Following Jesus in the Time of Covid

mask with heart cut out

Herb Montgomery | January 14, 2022


Instead of arguing whether we should mandate vaccinations for the sake of the common good and for those who are vulnerable among us, as Jesus followers we already have a mandate in place: love your neighbor as yourself. This mandate requires us to act not only for our own best interests but also for the best interests of others.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)

This story has received a lot of attention from Christians over the centuries. Whatever we take from this story, we must remember that it only appears in the last canonical gospel to be written and it was written when the Christian movement was becoming deeply anti-Jewish and trying to distance itself from Judaism in the eyes of the Roman Empire. Christians have used this story to contrast the jars used for “Jewish rites of purification” with Jesus’ “best wine” as if to say that Jesus’ teachings, though deeply Jewish, were at the same time superior to other Jewish wisdom and knowledge. We don’t have to disparage any other religion, especially not Judaism, to value the Jesus story. Antisemitic interpretations have historically been at the root of much of the harm Christians have committed against Jewish people. We can and must do better.

This story has also been at the center of teetotaler debates: there are arguments to this day about whether the wine Jesus made in this story was grape juice or alcoholic. These debates are silly to me.

The original audience would have understood that this story established Jesus as a great miracle worker. What can we take away from this story today?

One thing I like about this story is that only a few people were in the know about this miracle: Jesus, Mary, the servants, and the disciples. The wealthy wedding party hosts were oblivious to what Jesus was up to, and this speaks to me of the reality that not everyone experiences life the same way.

Recently, Senator Harry Reid died. Reid grew up in a family in Nevada that fought daily to survive deep poverty, and he carried his experiences with classism into his politics, adult life, and career. So few Congresspeople today have any experience with poverty in the United States and it shows in the decision they make in Congress.

But our story this week gives a nod to the lower social classes for whom the gospel of John was written. Jesus came to be for them. In other gospels, Jesus explains that the reign of God was God’s just future for the poor, outcast, marginalized, and excluded (see Luke 6:22-24, cf. Matthew 5).

And also in this story, Jesus’ mother, Mary, is centered. A woman in that society is the one really responsible for this miracle from the reluctant Jesus. Mary persuaded Jesus to do what John’s gospel treats as Jesus’ inaugural miracle. With Mary’s trust in Jesus, this version of the Jesus story really begins.

Mary’s words to the servants are at the heart of her role in this narrative: “Do whatever he tells you.” I imagine the original audience would have heard this clearly. For us today, following Jesus is much less about the creeds and much more about the ethics we choose to live our lives by. Are we endeavoring to do what Jesus told us? Are we, too, expending our energy to make our world a safer, more compassionate, just home for those our present system makes poor, outcast, marginalized or excluded?

Consider these ancient words found in the epistle of James:

“What good is it, my siblings, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a person is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:14-18, italics added for emphasis.)

We will find this emphasis more subtly spoken later in John’s gospel:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

What designates one as a follower of Jesus is not the creeds we mentally assent to, but the kind of life we choose to live, the kind of values we seek to embody, the kind of ethics we endeavor to practice.

What we believe does translate into actions, but the emphasis in these teachings is always on which actions our beliefs give birth to.

Christianity’s sacred texts repeat this principle of “doing” and having our doing being defined by love. One of my favorite passages is in Romans 13:10:

“Love does no harm to one’s neighbor.”

This principle is one of the greatest areas of misunderstanding today. Our actions can and do protect us. But they also have implications for others. Like others living lives of compassion, Jesus followers should be choosing a course of action that takes into account the potential for harming others. This is love. Love takes yourself into account, yes, and it also takes into account the wellbeing and safety of those around you.

What does this mean for a Jesus follower in a global pandemic?

It means, if you can get vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you can wear a mask, wear a mask. Concern yourself with your neighbors who may be immunocompromised. At different stages of the pandemic certain communities have been more heavily impacted than others. Concern yourself with those who are particularly affected. Globally, vaccine disparity means that countries ravaged by colonialism are vulnerable to severe outbreaks.

Instead of arguing whether we should mandate vaccinations for the sake of the common good and for those who are vulnerable among us, as Jesus followers we already have a mandate in place: love your neighbor as yourself. This mandate requires us to act not only for our own best interests but also for the best interests of others.

We live in a system that is putting vulnerable people in harms way. What can we do while we are working to change that system? We can take every step to mitigate harms we may cause others. Others might take advantage of our efforts, but that is not our chief concern. Our priority needs to be doing everything we can to protect those our present system makes vulnerable.

In this week’s story, Mary says simply: “Whatever he tells you to do, do it.”

Those words have echoed from within this story over the centuries for every generation of Jesus followers. Jesus has told us to love. As this new year begins, take inventory of your life. Today, how is the Jesus of this story telling you to love?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. How is the Jesus of this story telling you to love in 2022? Discuss with your group.

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


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A Path Toward Societal Equity

Herb Montgomery | July 3, 2020

red wall


“Every generation faces these inflexible alternatives, transformation or eventual implosion—these are the inflexible alternatives before us, today, too. How much of what we are now experiencing was unavoidable? How much could we avoid in the future if we made different decisions today?”


“Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’ He replied: ‘Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them . . .” (Luke 21:5-9)

Most scholars today date the gospel of Luke after the events described in Luke 21. In this passage, Luke’s Jesus lays out two potential paths for his society, each with its own outcome.

The disciples are remarking on the physical beauty of the temple. But Jesus, seeing instead a system that exploited the poor, widows, and other marginalized people, saw it as a political and economic symbol of that systemic exploitation. This difference in perspective explains Jesus’ table-flipping protest in the temple courtyard: the temple was the capital of the temple-state.

As we must say repeatedly when reading the latter half of Luke’s gospel, Christians have a long history of interpreting passage like this in antisemitic ways. But the passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It is a critique of a civic and economic system, not a religious one. Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is instead about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the Jerusalem temple-state who resisted his teachings and the distributive, economic justice teachings in the Torah and the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to any system that is rooted in exploitation and valuing products and profit over people. Today’s climate for those deemed essential workers during our present pandemic is similar. As the Swiss author, Max Frisch wrote, “We asked for workers; we got people instead.” Any society produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides. Jesus responds to the people by warning them not to follow violent messiahs.

After the fact, we can see how the tension between the haves and have-nots of Jesus’ society in the latter half of the 1st Century finally did erupt into a protest, then war, and finally desolation. Stating that these violent false messiahs would come, Jesus offers the people another path, a path of hope mixed with persecution and turmoil.

“Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life. (Luke 21:10-19)

The context of this whole section is vital. Just before this week’s passage, Luke reminds us of how positively the people responded after Jesus’s protest in the temple:

“Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words” (Luke 19:47-48, emphasis added).

Jesus was not rejected by the people. He was silenced by the powerful and elite of his society who had everything to lose if the people continued to follow him and if the systemic changes he taught actually took root.

Luke then reminds us:

“Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple” (Luke 21:37-38, emphasis added).

The picture we get from Luke is that this was a time in Jesus’s ministry when it looked as if society might be turning the corner and actually becoming more economically, distributively just. This brings to mind recent movements in U.S. politics before the pandemic.

According to Luke, those surrounding Jesus as he speaks are farmers forced by taxes and debt to become day laborers. They are also the destitute and the starving who have been drawn to Jesus given his promise that God’s just future would restructure society in their favor (see Luke 6:20-26). Jerusalem, at this time, was a large poverty center. The streets were lined with beggars, and a significant section of the population of Jerusalem lived chiefly or even entirely on charity. Jesus’s words gave this crowd hope!

Yes, Jesus speaks in these passages of expecting persecution, arrest, and imprisonment. The revolution/movement would grow and receive negative pushback from those in positions of privilege, who benefitted from and controlled the status quo. Yet even that backlash would be used to “bear testimony” or raise awareness and move toward greater societal consciousness.

Then things become incredibly detailed. Remember, Luke was written after these events took place. It would have been almost impossible for someone in Luke’s space and time not to attempt connecting these dots for us.

“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its DESOLATION is near. THEN let those who are in Judea FLEE to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people . . . (Luke 21:20-24, emphasis added.)

Luke’s gospel claims that the poor people’s revolt, the Jewish and Roman war, and the events that followed in its wake all resulted from those in positions of power rejecting a path toward systemic, distributive justice. We now know how that played out historically. Again, the poor people’s revolt grew into an all-out open war with Rome in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. In Luke’s gospel, though, Jesus was saying that once there was war, hope was lost. It would be time to leave. It would be time to get out. No more revolution or societal transformation for Jerusalem would be possible. We know Rome’s retaliation was catastrophically violent. But Luke’s gospel claims that all of it was avoidable.

Recently, I listened to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, address New Zealanders and I was honestly moved to tears. I wish we had a leader in the U.S. like her. She has not politicized the pandemic, divided the people along partisan lines, or refused to bring the citizenship together. New Zealand pulled together, uniting its citizenry: it acted quickly, and in the context of greater social safety nets, universal access to health-care, lower rates of inequality, and economic support for its citizens during a shutdown, has now effectively eliminated COVID-19 from its population.

The US crested over 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 that same week, and I sat in silence after listening to Prime Minister Ardern, wondering what might have been here in the U.S. I could not help but see that much of what we are now experiencing here in the U.S. would have been avoidable if we just had competent leadership. Much as in our passage, our massive loss of life here was avoidable, and the coming economic fallout is avoidable too.

Luke’s Jesus called for a transformation to a more just, a more equitable society. Even with all the pushback from our status quo, if societies become more just, they avoid an eventual implosion that accompanies societies repeatedly not choosing more justice over and over again.

Every generation faces these inflexible alternatives, transformation, or eventual implosion—these are the inflexible alternatives before us, today, too.
How much of what we are now experiencing was unavoidable? How much could we avoid in the future if we made different decisions today?

HeartGroup Application

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

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

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

2. What social equity changes would you like to see, both within your own faith community, as well as in our larger society to which we also belong? Discuss with your group?

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to put into practice this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week