The Falling and Rising of Many

Herb Montgomery | January 22, 2021

balance scales


“This is the intrinsic reason why our collective thriving depends on raising up some in society while those who have gained too much power, privilege, property, or profit must fall back down. Ancient societies also knew this.”


In the gospel of Luke, we read these words about the child Jesus:

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.’” (Luke 2:34)

We mentioned this passage briefly in part 9 of our Advent series last month. This small statement offers insights that are worth a closer look.

In physics, we typically speak of things rising first and then falling: what goes up must come down. But this passage isn’t talking about physics. It’s talking about pulling some people downward economically, politically, and socially while raising or lifting up others. It harkens back to the language in Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:

“ . . . 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.” (Luke 1:46-55)

These are passages about wealth disparity, not wealth alone.

Last March, Renewed Heart Ministries’ monthly recommended reading was Kate Pickett’s and Richard Wilkinson’s book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. In page after page of statistics, Pickett and Wilkinson show that once a society reaches a certain level of wealth, the amount quickly becomes irrelevant. What determines the overall health of that society is the degree of equity or disparity that exists there, whether the distance between the haves and have-nots is great or limited. Inequity disproportionally impacts people in regards to education, health care, crime, substance abuse, mental health, and much, much more.

In a different book, Behave, Robert Sapolsky shows that social economic inequity, over time, even damages individuals and the communities they comprise biologically.

This is the intrinsic reason why our collective thriving depends on raising up some in society while those who have gained too much power, privilege, property, or profit must fall back down. Ancient societies also knew this, and the jubilee in the Torah is just one practice they developed to demonstrate it.

I think of those like Jeff Bezos, who became the world’s first centi-billionaire during a global pandemic where many have suffered losses of unimaginable magnitude. A dear friend of mine, for example, just lost a brother-in-law to COVID. He just had just become a father 11 months ago, and died on Christmas day. We are now over 19 million cases, with many hospitals overrun, and an unnecessarily 333,000 now dead.

What could the “pulling down and raising up of many” mean for us today?


When Everyone Has Enough

Chapter 6 of Luke’s gospel continues the theme of redistribution or balancing of resources in Jesus’ community. This was a society where an elite few had more than they could possibly ever need while a multitude of others were being bled dry economically. Their thriving was impossible, their very survival was being threatened as well, and many who had once had modest means were pushed into poverty, much like America’s shrinking middle class today.

Consider how these words would have been heard in that context:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26)

So much can be said about these words! Notice the parallel to “falling and rising” from Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph. Here, the poor, the hungry, those whom the present unjust system had reduced to tears, and those labelled trouble-makers for speaking out against injustice are being lifted up in Jesus’ vision for a just community. And those the present system has left rich at others’ expense; those well-fed because others go hungry; those rejoicing because of their great, disproportionate wealth, and those whom the system praised would now be brought back down. All of these groups would experience a fall from their places of privilege as their community came back into balance: no one would have too much while others didn’t have enough.

I was once troubled by the idea of the well-fed going hungry. I want to be careful not to interpret this passage in a way that body shames anyone, including myself. In that context, “well-fed” had a political-economic meaning—similar to the elites being referred to as “fat cats.” But some experience hunger at the beginning of a healthy weight loss journey. Not all hunger is bad. In the same way, the elite will experience temporary hunger whenever society is brought back into balance. They may even weep and morn as they see billions of their net-worth lost on their balance sheets as society itself is rebalanced. A return to social equity always feels like “loss” for those who are privileged and powerful. This is why Jesus’ vision of a just society was so threatening. It also explains why that group felt his voice must be silenced and he must be removed from among the poor, those who hunger and thirsted for things to be put right.

Yet Jesus’ teachings of economic redistribution was part of his Jewish heritage and sacred text.


Economic Falling and Rising in the Torah

In the book of Leviticus we read:

“Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.” (Leviticus 25:8-13)

This jubilee year, also referred to as the year of the Lord’s favor, was an additional sabbatical year when slaves were released, debts were forgiven, and property/land was restored to the original families of ownership (see Isaiah 61:1-2).

Deuteronomy 15 states, “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.”

These economic laws were intended to be protective. They limited both extremes, preventing anyone from amassing too much or losing too much and therefore risking poverty. These offered a type of “falling and rising” that pulled those at the top back down and lifted those at the bottom, all to prevent societal disparities and inequities becoming too great. These laws were not utopian by any means. They assumed disparities and inequities as both inevitable and damaging, damaging to the degree that the growing society’s disparities needed to be limited so that its potential for damage and harm would also be limited. Redistribution of amassed wealth in this context mitigated harm. (See Debt jubilee: will our debts be written off?, written last March to wrestle with the concept of jubilee and the pandemic’s economic challenges.)

It’s telling that out of all the passages the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen from the Hebrew scriptures to summarize Jesus work, they chose Isaiah 62:

“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, emphasis added.)

What could limits toward amassing too much wealth look like in our context today?

What could limits on poverty through redistribution of that amassed, superfluous wealth look like?

Could this redistribution, which will be seen as a threat to the elite, be life-giving to the masses?

Do we find support for redistribution in the Jesus story and in the Jewish sacred texts?

These are questions worth wrestling with as we enter this new year.


HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. What are some of the subtle differences between equality and equity? Discuss what social, racial, and economic equity would look like in our society.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Desecrating Sacred Spaces

Herb Montgomery | January 15, 2021

Washington D.C. U.S. Capitol Building


“As a White Jesus follower, all of these things weigh on me. The red-flag-warning parallels between our own story and the warning Jesus gave; the values acted on in last week’s events; the disparity between how law enforcement responded to the mob and how they respond to Black people; and lastly the disparities in our ability to analyze the actions of those at the U.S. the Capitol building on January 6, all deeply concern me and are a call, as in the above passage, to reflect, and again take life-giving, life-saving action. I pray it gives you cause to reflect and act too.”


In Mark’s gospel we read:

“When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” (Mark 13:14, emphasis added.)

Jesus here is describing the desecration of sacred space as a red-alert warning to his followers. And before we write this passage off stating that the temple of which the passage is referring was religious “sacred” space, remember there was no separation of church and state in Jesus’ culture as we know that separation today. The temple was both religious and civic sacred space, the capitol of the Temple state that governed Jesus’ society as well. This speaks volumes to me in the wake of what we recently witnessed at the U.S. Capitol and at state capitols across this country. Within U.S. civic religion, many today consider the U.S. Capitol to be civic “sacred” space. I think of my Christian siblings who have so vocally supported President Trump over the last four years. And I question whether they will succeed or fail to see the events last week as yet another of the long list of red-flag-warnings within our context today. Let’s unpack this a bit.

The passage above is drawing the phrase “abomination that causes desolation” from Daniel and 1 Maccabees. This phrase originally referred to events that took place in the early 2nd Century B.C.E. The historical desecration this language originally referred to was Antiochus IV Epiphanes violating the Temple’s altar of burnt offering with an image of Zeus fashioned in Antiochus’ likeness.

Mark picks up this language to describe the events that led to the desecration and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 C.E. The language is apocalyptic and would have been familiar to Mark’s intended Jewish and Christian audience.

Disparity of Values

In this section of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is warning of false Messiahs and their deception of the people:

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 12:21-23)

Here in the U.S., poor White people have a long history of being duped by false messianic political figures who stoke their worst fears, play to their own bigotry, and appeal to a base set of desires that ultimately prove to be death-dealing for them and often society at large.

This history goes all the way back to Bacon’s rebellion in 1675, when the elite hoped to protect their superior status and economic position by driving a wedge between Black enslaved people and poor whites. Having prevented these groups from forming an alliance, the elites then offered poor whites a “racial bribe:” special privileges that Black people would never receive.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites.” (p. 24) Poor whites now had a personal stake in a racialized system of injustice. Their plight did not improve much, but at least they were higher up than the Black slaves. Alexander adds: “Once the elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position” (pp. 24-25).

Today, elites in the U.S. are still driving wedges between the poor and working classes, and these wedges are along racist, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic lines. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” White Jesus followers today, rich or poor, must reclaim his warning against false messiahs as a call to examine our own pain. It can be for us a spring board to evaluating our own actions, determining whether they are rooted in truth and are holy and life-giving, or are profane and based in deception, bribery, and death-dealing.

What we saw at the Capitol building last week was a matter of people acting out their values. People who had been deceived into thinking they were fighting for “freedom” and against “tyranny” were actually fighting for four more years of bigotry, lies, autocracy, and a downward spiral into a cult of personality. Too few of us have developed the ability to think critically about what others tell us, and the people at the Capitol have been manipulated by political powers, wealthy elites, powerful corporations, and a president who doesn’t know how to emotionally deal with losing. These were not protestors calling for justice. They were an out-of-control mob deceived about the character of their actions, and deceived about the character of the man they choose to follow. If you trust and follow people who lie, cheat, show themselves to be bragging bullies, your end will be harm to yourself and others.

Disparity of Treatment

I watched the news the day after the mob stormed the Capitol and wondered why greater precautions weren’t taken. The crowd’s intentions were well known in advance. If Black Lives Matters groups had planned a protest at the Capitol building (as they have in the past) the National Guard would have been lining the steps of the Capitol building. Yet this White crowd of thousands of followers of the President overran the complex. Those who don’t believe White privilege exists in the U.S. need to take a step back and consider the stark disparity between security preparations in D.C. on January 6 and policing at any justice rally or protest.

I remember peacefully protesting with my 8th grade daughter in Baltimore in response to the murder of Freddie Gray years ago. Military sniper riffles were pointed at the crowd my daughter and I stood in at the rally on the lawn in front of Baltimore’s city hall. But on January 6 , police were pictured removing barriers blocking the mob and they took selfies with those who broke into the Capitol. Black people, people like those I stood with in Baltimore, would have all been shot. Law enforcement officers kill Black people in this country for nothing.

It was painful for me to watch the disparity in responses on January 6. I can’t imagine how painful it was for my non-White friends. It’s not that I want those involved in last week’s mob to meet the same level of lethal force, but that I want those crying out for racial justice to meet with the same level of self-restraint.

Last July, the President of the United States declared that anyone defacing or destroying federal property would be punished to the highest extent of the law. On January 6, that same president told those who desecrated and destroyed federal property that he loved them and they were “very special” people. It was never about protecting property but about the skin-color of those calling for change.

Disparity of Analysis

Lastly, the disparities in analysis by certain news outlets in our country is also heavy on my heart. I have listened to people I know personally referred to as “thugs,” “terrorists,” “rioters,” and “looters” over the past year. But these same news outlets called those involved in last week’s riots “patriots” and “freedom fighters.”

One of those involved was one of West Virginia’s very own: newly elected state official Delegate Derrick Evans (see Newly Elected Del. Derrick Evans Live-Streams Storming Of U.S. Capitol, A Newly Elected West Virginia Delegate Was Part Of The Pro-Trump Mob That Stormed The Capitol, and West Virginia lawmaker among rioters in Capitol). Another state legislator, W.V. State Senator Mike Azinger, a Republican from Wood county was also at the rally on January 6. Senator Azinger has since stated, “It was inspiring to be there and I hope he [Trump] calls us back.” (W.Va. senator who went to D.C. rally that turned into mob scene hopes Trump ‘calls us back’)

Our local state Senator, Sen. Stephan Baldwin (D), pastor of the Ronceverte Presbyterian Church released the following statement on behalf of West Virginia’s Senate Minority Caucus:

“Today, our children must know that this is not how democracy works. Democracy is determined by ballots, not bullets. Democracy rests on the peaceful transfer of power because of free and fair elections. We do not inflict violence on those with whom we disagree. We condemn today’s attack on democracy because this is a nation of laws, order, and decency.

All of those who participated in today’s attack on the capitol, especially those who unlawfully entered the building and perpetrated acts of violence, should be prosecuted fully by the law that undergirds our democracy.

We understand that an incoming delegate, Derrick Evans, videoed himself participating in such acts. There is no place for him in the WV Legislature.

When our state was born, it took tremendous strength to carve West Virginia out of a divided nation. We are divided again today. It will take all our better angels to heal us. We pledge to do our part in the halls of the West Virginia Capitol, and we call on all citizens to do their part. Check on your neighbors, help someone in need, engage with those who are different from you. That is how we will summon the strength needed to right this country again. By loving our neighbors throughout these majestic and grand hills of West Virginia.”

At the time that I write this, we here in WV are still waiting to see how Del. Derrick Evan’s actions will be evaluated and responded to. Some here who so strongly condemned the peaceful racial justice protests of last summer are calling him a hero.

As a White Jesus follower, all of these things weigh on me. The red-flag-warning parallels between our own story and the warning Jesus gave; the values acted on in this week’s events; the disparity between how law enforcement responded to the mob and how they respond to Black people; and lastly the disparities in our ability to analyze the actions of those at the U.S. the Capitol building on January 6, all deeply concern me and are a call, as in the above passage, to reflect, and again take life-giving, life-saving action.

I pray it gives you cause to reflect and act too.

HeartGroup Application

*****

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

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

*****

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

2. What do the disparities mentioned above speak of to you? Discuss with your HeartGroup.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Reimagining Our World in 2021

city scape in black and white

by Herb Montgomery | January 8, 2021

Mark’s stories about Jesus begin:

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14–15)

If the scholars have rightly determined when Mark’s gospel was written, it was written at a time when many Jewish followers of Jesus were trying to find purpose after the devastation of Jerusalem, the temple, and the temple-state that functioned from there. Political tensions with Rome had escalated to an uprising, war, and ruin. With Jerusalem devastated, Mark draws our attention away from a Jerusalem-centered movement and to a Galilean-centered movement rooted in the teachings of the itinerant Jesus.

Mark’s gospel also redefines the “kingdom” of the apocalyptic book of Daniel’s “son of man” (see Daniel 7). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the “messiah” (Mark 1:1). This label had yet not become Christianized or anti-Semitic and was still associated with many Jewish liberation movements whose anointed ones (“messiahs”) promised liberation from Rome. Rome’s most recent response to these messiahs had razed Jerusalem to the ground.

The Hebrew prophets called for social justice and liberation of the oppressed, and located restoration on earth, with “Jerusalem” being the center to which the entire world would flock. And now Jerusalem is no more.

Now in 2021, in wake of the present Covid-19 pandemic, so many here in the U.S. have experienced losses of unimaginable magnitude. Does Mark’s version of the Jesus story still offer us today any concrete hope and encouragement toward our hopes for a just, safe, compassionate world? How does the gospel of Mark call us to reimagine a just society in 2021? We’ll consider this and more in this short series.

If Mark could offer good news or “gospel” in the midst of such loss for its intended audience, maybe we can find some here, too.

Mark’s Gospel

In this climate, Mark’s gospel reimagines the kingdom of this son of man. Could an end of violence, injustice, and oppression rise out of Galilee rather than Judea? If we compared Judea and Galilee in the first century, we’d find ethnic, geographic, political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and religious differences between them. Matthew and Mark emphasize the Galilean context, while Luke’s gospel and Acts centers their stories of Jesus in Jerusalem and, from there, grows (through Paul) to the rest of the Gentile world.

Mark’s gospel, believed to be the earliest written in our Christian scriptures, uses the Greek term for Good News or “Gospel,” euaggelion. This originally was neither a religious nor a Christian term but was instead a political term that announced a new status quo. Whenever Rome would conquer a territory, it would send out an “evangelist” who would proclaim to the conquered territory the “gospel” or good news that they were now under the rule of the peace of Rome (Pax Romana). The messenger would announce that Caesar was the son of God and Rome was the savior of the world. They would proclaim that Rome’s dominion would give the conquered territory a newfound prosperity and peace (Plutarch, Agesilaus, p. 33; Plutarch Demetrius, p. 17; Plutarch, Moralia [Glory of Athens], p. 347)

The challenge for Mark’s audience would have been that Rome, the supposed savior, and Ceasar, this son of God, had just obliterated Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. The Roman term gospel communicated the arrival of a new social order, but, for the Jewish people Rome’s order had failed in the most harmful way possible.

The Jesus of Mark’s gospel took this term and announced the “Kingdom of God” rather than the kingdom of Rome (Mark 1:15). I prefer Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ term “God’s just future” rather than “kingdom,” given the patriarchal and politically problematic nature of kingdoms for us today.

Never once does the Jesus of Mark offer people a way to “get to heaven.” Rather, he travels the Galilean countryside announcing a new social order, here and now, in opposition to Rome’s failed order. The political and economic social order among the elite families of the temple-state of Jerusalem had proven incapable of stemming social unrest and uprising.

Though Jerusalem is no more by the time Mark is written, Jesus teaches in the justice traditions of the Hebrew prophets. Is the just world envisioned by the prophets and Jesus still possible without Jerusalem? Mark’s gospel answers, yes: God’s just future is still possible if we’ll choose it. Old geographical expectations about the new social order would have to change, but Mark could still envision the hope of a just, safe, compassionate world with a place for us all through his Jesus and his teachings.

Today, we must hold on to the hope that a different iteration of our world is possible, too.

Repent and Believe

Mark’s gospel calls its audience to “repent and believe the good news.” It almost sounds tone-deaf in the face of Rome. Yet this language of repentance and belief was not purely religious. For Mark’s audience, the call to “repent and believe” a “gospel” different than Rome’s would have been deeply political.

The Greek word for repent is metanoeo. It means to rethink something, to think differently about things, or to reconsider. Mark’s Jesus proclaims a gospel that invited a radical rethinking of how to order society. Jesus was calling his followers to reassess their values and placing the vulnerable at the center of those values, not just the wealthy and elite. This rethinking applied to both those being oppressed by the current social order and to those oppressing them.

Today, too, we can predict that exploitative systems and economic structures must change or humanity will cease to exist. Mark’s audience had seen exploitation’s destructive end. The ever-burning fire of violence between oppressors and the oppressed had escalated till Jerusalem stood smoldering.

The Greek phrase for “repent and believe” is metanoesein kai pistos. This phrase is used in other contexts than in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Josephus’ autobiography, for example, records an event that took place when he tried to end various Galilean seditions “without bloodshed.” Josephus engaged with the “captain” of the brigands “who were in the confines of Ptolemais” and told him that he would forgive “what he had done already if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me [Josephus] hereafter.” Josephus was requiring this brigand to abandon his violent revolutionary inclinations and trust Josephus for a better way. Josephus uses the same phrase Jesus does: “metanoesein kai pistos emoi (Thackery, The Life of Flavius Josephus, p. 10)

Whereas Josephus blamed brigands and Jewish rebels for the destruction Rome wreaked on Jerusalem, today we’d call that victim-blaming. Rome chose to economically exploit the people in Galilee and Judea through client kings and the temple-state’s high priests. And when the people finally had been bled dry and could not take any more, Rome chose to respond by leveling Jerusalem to the ground.

Mark’s gospel lifts this phrase, metanoesein kai pistos emoi, (repent and believe in what I’m telling you) to call its audience, not to the passive acceptance Josephus offered, but to reimagine what a just world could look like, even in the wake of such devastation and setback.

2020 has been devastating for so many. In 2021, our social orders will still prioritize and privilege some while marginalizing and subjugating others. In our world, White people are privileged over people of color; men are privileged over women; the rich are privileged over the poor; those defined as “straight” and “cis” are privileged over those who identify as LGBTQ, and the formally educated are privileged over those who are equally intelligent but have not had the same opportunities.

What is Mark’s Jesus saying to us today?

A different iteration of our present world is possible even now if we would collectively choose it, and it will take us choosing it together. Mark’s Jesus story subverts present structures and offers a way of imagining our world where people matter over power, privilege, property, and profit. Just as it did for Mark’s original audience, this reimagining of our present world involves a radically new way of thinking about redistributing resources with values of compassion, justice, equity, and concern for the safety, well-being, and thriving of those the present system leaves vulnerable to harm.

This vision is of a world of social structures rooted in love for all. As Dr. Emilie Townes states, and as we at RHM are fond of often quoting, “If we begin with the belief that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” In the words of Mark’s gospel, when we start with love, a just future “has come near” (Mark 1:15).

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Justice is what love looks like in public. Take a moment to reimagine how you’d like to see our world reshaped this week. Discuss some of your reimagining with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 24, 2020

nativity


“So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today. This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system.”


“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

This Christmas, many are enduring hardship because the political elite have mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic recovery some have touted is a “K” shaped recovery: the wealthy have gotten even wealthier whereas both the working class and those who live below the poverty line have seen their lives get worse.

In this context, Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s birth narratives gives me much to ponder: “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.”

As we said in part 2, these narratives in Matthew and Luke are not filled with the theme of another world or an afterlife. Instead, they present another iteration of this world. They are concerned with the concrete experience of those being exploited and fighting for their economic survival in this life, here and now. They are not about salvation as individual or spiritual but as concrete liberation from the social, political, and economic realities that seek to crush the people.

Luke’s entire gospel repeatedly contrasts the common people or peasantry with the ruling elite in the society of Luke’s intended audience (cf. Luke 6:20-26; Luke 4:18-19). Our communities today are divided along social, political, and economic lines too. During this pandemic, many of the haves have gained even more while the little bit that those without had, has either been taken away or been barely enough. What do these stories say for our lives, today? Can they still speak to us of another kind of world, possible here and now?

In Matthew, the Magi are key characters. Luke gives us the shepherds (see Luke 2:8). Interpreting these shepherds in Luke’s story, Horsley writes in The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context: “The shepherds of Luke 2 should not be over-interpreted, whether in the older fashion as symbols of some idyllic pastoral life or in the more recent mode as representatives of the despised and ostracized in Jewish society. Shepherds were simply part of the peasantry in ancient Palestinian society. Peasants, almost by definition, were poor, and dwellers were lowly in status. Shepherds while not despised by the people, were apparently some of the lowliest of the lowly.” (p.106)

Luke’s birth narratives are centered in the social location of the common people rather than that of the elite of the day. Even John the Baptist’s parents are common priests living in Judea and associated with the common people, not high-priests connected to other rulers in Jerusalem. Luke’s birth narrative places Jesus among and in solidarity with the hopes of the common peasantry of that time.

This association of Jesus with the hopes of those scratching and clawing for their survival helps us better understand the focus of three poems included in Luke: The Magnificat (Mary, Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79), and the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon, Luke 2:29-32).

Let’s take a very brief look at each.

The Magnificat

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
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 1:46-55)

This is not the pious prayer of a saint, but a revolutionary song of concrete liberation. It stands in the tradition of sociopolitical, Hebrew victory songs. Songs like Mary’s were sung by Miriam (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 5), and Judith (Judges 6), and their form is very close to other Jewish hymns from the late-second-Temple era, like the psalms in 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Psalms of Solomon and the Qumran Hodayoth and War Scroll (The Liberation of Christmas, p. 108).

The themes of Mary’s song are also not solely spiritual: they are deeply and subversively social, economic, and political. The Magnificat is about God’s revolutionary overthrow of the established governing authorities on behalf of the peasantry of Israel.

Consider these examples of concrete, political usage of Mary’s same language:

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

“Your arm is endowed with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.” (Psalm 89:13)

“You crushed Rahab like one of the slain, with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.” (Psalm 89:10)

“He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 10:21, cf. Psalm 105)

See also the entire 111th psalm.

Mary’s song evokes the ancient memory of God’s great acts of liberation, the exodus from Egypt, and the Hebrew prophets’ promises of liberation, renewal, and restoration. “The humble state of his servant” does not refer solely to Mary but to the entire community of peasants in Israel. This language is used in Deuteronomy and the Psalms to describe a condition of being dominated, oppressed, and afflicted. It does not refer to an individual’s spiritual humility but to the concrete social, economic, and political conditions of all the people:

“Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression.” (Deuteronomy 26:7)

“He remembered us in our low estate, His love endures forever.” (Psalms 136:23)

The proud, who God scatters, could have referred to the oppressive domestic rulers (Herod/High Priestly class) or to foreign oppressors (Romans). (See Psalm of Solomon 2:1-2, 25, 28-31; 17:8, 15, 26).

This is a song about the political liberation of a people with actual political enemies, just as the same kinds of liberation songs in previous generations referred to bondage in Egypt, rescue from Canaanite kings, and deliverance from the Philistines. The lowly in each instance means those who have suffered exploitation, oppression, and subjugation from the wealthy and powerful ruling groups and the systems of injustice they were responsible for.

Luke’s songs of social, political, and economic deliverance for the poor, marginalized, peasants announce that a new social order of justice and abundance as well as surviving and thriving is possible.

Read through the other two songs used in Luke’s birth narratives. I’ll share references showing examples of how the political language used in Luke had been politically used in other passages of the Hebrew scriptures, as well.

The Benedictus

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited his people and redeemed them.

[See Exodus 4:31; Ruth 1:6; Psalms 80:14; 106:4; 111:5-6,9]

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David

[See Psalms 18:2; Ezekiel 29:21; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalms 132:17; Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9,15]

(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,

[Jeremiah 31:34; 33:8]

because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,

[Isaiah 9:2; Psalms 107:9-10]

to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)

The Nunc Dimittis

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

[Isaiah 52:13-53:12]

and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Right after this last poem, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, saying that their child is for the “falling and rising of many in Israel.” This statement harks back to Mary’s song of some being lifted up and others pulled down, and it looks forward to the economic teachings of Jesus where the poor will be blessed, but the well-fed will go hungry (see Luke 6).

So many are suffering hardship right now in the U.S. These stories of the birth of Jesus aren’t distractions from that suffering. They don’t turn our focus to postmortem bliss or internalized private and personal piety. Instead, they speak to hope and deliverance from the very tangible economic, social, and political realities that people are suffering through today.

This is the focus of the Jesus stories. How much more should this be our focus if we claim these stories at the core of our religious tradition? The liberation in these stories applies to what people are going through right now, here, in the present unjust system. And this pandemic continues to reveal how disproportionately unjust our systems are for so many.

The songs of liberation speak of political, economic, social, and even religious conflict, and of deliverance—God’s just future—breaking into our suffering today. That just future is rooted in the teachings of this “baby” found by shepherds “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Will we choose it?

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Share something from Matthew’s or Luke’s birth narratives that speak to you of concrete liberation, today.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 2 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 18, 2020

wisemen


“Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing . . . These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.”


Matthew’s version of the Advent narratives begins with this note:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2:1)

This month’s recommended reading from Renewed Heart Ministries is The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context by Richard A. Horsley. Horsley identifies the Magi as the highest-ranking political and religious advisers of the Medean emperor and the Persian imperial court. Their religious role was meant to maintain what was believed to be a divinely given imperial order: even their religious purpose was for political ends. The Magi were priestly assistants to the Great King of the Persian Empire—the King of Kings, who was believed to be the divine ruler on earth. Tertullian tells us that “the East considers the Magi almost as kings” themselves (Against Marcion, 3:13).

One of their royal roles would have been to cultivate knowledge of the cosmos and cosmic events, including observing any unusual occurrences in the heavens, and interpreting the divine will or order of things to the king.

That the Magi are in Matthew’s advent story at all is significant. It’s about much more than the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, salvation that the child they came to see would bring.

What are the implications including the Magi here?

Persia was Rome’s enemy at this time, and the Magi advised the Eastern kings. The Magi, therefore, represented the East in the East-West conflict between Rome and Persia. The Magi were also present at the birth of the Persian King Cyrus who had liberated the Jewish people in the 6th Century BCE (see Isaiah 45) So Matthew including the Magi in his story about Jesus had both international political and religious implications for Rome.

Remember, one of the purposes of Matthew’s advent narrative was to subvert the Roman imperialism subjugating the Jewish people. His story includes Rome’s international enemies, and they, as they were for Cyrus, are present at this little liberator’s birth. Matthew’s audience would have recognized their presence as a sign that this baby was allied with Rome’s enemies. The baby’s overthrow of Roman oppression would have been good news (gospel) to Rome’s enemies as well. Matthew’s story takes political sides against Rome by including the Magi.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-4)

Three elements of this section will help us understand Matthew’s story more clearly.

  1. Herod
  2. The phrase, “King of the Jews”; and
  3. The disturbance of “all Jerusalem”

As we discussed last week, Herod was Rome’s client king for the Jewish people. Herod economically crushed the Jewish common people, piling on to the already oppressive Roman tax burden people faced in his area and threatening violence from a large, heavily armed militia if they resisted. Herod extracted heavy tributes for extensive building projects aimed to pay homage to Caesar. And he was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies. He slaughtered people extensively, and life under him meant exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod economically bled his people and country dry, and the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from helpless and hopeless poverty. For many, Herod was synonymous with Roman oppression.

The phrase King of the Jews, used in reference to Jesus, has had a long and very harmful anti-Semitic history in Christianity, just as the term Messiah has.

Originally, Jewish liberation movements used the phrase “king of the Jews.” Jewish people didn’t then have a standardized or generally held expectation of a “messiah,” as the term is understood by Christians today. Messiah means “the one who is anointed.” Just like David was anointed by Samuel the prophet, “the anointed one” was anointed to become a king. At the time of Matthew’s story, a common hope among the many and varied Jewish liberation movements was that a king, like David of old, would rise up and liberate the Jewish people from their suffering under Rome. It was simply an expression of the broader hope of the people to be liberated from foreign rule.

This is the only context I believe helpful for understanding why the gospels use the phrase “king of the Jews” in reference to Jesus in the gospels. The community of the gospels was yet another oppressed Jewish community hoping for concrete liberation. For the gospels to call Jesus Messiah, king of the Jews, or anointed one is to simply refer to their Jesus as a liberator from oppression just as every other liberation movement of this time had their king, anointed one, or liberator. But we must leave these phrases in their own social context if we are to avoid Christianizing them into the harmful antisemitic beliefs and practices of supersessionism, the belief that the Christian church has replaced Jewish people and Judaism.

Why might “all Jerusalem” have been disturbed by the Magi’s declaration?

Judea was an agrarian society. Agrarian societies could be headed politically and economically by a fortified city where the rulers lived. This kind of agrarian society benefited and privileged the city rulers with a privileged, secure lifestyle with attendants yet at the expense of the peasant farm workers outside the city. The rulers typically owned the farmland outside the city, too.

That was the situation in ancient Judea. Judean society took the form of a Temple-state centered in Jerusalem and headed by a priestly aristocracy and their retainers such as the scribes. To the best of our knowledge today, this priestly aristocracy was comprised of four families who were appointed to their powerful positions by Herod and therefore Rome. The priestly aristocracy was the elite and powerful who were politically tied to Herod’s success.

When Matthew’s narrative says “all Jerusalem” was disturbed, I don’t believe he was saying all the Jewish population of Jerusalem. That interpretation blames Jews for Jesus’ later execution. No. “All Jerusalem” is more similar to what we here in the U.S. might say: that all D.C. was disturbed. We wouldn’t be talking about the taxi drivers but we’d be talking about those in political positions of power and privilege and their attendants who would have much to lose from a change in the status quo. Horsely again states, “‘All Jerusalem’ would have been the ruling city that politically dominated and economically exploited the rest of the people” (Ibid. p. 50). The elite in power because of Herod’s position would have been deeply disturbed by any threat of change to Herod’s situation and thus their own.

What does this have to do with us today?

Notice that, for their first audiences, the stories of Jesus were not Christian stories about getting to heaven. These were stories deeply rooted in the concrete liberation hopes and realities people were facing. Matthew borrows from the original Exodus narratives at certain places in his advent story because, just like the Exodus story, Matthew’s story is about our concrete real world, oppression in this life, here and now, and tangible hopes of liberation.

How do the ethics, values, and teachings that we find in the Jesus stories guide us to impact our real world in concrete ways as agents of action? How do they inspire us to shape our world into a safer, just, compassionate home for everyone? Are we, unlike these advent stories, just focused on an afterlife, post-mortem heaven, or escaping to bliss beyond? Or are we, like these stories, engaging the real harm being committed against vulnerable populations and communities in our society today? How much does our following Jesus align with these stories? How aligned is our Christianity with the this-life focus and liberation of Jesus?

These stories are political. They are rooted in the hunger of an oppressed people for social justice. They are about concrete liberation from injustice, both systemic and private, in the here and now, and that is to be our focus as Jesus followers, too.

This focus becomes even more pointed when we get to Luke’s advent narratives.

We’ll take a look at those next week.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. This year’s Christmas holiday is filled with harsh realities for many in the U.S.  Discuss with your HeartGroup what you can do, together, to mitigate some portion of that harm for someone this holiday season. Pick something from the discussion for your group to do together in this final week leading up to Christmas.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


The Concrete Liberation Narratives of Advent (Part 1 of 3)

Herb Montgomery | December 11, 2020

nativity carving


“This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now . . . This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh realities.”


“This is how the birth of Jesus the anointed came about.” (Matthew 1.18)

Advent season has begun!

Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at the birth narratives of Jesus from 1st Century perspectives. In their cultural context, both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives are about concrete liberation for oppressed Jewish people in the here and now. Matthew and Luke differ greatly on the details of the birth of Jesus but both speak of concrete liberation. We will read each story in the religious and political contexts they were written in. They intensely subvert the political theologies of their day.

Today, we have access to information that helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning to the first-century followers of Jesus and also to us today as well.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: these narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on liberation in this life, much like the Exodus liberation narratives of the Torah are. Too often, the birth narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as an entrance into post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories.

That community was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual, afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the Christianizing and expanding Roman Empire. Reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has born an intensely destructive fruit ever since then. Before imperial Christianity, people understood these narratives to be about the liberation and transformation of our communities and this world. They were not solely religious stories; they were also political, economic, and social, with distributively just imaginings of an end of violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

If we are going to wrest these two narratives from centuries of purely religious and otherworldly interpretations, we must discover their historical context. Once we see that context, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. Learning this context for myself has forever changed how I read the birth narratives of Jesus, so I want to share that journey with you.

This week, we’ll begin with Matthew’s narrative. We will consider why Herod is the focus and why the Magi are included. Next time, we will explore Luke’s birth narrative. My hope is the information in this series will enable you to read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke anew. And I hope that these narratives, seen in their own contexts, will renew your heart and hope, and inspire you as a Jesus follower to more deeply embody their focus on transforming this world.

Though the early Jesus birth narratives were originally intended for 1st Century listeners, I believe they’re also significant for us today. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed for Christians by consumerism that uses the gift of Jesus to affirm our holiday economic machine.

Richard Horsley describes this in the introduction to The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. He writes:

“Indirectly at least, the giving, hence the buying, of gifts is rooted in the paradigms of God’s gift of the Christ-child and the costly gifts of the Magi. The Christmas story has clearly come to have a material significance: it helps to legitimate the festival of retailing and consumption of goods. The Christmas story has thus also become subservient to the contemporary economic ends as well as subjected to modern cultural presuppositions.” (p. ix)

Today the subversive political and economic themes of the Christmas story are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with them. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward immigrants and Muslim Americans flourishes, LGBTQ exclusion is still practiced by a large number of Christian congregations, and, much like the Rome of these birth narratives, the U.S. still seeks, to achieve peace through military violence—all while we adorn our American lawns with nativities of the babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth narratives of Jesus and rightly apply those stories to our lives today, we must read them in the context of the lives and hopes of people in 1st Century Galilee and Judea who daily faced dehumanizing and economically crushing oppression.

Matthew’s ‘King of the Jews’ uses a title reserved for Herod the Great. And Luke’s “Son of God”, Savior of the world, the One who brings peace on earth also uses titles and accomplishments normally applied to Caesar alone. We’ll explore what difference the reassigning of these titles to Jesus made for the oppressed communities of early Jesus followers throughout this series.

For now, the Gospel of Rome promised peace through terror and violence. The Gospels envisioned peace on the other hand through an establishment of distributive justice for all.

The historian Josephus wrote about the ceremonial celebration at which the Roman Senate made Herod the client king of the Jewish region. He said:

“The meeting was dissolved and Antony and Caesar (Augustus) left the senate-house with Herod between them, preceded by the consuls and the other officials, as they went to offer sacrifice and to lay up the decree in the Capitol. On this, the first day of his reign, Herod was given a banquet by Antony.” (War 1.285)

Herod would later economically crush the Jewish common people, piling on the already oppressive Roman tax burden of the inhabitants of the area under his control and threatening violent redress by a large and heavily armed militia. Not only was the Jerusalem Temple-state responsible for collecting the temple tax and the tribute due to Rome, but Herod would also extract heavy tributes for an extensive building project aimed at paying homage to Caesar and thus securing his position within the Roman empire. Herod was intensely efficient at crushing uprisings and rebellions against his oppressive policies, and his slaughter of the people in villages and towns was extensive at certain times. This was a time when life in this region under Herod looked most hopeless. It was a time characterized by exploitation and tyranny for the Jewish peasantry: Herod was economically bleeding his people and country dry.

Josephus again writes that, at one point, Herod’s economic tributes became so heavy that, Herod had to remit “to the people of his kingdom a third part of their taxes, under the pretext of letting them recover from a period of lack crops” (Antiquities 15.365). Because Herod himself was involved in projects whose expenses were greater than his means, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some, caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues.” (Antiquities 16.154)

The situation for many under Herod’s reign that the peasantry cried out day and night for relief from Herod’s tyranny. Herod had reduced the entire people to helpless and hopeless poverty. Herod had become a conduit for the transfer of the economic lifeblood of Jewish people to other peoples and thus deeply harmed the towns in his own realm as people, once of means, daily passed into poverty.

This is the concrete political, economic, and real-life situation Matthew’s birth narrative centers as it tells the story of a threat to Herod’s reign. This Christmas story, far from being about how Jesus would make a way to the afterlife and leave the oppressive systems and structures of this world passively untouched, speaks to its audience of liberation from soul-crushing realities affecting its listeners in the here and now.

We’ll take a deeper look at Matthew’s version of the story of the birth of Jesus next time.

What economically life-crushing realities are impacting you this week?

How has the COVID pandemic impacted your life? How has the government downplaying it, some leaders’ apparent choice to choose the do-nothing, mass-murder-policy of natural herd immunity, the U.S. Senate’s choice to recess early before the Thanksgiving holiday instead of passing on much-needed relief—how have these and more failed approaches to the pandemic impacted you?

This year, as many of us are facing our own harsh realities, there may have never been a more appropriate time to consider the concrete liberation in the birth narratives of the Advent season: they were written for people who were facing harsh and crushing realities themselves and found hope in the person and teachings of Jesus.

Advent has now begun.

What do its stories have to share with us today?

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. In what ways do you see the Advent narratives being much more concerned with our concrete lives, here and now, rather than being otherworld or afterlife focused?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 

Transforming Communities Built on Exclusion

Herb Montgomery | December 4, 2020

inclusive hands and difference color pegs


Mark’s Jesus narrative offers a Jesus who has come not to destroy us or who we are but to liberate us from the self-hatred and the internalized low self-estimation our communities of origin have given us because of who we are. This Jesus has come to liberate us from our own captivity to believing that we are “less than” others simply because we may be different from those at the top of the privilege structures in our society.


Few stories have historically been scarier to the human psyche than stories of possession. Yet Mark’s author places this story at the beginning of this Jesus narrative for a reason:

“They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:21-28)

This story takes place in the most sacred boundaries of time and space in Jesus’ community. It’s a story about the social phenomenon that the gospels refer to as the way of sacrifice.

As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, communities built on exclusivity depend on their agreeing who to exclude from their society. They need a “sacrifice,” someone to expel out of their borders for society to function properly, and they find unity in being against what they define as “other.” Finding unity in vilifying someone gives communities like this their life. They depend on the existence of a “demoniac.”

We lose so much today if we throw out the stories of demoniacs and exorcisms in the Jesus narratives simply because we cannot find a naturalist explanation for them. If we look for their sociopolitical themes, though, demoniac stories help us understand human societies and they should not be dismissed too quickly. One possible interpretation of the demoniac stories in the gospels is to understand them as drawing attention to those whom the community has chosen to expel: the scapegoats, the sacrificed, the expelled victims who have internalized their community’s hatred as deserved. They have come to agree with the community that they should be driven outside the camp, and they become “possessed” by how their community estimates them.

Let’s look at each piece of the story:

The demoniac encounters Jesus.
The demoniac refers to Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” This is a political title Mark uses purposefully, and it’s a title that King David used for himself (Psalm 4:3; Psalm 15:10). It was also the title given to Aaron (Psalm 106:16, LXX).
The demoniac assumes Jesus has come to execute the social phenomenon of sacrificial destruction: “Have you come to destroy us?”

In this interpretation, demoniacs symbolize those who have internalized self-hatred from their community. Mark’s demoniac sees Jesus as the “holy one” who has come to carry out the expulsion he “deserved”—to destroy rather than liberate.

But Jesus’ role in this story is not to destroy lives but to liberate, heal, and restore. Jesus rejects the title given to him because he’s not the figurehead of this social phenomenon of exclusion. He represents something much different.

Jesus had come not to sacrifice scapegoats but to do away with the entire system of basing societies on sacrificing/scapegoating those considered to be “other.” He desired “mercy not sacrifice”: he had come to destroy the very system that creates demoniacs.

Two phrases in our story suggest the author’s point:

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”

Ched Myers gives insight into this contrast between those in authority within Jesus’ community and Jesus in his insightful volume, Say to This Mountain:

“The essential conflict is thus defined as the contest over authority between Jesus and the scribal establishment, a contest which will be central to the entire story. Sandwiched in between is an ‘unclean spirit’ who ‘protests” Jesus’ presence: ‘Why do you meddle with us?’ (1:23f; see Judges 11:12; 1 Kings 17:18). However, the demon’s defiance quickly turns to fear: ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ Who is the ‘we’ on whose behalf the demon speaks? The function of Mark’s framing device suggests that the demon’s voice represents the voice of the scribal class whose ‘space’ Jesus is invading. The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where scribes exercise the authority to teach Torah. This ‘spirit’ personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff). To interpret this exorcism solely as the ‘curing of an epileptic’ is to miss its profound political impact. 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)

With his healing act, Jesus is contradicting the community’s evaluation of their “othered” one. This same one has internalized their community’s evaluation and is thus “possessed” by the community’s hatred transformed into self-hatred. Jesus emerges in the stories to contradict the community’s “othering” and to stand in contrast with those in positions of authority within this system of “othering.”

Mark’s author wants us to notice the contrast between Jesus and those in places of authority who are responsible for the exclusionary system the community is founded on.

When Jesus sought to liberate the demoniac from being possessed by the community’s evaluation of them, all present begin to contrast Jesus’ authority with the scribes’ authority. Jesus showed everyone that there is another way for human societies to form and function. This is Jesus’s “new teaching.”

What does this have to do with us today?

Again, in this interpretation, demoniacs in Mark’s Jesus story designate not only those whom the community has “cast out” or driven off but also those who have adopted the community’s image of them as their own self-image, thereby producing within themselves a self-destructive self-hatred.

As we see in this story, internalized self-hatred can cause an outcast to view those who attempt to liberate them from their self-hatred as “the enemy.” The man in this story viewed Jesus as an antagonist and the liberation from internalized self-hatred that Jesus offered as adversarial.

I don’t know how many times I have witnessed this:

  • People of a different race or from a different place than the majority internalizing and believing that they are “less than” because they are the minority within a larger group
  • Women internalizing and genuinely believing they are “less than” men
  • Those of less economic status believing they are “less than” those who possess more wealth
  • Those who possess less formal or academic training than others while being intelligent and open-minded still believing they are “less than” others who are more formally educated yet domesticated by the status quo
  • Transgender people believing they are “less than” others because the world is built for and by cisgender people
  • LGBTQ people being afraid to “come out” even to themselves because of hatred bestowed on them by their community of origin, or teachings that say they are “less than,” evil, or even “possessed”

Mark’s Jesus narrative offers a Jesus who has come not to destroy us or who we are but to liberate us from the self-hatred and the internalized low self-estimation our communities of origin have given us because of who we are.

This Jesus has come to liberate us from our own captivity to believing that we are “less than” others simply because we may be different from those at the top of the privilege structures in our society.

The Jesus story is whispering to us that:

  • We were all made in the image of God.
  • We are all children of the same Divine Parents.
  • There is room at the Table for us all.
  • There is a place in Jesus’s new world for us all.

The person Jesus healed that day was restored to the community instead of cast out, and this restoration pushed the community into reassessment. When Jesus heals, the community and its way of living cannot stay unchanged. No, the man’s restoration causes the community to reevaluate and consider the contrast between Jesus’ inclusion and exclusion from those in power in their community. Not only was the individual liberated but the congregation was too.

Maybe the world can operate by continuing to find people to expel. But I don’t want to live in a world like that. Instead of driving the demoniac he met away, Jesus delivered him from self-hatred, restored him to his rightful place, and also created change within the community that had sought to expel him in the first place.

Jesus announced that a different iteration of our world was possible!

And this was just the beginning of Mark’s stories about Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Share a story of where you have witnessed a community being challenged by the inclusion of those they once excluded. Did the community change? Did the community reject the change and continue excluding?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

No More Sacrifice

giving tuesday

December 1 is #GivingTuesday this year!  #GivingTuesday is a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities, and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide.

#GivingTuesday is held annually on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (in the US) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday to kick off the holiday giving season and inspire people to collaborate in improving our communities and to give back in impactful ways to the charities and causes they support.

#GivingTuesday is a global giving movement that began in 2012 that has been built by individuals, families, organizations, businesses, and communities in all 50 states, and in countries around the world.

#GivingTuesday is endeavoring to transform how people think about, talk about, and participate in the giving season. It inspires people to take collective action to improve their communities, give back in better, smarter ways to the charities and causes they believe in, and help create a better world.

#GivingTuesday demonstrates how every act of generosity counts, and that they mean even more when we give together.

Every year millions of people come together on this special day to give back and to support the causes they believe in.

This year we are asking you to support the work of Renewed Heart Ministries on this special day!

All contributions this day will be matched, dollar for dollar, thanks to a very generous and kind pledge to RHM by a few of our supporters.

This December 1st, make a donation to Renewed Heart Ministries as one of your chosen nonprofits and help make this #Giving Tuesday the best one yet. We can’t thank you enough for your support!

On December 1, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”


No More Sacrifice

community holding hands

Herb Montgomery | November 20, 2020

“So the Torah offers not only the common way of sacrifice but also subtle challenges to the way of sacrifice. Both narratives of sacrifice and narratives of anti-sacrifice are found there, and we have to ask which path is life-giving for a community and which is not.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his questioners,

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

What does sacrifice mean sociologically?

As we discussed in A Community of the Rejected, anthropologists have long recognized a pattern throughout human civilizations. When a society’s unity and cohesiveness begin to pull apart, when competition and rivalry begin to threaten the health and longevity of that society, a mysterious but very predictable phenomenon occurs. The society will choose to turn on its most vulnerable members, individuals, or a group, and blame them for the tension and trouble it is beginning to encounter.

According to French historian and anthropological philosopher René Girard, once a society finds its scapegoat, unity is quickly restored because everyone now coalesces around a common enemy. Tensions and trouble threatening social cohesiveness evaporate into thin air and previous enemies become friends as they unite together around othering a group or person.

The community then expels this group or person, either by sending them away or by executing them via the angry mob) and life for the community goes on as usual. Yet, before long, the tensions that once plagued the group through their rivalry with one another resurface, and a new sacrifice is required. The unity that comes through sacrificing a common enemy is temporary and must be continually rekindled.

This is where many anthropologists believe religion was born. Rather than finding another victim to scapegoat, elders within a society sought to recreate and relive the first sacrifice through ritual rather than by repeatedly finding a common enemy in real life. They either used another person to serve as a human sacrifice or reenacted the historical event with an animal. In either case, the community unified by celebrating their sacred, historical victory over the group or person they believed was their enemy. Remember that in reality the original victim was never truly guilty and was only perceived as guilty by the angry mob.

Thus, sacrifice in human history was born. Ritual animal leads to ritual human, which leads to an actual human. This way of sacrifice was taught and reversed in both the Hebrew and Christian sacred texts. Both are present in the sacred text, so we have to choose which principle we will organize our societies by sacrifice or mercy. The Jesus story encourages us to follow the path found in the Hebrew prophets of mercy:

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

From the innocence of Abel, the nomadic herdsman who was slain by his brother Cain the tiller of the soil (see Enough for Us All) all the way down to Zechariah the prophet, we find narratives in the scriptures of Christian and Jewish people that could cure humanity’s need for “sacrificing” others.

Now let’s take a look at the story of Jesus.

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus uses this phrase:

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

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

Matthew 12 goes further than Matthew 9 by saying that if Jesus’ audience had understood that sacrifice is not of divine origin, we would not have condemned the “innocent.”

Once sacrifice became ritualized and religious, in other words, people believed that God or the gods demanded and required this sacrifice be done. As Jesus followers, we must refute the idea that sacrifice is demanded by a divine being. Jesus read his own Jewish sacred narratives in such a way that he concluded that sacrifice is not divine but human. I believe we have evidence that Jesus taught that the God of the Hebrews had never required sacrifice but had always been seeking to lead humanity away from it.

Consider the following passages, including the one Jesus actually quotes.

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

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

Consider that last question. Isaiah’s God implies that the origins of the sacrificial practice are not found in Divine requirement: “Who asked you to even do this?” the text asks.

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

Jeremiah challenges these practices too.

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

This passage from Jeremiah is puzzling because it contradicts the entire book of Leviticus. In Leviticus, God did command the children of Israel to make burnt offerings and sacrifices. So how can Jeremiah’s God say He did not? The answer, I believe, can possibly be found in Leviticus 17:7:

“So that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves.” (Leviticus 17:7)

The Hebrews, like the surrounding societies they lived alongside, seemed to have already been practicing sacrifice when they came out of Egypt. Archaeology shows that Egyptian sanctuaries even had a dual apartment structure of holy and most holy places as the Hebrew sanctuary and temple did. The sociological trajectory is that the ritual animal leads to a ritual human, and then to an actual human. This pattern was not only present in the Canaanite cultures of that time; I would argue it was present in most cultures of the day.

There are competing narratives within the Christian sacred texts as well:

“Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire . . . with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.’” (Hebrews 10:5)

Some will ask, “Didn’t God originate sacrifice in Genesis?” It is true that Cain and Abel made sacrifices, but that only proves that it was common. When Cain departs after killing Abel, the earth is characterized as well-populated (see Genesis 4.14, 16–17). But there is not one single verse where God originates and commands sacrifice in Genesis.

Others will say, “Didn’t God make clothing for Adam and Eve out of animal skins?” Yes, but the types of animals one skins to produce clothing are not the animals typically used in ritual sacrifices. You would not sacrifice a lamb to get wool for clothing. You would simply shave it. In other words, there is no intrinsic connection between ritual sacrifice and the production of clothing. One does not imply the other.

Finally, some may wonder, “What about God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and God’s rejection of Cain’s?” As we discussed briefly in Enough for Us All, much is missed when we read stories from our context rather than from the context of the original audience. This story was originally told in the context of Mesopotamian landowners and nomadic herdsmen. The “tillers of the ground” were in positions of privilege in that society. For agricultural reasons, they looked at land very differently than the nomadic herdsmen did. The herdsmen believed the land belonged to everyone and was not to be privately owned. Being nomadic, they were also the weaker of the two. The tillers of the ground had more permanent settlements and were thus stronger. They oppressed the migrant nomadic herdsmen as intruders on their property.

In the Cain and Abel narrative, God takes the side of the oppressed, cursing the ground for Cain’s sake and turning him from a tiller of the ground into a nomadic wanderer so that he can learn to view life through the lens of the marginalized.

Those who claim that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because it contained blood and Cain’s didn’t, should remember that Cain’s sacrifice was completely acceptable under the Levitical rules for grain, wine, and food offerings. These did not involve blood either. The story of Cain and Abel was not a matter of “blood” being required by a God who demanded sacrifice. Their story is about the way of mercy rather than sacrifice. This is a story concerning liberation from oppression, ritual and sociological sacrifice, and societies being founded on the way of mercy rather than mutual hatred of a common enemy.

The Hebrew sacred texts include a trajectory that reverses the common sacrificial story:

People are called from ritual human sacrifice to ritual animal sacrifice.

Hebrew prophets call for a movement away from even animal sacrifice

Jesus concludes this prophetic trajectory in the gospels by calling his society from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy.

Eventually, the Jewish people had to abandon animal sacrifices by necessity when they lost their temple in 70 C.E. Yet there was a social transformation that accompanied this ritual transition Karen Armstrong explains:

“But the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees [of the school of Hillel], who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He [sic] was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him [sic] without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law . . . In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear: It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’’
Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

Jesus models this same movement away from sociological sacrifice to mercy. Nonetheless, the elites embrace the way of sacrifice and choose to unite around their fear of the social changes Jesus’ teachings would create. Those of privilege and power felt they had everything to lose from a more distributively just society. So they arrest Jesus (Luke 22:52), and those who had previously been enemies unite in their desire to silence him (Luke 23:12). This is the way of economic, political, and sociological sacrifice. Jesus becomes the actual sociological sacrifice, the enemy around which rival enemies experience newfound unity and friendship. The story of his execution has all the telltale signatures of a sociological sacrifice story, including an angry mob that gets swept up in the scapegoating mechanism.

Yet Jesus’ story does not end in yet another sacrifice of an innocent by yet another human society. We can read the Jesus story so that it is not a narrative about a cross, but that it’s a narrative about how that unjust sacrifice of crucifixion was undone, reversed, and overcome. This is a story, not where death is overcome by another death, but where death-dealing is overcome and reversed by life and life-giving. The resurrection reversed and undid what was accomplished through the crucifixion of Jesus.

This is a story that calls us to imagine a world founded on the way of mercy rather than sacrifice. This is an alternate way of organizing human life that Jesus modeled and taught, a way the Hebrew prophets called for, and a way that can be found in the narratives of both the text of Christians and the Jewish people.

These narratives speak of a God who, rather than demanding someone’s sacrifice, stands in solidarity with those our societies sacrifice. We are called by these narratives to do the same.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Share a story of where you have witnessed the dynamic of scapegoat founded unity. Where do you see that happening today?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

how we show up

Taking Sides, Reclaiming our Humanity

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2020 has been a challenging year for many nonprofits. RHM is no exception. We need your support to impact lives and bring the faith-based, societal-justice focused resources and analysis RHM provides.

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

If you have been blessed by the work of RHM, please consider making a tax-deductible donation, today.

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Herb Montgomery | November 13, 2020


“Make no doubt about it. Jesus loved those on both sides in the stories. Yet Jesus is seeking to help both sides reclaim their humanity and that looks very different depending on which side of dehumanizing oppression you are on.”


The gospel of Matthew tells of two sets of workers. One had worked all day, and the other group showed up at that last hour of the day. Both receive the same pay, and the group that worked all day are outraged. Their employer’s response gives us much to consider:

“‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:12-16)

The employer in this story takes the side of the group who only worked the last hour. This is good news for those who belonged to this group, and it’s problematic at best for those who felt that they were being treated unfairly.

But the employer paid wages not based on how much each worker worked, but on what each worker agreed to initially.  I lean toward interjecting into this story that the employer may have made these agreements based on how much each worker needed rather than how long they worked.  In this culture, if one didn’t work one didn’t eat.  A day’s wages for those living from day to day made the difference of life and death.  Consider the possible implications of a needs based economy rather than a labor based economy in this story.

In the gospels, Jesus continually took the side of those society relegated to last place. In Jesus’ just future, those who were presently last would become first.

Didn’t Jesus also love those who held a more privileged place in society? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus interacts with a rich man, and the story states that Jesus “loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus took the side of the poor and last doesn’t diminish the fact that he also loved those who were not poor, not oppressed, and not marginalized. Jesus love for the rich man has another dimension too. 

Oppression dehumanizes everyone involved. By dehumanizing another, we lose our own humanity, and when we stand up for the humanity of others, we’re also reclaiming our own humanity as well as the humanity of those being harmed. 

Jesus loved that rich man. And that is why he called him to sell his superfluous possessions and live with Jesus in solidarity with those their society was doing harm. That call wasn’t just about the poor. Jesus was also inviting the rich man to reclaim his own humanity. Jesus was taking the side of the oppressed and calling the rich man to do so, too. 

Luke describes Jesus being on the side of the last, too.

Consider the contrast laid out in Luke’s sermon on the plain:

“Looking at his disciples, he said: 

  “Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,

for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you,

when they exclude you and insult you

and reject your name as evil,

because of the Son of Man.

  “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,

for you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now,

for you will go hungry.

Woe to you who laugh now,

for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,

for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:22-26)

Jesus’ just future will bless the poor. Yet the rich will struggle in that transition to a more distributively just society, like as they did in the parable in Matthew. They will feel like a radical redistribution of resources is unfair.

Those the present system leaves hungry will struggle less with equity than those whom our present system leaves well fed; those our system causes to “weep” will struggle less than those our system causes to “laugh.” Those who are “hated” for challenging our status quo, who are mislabeled, slandered, and deemed as dangerous will struggle less than those who are “spoken well of” by those privileged in our present system. 

Make no doubt about it. Jesus loved those on both sides in the stories. Yet Jesus is seeking to help both sides reclaim their humanity and that looks very different depending on which side of dehumanizing oppression you are on. Jesus preached about a just future for both sides, one where oppression, violence, and injustice are put right. Jesus also modeled that for right now, this work can only be done by standing with the oppressed and by calling oppressors to rethink our present system and take their place alongside those who daily face oppression in the work of reshaping our society.

The Jesus stories repeat this theme over and over. In Luke, the father of the prodigal son deeply loved the older brother. He wanted to help the older brother find his humanity toward his younger brother, just as much as he rejoiced at the younger brother’s return. Even while the older brother feels the celebration of his sibling is unjust, their father maintains solidarity with the younger brother and pleads with his older son to embrace his brother as well. In other words, the father is not going to change who he is to accommodate the older brother’s warped view of justice. The older brother will have to change to stand alongside his father. He’ll have to embrace his younger brother if he is to come in from the outer darkness that night.

To see Jesus as one who takes the side of the oppressed is vital if we are to follow Jesus in shaping a more just reiteration of our present world.

Remember that Rome claimed the gods were on their side. Herod claimed God had chosen him as the messiah and rightful king of Israel. Caiaphas and the elite claimed God was on their side.

Yet for the early Christians, the Divine was not found standing with any of these. The resurrection event is part of the story to help us transit to a world where God is actually on the side of those being shamefully suspended between heaven and earth at the hands of unjust oppressive powers.

The Jesus story is all about taking sides. It’s about a path for those on both sides of oppression to take hold of or reclaim their humanity. It’s the story of a Jesus who stood in solidarity with all who find themselves on a cross at the hands of unjust systems. As Jesus stood in solidarity with the oppressed, marginalized, and disadvantaged, it calls into question the religious views of oppressors who say that God is instead on their side. 

A well-meaning response to this is to say that God doesn’t take sides. But, in the face of oppression, this doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t go anywhere near as far as Jesus went. The Jesus story repeatedly calls us to choose a side. 

To change systemic oppression, every time, we must stand in solidarity with the oppressed, demanding oppressors regain their own humanity in the face of the harm they’re doing. If Jesus took sides, then Jesus followers who live in privileged social locations must pick a side, as well.

If Christianity does not offer a better God than the one who has always stood in solidarity with oppression, it is not life-giving but death-dealing.

Jesus said it best: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” 

God’s just future—the justice that so many are socially, religiously, economically, politically, and ecologically hungering and thirsting for—is not retributive. It’s not punitive. No, God’s just future as revealed through Jesus is one where the humanity of everyone is restored and those who hunger for justice will be filled. 

Depending on your social location, first or last, this is good news. 

This is gospel. 

“From the heavens you uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still when God rose up to establish justice, to save all the oppressed of the earth. Selah.” 

(Psalms 76:8-9, emphasis added.)

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. Living in solidarity with those who daily face oppression takes an intentional choice. Share an experience of where you choose to stand in solidarity with someone facing injustice.  What communities in our present society are in need of solidarity today?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Community of the Rejected


2020 has been a challenging year for many nonprofits. RHM is no exception. We need your support to impact lives and bring the faith-based, societal-justice focused resources and analysis RHM provides.

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

If you have been blessed by the work of RHM, please consider making a tax-deductible donation, today.


rock wall

Herb Montgomery | November 6, 2020

“This change of perspective has the potential to help us form new ways of shaping human communities. It has the potential to give birth to humans who root their communities in equity, justice, inclusion, love, compassion, and most importantly—safety, especially for those who are marginalized and rejected. And every time a community chooses to center the voices of those they once expelled, they demonstrate a new way.”

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says: 

“‘Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus has been telling a series of parables about rejection that would have been meaningful to the Jewish community he was speaking to, like this one:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28-32)

Rejection was a familiar theme for the early followers of Jesus. Jesus lived and ministered in solidarity with and defense of people his society socially rejected. His choice to call for change within his community was at the heart of why the elite and privileged also rejected him. 

Our original passage comes from Matthew 21:

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who stumbles over this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (Matthew 21:33–46)

The phrase that always speaks to me in this story is “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” 

This passage has a long history of anti-Semitic Christian interpretations. I believe early Jewish Jesus followers struggled with the elite of their own society and their rejection of Jesus. Today we must reject interpretations of these passages that harm our Jewish siblings. How can we reclaim these stories in ways that today are life-giving?  

Let’s start with this phrase, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” 

Many human societies have been built on rejecting or scapegoating an individual or group victim. Human societies frequently unify by joining together against a common group to be afraid of. They then accuse that group of being responsible for society’s stresses and conflicts: the age-old, “Us versus Them.” When this social dynamic is active, rejecting a “stone” becomes the “cornerstone” of society, and these communities’ histories, legends, and myths say their deities are always on the side of those who are doing the rejecting. Often the gods are also demanding that the victim be sacrificed/rejected by the larger community. The Jesus story turns this dynamic upside-down. 

Jesus, the community formed around Jesus’s teachings, and their God are being rejected, and the victims in this story are innocent (cf. John 11:50). In the Jesus story, we’re seeing this social dynamic from the perspective of the person or group that is feared and thus united against to have removed. 

This is how “the stone that the builders rejected” becomes “the cornerstone.” We begin to see that our deities are not demanding the rejection of those we fear, but God actually stands with those we are rejecting. Jesus, the central figure of this story, is the one being feared and rejected by the privileged and elite. He isn’t leading the community in their rejection of someone else.

This change of perspective has the potential to help us form new ways of shaping human communities. It has the potential to give birth to humans who root their communities in equity, justice, inclusion, love, compassion, and most importantly—safety, especially for those who are marginalized and rejected. And every time a community chooses to center the voices of those they once expelled, they demonstrate a new way. 

Maybe others have chosen to reject you. Perhaps you aren’t educated. Maybe you don’t have the privileged skin color. Maybe you aren’t included because you don’t have the privileged anatomy and physiology. Possibly you don’t belong to the approved income bracket. Perhaps you’re not from around here. Maybe you don’t have the correct socially constructed gender identity and/or expression. Maybe you don’t fit in with heterosexist society because of who you are or whom you love.

The good news is that all of this matters to the God of the Jesus story. If you’ve been rejected by others, your voice is centered in God’s just future. Those who have been rejected in unjust social structures are the cornerstones of the human community the Jesus story announces. Your rejection uniquely qualifies you in the shaping of a human community that rejects the fear and rejection of those deemed different or other. Whether your rejection has been social, political, economic, or religious, you can choose to allow your own rejection to transform you into being among the last people on the planet to treat others as you’ve been treated. 

Later, the Christian community reflected on these words: “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4). The author refers to Jesus as the primary living stone rejected by humans but “chosen by God and precious.” The fact that “you also” are referred to as “living stones,” too, means that even though you also have been “rejected by humans,” you are “chosen by God,” and you are precious!

Have others feared and rejected you?

You are chosen.

You are precious.

You are valuable.

You are of inestimable worth. 

And another iteration of our present world is possible where people who are different are no longer feared and rejected, but included and even centered. 

How does your own experience of others fearing and rejecting you inform how you treat others?

Does it make you want to respond in kind?

Does it make you want to be a more life-giving, inclusive kind of human being?

As Jesus followers, we can reclaim these Jesus narratives to encourage each other and to give us pause when we see the tendency to fear and reject someone else simply because they are different. We can reclaim them so that they reshape us into humans who use our experiences to inform our actions to reshape our world into a safe home for all, a world of mercy rather than the sacrifice of innocents.  

We have the choice every day to see that stones rejected by others and maybe even also by us become cornerstones of a society where we all don’t merely survive but also thrive. 

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Matthew 21:42)

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

2. In what ways have you experienced rejection in your own life? Share an experience with your HeartGroup.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week