a few unjust power structures that you see in our present social arrangements today, both in larger society and within your faith community. Write them down. 

2. Thinking of Jesus’ actions with the Temple money changers, describe how you would imagine Jesus would engage some of these unjust power structures today.

3. RHM’s book of the month for June is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. If you’re reading this volume with us this month discuss as group how you see the power structures you’ve named play into larger systems of injustice. 

Exercises like these are useful because they begin challenging the way we look at both our world and our faith in following Jesus.   Next week, we’ll build on this. 

Thanks for checking in with us. 

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

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

I love each of you dearly.

Another world is possible. 

I’ll see you next week. 

A Kingless Kingdom

Herb Montgomery | May 31, 2019

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash

“ . . . and for those who associate abuse with the terms ‘God,’ or ‘heaven,’ or anything Christian, the kingdom even doesn’t have to be associated with religious dogma. Jesus demonstrated for us how to love and care for one another. This realization alone can produce big enough questions for us.”


“‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near!’” (Mark 1:15)

This week we’re going to discuss the term “Kingdom” in the gospels and its relevance to us today.

In early Hebrew scriptures, we find two opposing narratives about having a king. The book of Judges is a pro-king narrative, but in the book of Samuel, we read this story:

“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.’ Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.’ But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’ When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. The LORD answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’” (1 Samuel 8:8-21)

In this story we read a warning about the transition from a representative social structure to imperialism, militarism, and something akin to early feudalism, the predecessor of today’s capitalist structures. We also read a warning that, for the author of that narrative, to choose a king would be to return to slavery.

Our passage from Mark this week suggests that the authors of the Jesus story may have sided with anti-king narratives. The passage promotes a return to the “kingdom of God” or the “reign of God.” Reading the gospel narratives of embracing God as king alongside Samuel’s narrative of God expressing the people’s rejection of him as king opens some very interesting interpretive possibilities. 

We shouldn’t read into the gospel’s “Kingdom of God” language the Christian theocratic language that the U.S. Christian Right has proposed since the 1970s. The values of Jesus’ “Kingdom of God” can still speak to us today without our having to refer to kings or stoke fear in the hearts of those who have suffered harm from Christian theocracy. 

Jesus’ Reign of God was characterized not by enforcing dogmatic religious beliefs, but by structuring society to practice distributive justice, nonviolence, mutual care, resource-sharing, wealth redistribution and equity, reparations, reconciliation, inclusion of marginalized people, and egalitarianism.

The Beloved Community

Dr. Martin Luther King preferred to call this way of organizing society the “Beloved Community.” According to The King Center:

“‘The Beloved Community’ is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.” (For more see https://thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy/)

For King, the “Beloved Community” was rooted in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. It envisioned economic equity in which wealth was shared by the human community. This was a community where all discrimination, specifically racism, would give way to new inclusive ways of living together that recognized our connectedness as humans, each of us a part of one another within the human family.  King’s vision was also global, and looked to a future where “love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred,” and “peace and justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”  When conflicts arise between individuals, groups and even nations, which they inevitably do, these conflicts would be resolved peacefully and justly through the spirit fo kinship and goodwill.

The Kin-dom

Some Christian feminists, rightly naming the patriarchal nature of the term “kingdom” have preferred the term “kin-dom” for our interrelated connectedness. As part of the human family we are all connected to each other. We are all part of one another. We are all “kin” or “kindred.”

According to Melissa Florer-Bixler, the term “kin-dom” originated from a Franciscan nun named Georgene Wilson. (See https://sojo.net/articles/kin-dom-christ)

I agree with Christian feminist Reta Haltemen Finger who states: “I think ‘kin-dom’ is a good word and better reflects the kind of society Jesus envisions—as a shared community of equals who serve each other. But in the political context of that day, and in the literary context of the sentence, the term ‘kingdom’ was easily understood—as well as in the 1600s when the King James Bible was translated.” (https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/)

The gospels describe the “kingdom of God” as an alternative way of structuring human community as compared with the “kingdom of Rome” or the Roman empire. 

The problem for us is that “kingdom” is patriarchal. And it’s too easily co-opted by actual kingdoms, empires, and oligarchies, as European Christian history proves. A kingdom has both a hierarchy and those that will inevitably be pushed to the edges or margins of that society.

But Jesus’ vision was of a human community choosing a life-giving way of structuring itself and choosing to live out the values listed above. Wherever we see these values happening, love is reigning. However we name it, it’s a human community rooted in love, compassion, safety, equity, and justice.

For those who associate abuse with the name of Jesus, it’s a community where only love and justice reigns, socially, politically, economically, and personally.

For those who find the term “kingdom” problematic, it’s a community rooted in a more democratic structure where each group has a seat at the table, and the voices of the most marginalized are centered and prioritized. 

And for those who associate abuse with the terms “God,” or “heaven,” or anything Christian, the kingdom even doesn’t have to be associated with religious dogma. Jesus demonstrated for us how to love and care for one another. This realization alone can produce big enough questions for us. Until we answer how we are to best care for each other, we’ll have to remain content defining God as love as we seek to shape our human community after the universal truth of the Golden Rule

Lastly, Jesus didn’t say this community or kin-dom was far off. It wasn’t something we would only experience after death, or at some distant point in the future. He called his listeners to rethink the status quo and believe that another world was possible, now. (See Mark 1:15.) He said this kin-dom was “near.” Here. Now. Near us, for us to choose today. We can choose to keep it at arm’s distance, or we can choose to embrace it. But it’s still there waiting for us to choose it. The question still remains. Will we?

A Special Request

In response to last week’s special request, I received a message from one of our supporters that made my eyes tear up as I read it. 

“Your work is wonderful, and I count it a privilege to help in my small way.”

What makes this message so touching to me is that this is from a person who daily seeks to survive on our present society’s margins. It drove home to me how our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries is needed more than ever, especially with all that is happening in Christianity and our larger society.

As I shared last week, most things have cycles. And ministries have cycles, too. This is our twelfth year, and as we head into summer, this is one of the two times each year when RHM both keenly feels and deeply appreciates the need for your support of RHM.

As many of you already know, all of our resources and services are provided free of charge. When we speak at events, we do not charge a seminar fee. And all of the resources we offer are available for free, in one form or another, on our website. This enables us to speak into spaces that more expensive educational ministries simply cannot reach. 

In order to do this, though, we depend on your support. We could not exist or continue our work without the generous support of our sustaining donors and partners. 

We at Renewed Heart Ministries believe that a different kind of Christianity is possible. 

We believe another world is possible as well. 

Will you partner with us in the work of following Jesus’ teachings (Luke 4:18-19), participating in his work of love, compassion, inclusion, justice and action? Together we are making a difference, one heart, one mind, one life at a time. Together we are engaging a world that we believe can be shaped into a just, compassionate, and safe home for all (Matthew 6:10, cf. Matthew 5:5).

To support our work click DONATE to make a contribution online,

or you can mail your gift to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make your contribution a one-time gift, or consider becoming one of our continuing monthly sustainers and select the option to make your gift reoccurring.

Any amount helps, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support. 

We aren’t going anywhere. We are here for the long haul! Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

From all of us here at RHM, thank you.

With much love and gratitude for each of you, 

Herb Montgomery

Director 

Renewed Heart Ministries

Change from the Edges

Herb Montgomery | May 24, 2019

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . .”


“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” (Mark 1:4)

Syracuse University’s Counseling Center defines marginalization as “the process of pushing a particular group or groups of people to the edge of society by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or place in it . . . Some individuals identify with multiple marginalized groups, and may experience further marginalization as a result of their intersecting identities.”

This week I ask what the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have to say to those who live disenfranchised, disadvantaged, marginalized, and underprivileged in our society.

Mark’s storytelling about Jesus begins very early on with the character of John the Baptist, who emerges as a Hebrew prophet in the wilderness calling for social change. The much later gospel Luke emphasizes this wilderness location by explaining that John’s father is a priest (See Luke 1:5, 8-10). John’s lineage allowed him to be a priest in the temple like his father, so it is telling that we instead see a John who isn’t a priest but a prophet like Isaiah’s voice “crying out” in the “wilderness.” 

The wilderness represents a marginal location in the Jesus stories: the edges of the Jewish society. It contrasts with Jerusalem, the temple state, and the elite who held positions of power and privilege in Jewish society. This is a Jewish story, and a story of Jewish voices in conflict with each other. It is the story of social tensions between those at the center of their society and those on the margins. It’s also a very human story. Every society includes a tension between those who are marginalized and those at the top and center of their social structure. When the status quo depends on marginalizing “a particular group or groups of people” Jesus’ time in the wilderness reflects the power dynamics we find in that society.

After Jesus interacted with John in the wilderness, Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus went straight away into the wilderness himself. 

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12)

Some Christian preachers use this passage to parallel Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness with the Hebrew people’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Mark does not explain how long Jesus spent there, and this parallel is often used to teach supersessionism. I do not read it this way.

I believe Jesus is making a social choice. He, like John, is choosing the wilderness as his starting point. From the marginalized region of Galilee, Jesus enters the wilderness after John, possibly to get in touch with his Jewish roots. His is a people whose origin stories were of enslavement, oppression, liberation, and brutal colonization of others. Jesus attempts to ground himself in his story as a Jew, within their wilderness origin story, and figure out how they got to where they are today. 

So both Jesus and John emerge from a place of “wilderness.” Ched Myers reminds us about the truth inthis story detail for those who today find themselves in “wilderness” locations.

“One of the first steps of hope for people in such wilderness places is to understand that their situation reflects social and political forces, not the divine will . . . While the margin has a primarily negative political connotation as a place of disenfranchisement, Mark ascribes to it a primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.” (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 12)

Mark explains that when John is arrested, Jesus comes out of this wilderness location and does not straightway begin preaching in the more centrally located Jerusalem and Judea. Instead, Jesus enters the marginal region of Galilee. 

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)

If Judea is a marginal region within the larger Roman empire, Galilee is a marginal region on the edges of Jewish society. In Jesus’ day, it was the buffer region between the Jewish population and the largely non-Jewish population beyond Galilee. In Mark, Jesus begins his work here, among those who would have been the marginalized in his society. Consider his teaching as well. Whom does he speak in solidarity with in his teachings?

“Blessed are the poor [broken] in spirit . . . 

Blessed are those who mourn . . .

Blessed are the meek . . .

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [distributive justice] . . .

Blessed are the merciful . . .

Blessed are the pure in heart . . .

Blessed are the peacemakers . . .

Blessed are those who are persecuted . . . 

Blessed are you when people insult you . . . 

Blessed are you when people persecute you . . . 

Blessed are you when people falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . .

You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:3-14)

In this teaching, Jesus is in solidarity with those who have been pushed to the edges and undersides of his society and are trying to survive there.  

Notice, too, those final two statements I quoted from Matthew 5. Jesus states that those on the margins of society are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. This was centuries before refrigeration and the harnessing of electricity. Salt preserved food. 

I want to offer a word of caution about the imagery of light in our context today. RHM’s book of the month for May is Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. In a statement circulating the internet this past Easter season which was attributed to Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney (which I still cannot for the life of me find where she said this, but this does sound like her) we read, “We can celebrate the light of Easter without demonizing darkness and reinscribing a white supremacist dialectic on Christ and the resurrection. My blackness is radiant, luminous and will not and does not need to be made white as snow. The blood of Jesus will not make me white. We must learn to talk about brokenness in the world with our reducing evil to darkness and goodness to light. Blackness is God’s good gift.” (From more from Gafney go to www.wilgafney.com

We can celebrate light without demonizing darkness. Today we understand that life requires both light and dark. What’s important is balance, a life-giving equity, rather than one or the other. I can understand the original use of this language and also understand that that use is no longer appropriate today. 

Yet in the Jesus stories both images point to the marginalized of Jesus’ society. That’s the point Myers is making above. In the Jesus stories, the edges of society hold a “primarily positive theological value. It is the place where the sovereignty of God is made manifest, where the story of liberation is renewed, where God’s intervention in history occurs.”

Change happens from the outside in, from the bottom up, from grassroots movements. It is the voices sharing the experiences of those surviving on the edges of our society that tell us whether the status quo is just or unjust, life-giving or lethal. We can choose to listen to these voices or not. We can choose the way of life or not. We can choose those things that preserve society, like salt, or that which cause societies to self-destruct. Those who are in power and privileged have very little insight into how systems enfranchise some and disenfranchise others. At best they continually risk underestimating the damage done to those who do not share their social location. Change, renewal, intervention, salvation, often emerges from the edges, the “wilderness” locations. And this is one of the first truths we bump into in the Jesus story.

Today, a person can be marginalized on the basis of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, ability, and more. Many marginalized people face exclusion for multiple intersecting traits, too. In whatever area of your life where you face marginalization, contrary to narratives of those at the top or the center of society, the Jesus story tells us that God is with those on the margins, those working in “the wilderness.” And we are working with God when we are working in solidarity with them.

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, please support our work. 

This is a time of the year when we keenly feel and deeply appreciate your support. 

Click on the donate page on our website or mailing your gift to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one-time gift, or, alternatively, consider becoming a monthly sustainer by selecting the option to make your gift recurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support. 

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Social Salvation

by Herb Montgomery | May 17, 2019

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

“Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be ‘on earth as they are in heaven.’”

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12) 

We’ve been getting a lot of questions over the past few weeks about our articles on a more social reading of the gospels. Again, I’m not saying that Jesus never addressed an individual’s personal salvation. In the stories of the gospels, he does. But he also worked toward society’s salvation too. 

Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be “on earth as they are in heaven” (see Matthew 6:10).

So where do we find examples of Jesus working toward social salvation in the gospel stories?

The most familiar story is of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we have labeled as Palm Sunday and his Temple protest the following day. Both of these events were public demonstrations calling for social change. His entry into Jerusalem that day competed with Rome’s entry into Jerusalem going on at the same time. (See chapter 1 of Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week.) Jesus was protesting Rome’s vision for society, the Pax Romana. 

Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple courtyard was an even more pointed social protest. I want to be clear though: Jesus’ actions must be understood within Judaism, not outside or against it. Remember, Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jew. Jesus was not against Judaism; nor was Judaism against Jesus. Jesus’ voice was one of many Jewish voices in his own society: there was a spectrum of positions among the Essenes, the Zealots, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each of these groups had ideas and interpretations about what it meant for Jewish society to live in faithfulness to the Torah. Christianity grew out of an early group of Jewish Jesus followers who resonated with Jesus’ vision for Jewish society. It was later, when the Jesus movement became populated by more nonJewish adherents and adherents from the upper classes of Gentile society that anti-Semitism enters the telling of the Jesus story. Originally the Jesus story was not read this way. 

Let me also say, on the flip side, that the context Jesus was in was also not a uniquely Jewish story. The dynamics and social tensions of that society happen in all societies, Jewish and non-Jewish. When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple (see Matthew 21:12) at the beginning of his final week, he was not protesting Judaism! Far from it. He was protesting political oppression and exclusion in his society. He was protesting the economic exploitation of the vulnerable in his society. And he was protesting the religious legitimization and complicity of the priests in the Temple. His actions were not against the Temple because it was the Jewish Temple. His actions were in solidarity with the Jewish poor in his Jewish society. 

Political oppression and exclusion, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization are not uniquely Jewish by any means. They are universal social evils that take place in all societies. Christians should not rush to point fingers at their Jewish neighbors, because Christianity’s history and present offer many examples of these social sins as well. Elite Christians who benefit from these sins could have just as easily and surely executed a prophet of the poor, and they have. Rome executed Jesus because he threatened an unjust status quo. People have been removed from society in one way or another in every generation when they have stood up to an unjust status quo.

With this in mind, here is one more example of Jesus addressing social evils, not mere personal/individual ones:

“Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mathew 12:9-14)

Plotting to kill Jesus seems like a pretty extreme response if we only read this story as Jesus healing one individual with a “shriveled hand.” But if we read this story as Jesus attacking a socially unjust power structure—a religious interpretation that was the foundation for a social evil that marginalized the vulnerable, and the authority of those who perpetuated this interpretive foundation—their response of feeling threatened and feeling an immediate need to silence or remove Jesus begins to make sense. Speaking of the healing stories in the gospel of Mark, Ched Myers points out: 

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

In the Jesus stories, then, we see a Jesus who continually took a stand with the marginalized sectors of his society even when that stand pitted him against more popular religious teachers and their authority. (See Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This should give us some pause today when we encounter ways of interpreting our sacred texts that either side with religious institutional positions that harm others or give a sacred foundation for inclusion, compassion, centering the vulnerable, and justice. For example, in Christianity today, there are multiple ways to interpret Biblical texts that have been applied to the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth who belong to non-accepting Christian families demonstrate disproportionately higher rates of suicide. It would be far better for these children to belong to a non-Christian family that accepted them than a Christian family whose interpretive lens does them such harm.

This is just one example. Interpretations of the Bible are also used to harm women as well, as we are seeing in the Southern portions of the U.S. presently.

Here not Heaven

Another contrast between personal salvation and social salvation is that personal salvation tends to focus one’s attention on the afterlife, gaining heaven, a pessimistic patience for how things are now, and a hope for change only at some point in the distant future.

However, notice how within the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel Jesus rejects this future focus and calls Martha to the present, now and not later. When Jesus finally arrives to Lazarus’ tomb, he assures Martha that her brother will live again. 

“Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (John 11:24) 

Here Martha exemplifies this far distant future hope. Jesus contradicts her, calling her to focus her hope for change in the present. 

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” (John 11:25)

Individual salvation places a person’s hope in the future, either at death or in Jesus’ return to this earth. Social salvation says, no, “I am the resurrection and the life” now. Change can take place now. Another world is possible, if we would choose it, now. Jesus taught the meek will inherit the earth, not a post-mortem heaven (see Matthew 5:5).

And this leads me to my third contrast this week.

Today Not Later

Private and personal salvation focuses on a future hope while leaving the present’s social structures largely untouched. In Luke’s gospel, we read the story of Zacchaeus whose personal transformation or salvation came as a result his embracing Jesus’ vision for social salvation from the social evil of wealth disparity. Jesus had been preaching a more distributively just vision for society. Jesus envisioned a society without disparity, where everyone has enough and no one has too much while others are suffering and going without. In Luke, Jesus had also called his followers to sell their surplus possessions, and give them to the poor (Luke 12:18, 33; cf. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:33-34).

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

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

“Today.” Stop and ponder that. Some equate salvation with eternal life. Zacchaeus entered into what makes life eternal in the gospels that day Jesus spoke. He didn’t enter at his death. He entered that day, because eternal life is social. Societies can follow paths that will eventually bring about their own ruin and destruction, or they can follow the path of life. Humanity as a species has to choose between these options as well. 

I’m reminded of Brock and Parker’s insight into how eternal life is defined in the gospels:

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 29) 

That day Zacchaeus embraced an offer from Jesus, but it was not an offer of post-mortem bliss. Zacchaeus embraced Jesus’ social vision for societal change—Jesus’ social gospel.

Yes, Jesus engaged a person’s personal salvation, always in the context of that person embracing Jesus social teachings. This means that divorcing a person’s private salvation from their larger participation in Jesus’ vision for social salvation is being unfaithful to the story. Jesus didn’t just change individual lives. He changed individual lives when they chose to participate in Jesus’ challenge to the status quo and his call for social change.

“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” (Matthew 21:12)

A Special Request

If you have been blessed by our work here at Renewed Heart Ministries, I want to take the opportunity this month to reach out to you and ask you to support our work.  

This is a time of the year when the need for your support is keenly felt as well as deeply appreciated.  

You can support our work either by clicking on the donate page on our website or by mailing your support to:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

You can make a one time gift, or please consider becoming one of our continuing monthly sustainers by selecting the option to make your gift reoccurring.

All amounts help, regardless of the size. 

Thank you in advance for your support.  

We simply could not exist nor continue our important work without you. Earlier this month, after a presentation I had just given, one of those in audience approached me and said, “Thank you. If we had more messages like this, my church would be a different place.”

I believe another Christianity is possible. 

I also believe another world is possible.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

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

I love each of you dearly, 

I’ll see you next week. 

Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Herb Montgomery | April 19, 2019

Photo credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

“Understood in this light, Jesus’ story offers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be ‘a good person,’  but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus . . .”


“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice [social justice] through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

Last week we compared the social focus of Jesus’ kingdom theme with the private, personal gospel that characterizes much of Christianity today. Preparing for Palm Sunday last week, I ran across this statement from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on how Jesus rebuked the social elite in his day: “The issue is not their individual virtue or wickedness, but the role they played in the domination system. They shaped it, enforced it. and benefited from it.” (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 22)

Jesus’ life and teachings do far more than save us from personal sins. They also provide an alternative social path that addresses social sins and so provides social salvation. In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people], to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 7).

Consider how each of the gospels begins, not by emphasizing a person’s personal salvation from their private/public individual sins, but by emphasizing Jesus as a catalyst for addressing social sins and social change.

Let’s look at each of the synoptic gospels beginning with Mark.

Mark

In Mark, the Jesus story begins with Jesus calling fishermen to a different kind of fishing.

“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:16-17

Ched Myers’ work reveals that, although evangelical Christians have largely interpreted this saying to be about saving individual souls for heaven after they die, a look at the Jewish prophetic tradition suggests that this language would have had a much different implication and meaning in Jesus’ 1st Century Jewish culture.

“An apt paraphrase of Jesus’ invitation is: “Follow me and I will show you how to catch the Big Fish!” (1:17). In the Hebrew Bible, the metaphor of “people like fish” appears in prophetic censures of apostate Israel and of the rich and powerful: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16) “The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2) “Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f) Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (in Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10, emphasis mine.)

From the very beginning, then, Mark’s Jesus is focused on overturning tables: overturning social structures of power and privilege. Mark’s gospel is a social gospel.

Matthew 

To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s gospel was the first gospel to begin with a birth narrative about Jesus. It’s remarkable to me that Matthew seems to have been shaping his birth narratives about Jesus based on popular midrashim about the birth of Moses. (See Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth. United States, HarperOne, 2009.) If this is true, thenMatthew was painting Jesus to be a new Moses: not a replacement for Moses, but one who stood in the Jewish prophetic lineage of Moses. The images of Moses that Matthew chose to emulate in his Jesus story were those related to themes of liberation from the oppressive domination of Egypt. Again, the liberation in Exodus is not a concern for individual Israelite’s personal salvation without a changed their social situation, but for the social liberation or social salvation of the community as a whole as the Exodus narrative states:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)

Characterizing Jesus’ work as similar to Moses’, Matthew points to a social understanding of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses the social sins of his own time and place and offers an alternative path for his Jewish society. The social liberation characterizing Jesus’ teaching from the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel (See Matthew 5) lays the foundation to understand everything that is to follow in the stories. Including the social liberation found in Jewish folk stories of the Exodus from the very beginning of Matthew’s telling is purposeful for Matthew. Like Mark, Matthew’s gospel is first and foremost a social gospel announcing social salvation. Any personal or private view of salvation in Matthew only adds to this foundation.

Luke

If Mark and Matthew have a social emphasis, Luke does even more so. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel that we read Mary’s Magnificat:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 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. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:51-55)

This is not a prayer/proclamation of personal change for individuals within a society that is left untouched. These words communicate society-wide change from the bottom up and the outside in. 

Just three chapters later, when Luke has Jesus begin his teaching ministry in a synagogue near Nazareth, Jesus finds these words in the scroll of Isaiah to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) 

Out of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen to summarize Jesus’ ministry, the choice of these words from Isaiah helps us to understand the entirety of the rest of Luke’s gospel. This is the story of an itinerant Jewish teacher, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, calling out social sins, and offering a path of social salvation, social reparations, and social redemption. (See Luke 6.)

In the early 20th Century, the Social Gospel movement recaptured attention for these larger social themes in the gospels. In the 60s and 70s in both North and South America, liberation theologians adopted a more global context and focused on those who faced oppression and exploitation across each continent as a result of the gospel’s social themes.  

During that same time, Black Liberation theologians took these social themes in the gospels seriously, as well, and from their context called White Christians to take action in the context of white supremacy and racial justice. 

Today, some contemporary feminist and womanist Christians also see deep harmony between this social emphasis in the Jesus story and their work today of survival and liberation. This vision encourages them as they strive for social change. 

Today, too, many LGBTQ Christians find a wellspring of wisdom in the gospels’ emphasis on social salvation from social sins, and that wisdom keeps them going as they work toward inclusion and equality in their faith communities and the wider secular society.

The call to hear the gospel stories as naming social sins and systemic injustice is being heard in our time. Today, the gospel stories tell of a Jesus whose teachings and solidarity with the oppressed in his day led him to the political demonstration we now call “the triumphal entry” (which many Christians today religiously and ritually celebrated last weekend). Jesus publicly demonstrated and overturned tables, he cried out for social change and social salvation. And that call is being heard more and more.

Understood in this light, Jesus’ story off ers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be “a good person,” but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus, as we, too, in the words of Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, refuse “to be consoled until the justice that is God’s is made real in the world.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 229)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice [social justice] through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

HeartGroup Application

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Thanks for supporting our work of participating in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

I’m so glad you are here.  

Today, right where you are, choose love. Choose compassion, take action and seek the path of distributive justice we find in the teachings of Jesus. 

Another world is possible.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

A Social Jesus

Herb Montgomery | April 12, 2018

picture of man standing before a wall with "Jesus" graffitied behind him.
Photo Credit: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

“Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy.”


“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)

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” he shouted at me. I was at the grocery store one evening trying to grab some missing ingredients for dinner. As I left the store I passed a table on the way to the parking lot. There, a group of Christians sat or stood behind the table, trying raising money for their organization. 

I politely smiled in his direction and said, “No thank you.” I was still walking as I heard him call out, “If you die on the way home do you know for sure where you’ll end up next?”

I couldn’t believe there were still Christians who talked like this, with these well-worn phrases as conversation starters. But again, this is Appalachia and as someone born and having grown up here, if you can still find this kind of talk anywhere, you can find it here.

This month at RHM, we are featuring Walter Rauschebusch’s classic work A Theology for the Social Gospel as April’s book of the month. One of the things I appreciate about the early 20th Century Social Gospel movement is that it drew attention to Jesus’ vision for social salvation, not individual, private, personal salvation.

I recently posted this quotation from Rauschenbusch on Facebook: “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people] to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation” (Ibid. p. 7). Immediately one person asked, “What is social salvation?” This question reveals more than it asks. 

Firstly, contemporary, privatized, and individually focused forms of Christianity focus their adherents so much on personal salvation and Jesus as a “personal Savior” from post-mortem punishment that those who only encounter this kind of Christianity may have never even heard of the social salvation described in the gospels. 

Seeing Jesus as a social savior is the oldest Christian message. It can be argued that interpreting Jesus as a personal savior, an individual savior, or a private savior is a later interpretive addition not found until Christianity became populated with middle- to upper-class people centered in their culture. 

Secondly, how nice it must be to belong to a social class that’s so privileged that it doesn’t even know what social salvation is, much less imagine it needs it. Countless people face discrimination, marginalization, and exclusion each day and don’t need a textbook definition for the phrase “social salvation” because they know the system all too well. They know what it is to need salvation from societal and social injustice and oppression.

Let’s dive in.

Kingdom

Each author of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts) place the theme of “the kingdom” at the center of their stories about Jesus.

“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)

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

“But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:43)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

“He proclaimed thekingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31)

I have my own theories about why the author of Acts ties Paul’s teaching to Jesus’ “kingdom” but the fact is that the Kingdom is the focus in the gospels and Paul must come to be associated with it in the book of Acts. Nowhere in the book of Acts is the goal to escape postmortem hell or enter into a cosmic heaven. The coming kingdom is the central theme.

The kingdom theme in the gospel stories served a twofold purpose: it hearkened back to the Maccabean era of hope in restored Jewish independence and it contrasted with the Roman empire (see Daniel 7). Matthew’s use of kingdom is more in line with the first purpose, and Luke’s is more about the second. Mark’s use can be argued to be a hybrid of both. Neither view of kingdom was about saving individuals. Instead they were about restoring distributive justice for a whole community, including all the individuals that made the community. The hope of the kingdom went beyond the personal to the social: it was about social salvation.

Gospel

In the canonized Jesus stories we have today, the term gospel meant the announcement of the coming of this kingdom. It’s important to note that the term “gospel” or “glad tidings” was originally a political term, not a religious one. The Roman empire used it to refer to announcements made when the empire annexed a new territory. The gospel was public announcement, or tidings, of the newly arrived rule of Rome. So the word “gospel” itself was not about privatized, individual, personal change but rather a fundamental social change.

Here are three examples that we have still today of contemporary, secular uses of the term gospel in the 1st Century.

“Even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess” (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33, 1st Century).

“Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: ‘Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea-fight, and now hold Cyprus, with 12,800 soldiers as prisoners of war.’ To this, Antigonus replied: ‘Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [euangelion-gospel] thou shalt be some time in getting’” (Plutarch, Demetrius, p. 17, 1st Century).

“Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons

to the man who brought glad tidings [euangelion-gospel] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον– euangelion] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them” (Plutarch, Moralia (Glory of Athens), p. 347, 1st Century).

The phrase “glad tidings/gospel of the kingdom” as the gospels’ authors used it was a way to signal that Jesus and his teachings held a new vision for structuring society. Those who were last in the present arrangement would now be first. Those being marginalized were to be included and centered. Those who were hungry and thirsted for a distributive, social righteousness would be filled (see Matthew 5 and Luke 6). The authors of the Jesus story used “gospel” to mean a change in society or human community that went beyond mere personal nor private change. It was about social change here, social change now. 

Eternal Life

Even when we consider the way eternal life was framed in the gospel stories, an argument can be made that even eternal life is not private, personal, or individual, but communal and social. Eternal life meant the continuance of a community as a whole, not merely continuance for individuals within that community. The path Jesus was pointing toward is a path by which the human race can continue, a path that leads to life rather than extinction for our race and not simply life for individual humans. Eternal life is about having our quality of life rooted in what Parker and Brock call an “ethical grace” lived here on earth, a path of living differently as a society today, here, now. 

“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 22)

Death by Crucifixion

Lastly, people don’t get jailed (like John the Baptist) and don’t get crucified (like Jesus) for teaching personal, private, post-mortem salvation. They get in trouble, as we saw last week, when they call out social injustice and call for social change, societal reparations, social redemption, and social salvation. Private change threatens no one, but social change threatens those privileged in the present way of organizing society who would have much to lose if the status quo changed.

Today, sectors of Christianity that only teach a personal Jesus deeply need a reintroduction to the gospels’ social Jesus. They need to rediscover and understand social salvation contrasted with personal salvation. They need a gospel that impacts the here and now and that isn’t just about the premium they must pay in this life to get a post-mortem fire insurance policy. 

There is a need to understand how the life modeled and teachings taught by Jesus have the potential to socially save. They aren’t a myth of redemptive violence and suffering that saves us from divine satisfaction. We can be deeply revived by following the teachings of Jesus, and not merely mentally assenting or believing story details about him. We need a gospel that recaptures the story truth of a resurrection, and not endless gospels that only offer people a cross.

It is to this end that we’ll be turning our attention over the next few weeks. I’m so glad you’re with us on this journey. 

“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)


Heart Group Application

From now through April 22, we’re offering our listeners and readers this special, premium t-shirt to support our work, show others you’re a fan of our podcast, and help spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well.

Don’t miss out on these! They’ll only be available for a limited time.

Get yours today for only $24.99 and support the JFE Podcast in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Go to:

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All Tees will be shipped out the beginning of May.

Get Your JFE Podcast Tee Today!

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

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Prophets and Priests

Herb Montgomery | April 5, 2019

Picture of woman using megaphone
Photo by Melany Rochester on Unsplash

“Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics.”


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31) 

RHM’s book of the month for April is Walter Rauschenbusch’s 1917 classic A Theology for the Social Gospel. Although Rauschenbusch writes in the language and limits of his time and social location, he and others in the early social gospel movement nonetheless broke new ground by calling Christians to return to the gospels’ teachings on social change, social justice, and social salvation. Their call contrasted with versions of Christianity that focus on private, individualistic, or personal salvation. Many who have been raised in evangelical Christianity today still are surprised when they discover the gospels’ focus on systemic injustice. This focus was accurately labelled the “social gospel” not because it focused on social salvation instead of personal salvation (as some have wrongly accused) but because it focused on social salvation alongside personal salvation.

Forty years after A Theology for the Social Gospel was published, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read it and wrote, “It has been my conviction ever since reading Rauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried” (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 91).

This week I want to look at a juxtaposition that Rauschenbusch uses in the end of A Theology for the Social Gospel. I admit freely that it’s oversimplified in terms of what we know today. I also find Rauschenbusch’s description of the function or motivation of the ancient priestly class in this paragraph to misrepresent the priestly function in the Jewish faith tradition as a whole. I do believe Rauschenbusch’s description matches his own experience with institutionalized Christianity and the professional clergy’s push back against his call for a more socially focused gospel. I believe he is reading his own experience back into the text. I, too, can attest that it is difficult if not impossible to get professional Christian clergy to see things at times that their paychecks requires them not to see. This can happen within any faith tradition when an institution and those employed by that institution become aligned with injustice, exploitation and/or exclusion. Yet this passage from Rauschenbusch still has much to offer us as we seek to speak truth to power or call out systemic injustice despite push back from those who benefit by what Rauschenbusch named as “institutionalized sin” (whether within our faith traditions or our larger secular communities). The juxtaposition he uses is that of priest versus prophet in the Jewish faith tradition. I found his comments under what he classifies as prophetic deeply encouraging and this week I want to share them with you.

“The priest is the religious professional. He performs religious functions which others are not allowed to perform. It is therefore to his interest to deny the right of free access to God, and to interpose himself and his ceremonial between the common person and God. He has an interest in representing God as remote, liable to anger, jealous of his rights, and quick to punish, because this gives importance to the ritual methods of placating God which the priest alone can handle. It is essential to the priestly interest to establish a monopoly of rights and functions for his group. He is all for authority, and in some form or other he is always a Spokesman of that authority and shares its influence. Doctrine and history as he teaches it, establish a jure divine institution of his order, which is transmitted either by physical descent, as in the Aaronic priesthood, or by spiritual descent through some form of exclusive ordination, as in the Catholic priesthood. As history invariably contradicts his claims, he frequently tampers with history by Deuteronomic codes or Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, in order to secure precedents and the weight of antiquity. He is opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which he has woven about him. He is the middle person of religion, and like other middlemen he is sincerely convinced that he is necessary for the good of humanity and that religion would perish without him. But underneath all is the selfish interest of his class, which exploits religion. 

The prophet becomes a prophet by some personal experience of God, which henceforth is the dominant reality of his life. It creates inward convictions which become his message to men. Usually after great inward conflicts and the bursting of priest-made barriers he has discovered the way of access to God, and has found him wonderful, ‘just, merciful, free.’ As a result of his own experience he usually becomes the constitutional enemy of priestly religion, the scorner of sacrificial and ritual doings, a voice of doubt about the doctrines and the literature which shelter the priest. He too is a middle-man, but he wants no monopoly. His highest desire is to have all humans share what he has experienced. If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity. His interest is in freedom, reality, immediateness, the reverse of the priestly interest. His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice. He has a religious conviction that God is against oppression and ‘, on the side of the weak . . . The prophet is always the predestined advance agent of the Kingdom of God. His religion flings him as a fighter and protester against the Kingdom of Evil. His sense of justice, compassion, and solidarity sends him into tasks which would be too perilous for others. It connects him with oppressed social classes as their leader. He bears their risk and contempt. As he tries to rally the moral and religious forces of society, he encounters derelict and frozen religion, and the selfish and conservative interest of the classes which exploit religion. He tries to arouse institutional religion from the inside, or he pounds it from the outside. This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name. His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, pp. 274-277, emphasis added.)

Let’s take a brief look at a few of Rauschenbusch’s statements.

History Contradicting Claims

Today, both science and history can contradict long-held religious beliefs or doctrinal claims. It’s tempting to become defensive and resistant to new information rather than learning how to lean into new information. Deconstruction is naturally uncomfortable. We must be honest in parsing the difference between resistance due to personal discomfort and resistance due to threats to institutions from which we derive privilege. As Rauschenbusch states, it’s possible to be “opposed to free historical investigation because this tears open the protective web of idealized history and doctrine which [one] has woven about [oneself].” 

Where have you seen this take place? Take some time to list examples that come to mind.

Selfish Class Interests

Religion has often been complicit in making oppressed communities passive and in exonerating or justifying one class’s exploitation of others. I agree with Rauschenbusch’s statement that when voices question the status quo, they are quickly labeled “enemy” or a “voice of doubt” or even “heretic.” We see an example of this in John’s version of the Jesus story: “Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about [Jesus]. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied, ‘No, he deceives the people.’” (John 7:12)

All Humans Share 

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, had an inclusive encounter with the Divine. His desire was egalitarian inasmuch as he wanted those being excluded to also have a seat at the table. Rauschenbusch observes, “If his own caste or people claim special privileges as a divinely descended caste or a chosen people, he is always for some expansion of religious rights, for a crossing of boundaries and a larger unity.” Those who push for a more egalitarian society transgress boundaries in their work and are often accused of not staying within the lines drawn for them and for others in society.

Social Consciousness

The Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and many others throughout history who have stood up to institutionalized injustice, seeking change in individual hearts and social and systemic change as well, can often trace their social consciousness and the roots of their passion for social justice to the belief in a Divine Universal Love. As Rauschenbusch wrote, “His religious experience often gives a profound quickening to his social consciousness, an unusual sense of the value of life and a strong compassion with the suffering and weak, and therefore a keen feeling for human rights and indignation against injustice.” For Christians, this passion for justice is grounded in the belief that if there is a God who loves everyone, this same God stands with the oppressed and is on the side of distributive justice. It is ironic that those whose belief in Love led them to the work of justice too often come to be ostracized by the very religious communities they first learned that Love through.

Heretics

Rauschenbusch’s use of this term struck home for me. When we stand up against injustice and some of those in privileged positions in our faith communities are also in positions of privilege in our larger society, it still amazes me how efficiently religious systems label and shut out or suppress voices for justice that they deem a threat. “This puts him in the position of a heretic, a free thinker, an enemy of religion, an atheist. Probably no prophet escaped without bearing some such name.” I could give quite a few examples of where I have witnessed or experienced this dynamic. 

Suppression

“His opposition to social injustice arouses the same kind of antagonism from those who profit by it. How far these interests will go in their methods of suppressing the prophets depends on their power and their needs.” I’ve seen those who side with Love and Justice go from having a packed speaking schedule for years in advance to almost overnight being treated as if they no longer exist. In the Jesus story itself, suppression took the form of false accusation and execution. 

I want to be very careful here. Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. He was deeply Jewish, and most of his more inclusive interpretations of the Torah had Jewish precedents before him. Yet his interpretations threatened those who had everything to lose politically.

Where else do you see institutions threatened by the voice of prophets? We may not call them prophets in every institution, yet the punishment of prophets is a universal dynamic. Whenever there are people calling not only for personal piety but also for societal change, seeking to make our world a just, safe, compassionate home for everyone, those who have much to lose will use these tactics. 

If you are in the midst of being treated this way, remember, you’re in the right story. You’re not alone. Another world is possible. If you need to take a break for self-care, do so. It’s okay to take a break; just don’t give up. We are in this together. And together we can make a difference.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)


HeartGroup Application

We here at RHM have something special for our readers and listeners this month.

From now through April 22, we’ll be offering our listeners and readers this special, premium t-shirt to support our work, show others you’re a fan of our podcast, and help spread the word so others can enjoy each episode as well.

Don’t miss out on these! They’ll only be available for a limited time.

Get yours today for only $24.99.

And support the JFE Podcast in making our world a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

Go to:

https://www.bonfire.com/love-and-justice-tee/

Get Your JFE Podcast Tee Today!

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

Wherever you are today, choose love, choose compassion, take action and seek justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Salvation as Liberation, Reparation, and Societal Healing

Herb Montgomery | January 11, 2019

Picture of earth with this week's article title.

“Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed . . . Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels.”

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

My wife and I purchased a home almost fifteen years ago now. It’s an American foursquare from the turn of the 20th Century. We thought it would be a beautiful adventure to restore an old home together. We wanted to do all the work ourselves, slowly, as we could afford it. So today, we live in an ongoing construction. The journey has hardly been what we thought it would be.

Some people look at our home today alongside the before pictures and say, “Herb, why didn’t you just condemn the building, bulldoze it, and build a new house?” That would have been easier, but it wasn’t the choice we made. The house, though in need of restoration, had great “bones.” But getting it into shape has been a lot of work.

John’s gospel includes an interesting story. Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus in the night. And in the middle of their conversation, Jesus tells him:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

Contrary to many “end-time” preachers, Jesus’ vision for this world was not to condemn it, wipe it out, and make a new one. Jesus pictured a God who loved our world: a God who dreamed of this world’s healing, reparation, and transformation. Jesus’ vision wasn’t to wipe our world out and start all over, but to see our world healed.

The word in the passage most translated as “saved,” sozo, can just as easily and accurately be translated as healed. Salvation is understood in the gospels not in terms of penalty and payment but in terms of restoration and healing in the context of the violence, injustice, and oppression faced by multitudes in our present world. Salvation as a post mortem fire insurance policy finds no place in the gospels. 

John’s gospel defines salvation more holistically. What do we see Jesus doing with the majority of his time in all four of the canonical gospels? We see him going from place to place to place bringing healing and liberation. When I began to look at our world through the lens of healing and liberation rather than the lens of a fire insurance it shifted something in me.

In Luke 19, we find the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. He was responsible for participating in a system that benefited the wealthy, including himself, while impoverishing many. 

The next thing the story tells us about Zacchaeus is the tree he had climbed. As in his own life, he had climbed higher and higher but as he sits in the tree, he realizes that the ladder he’d been climbing was leaning against the wrong wall. 

Jesus comes to the spot where Zacchaeus is lodged in the tree and tells him to climb down. “I’m going to go to your house today.” 

Everyone begins to whisper, “He’s going to the house of a sinner!” 

The masses disdained tax collectors like Zacchaeus and labelled them “sinners.” 

In Jewish society at this time, the label of “sinner” was not universal. It was a label the political elite used to marginalize and exclude people. There were two distinct groups: the righteous and the sinners. A Jewish person had to be living outside either the Pharisees’ or the Sadducees’ interpretations of the teachings of Moses to be labelled a “sinner” or “unclean.” Though they were born into the community of Abraham’s covenant, they could be labelled as living in such a way that excluded them from the hope and promises of their Jewish heritage.

(The Sadducees were much more conservative than the Pharisees, which served to marginalize more people as sinners. The Pharisees used more liberal interpretations and therefore were more popular.) 

This pattern of marginalization was Zacchaeus’ story. He was a Jew by birth, and so a son of Abraham, but on the basis of his complicity with the Romans, he was labelled a “sinner,” an Other, an outsider. 

This is why the people in the story were upset that Jesus planned to go to Zacchaeus’ house. Up to this point in Luke, Jesus had practiced a preferential option for the poor, yet here he was now, associating with someone responsible for making many people poor. 

Grace doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. Genuine grace transforms oppressors, just as it liberates the oppressed. Did Jesus care that Zacchaeus was responsible for a system that was repressing so many? Absolutely. Yet something had already changed inside of Zacchaeus; we aren’t told how, and we aren’t told when. 

Before Jesus could respond to the crowd’s accusation that Jesus was going to the home of a sinner, though, Zacchaeus interrupts:

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

Zacchaeus was changing. As he climbed down from the tree, he was also climbing down from his position of power, prestige, and public privilege. Also, he was not seeking simple forgiveness. 

Zacchaeus understood that following Jesus would involve him making reparations to those he had exploited. It would also involve him going beyond direct reparations to a kind of wealth redistribution to the poor because of his role in an economic system that drove many into poverty. I’m reminded of the words of Nelson Mandela who stated, “Like slavery, like apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome by the actions of human beings.” (Address at the Make Poverty History campaign, London, England, February 3, 2005.) The father of Latin liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, wrote: 

“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.” (The Power of the Poor in History, p. 44) 

Today, in a world where poverty is not the product of scarcity because we produce more than we can possibly need, and poverty results from unwillingness to embrace our interconnectedness and share, these words ring true: “There was a time when poverty was considered to be an unavoidable fate, but such a view is no longer possible or responsible. Now we know that poverty is not simply a misfortune; it is an injustice.” (Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez)

 Zacchaeus followed Jesus. He didn’t only believe another world was possible. He actually moved toward that world. Jesus responded to him by saying:

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

Right there, then, at that very moment “salvation”—healing—had come to Zacchaeus’ house. 

What would it mean for salvation or healing to come to your house right now? Would it come in the form of liberation for you and the community you belong to? Or would it, like it did for Zacchaeus, come in the form of your transformation: you taking up the work of liberation with others working for their freedom and regaining your own humanity as you go? In our world where inequality and injustice are most often rooted in disparities based on race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, and more, what would Zacchaeus-like salvation look like for you?

“For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to [heal] the world through him.” (John 3:17)

HeartGroup Application

Healing our world can take a myriad of different forms. This week, here in the U.S. we find ourselves in the midst of a heated debate over our treatment of Jesus’ “strangers” and what, if not ended by this Saturday, could be the longest government shutdown in the history of the U.S. I’ver heard from many of you who follow RHM who are federal employees. I’ve heard the stories of how you feel as if you are being held for ransom as you continue to go without pay, some of you expected to show up to work regardless.

Last April our book of the month for RHM’s annual suggested reading course was Rev. Kelly Brown Douglass Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.  In the very first chapter, in the section titled The Making of Cherished Property: The Immigration Paradox, Douglass lays out the history of racism that has ever been at the heart of our immigration debates.  This week I would like to return to this chapter. Read and discuss this chapter as a group. How does this history inform how you consider what happening presently along the southern border of the U.S.?

Just this week, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian magazine dedicated to Jesus and societal justice, implored his readers: “Right now, it’s important that you tell your senator to pass funding bills to restore the operation of government agencies, without approving Donald Trump’s 2,200-mile monument to racism.” I agree on both counts.  Right now, it is important to be contacting your Congressional representatives.  And Wallis’ is correct in naming Trump’s wall as a “2,200-mile monument to racism,” especially in the context of the history of our immigration debate here in the U.S.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the choices of his followers who failed to follow his teachings in moments such as these. “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew 25:43) Besides contacting your representatives, what else can you as a HeartGroup do to be a source of healing in your community presently?  Sharing an informed summary of our history to those who are misinformed in our daily discussions with others? Providing support for those seeking asylum in this country either directly if you live in an area along the souther border or through supporting an organization that is providing help? Do you have any federal workers in your HeartGroup that you can surround and come under and support during this difficult time for them, as well?  Come up with something you can do as a group and do it. 

Rev. John Dorhaur, who is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, said it rightly this week, “We are faced with a moral crisis as a country, not a border crisis, nor a national emergency.” History is being made.  Let’s make sure we are on the right side of it. 

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

Next weekend I will be in Arizona officiating the wedding of two friends of mine, but I’m going to try and get out next week’s podcast/eSight before I go. 

Until then, remember, another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Courage in the Face of Setbacks

Herb Montgomery | January 4, 2019


“Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, ‘When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.'”


“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)

I’m sit here this morning, after the holidays, contemplating the future of Renewed Heart Ministries. This year will be our twelfth year: Renewed Heart Ministries has been sharing the message of love and inclusion for over a decade. 

But four and a half years ago, something changed. We were introduced to a precious community of people who are the objects of God’s love and who most deeply face marginalization on a daily basis. Something for us shifted because of this meeting. As the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes so eloquently states in Journey to Liberation, “When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.”

In 2014, Renewed Heart Ministries started to become a welcoming and affirming ministry. We have become more intentional and passionate about the intersection of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and our work today of increasing the love, compassion, action, and justice in society. This has been a time of rebirth and rebuilding here at RHM, and we believe we’re a much healthier ministry with a much healthier focus, as a result. 

Yet these changes have not been without deep loss, both of former friends and of support.

This is why this week’s text spoke to me this morning. 

“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God . . . ” (Mark 1:14)

John was Jesus’ mentor. He had refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a priest of the Temple state. Possible reasons could have been the Temple state’s exploitation of the poor and it’s complicity with Rome as means of survival. John had chosen instead another very Jewish option. He chose to stand in the stream of actions found among the Hebrew prophets, the habitat of the wilderness, speaking truth to power. 

For every action there is a reaction. And power typically responds to those who seek to name injustice. The reaction of Herod to John’s outspoken critiques and call for change was initially to have him arrested. Herod expected the arrest to silence John. Those who have read the story know that John is eventually executed. At this point in the story, though, he is simply arrested. He is silenced by being forcefully removed from the masses.

Acts like these by those in power are purposed to intimidate others and discourage them from pursuing similar courses. They are acts of terror at worst, and acts of warning at best. 

John’s imprisonment by the political leader Herod had to have affected Jesus. It was a significant setback, and possibly also a warning. Jesus was setting out on a course for which John had cleared the way or blazed a path. In the words of Isaiah, John had been 

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Would Jesus turn back? Would Jesus abandon his solidarity with the marginalized sectors of his society? Or would he renew his purpose in the face of John’s imprisonment? 

For me, what Jesus did next shows his courage. Jesus chooses to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and marginalized of his society in the face of deeply troubling, political consequences. John had just been imprisoned, and it’s immediately afterwards that Jesus chooses to stand before the masses and resolutely say,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you . . . 

You are the salt of the earth . . . 

You are the light of the world.” 

(Matthew 5:3-14)

Jesus is choosing the community of those whose “spirit” has been broken by systems of injustice. I think of those today who no longer have the spirit to keep fighting for a just world, those who have lost faith that another world is possible.

Jesus chose those who mourn because of the present structure. I think of parents like those of Trayvon Martin, or more recently, 8 year old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7 year old Jakelin Caal Maquin, whose hearts have been broken by deep loss caused by our society’s systemic injustice. This is loss so deep it seems at times that it can never be repaired. 

Jesus chose the “meek,” those this world typically walks all over. He chose the community of the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness—the Hebraic idea of a societal, distributive justice, an end of violence, and an end to oppression.

He also affirms the community of the merciful. I think of those who see immigrants seeking asylum and welcome them rather than coldly stating that they deserve harsh treatment.

He names the pure in heart. In our time, I think of those who refuse to be shaped by capitalism’s priorities of profit over people. And he names peacemakers, not peacekeepers: those who are willing to disturb the peace to work for a distributive justice that will give birth to genuine peace, where everyone has enough, and no one has too much while others go without.

Finally, Jesus (I wonder if he was thinking of John at this moment) mentions those persecuted for the cause of justice: those who speak truth to power, who name bigotry, exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, and oppression and experience deep loss as a result of their outspokenness. He mentions those who are insulted by the privileged and who are falsely labeled as dangerous, evil, and heretical, or “too radical.” 

Yet it is this community of the poor, oppressed, marginalized, abused and mourning that Jesus names the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In learning to listen to those who experience is different from our own, those who are the most vulnerable to a variety of injustices that we begin to see [i.e. “light of the world”]. It is in learning to listen to the stories and the voices of communities who daily face oppression that we encounter the choice to change and the possibility of our social life, our life together as a human family, being preserved [i.e. “salt of the earth”].

I cannot help but think that Jesus might have also been afraid to stand in solidarity with those this world makes last. Would he also be arrested like John? Could choosing and modeling a preferential option for those society makes last, in one degree or another, even cost him his life?

We all know how the Jesus story ended. At the beginning of the Jesus story, though, it was still being played out. 

This year, it means everything to me that, as he pondered his future if he, like John, continued to walk alongside and advocate for the oppressed, Jesus chose to keep believing that another world was possible. Jesus chose to keep working toward a world where those are presently made “last” would then be prioritized as those presently favored as “first” (See Matthew 20:8-16).

Lastly, this contemplation of John and Jesus, also makes me think of where Renewed Heart Ministries is today and what the future may hold for us. Has Renewed Heart Ministries faced setbacks as a result of our choice to stand alongside those being marginalized? In one sense, yes.

But in another very real sense, we are in a better place today than we have ever been. Never before has the Jesus story so deeply resonated with us. I’m thankful for those who have taken the time and invested their energy to open our eyes. And I’m thankful for those who follow us who were willing to have their eyes opened, too, alongside us. 

Like Jesus, we choose to work for a world where those presently made last are treated the same as those presently prioritized as first. Today, there are so many forms of “being made last.” But our differences—race, gender, education, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, class, ability, etc.—don’t make us less than another. Humanity is richly diverse, but we are all still family. 

And it’s for this human family that, alongside those who have gone before us, those presently making similar choices, and those who will come after us, we here at RHM dedicate 2019 to continuing the work of shaping our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate home for all, especially those Jesus might call blessed members of the kingdom of God.

“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)

HeartGroup Application

This week, as a group, open up Matthew 5:3-12 and explore through discussion, if Jesus were to speak these words today, whom would he say were the blessed recipients of his vision for human community? Whom would he say would inherit the earth?  Whom would he say would see God?  Whom would he name?  In 2014 I was a guest speaker at my first Kinship Kampmeeting. Here is a link to how this experience impacted whom I chose in making my own list of beatitudes then. This is an example of this exercise. Look at our world today and come up with your own list.

Discuss how you, too, like Jesus, like John, can work alongside these communities to bring concrete change this year.  

And then pick something from your discussion and begin doing it. 

May 2019 bring us closer to rather than farther away from that pearl of great price, that world where everyone is safe, everyone has enough, and where compassion and love are the basis of our relating to one another.

Happy New Year to each of you. 

Thank you for checking in with us. I’m so glad you did.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.