When Equality Means Some Are Given More Than Others

Equality, Equity and Jesus’ Preferential Option for the Marginalized
by Herb Montgomery | January 17, 2020

hands together for equality


“Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this ‘more than’ is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.”


“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 6:22)

This passage in Luke’s gospel marks the beginning of what many refer to as Jesus’ sermon on the plain. When we compare Luke’s version of this sermon to Matthew’s sermon on the mount, what begins to take shape is that Jesus’ gospel was not good news for everyone. In Luke, Jesus uttered blessings on some and woes on others.

Those he spoke blessings to were the marginalized, exploited or oppressed of Jesus’ society. Those he spoke woes to were those in his society who were in positions of privilege and power.

The Poor,
The Hungry,
The Weepers,
The Hated, Excluded, and Insulted,

versus

The Rich,
The Well-Fed,
The Laughers,
The Spoken Well Of.

Some in Jesus’ own society believed that the rich, the well-fed, and those whose lives were filled with laughter had been blessed by God, while those who were poor, hungry, and mourning were being punished by God. In that worldview, they were sinners, not less fortunate and in need of compassion and justice, but rather as morally inferior.

Jesus turned that order of economics, politics, society and even religious exclusion on its head! He challenged people’s preconceived interpretations of God and what fidelity to God looked like. God was actually on the side of those whom society was pushing to the edges and undersides. God was with those who were poor, hungry, heartbroken, hated, excluded, and insulted, and the “kingdom” belonged to them.

But to those who were privileged in an unjust social and economic structure, Jesus spoke woes.

These woes pronounced future sorrow or distress. Jesus spoke to the people of loss, for equity and equality will always feel like threat, loss, or distress to those who have everything to lose within a more just society. They do not understand change as the good news of liberation but as something being taken away from them. Today, some have more than they could ever possibly need. For the wealthiest among us, being less wealthy won’t really affect their daily lives. But someone whose net worth is hundreds of millions of dollars may still feel losing a million of it so that others can eat is still a loss. Is supporting our interconnectedness worth more than our bottom line or net worth?

Jesus began standing in the shadow of the cross as soon as he began to teach this gospel of blessings and woes. Those he blessed were the opposite of those the elites blessed, and those he warned were the opposite of those the powerful thought deserved woes. Jesus called his listeners to look at their society and those within their society in the opposite way they had been taught to.

Nothing destroys one’s empathy for others more completely than seeing them as “less than.” Jesus challenged his listeners’ most cherished assumptions about others. This different lens would cause deep upheaval for people, economically, politically, socially, and even religiously. The vision for human society that Jesus was seeking to inspire would require a paradigm shift after paradigm shift. It would not be a time of blessing for some of them, and they would face deep questioning and change as things turned on their head.

I’m reminded of the words of the late Rev. Peter Gomes:

“It is interesting to note that those who most frequently call for fair play are those who are advantaged by the play as it currently is and that only when that position of privilege is endangered are they likely to benefit from the change required to “play by the rules.” What if the “rules” are inherently unfair or simply wrong, or a greater good is to be accomplished by changing them? 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.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 42)

Equity threatens those who spend their energy striving to have more than others. But it is good news to those who work for a just, compassionate, safe world for everyone. A world becoming more equitable will bless some and be felt as a woe by others.

I want to add a word of clarification:

In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus speaks these words:

“[God] causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

“[God] is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

In Jesus’ theology, God loves all equally and gives to all the things they need to thrive. We as humans have designed ways for more of these resources to get to some people to the detriment of others. So why in Jesus’ gospel are some blessed, while others receive woes? Why, unlike the rain and sunshine, is the blessing of kingdom pronounced upon certain ones while woes are the only thing promised to others?

A more current conversation of the differences between equity and equality can help us here. (Everyday Feminism had a good article on these differences back in 2014 at https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/equality-is-not-enough/)

picture of different people looking over a fenceEquality is often understood as everyone getting exactly the same. But because everyone has a different social, economic, or political starting point, simply giving everyone the same thing would not necessarily create the goal of everyone having enough to thrive. Some would still have more than they need, while others would not. When everyone is different, fairness and success also differ. The image to the right illustrates these points. Equity means making sure each person has enough to thrive, and that may look different for different people.

Some may cry unfair when others receive more, yet if this “more than” is based on what they need is more than what others may need to thrive, then fairness takes on a more wholistic, less shallow definition.

In liberation theology, scholars refer to the deference given to those on the margins as a “preferential option for the oppressed.” It is a choice to center those who are pushed to the edges and undersides of our society, and to place these people and their communities on equal ground with others. The preferential option is required to bring about equality.

In our small group discussions at Renewed Heart Ministries, we often say that whenever we speak of oppression or marginalization, those who are the most affected or most vulnerable are those who get to share their experiences. To the degree that others are less affected by such personal and systemic injustices, they can listen in solidarity. When it comes to discussions on gender inequity, for example, men, especially cisgender men, take a posture of listening. When it comes to racial inequity, those who are White listen to those who are not White. In discussions on immigration justice here in the U.S., those who are documented citizens listen. In discussions of Indigenous people’s lives and equitable treatment, non-Indigenous people listen; and when we speak of LGBTQ justice, those who identify as straight, cisgender, or gender normative listen.

Those most negatively impacted by societal injustice receive the “blessing,” while others in our present society, it could be said, “have already received” theirs (see Luke 6:24).

Go back now and reread the entirety of Luke’s sermon on the plain by Jesus and see if you don’t begin to get a feel for what Jesus in this story is doing:

“Looking at his disciples, he said:

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

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

Equity doesn’t have to feel like inequality if we choose to see our differences and how these differences are treated. Equality doesn’t have to feel like oppression even if you are used to privilege. We are all in this together. What lessens one, lessens us all. We are connected to one another. As the adage goes, equality doesn’t mean less for you: it’s not pie. Whether we choose to view it that way or not, is another discussion.

HeartGroup Application

1. Thoughtfully read through Matthew 5.1-11 and Luke 6.17-26. Share with your group anything the engages your attention.

2. Discuss whom these words would be directed toward in our social context today.

3. Share at least one community you would like your group to focus on working alongside with for greater system equity in our larger society.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Right where you are, choose love, compassion, take action.

Another world is possible if we choose it.

I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week.

Woes against the Exegetes of the Law

King monument in D.C.

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers.” (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Matthew 23:29-32: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”

Luke 11:46: “Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’”

Luke 11:52: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:47-48: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.”

Gospel of Thomas 39:1-2: “Jesus says: The Pharisees and the scribes have received the keys of knowledge, but they have hidden them. Neither have they entered, nor have they allowed to enter those who wish to.’”

A century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Hillel the Elder, a Pharisee, described the entire Torah in terms of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a). Hillel’s contemporary, Shammai, sought to protect Jewish identity through strict interpretations of the Torah and its purity codes that shored up divisions between Jews and Gentiles.

After Hillel’s death and during the days when Jesus taught, the school of Shammai had the upper hand among the working class’s religious teachers in Galilee and Judea. Jesus’ teachings have few parallels with Shammai and have much in common with Hillel, but some elements, in solidarity with the poorer sectors of Jewish society, are unique to Jesus himself. The Pharisees resonated deeply with the working class in Jesus’ day. And I believe that much of Jesus’ critique of the teachers and leaders was directed toward the school of Shammai, not the school of Hillel. Jesus’ critique of the Shammai Pharisees in the saying we’re considering this week could just as easily have been made by Hillel a generation before.

This week, also keep in mind Matthew’s use of phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Luke prefers the phrase “keys to knowledge.” Either way, what we have witnessed from the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q is a focus on the here and now, not the hereafter. Matthew’s gospel is a very Jewish, Galilean telling of the Jesus story, and many today have noticed that rather than using the phrase “Kingdom of God”, Matthew’s gospel replaces the word “God” with “Heaven.” Remember this: the Jesus of Q is concerned much less with people gaining access to a post mortem cosmic heavenly realm that keeps them passive in the face of injustice now, and much more passionate about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth today. This Jesus is less concerned with getting people to heaven at some point in the future and much more focused on bringing the liberation of heaven into people’s lives now.

We must critique versions of Christianity that are radically privatized and/or intentionally removed from all social politics, and we must also critique interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that are opiates for the oppressed and encourage them to be passive in the face of injustice.

The most striking potential connection between our sayings this week and the Pharisees’ view of the school of Shammai is the warning about “exegetes of the Law” who “bind burdens and load on the backs of people” and “do not want to lift your finger to move them.” The exegetes of the school of Shammai were meticulous in adhering to the purity codes (as we saw last week, cf. Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42), but not very concerned about the economic burdens facing the poor among their constituents. Actually, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They were very concerned about the poverty of the poor, but attached moral significance and value to it. If you were poor, you must have broken the purity codes somewhere and YHWH was punishing you. This was a way of interpreting Deuteronomy 28: if you were poor, you weren’t being exploited by the wealthy, you were morally inferior to those whom YHWH was blessing for adhering to the Torah.

This jumps out at me in three ways. First, it is blames people for their oppression. Second, as many today do in relation to America’s economic and military status on our globe, religious people often attribute wealth to being “blessed by God” rather than reaping the fruit of stolen or hoarded resources gained by exploiting others. Manifest destiny and the long continuing history of colonialism are examples. And third, Christianity has done both social good and social harm, like the school of Shammai. All religions can be a powerful force for good, survival, resistance, and liberation, or they can be used instead to oppress, marginalize, exclude, and extricate. The choice is ours.

I’m happy to be able to say that the Pharisees and rabbis later rejected the school of Shammai as harmful and chose Hillel’s golden-rule-based interpretation of the Torah instead. The internal struggle among the Pharisees that we glimpse in our saying this week was resolved on the side of compassion and love rather than sacrifice in the first century (cf. Hosea 6:6).

Jesus and the Pharisees of the school of Hillel had much in common. Consider the interaction between Jesus and a follower of Hillel in Mark’s gospel:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:32-34 cf. Hosea 6:6 & Matthew 9:13; 12:7)

Those who subscribed to the school of Shammai’s Torah interpretations would have been very put off, and perhaps even angered, by some of Jesus’ more inclusive choices (such as Luke 15). They were refusing to enter into what Jesus called the reign of God and they did their best to use their influence to obstruct the way for everyone around them and call that way dangerous as well.

Jesus’ last rebuke about being the children of those who killed the prophets calls to mind the work of Vincent Harding about the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reagan Administration co-opting his memory. In Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding uses Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem:

Now that he is safely dead

Let us praise him

build monuments to his glory

sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes: They

cannot rise

to challenge the images

we would fashion from their lives

And besides,

it is easier to build monuments

than to make a better world.

So, now that he is safely dead

we, with eased consciences

will teach our children

that he was a great man… knowing

that the cause for which he lived

is still a cause

and the dream for which he died

is still a dream,

a dead man’s dream.

These words, first written about Malcolm X, and then applied to King, could also be applied to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus as well.  And they offer much to consider in the context of Monday being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day.

This year, let’s not simply build monuments for those whom the system has silenced and we have silenced too. Let’s instead make the choice to engage in the hard work of making a better world.

And woe to you exegetes of the Law for you bind burdens and load on the backs of people, but you yourselves do not want to lift your finger to move them. Woe to you, exegetes of the Law, for you shut the kingdom of God from people; you did not go in, nor let in those trying to get in. Woe to you for you built the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of your forefathers. (Q 11:46b, 52, 47-48)

HeartGroup Application

Last week, I asked your groups to re-center your focus on compassion and justice, and to pick a practice that would facilitate this refocusing. This week, lean further into that same exercise.

  1. Brainstorm another activity you can engage this week as a group in that promotes justice and compassion within your group and in your surrounding community.
  2. Map out what this will require of each of you and commit to action between this week and next.
  3. When you come back together, share with each other your experiences from following through.

This year, like every year, is packed with our potential to make our world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for all of us. Each of us can do something big or small in our circles of influence. Reach out this week and make action your choice.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, and in the words of our saying last week, a love that finds expression through living in justice, mercy and faithfulness to the marginalized and exploited, as well.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.