A New Social Order

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by Herb Montgomery

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)

This week we are still, momentarily, in the
first chapter of Mark. I want to focus on a few details that are often overlooked in our featured text.

Jesus Came to Galilee

If the scholarly data concerning the timing of when Mark’s gospel was written is true, this is a time when the future of Jerusalem was not promising. Political tensions with Rome had been high and were continuing to escalate. It is during this time that Mark draws our attention away from a Jerusalem-centered movement of violent insurrection against the Romans, to a Galilean- centered movement following the teachings of the itinerant Jesus. Mark’s gospel also redefines the “kingdom” of Daniel’s “son of man.”[1] In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is the long-awaited “messiah.” Jesus is the “son of David” who would restore the “Kingdom.” Jesus is still the “son of God,” the anointed one to whom God is “pleased” to give the Kingdom.[2] But a few things have changed. In the Old Testament, this restoration located “Jerusalem” as the center to which the entire world would flock.[3] In Mark’s gospel, the Kingdom of the son of man would follow, instead, the destruction of Jerusalem, and rise out of Galilee rather than Judea.[4] We do not have the space here to elaborate any further on this point, but it is a study well worth your time to contemplate the differences between Judea and Galilee in the first century ethnically, geographically, politically, economically, culturally, linguistically, and religiously, contemplating what these differences might have meant for the beginnings of the early Jesus movement.

Proclaiming the Good News

This next point is so well known and agreed upon by so many that I will not spend much time on this, but it is worth noting. The term for Good News or “Gospel” in the Greek is euaggelion. This originally was neither a religious nor a Christian term. Instead, this was a political term that announced a new social order. Whenever Rome would conquer a territory, Rome 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. This messenger would proclaim to this newly conquered territory that Rome’s dominion would give this territory a newfound prosperity and peace just as Rome had accomplished for other places as well.

Here are a few examples of the political nature of Rome’s use of the term “gospel.”

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

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

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

The term Gospel originally communicated the arrival of a new social order.

The Arrival of the Kingdom

The Jesus of Mark’s gospel would take this same word, but instead of announcing the Kingdom of Rome, it would announce the Kingdom of God. It is a profound realization when it dawns on a person that the Jesus of Mark never once is found offering people a way to get to heaven. Rather, Mark’s Jesus is traveling the Galilean countryside announcing a new social order, here and now, that is “of God.”

Part of this new social order is not just a recasting of the term “gospel,” but a redefinition of the very term “Kingdom” as well.

In Mark chapter 10, Mark tells us the story of James and John wanting the honorable position of sitting next to Jesus on his left and right when Jesus’ Kingdom becomes established (Messiah’s Rule). Notice the traditional hierarchical nature of James and John’s understanding of the term “Kingdom.” Kingdom refers to a social order wherein humans are exercising dominance over others, and James and John want in on that dominance!

But Jesus is redefining the nature of the “Kingdom” promised by the Old Testament prophets. It’s as if Jesus is saying, yes, the new social order that I’ve come to inaugurate is what the

prophets were pointing to, but it won’t fit your traditional understandings of how “Kingdoms” are ordered.

“Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are exercising authority over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve . . .” (Mark 10.42–45).

Jesus’ new social order would not involve humans exercising dominance over one another, but rather, serving one another instead. This would be a social order characterized, not by the privileging of some at the subordination of others, but by love, equality, and justice. Jesus’ new social order would be a complete and total dismantling of the present social order. It would involve egalitarianism in matters of race, gender, and economics specifically. And, for it to become permanent, it would be a slow process where even the new social order’s enemies were won to it, through confrontational, enemy love, rather than being conquered by it. Human hierarchies would be abandoned, for brother- and sisterhood.

Everything about this new social order would be different, not simply compared to Rome, but even when compared to the political and economic social order that existed in Jerusalem at that time, which was centered on the Temple. (It was Jesus’ confrontation with the Temple and the social order centered there that got him lynched.)

Repent and Believe the Good News

The Greek word for Repent is metanoeo. It means to think differently or to reconsider. What Jesus was calling us to was a radical rethinking of how we had structured and ordered our human societies. He was calling us to reassess our values, placing our fellow humans at the top of those values. This rethinking applied to both those being oppressed by the current social order as well as those who were doing the oppressing. Things could not continue the way they had or humanity would cease to exist. The ever-burning fire of violence between oppressors and the oppressed was escalating. Jesus was first and foremost calling us to rethink everything.

Secondly, he was asking us to believe in the reordering of the human society he was proposing.

The Greek phrase for “repent and believe” is metanoesein kai pistos. Scholars today have discovered this phrase used also in other contexts than simply by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Josephus, in his autobiography, records an event that took place in his life when he endeavored to “to put an end” to various Galilean seditions “without bloodshed.” Josephus engages with the “captain” of the brigands “who were in the confines of Ptolemais” and tells this captain that he would forgive “what he had done already, if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me [Josephus] hereafter.” Josephus was, according to scholars, requiring this brigand, to abandon his violent revolutionary inclinations, and trust Josephus for a better way. The phrase Josephus uses is “metanoesein kai pistos emoi.[5]”

This is the same phrase Jesus used in asking those in his day to rethink their present course, and forsake both the violence of oppression (economic oppression of the Temple against the poor) as well as violent forms of revolution (Jewish zealotry against Rome), trusting in and being faithful to Jesus’ alternate way forward to a new social redistribution.

Today

Today, humanity is still struggling with its addiction to establishing social orders of dominance and hierarchies, privilege and subordination. We live in a world where whites are privileged over nonwhites; where men are privileged over women; where the rich are privileged over the poor; where those who are defined as “straight” and “cis” are privileged over those who self-identify as LGBTIQ; where the formally educated are privileged over those who, in many cases, have equal intelligence, but have not had the same opportunities offered.

What is the Jesus narrative saying to us today?

In 1971 John Lennon released the single, “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” The billboards read “War is over, if you want it.” Today the Jesus narrative is saying, “A new social order has arrived . . . if you want it.” The Jesus story announces the arrival of a whole new world. It has arrived in subversive relation to the present order of things. It involves a radically new way of thinking about everything. It is a new world centered on love, mercy, forgiveness, equality, and justice . . . for all. It is “near,” if we want it.[6]

HeartGroup Application

1.  Any time one human seeks to subordinate a fellow human, whether on the basis of race, gender, economic status, formal education (or the lack of it), orientation, even if it carries the label of “Christian,” nothing could be less like the Christ. This week, first, I want you to look up the definitions of Metaphysics, Cosmology, and Ontology and then look up the definition of Ethics. Then I want you to go back and read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 57. Many today are “Christians” based on a cultural definition of the first three. But what will change the world is when Christians return to following Christ according to the last meaning. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John spent precious little time teaching about Metaphysical realities, Cosmologies, and Ontology. I’m not saying he never mentioned those. But by comparison, the lion’s share of Jesus’ teachings centered on Ethics. Today we have a Christianity that possesses a strangely opposite emphasis. Many (thank heaven for the exceptions) define themselves and others with a prioritization on the first three (one’s beliefs when it comes to metaphysics, cosmology, and ontology) while revealing a strange ignorance about what the Jesus of the canonical gospels taught concerning our ethical practices in relation to our fellow humankind. When one encounters the ethical teachings of Jesus, one can see why he was a threat to the then present social order of his day, and why he was removed.

2.  Journal what you discover.

3.  Share what you discover with your HeartGroup.

 

Till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, One New World. I love each and every one of you. Thanks for giving this a read.
I’ll see you next week.

1 Daniel 7.13–14— In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

2 Mark 1.11—And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Daniel 4.17—“The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and gives them to the one with whom He is pleased and sets over them the lowliest of people.”

3 Isaiah 2.2—In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.

4 Mark 13.24—“But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Daniel 7.13–14—In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

5 The Life Of Flavius Josephus, (Thackery 110); cf. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 251; NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p. 44

6 Matthew 3.2—And saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4.17—From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 10.7—As you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Mark 1.15—“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Luke 10.9—Heal the sick who are there and tell them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10.11—“Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.”

Why Christians Should Be the Last People on Earth to Justify the Use of Torture for the Protection of National Security

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by Herb Montgomery

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”—Caiaphas (John 11.50)

Substitute the word “tortured” in place of the word “die” in the above passage and you’ve got quite a provocative story.

I’m presently alarmed at hearing how many Christians are justifying America’s use of torture, saying things like, “They did what they had to do to protect the American nation.”

The first time I heard those words, the words of Caiaphas rang in my ears. This mentality, this logic, this philosophy, this way of reasoning should be the last for any follower of Jesus, for it was this way of reasoning that led to the death of our Lord. It’s this reasoning that killed Jesus.

It’s this line of reasoning that led to the torturing of your Jesus. It’s this line of reasoning that led to your Jesus being bound and “blindfolded,” made to stand within a circle of men and guards who “spat in his face,” “slapped him” repeatedly, “struck” him, shouting “insults,” tauntingly endeavoring to intimidate him by asking him over and over to tell them, “Who struck you?”[1] And this was only by the ecclesiastical structure.

Jesus was charged with suspicion of insurrection[2] against the Roman Empire and then turned over to a group of Roman soldiers who had no knowledge of the preceding case. The soldiers didn’t know Pilate believed he was innocent. If Jesus was standing before them he must have been guilty, and they were required to follow orders. After all, the peace of Rome (the Pax Romana, Rome’s national interests) was at stake!

So the military soldiers of the Roman Empire did to Jesus what they did to all suspected insurgents. (Remember that torture and crucifixion was reserved for the political enemies of Rome.)

The whole cohort of military soldiers was gathered around Jesus. They “stripped” him and made him stand naked in front of them all. After they chained him to a post and tortured him, they dressed this insurgent in the royal garb of an opposing empire. Then they taunted him, spat in his face and struck him repeatedly upon his wounds. [3]

Then they led him away to be torturously executed.

Yes, it’s ugly to consider—but this, the torture of your Jesus, is where your philosophy that torture is necessary to protect national interests leads.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s critique of Caiaphas’ justification of using violence, including torture, for the purpose of protecting national interests (“Better for one man to die than the whole nation destroyed”—John 11.50). When Jesus died as a result of Caiaphas’ methodology, the entire philosophy of justifying violence for national preservation was unmasked. By God resurrecting Jesus, God is, once and for all, unequivocally critiquing the way of the empire, torturing suspected threats included. The resurrection locates God within the narrative. God was not with Caiaphas, protecting Jewish national interests. God was not with Herod, protecting economic interests of the wealthy. God was not with Pilate, protecting Roman imperial interests. The resurrection reveals that God was in the one shamefully tortured and suspended on a tree at the orders of superiors and at the hands of those who were simply following the chain of command. The resurrection is God’s action over and against the torture and death of Jesus as a necessary evil for national security. In the resurrection, God undoes and reverses the torture and death of Jesus and makes known for all to acknowledge, “I’m in solidarity with this one whom you tortured.”[4]

The narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus is saying to us that this entire philosophy is flawed, for if even God were to show up and be perceived as potential threat, a suspected insurgent, even with due process, the system would torture and murder God, too.

As Mark Van Steenwyk recently stated, “In case Christians need reminding, we worship a suspected Middle Eastern insurgent who was tortured.”

It is always the fear of a foreign threat that drives the methodology of violence, including torture. In the 16th century, it was fear of the Turks taking over Europe that led to the torture and murder of the Anabaptists who spoke out against violence in the name of national interest. In Jesus’ day, it was fear of the Romans that caused Jesus’ Jewish audience to reject his critique of violence. In our time, Martin Luther King Jr. was quickly assassinated when he added a critique of the use of violence for the protection of national interests in Vietnam to his platform of racial equality. Gandhi, too, was murdered when his nonviolence was seen as no longer a tool for national interest, but as a threat. It was this fear of foreign threat that has also radically changed the face of Christianity for the last 1,700 years.

Let me tell you a story. For the first 300 years of Christianity, Jesus’ followers were a nonviolent people who felt it was better to have their own blood shed than to have their hands stained with the blood of another. As Christianity began to exponentially grow, this became a problem to the Roman Empire in the fourth century—for if everyone became a Jesus follower and embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, who, then, would protect the national interests of Rome against foreign threats? Everyone would become a noncombatant.

Thus began the long and much disputed history of the Constantinian shift within Christianity, where Christianity simply became the tool of the empire.

But let’s imagine for a moment that the national interests of Rome in the fourth century had never compromised Christianity. As Christianity continued to grow, more and more Roman citizens would have embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.  Rome would have eventually fallen to foreign invaders. But the Christians would still have been present, and they would have continued to grow exponentially. Eventually, the new foreign empire would be facing the same challenges to its national interests that Rome had faced and would fall to its foreign threat. But, again, the Christians would still be present and still continue to grow. The third empire coming in contact with these Christians would eventually, too, be facing the same dilemmas.  This history would be repeated over and over, until, eventually, you would run out of empires, and Jesus’ new world would have been the last one standing.  All empires and national interests (beasts and dragons; see the book of Revelation) would have been overcome by a Lamb—not by a sword, but by a cross.

Would many Christians have died in the process? Absolutely. Yet they would have died with the hope of a resurrection into this new world once it became unobstructed. This is why Jesus emphatically said that the way we are going to change the world is through crosses not swords. Remember, crosses were only used by Rome for those suspected of being a threat to her nation interests.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16.24, emphasis added.)

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14.27, emphasis added.)

What does this all mean to American Christians today?

What if America, like Rome, has to fail for Jesus’ New World to succeed? Which allegiance would you choose? Would you remain a Jesus follower, or would your American patriotism and the protection of America’s national interests be of greater value? In other words, would you give up being an American to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus?

As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to embrace the new world that has been founded by this Jesus.[5] When his followers historically have genuinely followed Jesus’ teachings, they have always been seen as a threat to the national interests of whichever empire they were living amidst. They were accused of turning society “upside down, ” as acting “contrary” to the interests of the Roman “empire.”[6] Rather than calling Caesar “Lord,” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.) Rather than calling Caesar “King” and “Son of God,” they proclaimed Jesus as “King” and “Son of God.” (Acts 17.5–7, 9.20.) Rather than justifying actions for the preservation of the “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.) The refused to subscribe to Rome’s propaganda as being the “Savior of the World,” but instead proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)

For all of these reasons, Jesus followers should be the last to justify the use of torture by any nation to protect that nation’s national interests. Not only was our Lord tortured and killed as a result of this way of reasoning, but Jesus also said we, as those who announce the new world founded by Jesus, we would also be seen as threats to our respective national interests, and tortured and killed as well.

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (Matthew 24.9, emphasis added.)

Please, my fellow Christians here in America, stop justifying America’s use of torture.

“Love your enemies.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

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

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

1. “Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’” (Matthew 26. 67–68.)

“Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.” (Mark 14.64–65.)

“Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ They kept heaping many other insults on him.” (Luke 22.63–65.)

“When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’” (John 18.22.)

2. “But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’” (Luke 23.5.)

3.  “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27.27–31.)

“Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15.16–20.)”

“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.” (John 19.2–3.)

4.  “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, given to you according to the definite plan and purpose of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2.22–24.)

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” (Acts 2.32–33.)

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2.36.)

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” (Acts 3.12–16.)

“Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4.10–11.)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Founder and Savior.” (Acts 5.30–32.)

“You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10.36–43.)

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to

have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13.23–38.)

5.  “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.’” (Matthew 28.18–17, emphasis added.)

“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” (Acts 23.11, emphasis added.)

“Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Revelation 14.6, emphasis added.)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” (Revelation 15.3–4, emphasis added.)

“To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples, the nations, and the languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13–14, emphasis added.)

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 21.22–22.2, emphasis added.)

6.  “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’” (Acts 17.5–7, emphasis added.)

Immanuel: God in Solidarity with an Oppressed People by Herb Montgomery

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“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’” (Matthew 1.22–23).

This week I’d like to continue our liberation theme during this Advent season with one of the most controverted elements of the Jesus story. But before you put on your post-modern, naturalist worldview glasses, I’m asking you to put on your liberation from the pyramid of oppression and privilege spectacles instead. In other words, I’m asking you not to look first at what has come to be called “the virgin birth” scientifically, but to look at the “virgin birth” sociologically, first within the context in which the original audience of Matthew would have read it. What is the story truth here?

Matthew, writing largely for a Galilean audience, with a Galilean apologetic flavor, is here referring to a passage in accord with the Jewish culture of that time. Matthew reaches back into the Advocacy/Liberation God of the book of Isaiah, and here draws our attention to the words of Isaiah when Assyria was about to lay waste to Israel.

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7.13).

The name “Immanuel,” within this context, communicated that even though Israel was headed into a time of being deeply oppressed, they were not to lose hope. A God who would liberate them (much like the God of the Exodus narrative) was “with them.” Immanuel is a name given to a people within the context of the oppression/oppressor dynamic. Oppressors who conquer others always tout that the gods are on their side offering their victory over the oppressed as evidence. I offer the lie of Manifest Destiny as just one example. History (as well as the Civic religion) is written by the conquerors, not the conquered. It is within this context that Isaiah offers a people who are about to be oppressed, not to believe the Assyrian narrative that would justify their oppression, but to hold on tightly to the belief that God was actually “with us”—the oppressed—and deliverance would come. A modern day example would be those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement taking place in America as I write this. In times of longing for deep social change, it becomes imperative for those being oppressed to hold close in their heart the belief that God is standing in solidarity with them in their cause, not their oppressors.

This is what Immanuel means for an oppressed people within its original context. Even though we are victims of oppression, injustice, and violence, God is standing in solidarity with us, and the glory of liberation and what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “double victory” must not be lost sight of.

Read Isaiah’s words just a few chapters later through the lens of a Liberator God who is standing in solidarity with the oppressed, Immanuel. I’ll offer some brief commentary within brackets.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

[This is a king that will arise from the bloodline of the kings of a conquered and oppressed people.]

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,  the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

[He will govern with justice and equity, in other words, as opposed to corruption, greed, and exploitative discrimination.]

 He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

[He won’t govern according to the spin doctors who work for the oppressors.]

but with justice he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

[It would be well to remember this passage as Jesus quotes from it in the Sermon on the Mount when he assures us that in the new world he had come to found, the “meek will inherit the earth.”]

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

[At this stage of Israel’s understanding, justice would come through killing Israel’s enemies. Jesus would turn this methodology on its head by teaching enemy love expressed through a restorative justice even for Israel’s oppressors. This is why many in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would lead them in militaristic violence against the Romans. Jesus came with the problematic teaching of loving your enemies, saying God’s liberation from injustice, oppression, and violence was for the oppressors too. Jesus called the oppressed to see their oppressors as victims as well of a much larger systemic evil, in need also of being liberated from their participation. This is what makes Jesus’ teaching on nonviolent resistance so powerful. Jesus’ nonviolence has too often been coopted by oppressors, such as that which happened under King James VI in the King’s Authorized 1611 King James Version where Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.39 are grossly mistranslated as nonresistance. Too often Jesus’ words have been hijacked by the privileged to the keep the disadvantaged in their place. Jesus wasn’t teaching passive nonresistance. No, no! In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, Jesus gives three examples of nonviolent RESISTANCE as a powerful means of awakening the conscience of one’s oppressors calling upon them to abandon their participation in systemic injustice and to choose to stand in solidarity with those they once oppressed. It’s what King referred to in his sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at Christmas, 1957. Martin Luther King wrote it while in jail for committing nonviolent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”

Notice Isaiah’s description, which envisions this world with no more oppressor/oppressed.]

Justice shall be the belt around his [this one who would come through Jesse’s bloodline] waist, and faithfulness [to the covenant promises] the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11.1–9)

No more injustice, no more violence, no more oppression.

John the revelator takes this passage from Isaiah and turns it on its head as well.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a staff of iron (Revelation 19.15.; notice that the sword is a verbal one, and that the striking of the nations with those words results in the nations becoming the sheep of this shepherd).

We miss so much when we only read the Jesus narrative through the conventional, domesticated lens of a Christianity that has been (with the exception of its first three hundred years) coopted and used by the oppressors (the Constantinian shift) and stolen from the oppressed. The Jesus Narrative was originally good news to the oppressed and seen as a threat to those at the top of sociological, privileged pyramids, a threat that from the very beginning must be removed (Luke 19.47).

Let’s take one more example from the Jesus narrative so we can contrast the two. We’ll be looking at Luke’s version of the Jesus story in Luke 12.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly’” (Luke 12.13–16).

There are two ways of reading this story. One is through the lens of the oppressors. Let’s look at this first.

Many in positions of privilege interpret this story in a way that presents a Jesus that refused to intervene in “temporal matters.” “Jesus was about saving mankind’s soul,” they say. They misinterpret Jesus’ kingdom to be “not of this world.” And by this they mean to dualistically divide matters of systemic deliverance from the sins of injustice, oppression, and violence in the here and now from the work of “the gospel.” Their focus is purely on personal, private salvation, which typically is concerned solely with post-mortem destinations. Nothing is to be changed in this life. Injustice and oppression are interpreted as part of God’s purpose for this world. People aren’t to be treated with equality. Inequity is God’s way of developing character. Equity is not part of God’s purpose for this world. God’s focus is on saving your soul for heaven.

That’s one way this passage is interpreted. Strange how it just so happens to leave the world of the oppressors unchanged. Jesus’ revelation that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, in the here and now, is grossly missed.

The other interpretation of this story finds its source in looking through the lens of those who are oppressed. Jesus was not excusing himself from temporal matters. Far from it. His entire Sermon on the Mount is about the message that Jesus’ kingdom, although from/of heaven, has arrived here on earth and is about to restructure, redistribute, and restore. Jesus didn’t go around getting people to say a special prayer so they can go to heaven when they died. He sought to bring healing into people’s lives today. The story we have before us is of two wealthy brothers with a large inheritance that is being fought over. Jesus says, “I’ve not come to be the advocate of the wealthy against others who are wealthy.” He asks, “Who made me a judge between YOU?” i.e. an advocate for the rich. It’s as if Jesus is using the contemporary phrase today, “First World Problem.” Jesus had come as a liberator of the oppressed; he marked the return of the Advocate God to Israel. He, according to Isaiah, was to be an arbitrator. But Jesus was not to be an arbitrator for the rich between others who were rich. Jesus had come to be an arbitrator for the poor against the greed of the wealthy. Jesus came to be, not an arbitrator between those at the top of society’s privilege pyramids, but an arbitrator for those at the bottom of those pyramids between those at the top, standing in solidarity with those at the bottom. This is why Jesus tells the brother a story about a wealthy man (like himself) who was seeking to only acquire more and more, adding to his already existing wealth, rather than taking care of those who were hungry, poor, blind, and naked. Jesus is not rejecting being an arbitrator in temporal affairs. Jesus came to turn our temporal affairs on their heads (see Acts 17.6). Jesus is rejecting being an advocate between the greedy privileged against other who are privileged, saying I’ve not come to be YOUR arbitrator. I’ve come to be the arbitrator for the oppressed. I’ve come as Immanuel to those who are being marginalized, disadvantaged, the needy, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the abused, maltreated, ill-treated, subjugated, tyrannized, repressed, and crushed. I’ve come to reveal a God who is standing in solidarity with these. I have come to give these the hope of Immanuel. I’ve come to give them the ability to say with all hope and confidence, “God” is “with us.”

What is the Advent narrative saying to us?

Whether this week you are marching, holding a sign that says, “Black Lives Matter,” whether you are being disfellowshipped this week from your spiritual community because of an orientation you did not choose and cannot change, whether you are continuously never taken seriously because you do not have the correct anatomical appendage, or you are facing an over-commercialized holiday season wondering how you are going to feed your children this Christmas much less give them the Christmas your heart longs to give them, too, you can gather around the manger and dare to believe that the babe who lies there really belongs to you. The baby lying there is Immanuel, the Liberator, the Advocate God, who has come to set the oppressed free, here, now. He is Immanuel, God with you.

HeartGroup Application

In James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, James tells of how Jesus was “the subject of Black Theology because he is the content of the hopes and dreams of black people. He was chosen by our grandparents, who saw in his liberating presence that he had chosen them and thus became the foundation of their struggle for freedom. He was their Truth, enabling them to know that white definitions of black humanity were lies.” James goes on to tell of traditions and practices among the slaves that, rooted in the Jesus story, kept them from losing themselves to the white dehumanization and degradation they were continually immersed in.

1. This week I want you to pick up the story of Jesus’ birth found in both Matthew and Luke. I want you to sit with Jesus asking him to change your lens. In matters of gender, race, orientation, and economic injustice, I want you to, in whatever areas of your life that you may experience some level of privilege, try reading this story while placing yourself in the shoes of someone less privileged than yourself. Do your best to read the story from their vantage place.

2. Journal what Jesus shows you.

3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

This Advent, may you come to know that in whatever way you are “seeking first” the justice of Jesus’ new world, where things are “on earth” as they are “in heaven,” may the liberating, advocating, solidarity standing “Immanuel” give you strength, courage, and hope.

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Christ’s love reigns, may all those things out of harmony with love give way to a shoot of Jesse’s healing, transformative “equity” and “justice.”

The wolf will lay down with the lamb.

Immanuel, God with us.

I love each of you, see you next week.

What does the Advent mean if not Liberation? By Herb Montgomery

advent1

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. – Mary; Luke 1.52–55

As the season of Advent has begun, I find myself, this year, not so much needing the story to be “true” as much as needing what the Jesus narrative promises to be possible. By this, I do not mean that I need heaven to be real. I do not mean that I need an afterlife to be possible to assure me that this is not all there is. I do not mean that I need even our origins to be explained. What I mean is that I need to know that a world where there is no oppression, injustice, and violence against an oppressed people by those who are advantaged and privileged is possible, here . . . now.

The Jesus narrative, with all its challenges to us today, is proclaiming that this new world has actually begun. I’m also well aware that when the Roman Empire coopted the Jesus movement in the fourth century, in what many scholars call “the Constantinian shift,” what the Jesus narrative says to those who are oppressed became eclipsed and largely lost as the church (those by whom the Jesus narrative was taught) would eventually become the Empire itself and almost irredeemably attach the name of Jesus to one of the most oppressive structures in the history of the Western world. Even with the protestant reformation, “Christianity” today continues to be one of the most oppressive voices in the West regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economics. How has that which claimed the Jesus of the Jesus narrative to be its central object of reverence veered so far from what that Jesus taught in regards to liberation?

From all the pictures of God within the Jewish scriptures that this Jesus could have chosen to characterize his movement, he chose an advocate God who liberates the oppressed.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.1819, emphasis added.)

When John’s disciples came asking Jesus if he was really the one they had been looking for, this Jesus offers his work of liberation for those socially oppressed as the conclusive evidence.

He answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22).

Remember, those who were blind, lame, and deaf were not considered objects of compassion, but “sinners” being punished by God and thus oppressed as well by those who were seeking this God’s favor. (We do this socially as well. One of the ways we become “friends” with someone is to show ourselves to be against those who they are against as well.) Jesus came, instead, announcing God’s favor for those who were being oppressed and calling for oppressors to embrace this radically new way of seeing God and to begin standing in solidarity with the oppressed as well.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges that the narrative of Jesus’ birth produces for us today, we can trace this picture of an advocate God of liberation all the way back to the words of Jesus’ mother Mary.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1.5254).

Let’s unpack this.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly

Mary first portrays the work of her son to be subversive to monarchy. Her son’s work would decenter a world that functions hierarchically where humans “reign” over other humans. We can see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 22. “He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus came announcing the possibility of a world that does not depend upon hierarchical structures for it to function. Hierarchy rules coercively; love inspires compellingly. Jesus came with the message that we can live together without being “ruled.” Jesus cast a vision of a world inspired by the beauty of egalitarian love (Matthew 23.8) where each person treats every other simply the way one would like to be treated (John 13.35; Matthew 7.12).

It might be said that today, at least here in America, we no longer practice monarchy but democracy. Nevertheless, even within democracy, hierarchy is still practiced. Privilege and advantage cause those of a different race, gender, orientation, or economic status to be “ruled over” by laws and policies written by white, wealthy, straight, cisgender males like myself. What does it mean, within a democracy, for the “powerful” to be pulled down “from their thrones?” Those who wear the name of this Jesus should not be supporting the status quo, but subverting it, pioneering a new way of “doing life,” calling those at “the top” of a nation founded on privilege to follow this “dethroning” Jesus as well. It is my belief that there is no better place for this to begin than within Ecclesiastical structures themselves. Until religious hierarchy ceases to be practiced and protected by those who say they are following Jesus, the church is betraying itself. Until those who claim the name of Jesus begin themselves to follow this “dethroning” Jesus, we cannot even begin to dream of (much less pioneer) a world that is truly different. New hierarchical structures will simply replace old ones. The names of the streets will be changed, yet the same old ways of mapping those streets will remain the same.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It would be well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke’s version of the Jesus narrative in Luke 6.2026:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’”

Not as an outsider, but as one of us, Jesus had come to bring about a great reversal, a rearrangement, a redistribution of resources, here and now. Those who were presently poor, hungry, and weeping as a result of how the present society was arranged would be particularly blessed by the new world Jesus had come to found. Those who had been privileged, those who were rich, those who were well fed, those who rejoiced in the present structuring of resources would go hungry, would mourn, and weep.

Yes, Jesus came announcing good news to the disadvantaged, but it was not perceived to be good news by all. There were the few at the top of the political, economic, and ecclesiastical structures who viewed Jesus’ “good news” as a threat to be swiftly dealt with (see Mark 11.18 cf. John 11.4750).

As Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus writes, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which ‘niceness’ is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”

And again,

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (Ibid.).

Today wealth and prosperity is taken as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus did not teach this. Jesus taught that wealth and prosperity reveal an inequality in foundational structures that left some hungry while others were well fed. This new world pioneered by this Jesus was a world where “the hungry would be filled with good things,” and the stockpile reserves of the “rich would be sent away empty.”

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The great hope of the Hebrew people was not to die and go to heaven, but that some day, on earth, all oppression, violence, and injustice would be put right. This hope was held to be precious by a people whose history was one of being the sweatshop workers of Egypt, then the conquered natives of the Babylonian Empire, and presently the victims of Roman colonization.

What Mary is announcing is that her son would be the liberator of her people from the oppressive presence of the then present Superpower of the known world. What Mary as well as many of the others within the Jesus narrative do not perceive is that this Jesus, whenever followed, would be the liberator of all who are oppressed in every generation. One needs only think of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the evidence of this being true. What I find most ironic is that Gandhi, in being inspired to follow the teachings of Jesus in the “sermon on the mount,” found liberation from British Christians. And King, by doing the same, found liberation from white Christians in positions of privilege here in America.

What does this mean to us this Advent season?

For me, it means that as someone raised as Christian, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me first and foremost, seeing that Christians have been, historically, oppressive first and foremost. As someone who is mostly white, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of racism. As someone who is mostly male, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of male privilege. As someone who is mostly straight, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of LGBQ rights. As someone who is mostly cisgender, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in regards to the threatening reality that my transgender friends live within every day. As someone who is mostly wealthy by global standards, I need to allow the Jesus story to confront me in matters of economics, especially in regards to justice for the poor. As someone who is mostly privileged, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to wake me up to the degree to which I am participating in oppression, even unknowingly, and to allow the beauty of this Jesus to inspire me to compassion instead of fear, and love instead of self-protection, and a letting go, instead of the death-grip grasp on my life as it presently is.

Change doesn’t have to be scary. For those at the top, following Jesus will change everything. But the beauty of the world promised by the Jesus narrative, I choose to believe, is possible. And it’s the beauty of this new world that wins me, at a heart level, to allow my present world to be “turned upside down” (see Acts 17.6).

Will it be costly? Of course it will be. But it’s worth it.

“The kingdom of heaven [this new world] is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13.44).

HeartGroup Application

1. As we begin this Advent season, let’s spend some time sitting with the living Jesus allowing him to open our eyes. As Rabbi Tarfon so eloquently stated, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

2. As you contemplate the injustice of the present world as contrasted with the justice of the new world promised by the Jesus narrative (see Matthew 6.33), journal what Jesus inspires you with.

3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup in what areas of the world around us that Jesus has inspired you to want to make a difference.

Until the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns, may this Advent season mark a furthering and deepening of the world that babe in Bethlehem came to found.

Together we can ensure a better world is yet to come.

I love each of you, and remember the advocating, liberating God we see in Jesus does too.

Happy Holidays and Tikkun Olam.

See you next week.

No More Sacrifice by Herb Montgomery

goat

“‘Abraham is our father,’ they answered. ‘If you were Abraham’s children,’ said Jesus, ‘then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me . . . Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father’”—Jesus, John 8.39–41.

This week, by request, I’d like to take a look at what I call Jesus’ “anti-sacrifice” portrayal of God. I’ll explain what I mean by this later on, but in order to get there, we are going to have to go as far back as we can and look at “sacrifice” not religiously, but sociologically.

Anthropologists have recognized a repeating pattern throughout human civilizations. Whenever we believe we are competing with one another for a limited amount of resources (as opposed to cooperating with one another where we believe there is enough for all), eventually the unity and cohesiveness of that society begins to pull apart. Competition and rivalry begin to threaten the health and longevity of that society.

What anthropologists have also noticed—and this they cannot explain—is that almost mysteriously, but very predictably, that society will then, instinctively, begin turning on its most vulnerable members and blaming them for the tension and trouble the society is beginning to encounter. This can either be a group or an individual person. Then something almost magical happens.

The unity of the society is instantly restored as everyone now coalesces around a common enemy. The tensions and trouble that were just previously threatening the cohesiveness of their society evaporate into thin air as this society discovers a new-found comradery and previous enemies become friends, as they all unite together around this group or person as their common enemy.

Typically this group or person is expelled from the community (either by being sent away or by being “lynched” via the angry mob) and life for the community goes on as usual. But before long, the tensions that once plagued the group through their rivalry with one another resurface and a new sacrifice is required. This 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 original lynching through “ritual” rather than repeating the social mechanism of finding a common enemy in real life. Either another person was used (human sacrifice) to reenact the historical event or an animal was used. In either case, the story of the original lynching was reenacted and the community found unity here in coming together to celebrate together their sacred victory over the group or person they believed was their enemy. It would be well to remember that in reality the original victim was never truly guilty, but innocent, and was only perceived as being guilty by the hysterical or angry mob.

Thus, sacrifice in human history was born. Religious or ritual sacrifice, whether human or animal, was an attempt by the community to recreate the original unifying event. Whether a society sacrifices an animal or a human is not relevant. Those societies that sacrifice animals will soon sacrifice humans and eventually need to relive the event in real life through finding another enemy for the society to rally together against.

This is the way of sacrifice. Ritual animal leads to ritual human, which leads to actual human. It is the reversal of this trajectory that the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures has always sought to accomplish, though few have noticed this.

From the innocence of Abel, the nomadic herdsman, who was slain by his brother Cain, the tiller of the soil, all the way down to Zechariah the prophet, God has been seeking to cure humanity’s need for “sacrificing” others.

Now let’s take a look at 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).

A point that we must take the time to note is that Jesus in Matthew 12 goes further than Matthew 9 saying that if we had understood that sacrifice is not of Divine origin but human, we would not have condemned the “innocent.”

Once sacrifice became ritualized, in other words, once it became religious, it was believed that God or the gods actually demanded or required this sacrifice to be done. This is the picture of God Jesus tirelessly seeks to refute. Remember, ritual animals lead to ritual humans leads to actual humans. This is the trajectory the God we see in Jesus is seeking to heal.

Jesus actually saw this in his unique reading of the Old Testament narratives. Jesus came to the conclusion that sacrifice is not of Divine origin, but human. Jesus teaches that God had never actually required sacrifice but had always been seeking to lead humanity away from it. Notice the following passages. We’ll start with the one Jesus actually quotes.

Hosea 6.6—“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God, rather than burnt offerings.”

Isaiah 1.11–12—“‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?’”

Note this last question. God is actually implying that the origins of this practice are not to be found in Divine requirement. “Who asked you to even do this?” God says.

Psalms 40.6—“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.”

Jeremiah 7.22—“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

This passage from Jeremiah is the most puzzling for many because it contradicts the entire book of Leviticus. Obviously God did command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. How can Jeremiah’s God say He did not? The answer, I believe, can possibly be found in Leviticus 17.7:

Leviticus 17.7—So that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves.

Just as with patriarchy, misogyny, slavery, racism and violence, the Hebrews were already practicing sacrifice when they came out of Egypt. The Egyptian sanctuaries even had a dual apartment structure of holy and most holy places. God is meeting the Hebrews where they are, and subversively, from within their own sacrificial practices seeking to lead them away from sacrifice. Remember, the sociological trajectory is ritual animal leads to ritual human, which leads to actual human. Within Leviticus, yes, God is giving instruction regarding sacrifices, but we have to ask ourselves, is this because there is a desire for sacrifices in the heart of God or is God making a concession and risking using sacrifice to try and reverse the trajectory away from actual human, away from ritual human, to ritual animal, and eventually no sacrifice at all?

Notice the author of Hebrews’ words about Christ:

Hebrews 10.5—“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.’”

Some will ask, “What about Genesis? Didn’t God originate Sacrifice in Genesis?” You will be hard pressed to find one single verse where God originates and commands sacrifice. It’s just not there. It is true that Cain and Abel were making sacrifices, but this only proves that enough time had transpired for humans to have begun practicing sacrifice. Remember, when Cain departs after killing Abel, the earth is well populated (see Genesis 4.14, 16–17).

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

Others will ask, “What about God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and God’s rejection of Cain’s?” Much is lost when we read stories from our context rather than the context of the original audience. This story was originally told within the context of Mesopotamian land owners (tillers of the ground) and nomadic herdsmen. Those in positions of privilege in this society were the “tillers of the ground.” They, for agricultural reasons, looked at land very differently than the nomadic herdsmen. The herdsmen believed the land belonged to everyone and was not to be privately owned. The herdsmen, being nomadic, were also the weaker of the two. The tillers of the ground were more permanent, thus more fortified and stronger. They were the more stable and they oppressed the migrant nomadic herdsmen as intruders on their property.

In the Cain and Abel story we find God taking the side of the oppressed, once again. We see God cursing the ground for Cain’s sake, turning Cain from a tiller of the ground, to a nomadic wanderer so that he too can learn to view life through the lens of being marginalized and oppressed.

Those who claim that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because it contained blood and Cain’s didn’t must remember that Cain’s sacrifice would have been completely acceptable under the Levitical rules for grain, wine, and food offerings where there was no blood involved either. This was not a matter of “blood” being present or not, required by a God who required sacrifice. This is a story about the way of mercy rather than sacrifice. This is a story concerning liberation from oppression, about sacrifice, both ritual and sociological, and about societies being founded on the way of mercy rather than mutual hatred of a common enemy (tillers of the soil united against nomadic herdsmen).

This leads us to our featured passage this week.

John 8.39–41—“‘Abraham is our father,’ they answered. ‘If you were Abraham’s children,’ said Jesus, ‘Then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me . . . Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.’”

Here Jesus is pulling back the veil, and showing the two trajectories side by side.

The human trajectory is this:

A) Actual lynching/sacrifice of common societal enemy

B) Ritual sacrifice of animal or human as an attempt to recreate the unity produced by original lynching.

C) Eventual need to find a common enemy again

This is the course of the escalating need for the ritual animal that becomes the need for a ritual human that eventually becomes the need for another actual human enemy for society to unify against.

The Abraham Trajectory is the exact opposite:

From ritual human sacrifice back to ritual animal sacrifice.

Jesus came to conclude this trajectory by leading the Hebrew people now away from even ritual animal sacrifice to no sacrifice whatsoever either ritually or sociologically. It is an anti-sacrifice understanding of God and each other, entirely.

If those to whom Jesus was speaking in John 8 would truly have been children of Abraham, they would have been on the trajectory away from ritual human, to ritual animal, with the aim of no sacrifice at all. But being children of the accuser, they then were moving in the opposite direction of Abraham. They were moving from ritual animal all the way down the trajectory to human sacrifice/lynching, i.e. the murder of Jesus.

It would also be well to note that there were those in a unique position of privilege that had everything to lose if Jerusalem embraced this revolutionary anti-sacrifice picture of God. Who were they? The priests, and especially the chief priest—Caiaphas. These were the ones who economically, socially, and politically benefitted from ritual sacrifices.

“The CHIEF PRIESTS and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching” (Mark 11.18, emphasis added).

So the CHIEF PRIESTS and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” [The favor of God and thus God’s protection of Jerusalem against Rome, they believed, was dependent on the sacrifice continually burning on the altar; see Josephus, War of the Jews, on the ceasing of the daily sacrifices.) But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11.47–50, emphasis added).

Here it is again. Here we see the human sacrificial trajectory of ritual animal, leading to ritual human, culminating in an actual human enemy that must be expelled. In this case it was Jesus who must now be killed.

Thus Luke tells us that it was “the officers of the TEMPLE POLICEwho came to arrest Jesus (Luke 22.52). Jesus’ interruption of the continual daily sacrifices in the temple would not be tolerated. It would also be well to remember, Jesus was not “cleansing the temple” so that sacrifices could continue in a purer from. No, Jesus was overturning tables and driving out the ritual sacrificial animals because “God desired mercy, not sacrifice.” This anti-sacrifice element to Jesus’ ministry was therefore anti-temple [where the sacrifices were made] as well as anti-priest [the ones who performed the sacrifices in the temple].

This would not be tolerated. This threat would be extinguished.

Just as a side note in recognizing the hints the Jesus story gives us so we will notice what is happening sociologically, we must not miss these two passages.

Luke 23.12—That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies. (Emphasis added.)

This is the way of sacrifice, sociologically. Jesus has become not the ritual sacrifice, but the actual sociological one, the enemy around which even rival enemies within this society are now experiencing newfound unity and friendship.

Mark 15.15—“Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (emphasis added).

That which drives sociological sacrifice or lynching is always the angry mob, which gets swept up in the scapegoating mechanism.

Yet the story does not end in yet another lynching by yet another human society. Yes, on the evening of the “preparation day,” it looks as if the world will never change. But there is more to come. On the first day of the new week, God would stand in solidarity with Jesus as the lynched victim and inaugurate not just a new week, but a new world. God, in the Resurrection, would undo and reverse all that was accomplished through the crucifixion.

Paul would later say it like this:

“We tell you the Gospel: What God promised our ancestors [a world where all injustice, oppression, and violence is put right], he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Acts 13.32–33).

In the resurrection, a new world had begun.

A world not founded on the way of sacrifice, but on the way of mercy. This was a new way of arranging human life, a way that Jesus had been modeling for the previous three years.

There is one final point that I’d like to point out this week before we close.

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

I can’t end this week without drawing your attention to the contrast here.

The Priests claimed God dwelt at the heart of their temple, at the heart of their way of sacrifice. But when Jesus died at the hands of this system, the entire way of sacrifice was unmasked as being not of Divine origin, but actually being capable of sacrificing/lynching God too if God were to be viewed as an intrusive threat as well to society.

The resurrection placed alongside the torn curtain speaks to humanity that God is not at the heart of that system at all. We have mistaken where God actually is. When the temple veil was torn in two, there was no ark of the covenant (that had been long lost), there was no Shekinah Presence (that had long since departed). What was seen was the stark absence of God. Where was God? The resurrection reveals that God was, at that moment of sacrifice, in the One being sacrificed. The event marks the end of sacrificial systems that demand the death of those who are innocent, whether political relying on violence [Pilate], religious based on fear [Caiaphas], or economic driven by greed [Herod]. The Jesus story puts on display that the Presence of God is not found within the most exclusive holy places belonging to sacrificial systems. The true dwelling place of the Presence is found in the One shamefully suspended and sacrificed on a cursed tree at the orders of those sacrificial systems. In other words, God is standing, and always has stood, in solidarity with those our societies sacrifice.

HeartGroup Application

In the Book of Revelation, John looks and sees: “I saw no temple [the place of sacrifice] in the city . . .” (Revelation 21.22). When Heaven and Earth become reunited again, there will be no more sacrifice, whether ritual or actual, political, economic, or religious. The Resurrection is the start of this whole new world where, just like Jesus, we need not fear the consequences of our engagement against the sacrificial systems of our present societies. We stand in the victory of the Christ over all sacrifice, a victory that has already been won.

1. This week, spend some time contemplating with Jesus where you may be still participating in sociological sacrifice. Hardly anyone in the West still practices ritual sacrifice. Yet we practice sociological sacrifice every day. Ask Jesus to show you where you may be doing this as well.

2. Ask Jesus to give you the courage to no longer participate in the injustice, violence, and oppression of the way of sacrifice and follow the way of mercy instead. (Jesus’ clearest demonstrations on what this way of mercy actually looks like is found in the entire body of the Jesus stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is my belief that these stories are centered on Jesus’ radical teachings in Matthew 5–7.)

3. Share what Jesus shows you this week with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love, and no more sacrifice, reigns, keep living in Love. A new world has begun. Let’s go enlarge its radically inclusive borders, through humble, servant, nonviolent, co-suffering, injustice-resisting, liberating love, one heart at a time.

I love each of you, and remember, the God we see in Jesus does too.

See you next week.

Herb

Rejected Rejection by Herb Montgomery

pharisees

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’?” (Matthew 21.42)

First, I want to say a big thank you to all who have been praying for my recovery over the last three weeks. I’m back on my feet now after a pretty tough bout of pneumonia. Thanks for your love, support, prayers, and patience. I really appreciate your concern.

This week, I want to talk about Jesus, social rejection, and the divine rejection of the social rejection that we see in God, revealed through Jesus. This last type of rejection will make more sense as we continue.

Matthew 21 presents a series of parables that Jesus was sharing with the chief priests and Pharisees on the subject of their religious rejection of others to whom they felt morally superior.

“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?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of justice and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21.28–32, emphasis added)

There are three points to keep in mind as we read these parables that will enable us to step into their context and receive their full impact.

  1. Jesus stood in solidarity with, and defended those whom the chief priests and Pharisees had judged as morally inferior and had socially rejected.
  1. Jesus’ choice to stand in solidarity with those the chief priests and Pharisees had discarded as “sinners” (Jews living in disobedience to the Torah) also caused the chief priests and Pharisees to reject Jesus as one of them.
  1. God was rejecting the rejection of the chief priests and Pharisees, not only of Jesus, but also of the people who were responding to Jesus, whom He was defending. According to Jesus, God was embracing Jesus and all of these religious rejects and founding a new world beginning with them. In other words, Jesus’ Kingdom was being founded on religious “rejects.”

Follow closely. Jesus said next:

“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, emphasis added)

I want to draw your attention to the phrase, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This is nothing unique, and certainly nothing new. From the founding of human society, societies have always been built on the rejection of, or scapegoating of, a single victim. Human societies find unity and cohesiveness in joining together against a common “enemy.” This enemy is accused of being responsible for societies stresses and conflicts. It’s the age old, “Us versus Them!” The rejection of a “stone” has always been the “cornerstone” of forming societies. Yet in a very real sense, there is something different about this time. In all the stories of history, legends, and myths, deities are always on the side of those who are doing the rejecting—the rejectors. In fact, the gods are the ones demanding that the victim be sacrificed/rejected! Yet in the Jesus story, the scapegoating mechanism is turned on its head. God, for the first time in all the stories, is in the One being rejected, showing the victims to innocent, over and against those who are endeavoring to found (or in this case preserve) a society on sacrificing, rejecting, a victim. (See Caiaphas’ statement in John 11.50)

In short, according to Jesus, the rejectors were about to be rejected. And this is a first! God, in Jesus, for the first time, is revealed as rejecting their rejection of the rejectors. Those who had been rejected were being taken up by God, shown to be being victimized and objectified, and then used by this same God to pioneer a new way of living life on planet Earth. This new way of doing life will be rooted in equality, justice, restoration, reconciliation, mercy and love. Jesus referred to this new way of orchestrating the world as the Kingdom. For those who were offended by this divine rejection of their rejection, those who endeavored to go against this “amazing,” unique, and original “doing of God,” would find themselves “broken to pieces and crushed.” As some have said, the grain of the universe is love and those who go against this grain receive within themselves the splinters of such a course.

The vineyard was in the process of being taken away from those who had abused and oppressed others through it—those who had chosen to go against the grain of love. Ironically, as those who had been abused and oppressed were actually responding to Jesus and aligning themselves “with the grain” (in a way unrecognizable to the chief priests and Pharisees), the vineyard was now being given to them because they could be entrusted with producing the right kind of fruit.

What does this mean for us today?

Maybe you have also been rejected for a number of reasons. Perhaps you don’t have the proper education. Maybe you don’t have the “privileged” skin color. Possibly you don’t belong to the right “income bracket.” Perhaps you’re not “from here.” Maybe you don’t have the “correct” gender or don’t even find yourself easily fitting within the accepted binary gender categories that society has constructed. Or maybe you have been rejected for possessing what has been labeled as a “non-normative” orientation.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter to God why you have been rejected. You are precious to the God we see in Jesus. To this God, the rejection you have experienced has been divinely discarded itself. It doesn’t matter whether your rejection has been social, political, economic, or religious. You’re the last people on the planet to turn others away because you know how it feels to be abandoned. If you would like to follow Jesus into this new world, remember, He was the original “reject!” This rejected Jesus, “scapegoated” by the religious of His own day, has founded a new world, one that operates very differently, yes, but also founded with “rejects.”

You—come to Him, a living stone, though REJECTED by mortals yet CHOSEN and PRECIOUS in God’s sight, and like living stones [also rejected by others but chosen by God and precious in His sight], let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, be a holy priesthood, and offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2.4–5)

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”—Jesus

“The kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the rejectors] and given to the people [the rejected] who produce the fruits of the kingdom.”—Jesus

If you have been rejected, in Jesus, God has rejected your rejection. You are precious to the God we find in Jesus and by this God, you are chosen.

To all the rejects, myself included, Jesus is saying the same thing that we find Him saying over and over again in the four gospels—“Follow Me.”

 

HeartGroup Application

Matthew ends this series of parables with the statement:

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21.45–46)

This was the ultimate rejection of Jesus that would lead to His unjust crucifixion by them.

  1. This week, I want you to spend some time sitting with Jesus, contemplating the ways you have been rejected in your life. Write them down. Then I want you to imagine God taking each of one of these “rejections” and personally rejecting each one of them.
  1. Next, I want you to spend time sitting with Jesus, contemplating the ways you have rejected others at certain times in your life. Write them down. Then I want you to imagine God taking each of one of these “rejections” and personally rejecting each one of them as well.
  1. Then this coming week, share with your HeartGroup what Jesus showed you through this exercise.

I receive so many emails with such sad stories of how precious people, made in the image of God, have been rejected, especially by their religious communities. There are many ways in which individuals can be disregarded, not just religiously, but these seem to be the ones I hear from the most. To each of you, remember, Jesus was the original reject. You’re in good company. As a matter of fact, if you have ever felt unwanted by others for whatever reason, you are part of a precious group that Jesus called His tribe.

Wherever this message finds you this week, remember, I love you and God does, too. Keep living in love and loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is the one where Christ’s love reigns. Now go and enlarge the Kingdom.

I’ll see you next week,
Herb

Jesus, ISIS and The West by Herb Montgomery

isis

For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.—Jesus (Matthew 26.28)

What did Jesus mean when he told his disciples that his blood was being poured out for the forgiveness of sins? We must not answer this from our perspective today, but from the perspective of those to whom these words were originally intended.

To first century Jews, who were longing to be free from Roman oppression, the phrase “forgiveness of sins” did not mean that God would forgive their moral infractions and let them into heaven when they died. No, no! “Forgiveness of sins” within the Jewish context that Jesus used this phrase meant that their time of captivity to foreign powers—and most presently, Rome’s presence in Jerusalem—would be reversed and the hope of Israel would be restored.

Jesus’ blood being poured out through his unjust crucifixion, and the reversing and undoing of that deed by God through the Resurrection, according to Jesus, was not to produce changes in God toward us, but rather radical changes in both the Roman Empire and the Jewish nation that would lead to radical redistribution of how life on Planet Earth is arranged.

Much is missed when we don’t recognize the characters in the story and who their modern-day equivalents are.

Remember, Rome was the superpower of its day—and Jerusalem was a region that resented Rome’s presence. There were even radical, fundamentalist Jews who thought the only way for Jewish voices to be heard by Rome was through barbaric, violent, militaristic terrorism on their part. Those who subscribed to these methods were called Zealots.

What Jesus was demonstrating through the cross, and what God was endorsing through the Resurrection, was that the way to heal the world was not for the Jewish people to resort to barbaric violence to bring about Israel’s liberation and restoration. Rather, it was through forgiveness and love for their Roman enemies, and a desire to awaken the hearts of the Romans’ compassion and win them over through nonviolent direct actions coupled with unconditional enemy love—having their own blood shed rather than staining their hands with the blood of others.

Now, let’s back up and see if we can plug in modern-day equivalents. Rome was the then present superpower of the Jesus story. Zealots were the fundamentalist Jews who were using barbaric violence to try and remove the Roman presence from Jerusalem.

What does the Jesus story say to us if we were to place America in the place of Rome and ISIS in the place of the fundamentalist Jewish Zealots?

ISIS is a barbarically violent, militant, fundamentalist sect—much like the Jewish Zealots of Jesus day—who felt the only way throw off the Roman presence in Jerusalem was through terroristic means. The majority of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day did not feel that the Zealots rightly represented Israel just as the majority of Muslims today do not feel that ISIS rightly represents them. The Zealots, although barbarically violent, and using terrorist tactics, did not feel they were terrorists. None of the Zealots saw themselves as terrorists. They saw themselves as defenders of Israel against a foreign presence. They saw themselves as freedom fighters, and they did not regard their tactics as in any way acts of terrorism. This is exactly how ISIS feels today, not against a Roman Empire, but against the presence of the American Empire in their home. ISIS today sees themselves as mujahedeen (warriors for the faith defending an Islamic State against foreigners). The parallels between ISIS and the Zealots of Jesus day cannot be missed. What we must also take notice of is that it was with these Zealots especially that Jesus would plead to use nonviolent enemy love as their means of arriving at the social changes they desired in relation to Roman oppression. If they would continued on the path of using their present methods, Jesus warned repeatedly, then Rome, being much stronger, would respond, and it would end in gehenna—Jerusalem’s destruction by Rome at the end of the three-year Jewish-Roman War in A.D. 70.

Just as the Jewish nation resented Roman occupation and felt oppressed by Rome’s presence, today those who belong to ISIS resent and feel oppressed by America’s presence in their region as well. What this requires of a Jesus follower is, first, not to look at the present situation as an American but as a Jesus follower. And as Jesus followers, we are not give in to fear or scapegoating, but rather compassion—even for those who others deem as evil and beyond redemption—trying to first understand what would make the members of ISIS feel that the only way to remove the presence of the West is through such barbaric violence.

We must first and foremost look at the situation from the perspective of someone who is being oppressed. ISIS is not the enemy. Matter of fact, labeling someone as enemy, drawing a hard line in the sand that demarks an “us vs. them” is the very first step away from the path that follows Jesus. So let’s first ask the question: What would Jesus say to ISIS today?

It’s the same thing Jesus would say to the Jewish Zealots of his day in the Jesus story. Jesus would say to those who feel oppressed by the West’s presence in their region to choose the way of a nonviolent direct action, coupled with enemy love and the power of truth, to overthrow injustice, violence and oppression rather than simply responding with greater violence. And that if they did not heed his call to nonviolent means of change, the only end in sight was their own gehenna at the hands of their Roman equivalent: America.

Jesus’ call to ISIS would be to seek to liberate themselves from Western occupation through a cross rather than a sword.

There are others who have been oppressed who have discovered Jesus’ way of peace:

“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Remember that Gandhi, in using methods learned from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, successfully removed Britain’s presence from India. King picked up these same methods and changed the face of civil rights in his generation in America.

So Jesus would first say to ISIS that there is a better way, and warn them of what the superpower they are going up against will end up doing to them if they reject this better way.

But here is MY question. 

As a citizen of a modern “Rome” (the USA), whose foreign presence in a modern “Jerusalem” (the Middle East) is resented by those for whom that place is their home, what is Jesus also saying, not just to ISIS, but to the WEST?

Jesus would say to America what he would have said to Rome in his day. We cannot miss this!

1.  Don’t use violence to protect your position of privilege and oppression.

Using ISIS’ barbaric violence to justify a greater presence and a greater show of force, in a region that possesses resources you may want to control, may be good for the Western economy, but it’s not just toward those for whom this region is home. It’s a contemporary form of disguised colonialism at best. If we think ISIS is the enemy that can’t be reasoned with, which leaves us with no other option than to crush it out of existence, we are no different than Rome in how she viewed militant, fundamentalist Jews of the first century.

2.  Don’t use nonviolence to preserve your position of privilege and oppression either. Rather let go of the pyramid of privilege that, by definition, produces both oppressors as well as those who will continue to be oppressed.

Jesus is not telling America to use nonviolence to defeat ISIS. Jesus is telling America to relinquish her grip on her position at the top of a political pyramid. As a superpower, to co-opt the cross, using Jesus methods to defeat ISIS and gain control of that region is a gross misapplication of what Jesus would say to Rome. Jesus would call upon ISIS to use nonviolence, as he did with Jewish fundamentalist Zealots. But Jesus would call upon America (modern Rome) to abandon the power to kill, and choose the power of compassion, putting herself in the shoes of opponents by asking herself whether there is good reason to. Nonviolent direct action (NVDA) by America will not work as long as NVDA is merely a tactic whose ultimate goal is to establish a greater American presence and oppression in a part of the world only desired out of a felt need to control resources native to that region—again, a region that others call home. (America really doesn’t care about spreading “justice” and democracy in areas where oil fields, or other American interests, don’t exist.)

3.  Don’t scapegoat ISIS as “enemy,” as Rome did with the militant Jews of Jerusalem in the first century to Rome’s citizens.

Reject fear and choose compassion. Choose to see the humanity of those who feel participation with ISIS is the only option they have at their disposal to have their voices heard. Start by providing space for those voices (as well as their concerns) to actually be listened to. Make it easier for members of ISIS to believe that the way of nonviolence might actually work by taking the initiative to demonstratively listen and respectfully respond to concerns of those feeling oppressed by the West’s presence in their homeland. Even if this costs the West its control of commodities it covets as precious, remember that these are commodities that really belong to those who live there. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated if they stormed into your homeland seeking to instill their favorite form of government through violent means for what could be ulterior motives.

Again, we must look at these events, first and foremost, not as Americans who blindly feel America can do no wrong. We must look at the present events through the lens of the Jesus story as followers of Jesus himself, who calls us to be makers of peace.

As a follower of Jesus, we are called not to side with a kingdom of this world in crushing a threat to that empire’s safety. We are to be ministers of reconciliation, calling on ISIS to not resort to barbaric violence but to believe there is a better way, all while calling on the West to relinquish the pyramid of privilege and oppression and to not make members of ISIS feel the only way they can be heard is through such barbaric violence.

As a Jesus follower, you are neither pro America nor pro ISIS. You are pro peace; you are a follower of the Prince of Peace. And within the pyramid of privilege and oppression, which we have discussed in so many eSights previously, we are to call upon those at the top to dismantle the entire pyramid for a better way. We are to stand in solidarity with those who are being oppressed at the bottom of the pyramid, honoring their hunger and thirst for justice while also pleading with them to choose a better way than barbaric violence.

This does not justify ISIS’ use of barbaric violence. That, no doubt, is horrifically evil. But this doesn’t justify America either. It refuses to take a side, calling both sides to follow Jesus. We place ourselves in the shoes of those who feel oppressed, pausing to reflect on what it must be like for them to feel like they are standing against the biggest bully on the planet, and not being able to believe (just like the Zealots in Jesus’ day) that if they use nonviolent means the West will actually hear them.

Yes, Jesus’ call to ISIS is to lay down the sword. But Jesus’ call to the West is also to relinquish its place as biggest bully on the hill, and to stop, listen and give hope to ISIS so that they don’t have to use barbaric violence to be heard. Jesus’ call to his followers is to not allow fear to rob you of compassion. And above all, Jesus is calling to all three parties to avoid just rushing to violent means of solving conflict between those who feel oppressed and those in the position of privilege and oppression.

Jesus calls us all to see both the West and the members of ISIS as, remember, not us vs. them, but as siblings of the same Divine Parents who are going to have to eventually learn how to sit around the same family dinner table again.

Will this come without losses? No, there will be many losses on both sides. There will be losses on ISIS’ side if they should choose to use NVDA to awaken the hearts of those in the West to listen. And there will be losses on the West’s side (in relation to the West’s position of privilege) if those in the West choose to listen and begin treating those in the Middle East the way they would like to be treated if the roles were reversed.

It’s time for humanity to let go of fear of scarcity and an addiction to monopolizing positions at the top of the pyramids. It’s time for humanity to embrace a worldview of abundance, enough for everyone’s need but not their greed—with cooperation and sharing rather than anxiety, competition and violence.

Jesus is calling.

There is a conversation that is said to have taken place between Lord Irwin and Gandhi, where Lord Irwin asked what Gandhi believed would solve the problems between Great Britain and India. The story states that Gandhi reached over and picked up a Bible from off of the desk, and opened it to the Gospel of Matthew’s chapter five—the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi then said, “When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.”

There is only one “Savior of the World.” It’s not America, with her military might. It’s the nonviolent Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week I’m not going to ask for you to contemplate any passages from the Gospels. I’m going to ask you, every day for a week, to pray for both ISIS and America, that both will follow Jesus instead of the course they are presently on so that this world would be healed (John 3.17) and that what will be enlarged through all of this will be Jesus’ Kingdom rather than simply yet another of this world’s empires.
  1. Journal what Jesus shares with you about the West and about ISIS as you pray.
  1. Share what Jesus shares with you with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

 

Wherever this finds you this week, choose love and not fear, and choose compassion over violence, until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, God does too.

See you next week.

The Non-normative Jesus

eunuchicon

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

This week I want to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 19. But to understand why these words are relevant, we have to go all the way back to a seemingly bizarre statement Moses makes in the book of Deuteronomy. When you see the connection between Deuteronomy 23 and Matthew 19, you will be blown away, just as I was.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

I’ll bet you didn’t think we would be looking at this verse in this week’s eSight! But this verse is not random, and it’s not marginal. When we explore this verse together with Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, a new and beautiful understanding of Jesus begins to emerge.

The “assembly of the Lord” refers to when Israel assembled for religious ceremonies. Eunuchs (men who had been castrated or were otherwise unable to reproduce) were considered non-normative within this society. Among the Hebrews, the carrying on of a man’s name through his male offspring was the only way to ensure that his name and nation would endure forever. Passing that name down through generations was the ancient Hebrews’ idea of eternal life.

What about the women? When it came to reproduction, ancient Hebrew culture considered the woman little more than an incubation chamber for the baby that was being passed down from the male. I know, I know, extremely patriarchal! At this stage they didn’t have the faintest idea about the zygote being the combination of the female ovum and the male sperm. For the Hebrew, the male seed contained everything needed for a human to be produced. All that was required was the fertile soil (the woman) for the seed to planted in and to grow. It’s no wonder that many women in this culture were treated like dirt!

Being a eunuch within Hebrew society, by birth or otherwise, placed a man in the “non-normative” category. “Normative” simply refers to that which has been established by the majority in a society as normal, or standard. The opposite of “normative,” academically speaking, is the word queer. Today, “queer” too often is used in an offensive and negative sense, typically as a slur toward someone who is non-normative in matters of sexuality or gender. But in an academic sense, the term “queer” carries no negative connotation. It simply refers to something that is non-normative or non-majoritive. For example, in a world designed for right-handed people, left-handedness (a trait my eldest daughter possesses) is non-normative. In matters of dexterity, left-handed people might labeled as dexterously queer. All of this is to say that eunuchs in Hebrew society during the time of Moses were considered non-normative, and therefore were not admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Maybe my left-handed daughter would have been excluded from the assembly as well!)

Notice what Moses has to say about normativity in this passage from Leviticus.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles […] that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. Thus Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons and to all the people of Israel. (Leviticus 21:16-24)

What’s fascinating is to observe in the book of Isaiah how God begins to change everything, moving Israel further along a trajectory from where they have been toward what we are about to discover in Jesus.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. (Isaiah 56:3-8)

Here is the question I want you consider. How is God going to give the eunuchs an everlasting name when that, within a Hebrew context, can only be accomplished by producing a long line of male children?

Let’s listen in on a private conversation Jesus had with his disciples and see if we can find the answer.

His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12)

Who is Jesus referring to when he says, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”? In this context, voluntarily becoming a eunuch did not refer to self-mutilation. Jesus is referring to young Hebrew males who chose to abandon the patriarchal expectations of their society — taking a wife, having children, and propagating the nation of Israel through male offspring — to embrace a life of celibacy instead. Who had done this? Who is Jesus referring to? He was standing right in front of them! Jesus is referring to HIMSELF! He included himself in the eunuchs’ “tribe,” saying, in effect, “I’m choosing to stand in solidarity with you, voluntarily becoming one of you!” The eunuchs would now have an everlasting name, a name that would never be cut off. Moses had excluded them, but now they were being made holy by Jesus’ solidarity with them.

Celibacy is still considered “non-normative” in many of today’s hetero-normative cultures. The cultural pressure for a single person to marry and have children is often immense. But according to Jesus, whether a person is a eunuch by birth, is made so by others, or has simply chosen to live a life of celibacy for the Kingdom’s sake, they have been made not merely acceptable, but holy, special, unique. They have been given a place at Jesus’ table alongside everyone else by virtue of Jesus’ embrace of them…by Jesus’ becoming one of them.

As a side note for those who are non-celibate, you’re included, too. No one is left out.  Jesus is quick to say that choosing a life of celibacy, while still non-normative, no longer holds negative connotations; after all, Jesus was celibate, too. Celibacy is to be strictly voluntary, according to Jesus. Further, only those who have been given the spiritual gift of celibacy are called to be celibate. For those who have not been given this gift, Paul would say, “if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9)

But let’s get back to this non-normative eunuch, Jesus, who, standing in the prophetic lineage of Isaiah, calls for the radical inclusion of those once excluded under Moses.

Radical inclusion is a trend in Jesus’ ministry. Speaking to Israel, Jesus announces that the favor of God is now available for the Greeks as well. (Luke 4:25-29) Addressing the Jews, Jesus calls for the inclusion of the Romans. (Matthew 5:43-48) With the Pharisees, Jesus calls for the inclusion of Jews not living according to the Torah (i.e., “sinners,” Luke 19:7-9). Addressing the rich and healthy (wealth and health being socially constructed indications of “God’s favor” in Jesus’ day), Jesus calls for the inclusion of the poor, the blind, and the lame. (Luke 14:13-14; cf. Luke 6:20, 24) Addressing men within a patriarchal society (and women with a Stockholm-syndrome like support of partriarchy), Jesus calls for the inclusion of women. (Luke 10:39-41) Jesus calls to all who are benefiting from society’s arrangements to make room for those who are being oppressed. It was this radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom that led his early followers who were circumcised to begin including the uncircumcised among them as well. (Acts 10:47)

What I want you to ponder this week is what it must have meant for those non-normative eunuchs of Jesus’ day to be embraced by Jesus, to be called His new “tribe.” Just imagine it:  after years of being excluded from the “assembly of God,” they were not merely accepted by their long-awaited Messiah; he had actually chosen to live as one of them. This is the non-normative Jesus, choosing the life of a eunuch as a Hebrew male and Rabbi who refused to marry and have children. This non-normative Jesus chose to stand in solidarity with a group considered non-normative in his day. What did it mean to them that Jesus, through his identification with them, could give them a name that would now last forever?

It is no accident that the first individual conversion story Luke records in the Book of Acts is that of an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke purposely chooses to tell the conversion story of a person who, under Mosaic law, would have been excluded from the Hebrews’ religious assemblies. Luke knows exactly what he is communicating when he begins the many individual conversion narratives of Jesus’ Kingdom with Philip’s baptism of a eunuch.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:38)

Societies today, ours included, can still be divided into the normative/majoritive and the non-normative/non-majoritive. There will always be a majority and a minority. (Again, think of my left-handed daughter.) But when those considered “normative” fail to recognize those considered “non-normative” as their brothers and sisters in Christ, every bit as deserving of a place at Jesus’ table, something monstrously un-Jesus-like is being perpetuated — something that looks very different from the example we are given in the non-normative Jesus. When normativity is wedded to exclusivity it produces hierarchical privilege for the normative and, by definition, an oppressed minority composed of anyone non-normative. When the preservation of normativity is the Moral concern, rather than the deeper non-objectification, non-dehumanization, and anti-degradation of those who are considered non-normative as the Ethical concern, in the name of “standing up for what is right,” the non-normative minority will always be objectified, dehumanized and degraded, becoming themselves the recipients of attempts at being purged from society by the normative majority. This is exactly the opposite of what we see the non-normative Jesus doing with the eunuchs of his day.

HeartGroup Application

1. The early followers of Jesus embraced the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ kingdom.  I’d like you to spend time this week with Jesus, contemplating Paul’s words in Acts 17:24-31.

“The God who made the world and everything in it, this God who is sovereign of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is this God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since this God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for this God and perhaps grope for this God and find this God—though indeed this God is not far from every one of us. For ‘In God we [all] live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we [all] are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to [rethink everything we have assumed about God, ourselves and the world around us], because this God has fixed a day on which [the injustice, oppression and violence of this world will be put to right] in justice by a man whom this God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

2. As you contemplate this passage, journal what Jesus reveals to you through these words.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’ love reigns. Keep loving like the sun shines and the rain falls, restoring one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, whether in today’s world you are considered normative or considered non-normative, God loves you, too.

I’ll see you next week.

The Demoniac, the Crowd and the way of Mercy rather than Sacrifice.

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Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” (Mark 5:9)

I must confess that this is one of the most bizarre and difficult sections of the four Jesus narratives. In our naturalistic worldview, most of us struggle to entertain this story long enough to perceive and understand its point. The demonology framework prompts kneejerk reactions in those whose outlook is more scientific. But don’t chuck the story yet. Demonology certainly is present in this story. It points to this story having a very early origin in the Jesus revolution of the first century. When we understand the point of the story and its early dating, we gain a window into what the early Jesus community was really about. It calls us to rediscover this point again for ourselves today. Let’s jump in. This story is found in both Mark 5:1–20 and Luke 8:26–29. We’ll look at Mark’s version.

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills, he would cry out and cut himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of Him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”

We cannot miss three details if we are to understand what has taken hold of this man.

1. No one was strong enough to subdue him.
2. He cut himself with stones.
3. Its name was Legion.

Let’s start by putting the puzzle pieces on the table and turn to point number 2 first. This man cut himself with stones. Scholars have seen this as what they call auto-lapidation. Lapidating is the act of pelting or killing someone with stones. What cannot be missed is that the gospels always attribute this activity to a crowd stoning a victim (Matthew 21:35, 23:37; Luke 20:6; John 8:7, 59, 10:31–33, 1:8) What this man does to himself is auto-lapidation or self-lapidation. Self-stoning. Why would this man do this to himself? The answer is found in point number three. Whatever has taken over this man, its name is “Legion, for we are many.” This story fits perfectly with the pattern running through the gospels that it is always the many—always the majority, always the crowd—that engages in this form of capital punishment, in which a group throws stones at a person until the victim dies. This man embodies the crowd’s collective violence. The crowd, the many, is embodied in one person. And this story in front of us is how Jesus delivered this man from legion.

Before we can move on, we must understand point number 1, too. Legion, the crowd, the many within this man, cannot be subdued. It might help to realize that what is true of the crowd many times in the gospels is also true of this man right now. This man embodies the crowd or legion, so in order to understand what’s going on inside him, we have to pause and ask how crowds or the many actually work.

The Mechanics of the Crowd/Many/Legion 

Throughout history, societies have faced moments that threaten their coherence and unity. Scholars have observed that, to keep society from coming apart at the seams in the times of conflict, a strange phenomenon often takes place. A society will regain its unity and solidarity by finding a common enemy around which to unite in blaming for its struggles. The many historically have managed their societal rivalries, competition, and disunity, not by turning their violent tendencies on one another, but by coming together and transforming what would be their violence toward one another into collective violence against an Other. In short, a society finds unity in finding a common enemy.

Collective Violence

Violence in a society becomes collective when it chooses someone all its members can come together against. They find unity in agreeing on who they are against. If violence is not channeled together and directed toward a common enemy (which is the way of sacrifice), the violence will turn on the society itself and will destroy it. More on this in a moment.

The Demoniac 

This man is the embodiment of the crowd (i.e., legion/we are many). And whatever it is inside of this man cannot be subdued. It cannot be bound or chained. Yet again, this man simply contains “the crowd” within one individual. The violence of the crowd cannot be overcome. A crowd can never collectively free itself from its own violence. It can manage, or direct that violence, but it needs someone outside of that community to set it free.  A society, in all actuality, only has three options: a) The society can allow the violence to escalate until it tears apart the society; b) The society can unconsciously but collectively direct its violence against a minority whose absence would least diminish the overall whole, thus restoring unity in action against this minority; or c) Someone from the outside the society (in this story, Jesus) can intervene and remove the violence from the society one person at a time.  This makes perfect sense when laid along side of what we just said about number 2. While the crowd can collectively redirect its violence against an Other,this man is alone, there is no Other, so the crowd inside of him turns the violence on itself. (This is why we see this man cutting himself in auto-lapidation. We’ll see this more clearly in a moment when we get to the pigs.)

To illustrate how we, in following Jesus, become free of this mechanism within our society is exactly why we have this story. What many miss is that what is going on inside this man happens on a larger scale between this man and the society in this region. (Think of the medieval icons of angry mobs carrying pitch forks and flaming torches against a monster.) This region manages its societal rivalries, competition, and disunity (a) not by turning its violence on one another but by coming together and transforming its violence into collective violence against this man (b). Jesus came to create a new humanity (a new crowd, so to speak) that united around mercy (c) instead of sacrifice, mercy and love toward enemies (or Others) instead of common hatred. Jesus came to end humanity’s paradigm of us vs. them. And He began His work of saving this society, turning this region away from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy, by first rehumanizing (I know that’s not a word; I just made it up) the one the crowd had sacrificed or purged. In this case, the demoniac. Jesus’s actions cause them to fundamentally reassess their entire way of life.

Let’s proceed through the rest of the story and see if we are on the right track.

And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

In this mostly Greek region (Gentile with very few Jews), pigs were a farming commodity. But why do we have this bizarre detail about the pigs running off a cliff? The pigs (animals) become infected with the legion/crowd and the violence that had just been in this man, and with no one against whom to turn that violence (they are just pigs), the herd runs and hurls itself off a cliff. It is self-destruction. It is the crowd/legion that comes out of this man, and goes into these pigs, and throws itself off the cliff. The point? If people are not freed from that which lies at the heart of this demon, the crowd which temporarily finds peace and unity by purging a victim from its homogenous society eventually runs itself off a cliff, just like these pigs. The same demon that causes the crowd to throw stones at others stones/destroys itself if it does not find a victim for the crowd to come together against instead. If not remedied, that which drives the crowd to collective violence against a minority destroys that society in the long run.

Now let’s finish the story.

How did Jesus begin to turn things around in this story?  Jesus began with restoring the one within this narrative the crowd had been collectively against. When Jesus restores this man they had been sacrificing and reintegrates him into society, He threatens the unity and peace the society had found by coming together against this man. He, in effect, turns their way of life, their stability, their worldview, their “sacrifice” on its head. They are forced to see the one they had collectively been sacrificing as a fellow human being, like themselves. Jesus un-objectifies the man. Jesus de-dehumanizes him. Jesus de-degrades him. Jesus lifts this man up and returns him to a place of belonging within the very society that had found unity and coherence by purging him. Jesus challenges the entire arrangement of this society, calling its members to no longer find unity in the practice of societal sacrifice but in coming together in the way of mercy (cf. Matthew 9:13, 12:7; Hosea 6:6).

Do they follow this Jesus? Do they follow this radical social revolutionary?

Sadly, no. Now, they simply find a new sacrifice. They need a new person to purge. They need a new victim through which to find unity by being against. Whom do they choose? You guessed it. Jesus Himself. The way of sacrifice is so ingrained in them that they unconsciously, without missing a beat, simply switch victims, putting Jesus in the place of the man, and go on as if nothing ever changed. They purge Jesus now, instead.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy [as opposed to sacrifice] on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.

The man is sent back to teach this society about the way of mercy, rather than sacrifice. Set free from legion himself, perhaps he can help his society get free of the same demon.  It could be said that the only thing that was wrong with this man was that he had become infected with the crowd.  He had allowed how the crowd defined him to become the way he defined himself as well.  And when he, inside of himself, got free from what was also inside the crowd, he could now go back, “rehumanized,” to lead the community in a better way, the way of mercy.

When people get free of collective violence toward a non-normative minority, (whether in themselves toward others, or within themselves toward themselves) they are not becoming possessed by demons but, in a very real sense, they are being freed from them. THIS is the point of the story.  Embracing someone (or a group) that is accused by the crowd of being demon possessed isn’t to become possessed oneself. It’s called “following Jesus.”  And it is becoming free from the demon (the demon of scapegoating) that is actually possessing the crowd (legion) which was seeking to purge or sacrifice the minority to begin with.

This is my story. I am both the demoniac and the crowd, all in one. As the crowd, I have seen the humanity of the ones I once sacrificed, and it has turned my world upside down. As the demoniac, I have been set free from the legion, or rather, the crowd—the collective violence at the heart of the crowd’s unity—in order to follow the way of mercy instead. I wish I could claim some credit for this transformation, but I did not go looking for it. It was done to me, and for me, by others. Now, I, humbly and repentantly, simply want to bring others with me. The way of mercy truly is the better way. In fact, it’s the way of God.

What would happen if we saw the ones placed on society’s altars as our brothers and sisters? Maybe this is where Jesus starts with all societies that find unity in collective violence against minorities. If this is true, then Jesus’ work today is no different than it was in the gospels. Jesus today calls us to once again see those whom we have labeled indecent, different, other, non-normative, deserving of being purged from within our circles as . . . human. He calls us to embrace the reality that they are our brothers and sisters and have a place beside us at the table, too (cf. Luke 19:9).

“[In the story of the demoniac,] we’re witnessing the birth of an individual capable of escaping the fatal destiny of collective violence.” — Rene Girard, When These Things Begin, Conversations with Michel Treguer

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” — Jesus, Matthew 12:7

HeartGroup Application 

1. Where are you still participating with the crowd in sacrificing others? Spend some time this week with Jesus in contemplation of this question, and ask Him to show you if you are sacrificing or scapegoating someone. My 11 yr old daughter recently confessed to my wife Crystal, that she caught herself speaking poorly of a third person to become friends with another. “I think I might have been ‘scapegoating’ mom, and I don’t want to do that.”

Who might it be for us? Maybe it’s another family member we must join in and be against in order to fit in with the rest of the family. Maybe it’s someone at the office whom everyone hates, and we feel we must join in the collective disdain and ridicule. Maybe it’s at church where, in order to fit in, we feel pressured to label someone as less than a child of God, less than our fellow brother or sister. Or maybe it’s someone within society who we feel deserves retribution, not redemption. People we feel deserve punitive justice instead of justice that restores to them a humanity of which, in our hearts, they have been deprived. Whoever it is, ask Jesus to show you, and He will.

2. Ask Jesus to show you how He thinks and feels toward those being sacrificed. Invite Him to help you see them the same way He does, and then ask Him to give you the courage to follow the way of mercy, rather than sacrifice.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what you experience this week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns, where love is shed as indiscriminately as the sunshine and the rainfall. The new creation has come. Let us enlarge its radically inclusive and restorative perimeter one human heart at a time.

I love each and every one of you, and God does, too.

See you next week.

Part 3 of 3 – Jesus and the Living Water

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Jesus and the Living Water

Part 3 of 3

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” (John 4:16)

Stop, and consider.

A woman comes for water every day in the middle of the day, instead of the early morning when she would be with the rest of the women in her town.

Why?

In a society where women found their place beneath men, some women found themselves lower still. This woman was held in lower esteem than even her female peers. Why? This woman had a story.

She had been married five times. Try to consider this not from the perspective our gender-egalitarian culture today but from the patriarchal social constructs of her time. Remember that marriage then was in some regards similar to marriage today, but within first-century Judaism, the social construction of marriage was significantly different. Women belonged to their husbands as little more than property. This was most apparent in divorce. Women could not divorce a man, but men, in this male-dominated hierarchical construction of marriage, could divorce a woman, under the Torah for any reason they so choose. Granted, a woman could not be passed back and forth between husbands, but her present husband could pass her to another if for any reason he deemed her no longer desirable (for faults as simple as burning the food or being less desirable than younger options).

This woman whom we find this day at the well had been sent away by five men. She had been told five times, “You are not desirable. You are not wanted.” We are not told what her present arrangement was, but suffice it to say, she was with a man now simply so that she could have some type of existence in that culture that required her to be connected to a man.

Jesus does not hold her responsible for any of this. There is no “go and sin no more” talk between then. There is no “love the sinner hate the sin” mantra that Christians today are so famous for touting. There is simply the understanding that this woman has been the victim of a marriage institution gone completely wrong. Yes, it was monogamous, but it was no more than serial monogamy. The kind of marriage this woman had experienced only served to objectify, dehumanized, and degrade women to a status lower than men.

Next, we encounter Jesus’ offer to her of “living water.”

What Jesus offers this woman would answer her heart’s desperate cry to love and be loved: a water that would so satisfy her basic, inmost needs that it would not only fill the deep void insider her but overflow into a beautiful force toward others, flowing from her as a source of healing for others.

However, there was a catch. When she responds favorably and asks Jesus for this water, He cannot simply give it to her. No, the water Jesus offers this woman can be only experienced within the context of complete honesty and authenticity. She must come to a place where she is herself, regardless of what the other Torah–observing women might say. If she is going to truly experience what Jesus extends to her, she must be given a safe space with Him to be who and what she is, no longer hiding, even if that means facing her past of begin repeatedly told, time after time, there was something wrong with her.

Jesus draws her into this safe space.

“Go get your husband.”

The woman scrambles. ‘My husband?’ she thinks. ‘There’s something different about this man in front of me, yes, but the last thing I want this strange Jewish man to know is how many times I have been rejected, labeled as unwanted, sent away by one man after another. I know what I’ll say.’

“I have no husband,” she says.

Jesus, with a look that subtly tells her that she can trust Him, says, “I know. I know you’ve been married five times, and the man you’re with now is just keeping you around.”

There is something different that she sees in this man’s eyes.

She changes the subject, though. Jesus will bring it back around.

What is Jesus saying to this woman?

The same thing He is saying right now to you, too.

“My love is not blind. I know everything about you there is to know. My love is not diminished by this knowledge. I love you AND I already know everything there is to know about you. Honestly, I knew you before you even did—even the things you are still in denial about. I know everything there is to know about you, and My offer to you is still on the table.”

We do not need water that will leave us thirsty (conditional love). We need the living water for which we were made. We must not settle for less. We must have the water that satisfies the deepest human thirst. We need Jesus’ living water of unconditional love, a love in which we are simultaneously fully known and fully embraced, loved and accepted. A love that knows all there is to know about us and loves us all the more still.

Who are you reading this right now? What are you hiding? What are you not being honest about, not with others but with yourself and possibly with God? Would you like this living water, too? Then it is time to enter the dangerous honesty of this radically inclusive Kingdom Jesus came to bring. Whatever you are hiding, He won’t turn away from it, and He won’t turn you away, either. You might feel like you have to come to the well at midday to protect yourself from others’ opinions, but you don’t have to with Jesus. As a matter of fact, He is already at the well right now, waiting for you to arrive.

In the past two decades, I have met many people who have come to a place where they can be honest with God about who they are. Some I find to be still hiding. Others are very much on this journey of deep introspection. All these stages are okay. What Jesus would have us all know, first and foremost is that, regardless of who we are, we don’t have to hide from Him. His love is unconditional. He already knows, even before you do, and His offer is still on the table. His hand still extends to you a cup. Are you thirsty for this water? Come. Drink. You will never be the same again.

The lady at the well did not fit in well with the religiously valued, normative social constructs of her day, either. Look at how Jesus relates to her. If you hear nothing else, hear Jesus’ words to you right now:

“My dear daughter, my dear son, I already know everything about you there is to know. And I’m still here. I won’t abandon you. I love you. I’ve come to extend to you, too, the invitation to a world where worship on ‘this mountain’ or ‘that mountain’ is irrelevant. I’m offering you a way into a radically different world, with a river of living, wet, soul-thirst-satisfying, radically inclusive love, not just for you but also, through you, to all those around you who were made for this kind of water, too.”

Do you have the courage to be honest with Jesus?

The first step is to believe that Jesus really does give us space to be honest without the fear of losing Him. The next step is to believe what Jesus said to Philip: “If you have seen Me, you’ve also seen God” (cf. John 14:7–10).

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want you to spend some time in contemplation with Jesus. What might you be hiding? Consider if there remains in you a door to that most private room of your heart that you have kept locked.

2. Invite Jesus into this, whatever it is. Watch what He does next. Journal what He shows you.

3. In the context of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well, share what Jesus shows you with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Keep living in this love. Allow it to also flow out to others around you until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys.

See you next week.