More than a Prophet

(And the Inability of Those in “Fine Clothing”)

by Herb Montgomery

Man in Tux, adjusting cufflinks.“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you. I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 11:7-11: “As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’”

Luke 7:24-28: “After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’”

Gospel of Thomas 78: “Jesus says, ‘Why did you go out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind, and to see a person dressed in soft clothing [like your] kings and your great/powerful persons? They are dressed in soft clothing and will not be able to recognize the truth.’”

In the Jewish tradition, the role of a prophet was to be a gadfly to those at the top of the Jewish domination system, both priests and kings. The common thread in their work was a call for justice for the oppressed, marginalized, vulnerable and exploited. The clearest example of this focus is Amos. Hebrew prophets were not prognosticators. Rather they were those who cast a imaginative vision of a future where all violence, injustice, and oppression were put right.

Yet John the Baptist was more than this. He emerged not by casting a vision for a distant hope, but by announcing that the vision long hoped for had arrived. It was here, now, today!

Last week we discussed the differences between the proclamations of John and the actual ministry of Jesus. In our saying this week, however, Jesus reveals deep respect for John and those who followed him. John was the “real deal” calling for social change now! And, he practiced what he preached. He did not come in “fine clothes” and “luxury” bringing good news to the exploited and subjugated. He had abandoned the luxury of the priestly aristocracy (in Luke John’s father was a priest). He was a voice, in solidarity with the exploited, crying out in the wilderness, to prepare the way for the coming that Isaiah had announced.

This connection to Isaiah’s (and Malachi’s) liberation theme was central to the community that cherished Sayings Gospel Q.

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

Isaiah 57:14: “And it will be said: ‘Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.’”

Isaiah 62:10: “Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations.”

Malachi 3:1: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

 

Inability to Recognize The Truth

This saying appears in Gospel of Thomas as well as in the canonical texts. This gospel captures the inability of those benefited or “privileged” by the status quo to rightly characterize the movements of John and Jesus. Those who represent the institutional establishment, its apologists, and its complicit supporters do not internally resonate with a revolution: they aren’t in a position that enables them to recognize “good news” when it emerges.

In Mark, too, the Jesus movement isn’t perceived as good news by Herod, Caiaphas, or Pilate, but rather as a threat to each. The Gospel of Thomas expresses this universal truth explicitly when it states that these leaders “will not be able” to even “recognize the truth.” The truth could be all around them and they would either miss its significance or proclaim it as dangerous or even heretical. But the oppressed know good news when they hear it.

In matters of theology, and I would now also argue in economics and politics, it is important to listen to the perspectives and interpretations of those who don’t benefit from the present system. In matters of theology, as we have discussed in previous weeks, it is White, colonial, European, and patriarchal theologians that struggle to “recognize” liberating truth, and the Church desparately needs the voices of our liberation, Black liberation, feminist, womanist, and queer theologians. As a result of their places in the present society, they are best positioned to recognize what is genuine good news and what is the same old religious endorsement of exploitative systems that benefit some at the expense of the many or benefit the majority at exclusion and marginalization of a few.

 

Egalitarianism in the “Empire” of God

Also notice that even though John was “more than a prophet,” in Jesus’ subversive “empire,” those considered the most insignificant are esteemed even more than John. Why? This upends the customs of the empire of Rome, but it works because in Jesus’s new world people value and take care of people. Everyone is valued and that which dehumanizes or devalues is systematically dismantled. In Jesus’s new “kingdom,” every person is of equal worth and value. This value is based on their being not on their doing; their essence, not their performance. Their value is rooted in each person’s humanity.

Again, as we have said for the last three weeks, the Q community seemed to place special emphasis on rooting Jesus’s liberation in the “good news” of Isaiah and Malachi, a book written in the same era Isaiah was redacted.

 

What Does This Mean For Us Today?

We’ve discussed the egalitarian nature of Jesus’ social vision at length. What I’d like to focus on this week is the inability of those in “fine clothing” to “recognize the truth.” What does this mean?

This verse reminds me of comments I received the first time I wore blue jeans and a sports coat to a church service I was speaking at: people insisted that my clothes were not quite “fine” enough. It made me wonder whether there was a link between a congregation’s fine clothes and their complicity with a status quo that leaves many impoverished for elite benefits.

The “fine clothing” in this week’s saying represents an economic privilege: it is a symbol. That economic privilege is our spring board to other areas of social, political and religious privilege, too. Today, we can simultaneously exist in positions of privilege and disadvantage in multiple areas of our lives because of the social oppressions that influence our society. A white collar woman has a different set of privileges and disadvantages than a blue collar male. A man of color has a different social position than either White men and women or women of color. A White gay male will experience society differently than a straight man of color and a gay or bisexual man of color.

My most recent encounter with this dynamic was a discussion I had with two LGBT friends. One is a white collar professional while the other is an Appalachian blue collar laborer. Both have the same concerns right now about the protection of their rights in the U.S. Both favor individuals running for office that will stand up for their rights. Yet what surprised me was my professional friend’s inability to see the economic perspective of my blue collar friend. My white collar friend preferred candidates that are pro-LGBT and support corporatism. My blue collar friend supports candidates that are pro-LGBT and have more interventionist, pro-labor policies. I expected that much.

What surprised me was my white collar friend’s inability to understand my other friend’s priorities, even to the point of near insult and derision. Their final parting statement was, “Your candidate would have no significant effect on my life so why should I care about a candidate that won’t affect me at all.”

Politics can get ugly, and this is the season of ugliness here in the States. The intersections of our own privilege and our disadvantage is complex. Our privilege and disadvantage overlap and “intersect” on multiple levels in society and at some point we must ask “What is best for us all?” not just “What is best for me?”

How does this relate to our saying this week? In every area of our lives where we are in a position of privilege, or “wearing fine clothes,” our saying this week states that we are unable to see things as they are for those who are not like ourselves. Someone else’s truth is unrecognizable to us. In that very place, a humble posture of listening becomes important as we labor to transform our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all. We saw this vision last week in the words of Micah, “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). As we each listen to the stories of those whose experience differs from our own, we can learn to build communities where each person receives what is necessary for them to thrive and develop into the best version of themselves that they can be.

But it’s not easy. Our defenses are easily triggered. Listening takes practice.

We typically want to protect and preserve the “fine clothes” areas of our lives, and so listening to the experiences of others can be threatening. In these moments we must make the choice to lean into our discomfort rather than away from it. For it’s in these moments of discomfort that we discover oppressive paradigms and gain an opportunity to reject them.

To each of you who are taking stands and feeling the pressure of being “shaken in the wind,” may this week’s saying be an encouragement to you. Those in “fine clothing” may not recognize the value of what you are doing. But those whom you’re working alongside often will. Together, we can create a world where each of us are equally heard, listened to, valued, and understood.

“And when they had left, he began to talk to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A person arrayed in finery? Look, those wearing finery are in kings’ houses. But then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, even more than a prophet! This is the one about whom it has been written: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your path in front of you.” I tell you: There has not arisen among women’s offspring anyone who surpasses John. Yet the least significant in God’s kingdom is more than he.’” (Q 7:24-28)

HeartGroup Application 

This week, do two things with your group.

  1. First, list all the ways you are different from one another. This list will be rather long!
  2. Second, list all the ways in which you are the same or similar to each other. Then prioritize this list. Which areas of sameness are most important to each of you?
  3. Now, focus on that second list. In the light of the ways in which you’re the same, return to your first list and see if you have more respect for the areas that make your group different as well. Where our differences cause our experiences in society to also differ, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to reach out from our private experiences and stand in solidarity with others.

 

Thank you for joining us this week.

Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 7 of 9

 Part 7 of 9

by Herb Montgomery

I Am Thirsty

Wooden Rosary

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (John 19.28)

As we continue in John’s telling of the Jesus story, I want to remind you that what makes his telling unique is that he is writing in conversation with early Gnostics.  A dialectic relationship exists between John’s gospel and the dualism of Gnosticism.  An oversimplified explanation of the Gnostics’ dualism is that they first believed that all matter was evil.  Secondly, they believed that humans possessed an immortal soul which was good.  Thus humanity had a dualistic nature of being simultaneously good and evil.  It is this element of “matter being evil” that John is meeting head on.

Because the Gnostics believed all matter was evil, they taught that the Divine could never become entangled with embodiment (having a body, i.e. “matter”).  Divinity was not dualistic in the fashion that humanity is.  (Their dualism ran deep, dividing humanity and Divinity as well, as contrasted with humanity being fashioned in the image of Divinity and being the very offspring of Divinity.  But we’ll have to save that conversation for later.)  The Gnostics would have taken issue with John’s “incarnation” that the Logos (the Divine) was “made flesh” (matter).  The Divine could not be identified with the flesh. [1]  Gnosticism, as some scholars have pointed out, would have taught that “Jesus walked on the beach but left no footprints.”  The Gnostics’ version of the Jesus story taught that Jesus’ Spirit (the holy part) departed from him prior to him being crucified, because the Divine could not participate with the material human flesh on that level of physical suffering.  This is why John’s Jesus, on the Cross, is not a human victim, but Divinity embodied, as the revelation of the Divine suffering in solidarity with all who have ever been oppressed, or who have suffered injustice at the hands of dominant systems in every age.  John’s telling of the crucifixion is his way of saying “no” to early Gnosticism.  Jesus in John’s Gospel is fully Divine while fully embodied; he is fully human and his physical suffering at the hands of the injustice of his day is not to be dismissed or devalued.

Yet the question that we must ask is why is John pushing back so hard against Gnosticism?

Simply put, because the belief in the dualistic nature of humanity, specifically that all matter was evil, was causing a shift among the early Christians.  Toward the close of the first century, they were focusing more on liberating their souls from their physical bodies in some far distant “heaven.”  They were abandoning the core principle of what John felt it meant to follow Jesus—which was the “healing of the world” here and now.  John’s Jesus states unequivocally that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world [matter is evil] but that the world through Him might be healed*.” (John 3.17, emphasis added.  *Sozo can be translated as heal as well as save.  Jesus was the great healer.)  The goal of the ancient Hebrews was not to one day become some disembodied soul on some far distant cloud, but to see a time when the Messiah would come and end all the injustice, oppression, and violence here on earth.  A Hebrew telling of the Jesus story did not have at the end, as its goal, “getting to heaven”; on the contrary, the goal of Jesus’ coming would have been “the healing of the world” (“tikkun olam”).

I cannot pass up this opportunity to point out that most Christians today (although certainly not all) are more concerned with escaping this world, for which they believe there is no hope, and making it to heaven, than in healing this world and bringing an end to the present order of domination, oppression, injustice, and violence.  Jesus’ “Kingdom” was a new social order here and now!  It was the subversive “mustard seed” planted in the “soil” of this world that was to grow (like leaven in dough) until the old order was choked out and Jesus’ new social order of restorative justice, transformative mercy, and redeeming LOVE was all that remained.

Gnosticism, at the turn of the first century, was transforming Jesus’ followers into “escapists” rather than the subversive force for dismantling privileged pyramids and exclusive circles in the here and now.  Today it matters not whether those pyramids and circles are economic, religious, political, or social.  Wherever we find domination (pyramids) and exclusion (circles), whether in matters of race, gender, wealth or orientation, as a Jesus follower, we are to be more concerned with bringing a healing revolution than reaching some far distant “heaven.”

This may come as a shock to some, but Christianity today is more Gnostic than Christian, if we allow the historical Jesus to be that which defines Christianity.

John foresaw this result in the beginning of what he was witnessing around him in his day.  John’s entire telling of the Jesus story is a retelling of Genesis chapter 1, which was the Hebrews’ origin story.  Genesis chapter one (as contrasted with Genesis 2 [2]) reminded the Hebrews that this earth is good, very good.  That we are all (male, female and any combination of those two book ends that nature may produce) made in the image of God and that none are to be the subject of domination or exclusion by another.  We are all children of the same Divine Parents.  And we are all going to have to learn to sit around the same family table once again.  I’m not saying that the Hebrew people always rightly perceived these insights within the narrative of their origin story in Genesis 1.  What I’m putting forth is that this was Jesus’ subversive interpretation and application of the Hebrew origin story of Genesis 1.  I hope to write on this more at length in a future eSight.

John takes Genesis chapter 1 and frames the entire Jesus story, using Jesus as the Christian origin story.  Genesis 1 begins with the phrase, “in the beginning . . .”  So does John: “In the beginning . . .” (John 1.1)  In Genesis 1 there are seven days of creation.  In John’s version Jesus’ life is divided up and told with seven “signs.”  Genesis 1’s narrative of the physical creation of the world climaxes with Elohim saying, “It is Finished.”  So John’s telling of the Jesus story climaxes as Jesus cries out over his restored (new) creation with the words, “It is Finished.” (We’ll cover this at more depth next week.)  As Genesis 1 has Elohim resting on the Sabbath day, so Jesus rests from his work of restoration in the tomb on the seventh day.[3]  As the narrative of Genesis then moves quickly into a garden with a woman being the first to be deceived, John’s gospel moves quickly into another garden [4] with a woman being the first to be enlightened, becoming an apostle to the apostles.  (I’ll say more about this next week as well.)

In John’s telling of the Jesus story, it is no accident that John focuses our attention on three things:

1.  The very human, physical relationship between Jesus and his mother. (Last week’s eSight.)

2.  The very human, physical sensation of having “thirst.” (This week’s eSight.)

3.  The deep connection between the Hebrews’ human origin story and Elohim’s creation of the physical world by Jesus’ dying cry of restoration, “It is Finished!” (Next week’s eSight.)

What is John saying by all of this focus on the humanity and physicality of Jesus?

John is saying to Jesus’ followers of his day (as well as Jesus’ followers today), “STOP FOCUSSING ON ESCAPING THIS WORLD AND GETTING TO HEAVEN!  GET BACK TO WORK RESTORING, HEALING, TRANSFORMING, AND REDEEMING THE WORLD AROUND YOU!”

The Jesus of John is not an itinerant teacher traveling the countryside offering people an easy way to get to heaven!  John’s Jesus is proclaiming a frequently dangerous, and difficult at times, of healing the world!

The Jesus in John’s gospel isn’t trying to get people to heaven.  He is bringing heaven to the people who live here today!

Current statistics show that 70% of all theists (including Christians), when confronted with injustice, will do nothing.  If this offends you, then this merely shows that you happen to belong to the 30% who actually do something about it.  But that is still a horrible percentage.  Don’t you agree?

As a Jesus follower, I must confess that I have wasted too many years trying to sell a post-mortem insurance policy and arguing with other Christians over what the premium should be.

I’m done.  If John were alive today, I’d tell him, “I hear you!”  I want to follow Jesus.  I, too, want to be a conduit for dismantling systems of dominance and exclusivity.  I, too, want to turn pyramids of privilege upside down. [5]  I, too, want to be an agent of healing change, tearing down walls of marginalization that confine fellow humans to being “others” or “outsiders.”

I know I will do poorly.  I’m not claiming that I ever have, or ever will follow Jesus well.  Yet my heart is captivated by the values of the Jesus story, the ethics of that itinerant Rabbi, the non-homogenous, shared table where all (regardless of race, gender, wealth, or orientation) are invited to take a seat, alongside each other, and share their stories.  This is a table where we are all welcome, and where we, by virtue of valuing each other as fellow Divine image bearers, learn to integrate the many and diverse experiences of life into a meaningful and coherent whole.

I’m done being a Christian Houdini.  I’m done being a feel-good escape artist.  I’m choosing to be a mustard seed, a WEED, nurtured in the soil of this good earth, subversively growing, little by little, toward a safe and compassionate world for all.  I’m choosing a life of restorative justice, transformative mercy, here and now, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

And I’d absolutely love it if you will go on this journey with me.

HeartGroup Application

The time is fast approaching when many in Western Christianity will celebrate the resurrection.  Next week we will be addressing the seventh of the last sayings of Jesus in the gospels.  After that we will look at the vindication of Jesus and his teachings through the resurrection.

But before we get into all of that, this week I’m asking you to do the following three things in preparation for this series end.

 

1.  Spend some time in contemplation (“sitting with Jesus” is what I call it), reading through John’s gospel with the goal of noticing where John is focusing on Jesus’ body, Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ physicality, and Jesus’ message of healing this world rather than abandoning it.  Start in John 1 and just read.  I’ll give a few examples to start with.  The first example you’ll encounter is where logos (a gnostic term) becomes “flesh.”  In John 2 you’ll find Jesus making water into wine!  A scandal for those who believed we should deny any pleasure to our physical bodies as a means of liberating our sacred, immortal souls.  And then you’ll encounter Jesus speaking of the temple, the dwelling place of the Divine Presence, but referring specifically to his body.  In John 3, you’ll read of how Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son’s purpose is not to condemn this world but rather to save or heal it.

That should get you started.

2.  Journal what you discover.  Don’t get distracted.  There are many rabbit holes in John you could go down.  Step back and keep your focus on the forest, not the individual trees.  Remember, you are looking for where John gave us subtle hints that matter is not evil, but the good creation of the Divine, worthy of our efforts in shaping it to be a safer, more compassionate home. [6]

3.  Share with your upcoming HeartGroup what you discover.

As I shared last week, our narrative is one of hope.  A new day has dawned.  A light is shining from an “empty tomb.”  If any are in Christ, “New Creation has come!” [7]

Remember, this week you’re a mustard seed!

Therefore, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns.

One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I’m still praying for your heart.  I’m praying for it to be enlarged and liberated as you move more deeply into the contemplation of the great healer and liberator, Jesus of Nazareth.

I love each of you deeply.

I’ll see you next week.


 

1. 1 John 4.2—This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.
2 John 7—Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

2. Jesus contrasts the ethics of Genesis 1 with the ethics of Genesis 2 in Matthew 19.4 and Mark 10.6. I plan to say more on this in an upcoming eSight.

3. This is actually in Genesis 2 but the chapter division is misplaced. The first three verses of Genesis 2 actually belong to the narrative of Genesis 1.

4. John 20.15—Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

5. See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.

6. Remember the form of the New Testament we have today ends with our home being here, a new heaven and new earth, reunited. The Greek word for new, used by the New Testament when referencing the New Earth, is not neos, meaning a second earth, but kainos, meaning a restored, healed, and redeemed first.

7. 2 Corinthians 5.17 (NIV)—Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!